January and diets always seem to go hand in hand. That’s the whole New Year’s resolution. But in recent years, a growing number of Americans are taking a different route – instead of counting calories, they are changing their diets to include more plant-based meals. Think of it as a happy, enduring compromise between a bacon-loving omnivore and a full-fledged vegan.
According to a recent Gallup poll, the number of self-proclaimed vegans in the United States fell from just 2-3% between 2012 and 2018, but the sale of plant-based foods increased by more than 8% last year. The cookbook section in bookstores has grown from a few solitary tomes dedicated to vegetarian and vegan cooking to shelves full of them. Even the final season of the Great British Bake Off on Netflix featured its very first vegan baking challenge.
“Vegan food isn’t just for vegans,” says Brian Kateman, president of the Reducetarian Foundation and editor of this fall’s “The Reducetarian Cookbook” (Center Press, Hachette Book Group), which aims to encourage people to eat less meat. “We’re starting to see a break in this absurd divide between vegans and omnivores. “
Oakland-based S + M Vegan owners Marie Chia and Shane Stanbridge have also noticed the change. The couple frequently host pop-ups in bars and recently took over Berkeley’s Butcher’s Son restaurant over the holidays.
They saw oblivious, omnivorous bar patrons gobble up their arancini, fried risotto balls and bowls of laksa, a curry noodle soup from Chia’s native Singapore that she adapted into a vegan version.
“People order food and that doesn’t mean there aren’t any animal products,” Stanbridge says. “They just have a few drinks and enjoy the food that is available.”
Enjoying vegan food that someone else makes for you is one thing, but making plant-based meals at home can be intimidating, especially for newbies. Navigating recipes that call for nutritional yeast and knowing the intricacies of the types of tofu can thwart the best herbal plans.
But there are plenty of naturally vegan dishes out there that don’t require overhauling a pantry or using a culinary sleight of hand to mimic meat or dairy.
Years ago I made a lentil recipe for dhal several times before realizing he was vegan. I’ve added my own twist to this quick and easy dish over the years. Served over basmati rice with a side of potato and pea samosas from the freezer section of Whole Foods – by all means, plan a few amenities if you need them – this makes for a cozy and filling dinner.
that of Stanbridge grandmother’s caponata, a recipe he says has been in his family for a century or more, is another naturally vegan dish. The slightly sweet and tangy mixture of vegetables, vinegar and a little sugar is common in southern Italy. Stanbridge and Chia make it a meal served with homemade Italian bread, over polenta or with pasta.
Sprinkling Parmesan cheese over pasta can be knee-jerk, but to be totally plant-based, Stanbridge notes that in Sicily, it’s common to top pasta with toasted breadcrumbs mixed with olive oil and lemon zest. .
“It’s called poor man’s parmesan,” says Chia.
“It’s even better when you use sourdough bread,” Stanbridge adds.
The dusting of breadcrumbs adds a crunch so nice and light that you can find yourself using it on all kinds of dishes, even as a garnish on a soup.
Home cooks who are trying to get others to adopt a plant-based diet may find it helpful to go for a familiar, meatless favorite. Kateman’s Vegetable Pie is a good choice to conquer the meat and potato type.
“I grew up with the Boston Market. I ate chicken pie all the time, ”he says. The vegetarian version uses a paste of coconut oil over a garnish full of vegetables in an almond milk-based sauce. By adding potatoes to your ribs along with carrots, corn, and peas, chicken pie lovers probably won’t even miss the meat. Adding sautéed mushrooms to the mix for their meaty, umami look is also an option.
“It reminds me of the house on a winter evening,” Kateman says. “It fills my heart with joy and hope.”
When you’re ready to dive a little deeper, lens sliders in the new “Reducetarian Cookbook” offer a bit more of a challenge, while using common ingredients. Lentils flavored with curry, nuts and sautéed vegetables are shaped into patties and baked in the oven. Rich in protein, these sliders will satisfy a hamburger craving. While a bit crumbly, they are infinitely better than some freezer burger substitutes that have long gone for vegan cuisine.
At the end of the line ? Even omnivores will be delighted with plant-based meals, say Stanbridge and Chia, when they know “it’s not just about alfalfa sprouts and bad hummus.”