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The Vegan Experience, Day 3: I'll Have That Without [X] Please

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt and Jessica Leibowitz]

Note: For the four weeks between January 14th and February 11th, I'm adopting a completely vegan lifestyle. Every weekday I'll be updating my progress with a diary entry and a recipe. For past posts, check here!

Day 3: Monday

Breakfast: Whole-grain toast topped with refried beans and charred corn and black bean guacamole, plus half a grapefruit.
Lunch: Egg-free cavatelli with sautéed broccoli rabe and garlic at Rubirosa.
Dinner: A Bibb lettuce salad with fried shallots, grape tomatoes, and a mustard vinaigrette. Grilled cauliflower, hedgehog mushrooms, shishito peppers, and long beans, from St. Anselm.

Vegans Aren't Vegetarians

It's day three of the diet, and it's the first time that I've actually been actively, if minimally, dismayed at my options. Indeed, the thing that has gotten to me most is that veganism is not vegetarianism.

I've been sorely tempted to add an egg to my breakfast, to snag a bite of photographer Jessica's pizza, a sip of Ed's pasta e fagiole soup from Rubirosa. The real killer is how close those foods are to being something I can eat. Pasta fagiole? 100% vegan, except for that cheese rind cooked into the broth and the tiny bit of egg yolk in that pappardelle. (That perfectly al dente, freshly made, awesomely tasty looking pappardelle). That garlic crostini on the side? No problem, except the dusting of cheese it got before it went into the salamander.

When we stepped into the restaurant, Jessica noted a sign at the door proclaiming that Rubirosa serves gluten-free pizza and pasta. She said to me, "oh, that's great—you can eat things here!"

It was a moment before she realized her mistake. Is it natural for vegans to get lumped in with other minority dieters into one group of "fringe diners"? I'd never considered it before, but I'm sure Jessica is not the first to have ever made that same mistake.

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I almost considered ordering the eggplant parm sandwich without the cheese—crunchy eggplant doused in tomato sauce? Cheese or no, that's delicious—until I remembered the egg in the breading.

Turns out my only option at Rubirosa (a restaurant which we really love, by the way) was their single egg-free handmade pasta option. On the menu, you can order the Cavatelli with Sausage and Broccoli Rabe. I had to order mine without the sausage.

Granted, it was delicious—perfectly al dente, chewy pasta with bright, crunchy, bitter, fresh-tasting broccoli rabe with plenty of garlic, a hint of red pepper flakes, and good extra-virgin olive oil.

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Yet I couldn't shake the fact that I'd just ordered my food "without" something, like I was missing out—sacrificing in order to live by my newfound principles. I know that vegans have their "own" foods, but as much as possible, I want to avoid either ingredients that are overly processed (I didn't eat them before I went vegan, doesn't make sense to change now), or ingredients that are introduced specifically to ease the pain of giving up meat.

I don't need an oral substitution treatment for meat, I just need to find ways to make my vegan life delicious and sacrifice-free.

The Pitfalls of Carbo-Loading

As if that weren't enough, lunch only reinforced something I've been feeling for the past few days: It's already been pointed out in my first post that I fell into the common vegan trap of substituting meats with carbs. Actually, this is not entirely true, because as someone who rarely ate much meat to begin with, I already had a pretty carb-heavy diet in retrospect. Of course, this doesn't mean that I shouldn't strive to reduce my carb intake and upgrade my protein and vegetable intake.

I've yet to feel the energy drop that supposedly comes hand-in-hand with carbo-loading, but I am getting the occasional hunger pang, despite eating as many calories as I used to.

I'm beginning to realize that being vegan takes a lot of planning. Given my starting pantry, it was truly difficult to make protein-heavy vegan meals, but after a couple trips to the supermarket, I've loaded up on beans, toasted nuts, good grains, and protein-rich vegetables like broccoli and other brassica. Hopefully you'll see a marked improvement in my diet in the coming days.

Dining with Family

Given how much my family likes to poke fun at each other, I was actually quite pleasantly surprised by how they reacted to my news that I was going vegan.

My mom gave the requisite "good, I hope you lose ten pounds." (Note to Mom: veganism is not about losing weight, but good news: I've dropped two pounds to 174.2 as of this morning).

The wife said, "OK, I'll be vegetarian this month then," which was a shocker to me, given how much she likes bacon. She quickly clarified that to mean "mostly vegetarian, with the occasional indulgence in bacon and crab." Still, admirable.

My sister was the biggest surprise. She found out about this when she emailed me Sunday afternoon to see if I wanted to grab dinner with her and my mother at St. Anselm near her place in Williamsburg. I told her that I'd be happy to, but I'd have to order vegan. Her response was a sincere "awesome." Her roommate, who joined us, even went so far as to tell me that he'd be joining me that night in ordering vegan.

Now, St. Anselm is a decidedly un-vegan restaurant. The five categories under its "Bigs From the Grill" section (the equivalent of its main courses) are Beef, Lamb, Pork, Poultry, and Fish. Four of their six appetizers have seafood. One has an egg-based mayonnaise, and the other is fried cheese. Of their salads, four out of five have dairy, while not a single one of their side dishes is vegan friendly: Spinach Gratin (cooked with cream), Pan Fried Mashed Potatoes (cooked in butter), Grilled Berkshire Bacon, and Roasted Bone Marrow (man, do I love bone marrow).

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After seeing the menu, my sister's roommate quietly decided that he'd actually only be vegetarian for the night. I don't blame him.

My dinner consisted of a Bibb Salad, for which the waiter brought the dressing on the side(just in case, he said), which meant I couldn't particularly enjoy it (I want my salad evenly dressed, thanks), Grilled Cauliflower, Grilled Long Beans, Grilled Hedgehog Mushrooms, and (over)Grilled Shishito Peppers. Hardly a balanced meal, and one that left me with a stomachache and hunger pangs a couple hours later. My sister's grilled lamb shoulder, my mom's hanger steak, and my wife's grilled halloumi salad all looked and were, by all accounts, delightful.

What did I learn? Well, as much as I hate to impose my diet on other folks, I'm going to have to learn to either speak up and suggest a slightly more vegan-friendly restaurant, or suck it up and bring a snack with me to be quietly consumed after dinner.

The punchline was when my mom turned to me mid-meal and asked, "so all vegan meals are just like a bunch of vegetable side dishes? Can vegans eat main courses?"

It looks like I still have a bit of educating to do.

Breakfast tomorrow: plenty of black beans on top of vegan chilaquiles with charred tomatillos and corn, avocado, and toasted pumpkin seeds, all with an extra side of vegan refried beans (stay tuned for the recipe).

Hunger pangs, I dare you to taunt me tomorrow.

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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