Monday, 30 June 2008

What I ate today

I don't know how interesting or useful food posts are to anyone reading this, but today's lunch bears mentioning because it contained one of the staple foods I wrote about last week, another ingredient which some new vegans find scary, and also used up some perishables.

This is a pretty cool grain. It costs a little more than rice and pasta, but way better nutritionally and about the effort/time level of the white versions of these ingredients. Allow 50-100 g per person (depending on how much other stuff you have) - 75g half-filled one of my coffee mugs, if that's any sort of guide. Cook in double its quantity of boiling water (in my case a whole coffee mug full) with a little salt. (The salt does improve things - i'd recommend it, unless you have really severe high blood pressure) Wait until the little curly sprouts start to show and detatch - this takes about 10 minutes. In the meantime, there are a few other things you could do...

I had half a block of smoked tofu left over that needed using up before I go away. Smoked tofu is good, as it saves on having to flavour the stuff from scratch. I used about 100g for one serving. I pressed it (but didn't bother with dry-frying this time) and cut it into thin strips, then cooked it under the grill. It didn't take long - I'd cut and grilled the tofu by the time the quinoa was properly cooked.

In this case half a red pepper and three mushrooms that needed using, and some fennel which didn't but was available. These went under the other half of the grill (mushrooms first, as I have a slight horror of biting into a raw mushroom and would have to be literally starving to do it on purpose) for slightly less time than the tofu.

What else?
Everything under the grill got turned over or around at least once.

The last step...
I mixed everything together in the quinoa saucepan, stirring in a bit of olive oil. It was pretty much warm salad writ large, but more filling than the word 'salad' suggests.

Muck factor
One saucepan, bowl, spoon, chopping board and knife dirtied. The bowl i'd stored the tofu in overnight (needs to be stored in water, preferably in the fridge) also needed washing. This meal also involved two bits of tinfoil over the grill (one on each side, not double-layered) - this is always a useful thing to do if sharing a kitchen with omnis.

Friday, 27 June 2008

Tofu is your friend - or at least, not your enemy

So, yesterday's food post was about basic ingredients. My lunch today was one of those meals that branches beyond the basics - tofu in a pink sauce made with soy cream and tomato puree. The sauce is easy to make - just mix the two ingredients to the appropriate thickness, which is basically whatever thickness you want it at. The tofu, however...

I had a problem with tofu for ages. I loved marinated tofu, bought ready-prepared or served up in a cafe. But I could *never* get plain tofu to absorb flavour at home. Then someone (forget who, sorry) linked to this page, and it was the best bit of cooking advice I've had in ages. Since tofu is something which non-vegetarians in the western world get almost unanimously freaked out by, I thought the advice warrants sharing in case you're a new vegan feeling nervous about getting your white wings. (or an old one who wonders why their tofu doesn't taste of much)

Basically, tofu is sold packed in water. It is the resulting waterloggedness that stops it absorbing flavours. To combat this, press and dry-fry. Pressing means wrapping it in a dry cloth and pushing down until the worst of the water is squeezed out. You may need more than one cloth. Avoid new cloths in any colour other than white, as the dye will come out on your tofu. This is not as much fun as it sounds. ;-/ It takes a bit of practice to do this without your tofu breaking up, but it can be done.

Dry-frying refers to cooking in a frying pan without oil. Cut your pressed tofu into fairly flat squares or triangles and spread out on the bottom of the pan. Press down on each piece in turn with a spatula to squeeze out moisture. You will hear squeaks and bubbling noises as this happens, and see little bits of water coming out. This can be very satisfying. Your tofu pieces should turn a nice goldy-brown on the side that was against the bottom of the pan, at which point turn it over and do the same to the other side.

When no more water can be squeezed out, your tofu pieces are ready for whatever the next step is. Marinate it, cook it in sauce, whatever, your tofu should now absorb what you want it to.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Cheating at veganism

Haha, caught you with that title didn't I! You thought you were getting a full confession of my slip-ups and misdemeanours. Well, sorry, if you're the sort of person who likes that kind of thing you will be disappointed. If, however, you're after ideas for making veganism easy, you should probably retain some level of hope and keep reading.

Here are some basic things that are vegan (usually - check labels before buying in case you've found the one brand with milk in, as happened to me with gnocchi yesterday. The bloody soddingness of Sainsbury's on that issue is something on which I currently agree with Jay Rayner.), value for money, and versatile in their uses. Most also have an impressive level of longevity.
- Pasta. Brown is healthier, white is quicker to cook and digest. Personally I think it is ok to eat white pasta when accompanied by vegetables - while it doesn't have much nutritional value in itself, neither does it contain anything harmful.
- Rice. I tend to apply the same rule re brown vs white, with the proviso that brown rice tastes a shedload better than brown pasta.
- Marigold bouillon powder. Get the red or purple tins - the green one has lactose in. Can be used as a base for sauces, flavouring for curry, risotto or just pasta, or as a drink on its own or with soy milk. Costs a couple of quid, lasts for ages.
- Miso soup. Marigold makes a good one. You can drink it, flavour stuff with it, cook vegetables with it or just eat a bowl of it with random veg or croutons floating in.
- Oatcakes. A quick snack to keep in the desk drawer. Nuts are also good for this, if you're not allergic.
- Soy sauce. A quick way to add flavour.
- TVP mince. Dried is cheaper and keeps longer, frozen is generally more user-friendly. The dried stuff should be soaked for as long as possible - preferably pour some warm water on it before you go to work in the morning. (Not difficult for those of us whose morning routine involves a cup of tea) A good source of protein, can go in anything that you'd use minced meat for, although for the authentic fatty texture you will need to add extra oil or margarine.
- Margarine. Pure (from supermarkets and health food shops) and Suma (normally only in health food shops) are the most popular, according to my admittedly limited survey. Sainsbury's and Mark's & Spencer also do own-brand vegan spreads. Health food shops have a fairly wide range, although quality varies. And, you never know, maybe one day Vitalite will pull their finger out and veganise like they said they would a year ago.
- Couscous. Same purposes as pasta and rice, but quicker.
- Beans. These can be tinned, freshly-boiled or frozen, depending on your time/energy vs money ratio and whether you have freezer space. Red kidney and chickpeas are the most versatile.
- Passata. This is basically liquidised tomatoes. Comes in cartons or glass bottles - the latter is best if you want it to last for a while. Use with mince and veg for a pasta sauce, or mince and beans for chilli.
- Sunflower oil, for cooking things in.
- Cornflour, to thicken sauces. Or you could use bread flour for this - a bit more faff, but also has more uses in general. (like bread, or pizza, or cake)
- Tomato puree, as a thickener and a flavouring
- Quinoa. Same purpose as pasta, rice and couscous, but with far more nutritional value.
- Peanut butter. Yes, for cooking. Can be turned into pasta sauce, satay for a stir-fry or curry, soup base, spread, dip, sex aid and much more. (one of these suggestions does not come from my experience! A spoonful of peanut butter to the person who guesses which.) Contains protein, unsaturated fat, calcium and probably more that i can't think of right now.

These are the nuts and bolts of my diet. Of course they aren't the limit of what I eat - I do sometimes splash out on fake bacon, soy cheese and so on, and also try to introduce fresh veg whenever possible. And this list doesn't include dessert. In general, though, if you have most of the items on the list, you can always throw something together - this doesn't rule out dressing it up if you have time, energy, money or all three. The better food you can make for yourself at home, the less likely you are to send out for a pizza.

If only it were true

Hey, Alicia? I have no problem with you. Or with PETA, however fashionable it may be to hate them. (I have actually worked there, so that gives me a bit of an idea of when to call bullshit on certain allegations) But, really, what's with getting people's hopes up? I'm very glad for you that your dogs no longer fart since being on a vegetarian diet. Sadly, and I say this as someone who has spent long hours in a car with a vegetarian dog, this is not true for every canine in existence.
Having said that, if done properly, a vegetarian diet is probably healthier for dogs than a lot of the tinned reject organ crap you can get. And it does make a dog's poo marginally less vile.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Misplaced blame

Girl admitted to hospital - vegan diet blamed. Now, while I'm willing to believe that the parents in this case are messing up somewhere, I don't see why the default assumption has to be that the vegan diet is to blame. In every similar case so far, there has been some other factor - usually that the parents are cranks in some other way. (Hey, I'm not denying that veganism does attract this sort of person - but they don't represent the majority of us, ok?) For example, the family (maybe more than one - sadly, plenty exist) who rely on the 'power of prayer' to fix illnesses rather than taking their kids to the doctor. Or the mother who thought breastfeeding wasn't vegan - come on, you think a demographic containing a large number of crunchy granola types would really accept that as a norm?

Why am I so dubious? You may be thinking at this point that it is a knee-jerk response (rather like that of the doctor blaming veganism rather than looking any further?) from someone who will defend veganism at all costs. And you may worry about the future of my potential children. That is entirely your problem, since I'm unlikely to have any in the near future anyway.

But you know what? Although I don't have children, I do have a fair bit of knowledge here. I know enough people who have raised healthy vegetarian or vegan children to know that the diet isn't intrinsically a problem. (Some of their parents aren't even people I like, let alone carry a torch for - the point is that their kids are physically healthy.) I even know a smattering of life veg/ans of various stripes who have, amazingly if the press is to be believed, actually reached adulthood with no more than the average number of health problems.

Then there is my own experience. While not a life veg/an, I have been either vegetarian or vegan since well before puberty. If you ask me whether the change in diet affects a girl's periods, I won't be able to answer. (Yes, I do have them. And sometimes take iron supplements during them. Just like my omni friends, in fact.) I went pescatarian at age nine (being a child with no vegetarian relatives might be construed as one of the few good excuses for this), vegetarian at maybe 10 or 11, was vegan consistently from 14-20, slipped up and went back to being vegetarian for a bit, went vegan again in my early 20s. I do not have the spine of an 80-year old. I get back pain when doing heavy lifting, for sure, but am fairly confident that this isn't a specifically vegan trait. I am above average height for a female in England (5'8") and possibly slightly overweight. I have obviously female breasts for the first time in my life, probably because the soy content in my diet has gone up. I get more than my fair share of throat and chest infections - brought on by stress and living in a polluted city - but no other health problems. I take no daily vitamin supplement - just massive doses of vitamin c to ward off freshers' flu each year and iron for maybe one period in five. (Btw, I have heard from certain quarters that 'real vegans don't have periods' - this is neither typical nor healthy, and the people in question can jam it up their non-bleeding parts and get a sodding life.) I get my ID checked for alcohol purchases way more often than my 'young persons' railcard (I'm a mature student) gets checked closely on the train. I sometimes have the mouth of a thirteen-year old. I have spent my entire life listening to doom-laden predictions about my future health, none of which have come true.

Finally, there is the question of why exactly the press doesn't seem as keen to cover the health problems of children raised on junk food. Or if they do they blame it on external factors, never parental choice. There does seem to be a concerted anti-vegan trend in the media, and it does rather make life difficult for the majority of us who aren't like that.