Learning to Cook Vegan
I wanted to make a cherry pie but I did not, in the end, have enough cherries to fill the big pie dish I was using. So I ended up combining three types of cherries – jarred, frozen and fresh – alongside two cartons of fresh blueberries. It turned out so sweet I only needed to use one cup of sugar in the reduced cherries part. It’s best if the fruit makes its own sugar but of course sometimes that’s not possible. These fruits were plenty sweet enough.
About vegan pie dough. I’ve been making pie dough for so many years turning it vegan wasn’t that hard in the end. I’ve been making pie dough every which way you can imagine – using a food processor, a pastry cutter, two knives and my fingers. I am firmly behind Dorrie Greenspan’s pie crust recipe for traditional crust. Hers is by far the best I’ve ever used and it entails using both butter and shortening, along with making sure everything is dead cold when you start to mix it.
But vegan pastry is a tad different. If you’re using coconut oil it can’t be too cold or it won’t work at all in the flour because it will be too hard. If it’s too soft you will mess up your measurements and it will feel weird – either too wet or too dry. But if you use vegan butter you can get a little closer to regular pie crust. I could not find any unsalted vegan butter so I used coconut oil for this particular recipe. Plus, I think cherry and coconut make a nice combination. Actually, coconut almost always makes a good flavor for any kind of fruit pie. It does NOT work for savory pies unless you are making something that wants coconut flavoring in it. Most don’t.
One of my favorite recipes I got from the vegan puff pastry was this caramelized onion tart. When I was in France this year I was paying special attention to how they make their tarts. One very popular noon time snack food (they don’t “do” fast food in France, not like they do here, although that’s changing a bit lately) is called a Pissaladière. That is an onion and anchovy tart with or without olives, usually on a puff pastry square. It is sold at most little cafes alongside the other snack foods they sell – which are freshly baked, not processed. Of course. Anyway, so I wanted to change it up a bit. I figure, if you are going to go to all of the trouble to make this thing you might as well give some bang to your buck nutritionally. With the Pissaladière the anchovy mostly does all the work, flavor-wise, so you can’t just put caramelized onions and olives atop puff pastry. It will turn out too bland. You need what anchovy provides: sharpness, saltiness, a little unpredictable spark.
I did three things with the puff pastry I made. Mushroom potato turnovers (vegan), caramelized onion tart (vegan) and tomato and cheese tart for my daughter (non-vegan). The mushroom and potato turnovers were probably the best, flavor-wise. Essential to the flavor was fresh green onions and fresh parsley. The sharpness of those herbs balanced against the richness of the potato mixture.
Unfortunately I did not write down the recipe nor did I take any photos of the cooking process. I think it is really a recipe you can improvise, depending on what flavors you prefer.
The key to the recipe is keeping the potatoes at the right level of firmness – they can be too soft but should never be too hard. Also build the richness by cooking with mushrooms – dried and fresh – along with red wine, garlic and onion.
Over the weekend I decided to try my hand at vegan puff pastry. While I’ve been dabbling in pastry for vegan pies (will post soon) I’ve wanted to find something more flexible for what I ultimately want to invent – that’s savory vegan pies and tarts of the kind I saw when I was in France. Since the French depend so heavily on the flavor of butter, puff pastry has to kind of taste like it. Thankfully, vegan butter (Whole Foods) does kind of taste like butter. The thing about any kind of fat is that enough of it will make anything taste good. Did my puff pastry taste as rich as the French kind? Probably not. But what the pastry lacks in richness you can make up for with the toppings.
For the puff pastry I followed this recipe pretty closely. What I didn’t do was use bread flour. I just used regular organic flour. I suspect you could experiment with lots of different kinds of flour, like whole wheat pastry, or bread flour. It is a tad labor intensive so if you really are bound to a certain kind of flour (like gluten free or whatever) I’d just make regular pastry and not puff pastry, which has to have a gentle lift to it or else it won’t work properly.
I have started inventing and working with vegan recipes. Although I myself have not yet fully committed to veganism I am very close to it. This is for me for health reasons partly (which is why it isn’t good for me to eat even humanely raised animal products), but because I fully believe that the slaughterhouse and mass production of meat is the primary cause for the ruination of our planet, the collapse of modern morality and a holocaust on our mammal cousins, I am doing it for the dreaded “moral” reasons.
Vegan cooking, or baking, is for me a delightful mystery. I’m partly interested in finding good substitutes for traditional flavors — some can’t be replicated, obviously. And partly interested in simply inventing whole new schools of cooking that are so good no one even realizes they are eating vegan.
Most of the vegan stuff I see is meat replications. And that’s fine, I suppose. If you’re not eating meat chances are you are missing it. But to me that is the most disgusting part of vegan eating. Fake meat, with the exception of some fake chicken and tempe, tastes foul to me. Your mouth knows it isn’t eating meat. So I mostly will likely stay away from that and rather focus on flavor, texture and nutrients, rather than imitating food from the culture of meat. We’ve been eating meat for millions of years now. We know how to eat it. We know that we like it. There is no point in trying to replace it. Giving up eating meat doesn’t meat stuffing something that kind of looks like meat into your mouth and learning to love it. It’s about turning down an entirely different street. My suggestion to meat eaters who are worried about the planet is to continue to eat meat but do two things.
1) never eat meat that you don’t know where it came from. If you don’t know how the animal was raised chances are it wasn’t raised well and it will be bad for you, bad for the planet and horrific treatment of animals. We never evolved to become this monstrous.
2) Only eat meat on special occasions when you can purchase it yourself or eat at a restaurant where the meat is tracked. This is, of course, if you notice yourself giving a damn. Most people don’t. You eat LESS meat this way. It costs LESS because you eat it less. You instantly improve your health, the planet’s health and earn good karma by helping animals emerge from this terrible thing we’re doing to them that we’d all like to pretend we aren’t doing to them.
So that’s it. Hope you enjoy these recipes. I am but a learner.