Looking Back on Vegan Month

We ate strictly vegan for the entire month of April. K talked me into it; he thought (correctly) that if we didn’t go all out, we’d make do with half measures and wouldn’t try really new things. He was also partially inspired by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, who goes vegan for a month every year at Serious Eats, and by the fact that we’ve recently seen some vegan chefs whip up deliciousness out of very little on cooking shows. We only slipped up a few times, and by accident; once I absentmindedly put honey in my tea, and he ate a couple of chips before realizing that they had dairy ingredients. We continued to cook meat for the kids, but washed out the pans and utensils before using them to cook our food. It’s been a couple of weeks since vegan month ended, and these are my takeaways:

– I thought I would miss steak and bacon. Instead, I missed eggs and tiny fish. I found mushrooms and tofu to be meaty and flavorful enough, and smoked paprika was a pretty decent flavor stand-in for bacon, but there’s no substitute for a perfectly runny egg or the briny punch of an anchovy. When the month ended, the first meat protein I ate was a single smoked sardine, right out of the jar.

– That said, I found that our vegan dishes tended to be incredibly flavorful. Maybe this was a function of how we cooked, but we’ve found that meat tends to provide a shortcut to deliciousness, whereas it needs to be coaxed out of vegetables a little more. When vegetables show up with flavor, though, it’s absolutely killer.

image: portobello cap with Brussels sprouts, sauteed greens, and mashed potatoes; two mixed green salads with roasted cauliflower, mushroom, and tomato; cauliflower and chickpea curry over rice.

– On weekends we cook for the week ahead; in the pre-vegan times this meant having cooked meat, cooked veg, and starch in the fridge ready to assemble and reheat. Obviously this had to change for vegan month; after some less-than-successful attempts to recreate the previous system, I found that I loved seasoning and cooking elements separately (mushrooms, cauliflower, sweet potato, tofu, etc) and then just having the little flavor bombs sitting in the fridge ready to go. All we had to do was put a few spoonfuls of each onto rice, salad greens, or beans, and the combination immediately became complex and savory, new flavors in every bite.

– Trying vegan dessert recipes was a disaster; generalizing from the two (well-reviewed!) “vegan dessert” recipes I tried, anyone writing dessert recipes from a vegan/health perspective doesn’t know what real dessert is supposed to taste like. Instead, I took my brother’s advice: start with normal recipes and substitute accordingly. I used sticks of plant-based “butter” in place of actual butter; almond or coconut milk instead of dairy; and flax meal and water for egg. Those substitutions managed to turn out delicious cookies, cakes, muffins, enriched breads, and filled bao (with char siu jackfruit filling) without having to make further compromises. Also, meringues made out of aquafaba (chickpea water) turned out amazingly well.

4 images: cinnamon rolls, chocolate chip cookies, char siu bao and scallion flower roll, aquafaba meringues

– DUMPLINGS. What a game changer. In the past I’ve only ever wrapped dumplings with a pork-based filling, and it was always a little nerve-wracking; I’m super germ-conscious, and very careful about washing my hands, sanitizing surfaces, and segregating items that touched raw meat away from items that haven’t. However, with a dumpling filling based on tofu/wheat gluten/mushrooms/cabbage, well-seasoned and even cooked beforehand, I felt all my worries melting away. I made dumplings with gleeful abandon. It was so freeing. I may never make raw meat dumplings again, I am completely serious. It’s not worth the stress, especially when there’s so much flavor in the vegan ones.

image: a hand holding an unwrapped dumpling; vegan filling in the background; a line of filled, folded dumplings waiting to cook

– Overnight oats! I am an overnight oat convert. K made Alton Brown’s overnight coconut oats and they were so good, we didn’t even try any other recipes even though I’d bookmarked a bunch. I found them kind of weird and cold and goopy at first, but the recipe we used was so fragrant with coconut and almond that it drew me in. My grab-and-go breakfast used to be a baked item (bun, croissant, muffin) and a boiled egg; I would usually be quite hungry by lunchtime. Now I actively crave overnight oats, which I serve myself with frozen berries and a sliced banana, and I’m only slightly hungry by noon. All hail overnight oats. We’ve continued eating them well past the end of April.

image: a bowl of overnight coconut oats topped with sliced banana, frozen blueberries, and oat-and-seed crunch

Now that we’re well into the post-vegan-month period, I think some changes have staying power; when cooking a quick weeknight meal, I used to reach for eggs as an easy protein, and now I reach for tofu or chickpeas instead (I’ll save the eggs for the good stuff). This past weekend, I made a typical weekend brunch (pancakes, eggs, bacon, fruit), and then felt that it was incomplete; after adding a hash with potato, onion, and diced colorful peppers, the meal looked and felt a lot more appealing.

When cooking ahead for this week, we made a big dal tadka (cooked lentils flavored with spicy onions and tomatoes, honestly it’s kind of like a beany Indian congee), sauteed some chickpeas with spinach and peppers, and grilled up a bunch of asparagus, mushrooms, and tofu. We (really, K) also grilled a single steak, which we’ve shared among the four of us, and we also made some soy sauce chicken drumsticks for the kids. The fridge is also well stocked with roasted sweet potatoes (halved and roasted with salt, pepper, and smoked paprika, they are amazing), which go with anything. In the past we would have cooked up a big meat-centered dish and all the vegetables would have been dutiful afterthoughts. I’m definitely happy with how things have evolved (and so are my taste buds). Well done, K.

image: sauteed chickpeas with spinach and peppers; grilled asparagus, mushrooms, and tofu; a bowl of dal tadka

Vegan “milk” bao (and other stuff)

On Saturday night the little one asked wistfully when I was next going to make cinnamon rolls, which reminded me that I wanted to try King Arthur Flour’s new recipe for cinnamon rolls (it’s the Perfectly Pillowy Cinnamon Rolls, their 2021 Recipe of the Year, and their instagram has been all over it). I had already been a fan of their previous cinnamon roll recipe that also used a tangzhong, so I was eager to try the new and improved version; her request was the excuse I had been looking for.

So Sunday I dragged myself away from my library book and mixed up the dough. Then, while it was rising, I thought hey, I could make more bao (it’s become a regular thing during the pandemic) so mixed up a basic bao dough and put it aside to rise. It’s a relatively new version; last month we decided to go entirely vegan for a month, and I found out that our preferred bao recipe actually veganizes (is that a word?) pretty easily, so easily that I’m just going to use it going forward. Dough is adapted from Woks of Life’s milk bread recipe:

Vegan “Milk” bread bao:

1 2/3 cups of coconut milk (or one standard 13.5 oz / 400mL can)
1/4 cup (50g) sugar
1 Tbsp flax meal + 3 Tbsp water (this is a substitute for 1 egg; I like to use the water to rinse the dregs of coconut out of the can)
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1/2 cup (70g) cake flour
3 1/2 cups (500g) bread flour
heavy pinch of salt (supposed to be 1 1/2 tsp, I just grab some from the salt cellar)

Shake up the coconut milk in the can (sometimes the cream inside is separated). Combine coconut milk, sugar, flax meal, water, and yeast in a bowl; stir it up and then let it sit for a while until the yeast wakes up and it starts looking frothy. Then sift in the cake flour, bread flour, and salt. Knead until the dough is smooth and firm (I like to knead dough right in the mixing bowl, it’s less messy that way) and then cover the bowl with a towel, put it someplace warm, and let rise for 1 hour.

After the 1 hour rise, you can shape it. Flour or lightly oil your surface (I like to use a big cutting board) as well as your hands, so the dough doesn’t get too sticky. Knead it a little bit to get rid of air bubbles, then portion it out and shape it however you like. Sometimes I roll it into balls and space them out a little bit in a pan; they’ll rise and press against each other and make for great tear-apart rolls. I’ve also rolled the balls into disks and then wrapped them around filling, pinching firmly to seal; another idea is to roll them into twists with raisins or dried cranberries. You can also roll it flat like you’re going to make cinnamon rolls, smear the flattened rectangle with seasoning (mayo + pork floss and scallion worked well this time, shallot oil has also worked well, next time I want to try chili oil), roll up and slice like cinnamon rolls. It’s a super flexible dough and shapes well.

After shaping, cover with a towel and let rise for another hour. Halfway through, preheat the oven to 350F. After the dough has risen nicely, bake for 20-25 minutes, checking towards the end of baking time (the smaller your shapes, the quicker they’ll bake).

Let cool until they’re safe enough to handle, and enjoy!

May be an image of food and indoor
It was a busy Sunday morning.

This round’s bao are the two pictures on the top. The left ones are shaped like cinnamon rolls, but with mayo + pork floss and scallion filling; the right ones are dried cranberry twists (with varying degrees of success in shaping the twist) and bao painted with shallot oil, rolled tightly, and pinched shut.

Underneath those are the cinnamon rolls; unfrosted on the left, frosted on the right. I ended up rolling the dough more tightly, and cutting them smaller, than the size specified by the recipe; I wanted to keep the serving sizes small, since our smallish children do not need giant cinnamon rolls. I also iced them with the remnants of our vegan cashew buttercream instead of making more icing from scratch. I was pleased with the result, but the little one complained that they weren’t as stuck-together, or as generously-iced, as her preferred cinnamon roll: the cinnamon rolls from Ikea.

No matter how I try, I will never equal the Ikea cinnamon rolls. The Soft Cinnamon Rolls from King Arthur came closer though, and was about as much work. I’m glad I tried the new recipe, but we’ll be going back to the old one next time.

A quick note on the bottom two pictures: halfway through baking, I realized that I was getting hungry because it was close to lunch time; I cooked pasta and quickly wilted some spinach, mixed it with chickpeas and chopped bell pepper and olive oil and lemon juice – it’s basically Padma Lakshmi’s super-quick chickpeas and spinach tapas recipe. It went well on the adults’ pasta; the kids had buttered pasta with mushrooms, and plain pasta with baby tomatoes, respectively, which are their preferred pasta treatments. Life lesson: eat when you’re hungry, the bread won’t suffer it it rises for a little longer than needed.

Oh, and second life lesson: when you make cookies, scoop half the batch into rounds and freeze them. That way you’ll have a bag of unbaked cookies in the freezer, ready to pop into the oven whenever it’s warm. There’s nothing like a tray of freshly baked cookies to brighten one’s day. (These were also vegan! Cook’s Illustrated Thin, Crisp Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe, with vegan butter, flax “eggs,” and dark chocolate chips.)

As a bonus, I had warm cookies to eat with my library book, when I finally got back to it.