Editor's Note: Welcome to the third year of The Vegan Experience! All month we're exploring the vegan lifestyle, from dining out to eating in, developing a slew of delicious recipes for vegan appetizers, snacks, and entrees along the way. For more posts in the series, check here!
This is the third year in a row that I've decided to eat and live according to a strictly vegan philosphy for the month of February, and I gotta say, I look forward to it more and more each time. The first time around, it was an experiment: I had ideas about how I wanted to live my life, but wasn't sure I could physically bring myself to match my diet to my philosophy. The second time, it was all about cooking. I had a years' worth of vegan cooking experiences under my belt, and a whole new set of techniques and recipes to work on.
This year, it's almost at the point where I look forward to February as the one month of the year where my work life and personal life get to overlap: I genuinely enjoy eating as a vegan and working on vegan recipes, and this month is the perfect excuse to revel in that.
The hardest part of the whole endeavor has not been sticking to the diet: I love going to the supermarket or the farmer's market to load up my cart with fresh vegetables and come up with unique, creative ways to use them that are outside the realm of my culinary education (and it helps that vegetables are just so damn delicious). No, the hardest part has been the introspective aspects of veganism: questioning myself and my motives as a human being. If I believe that animals have feelings and that I'm a compassionate person, why am I not vegan 100% of the time? By choosing to eat meat, am I not inherently deciding that my pleasure is worth more than the life of an animal? Or by choosing to drink milk or eat eggs, am I not making the same choice about an animal's freedom and well-being? If I'm a compassionate person, shouldn't I be devoting more of my life to ensuring that all animals are treated with care and dignity?
Those were the same questions that got me to consider veganism the first time around, and what led me to decide to stick to a meat-free diet in my personal life* (we've been eating just as deliciously). They're also the same questions that made me decide to trade in my rifle for a telephoto lens on my annual Michigan hunting trip this year (turns out there wasn't a deer, but hunting and hanging with the guys was just as fun as ever), and the same questions that made choose to vow only to adopt dogs from now on, no matter how cute that puppy in the pet shop window is.
*My wife and I never cook meat at home or order it when we go out, maintaining a mostly vegetarian diet, with the occasional shellfish or other fish from time to time.
But as a food writer and recipe developer, it brings forth a whole slew of other questions as well. Despite the popularity of our vegan recipes (these vegan burgers were the most popular recipe of 2012, and our collection of vegan recipes gains more popularity with every passing day), fact is that as a whole, Serious Eats readers love their burgers, steak, and chicken. How do I balance my responsibility as recipe czar at Serious Eats with my personal feelings about cutting down on meat intake? I have the platform to send a message, so am I not morally obligated to do my best to get that message across? Doesn't every "7 Myths About Cooking Steak" post that I write directly contradict my off-duty lifestyle and thoughts?
These are not easy questions to answer and not ones that should be taken lightly. It's easy to say, "Hey, you jerks, stop eating those cute little animals!" The problem is, you're not going to convince many people going down that self-righteous path. Instead, my operational philosophy has been based on these things that I know about myself: I know what people like to eat, I know what delicious is, and I know how to deliver it in a way that the home cook can replicate at home. Why not play to these strengths?
My strategy? Make vegan food so damn tasty that it doesn't matter that there's no animal products in it. Since the beginning I've been taking the approach that veganism, first and foremost, should taste great. Too many vegan restaurants I've been to place philosophy before flavor, resulting in food that unfortunately tastes like health food. When treated right, a portobello mushroom tastes awesome. Why just shove it haphazardly in a hamburger bun and call it a day? Fresh tofu can be amazing. Why not celebrate it for what it is, emphasizing its clean, fresh flavor and custard-y texture?
At one point, I took a pretty strong say no to faux stance. I've loosened it a bit, realizing that faux meat can have a good place in the diets of those who are giving up meat on philosophical or ethical grounds but still crave the occasional simulation of a hamburger or barbecue. (And let's face it: there are some faux meat convenience products that simply taste better than their meat-based counterparts. More than a few of you mentioned that in our frozen chicken nugget review.)
It's been a successful strategy thus far, occasionally leading me to recipes that are not just incredibly delicious, but are actually more delicious than the meaty counterparts that I jumped off from in the first place. My vegan mapo tofu, dan dan noodles, and fried eggplant tortas come to mind as dishes that could beat the pants off of any meat-based restaurant versions I've had.
So what are the goals this year? To deliver recipes that are even more delicious, more satisfying, and—importantly—more practical. Going vegan does mean sacrificing. You give up the freedom to give into every craving or to taste every delicious-smelling thing you come across. But it does not mean giving up on flavor, texture, deliciousness, good company, or any of the other things that make great food worth eating.
I'll be developing and publishing at least 20 new recipes (one every weekday!). I'll be putting myself into all-new situations (first up: what's airplane travel like as a vegan? And what about spending a week as a houseguest in a non-vegan household?), and trying to come up with some solutions for problems that have continued to vex me (What do I do when I get home late on a Saturday night after a few too many drinks and I crave quick and easy junk food?).
If you're brand new to this series or considering giving veganism a shot, I suggest reading through some of the previous posts to get a sense of what you're in for. These Top 10 Tips for a First Time Vegan are a good place to start, as is this post on How to Stock a Vegan Pantry (and make sure to read the very helpful community members' comments for further suggestions!).
Here's to another month of vegan recipes, I hope you're looking forward to it as much as I am.
In the mean time, I'd love to hear from you about your thoughts on the matter. Have you ever considered going vegan, and if so, what's holding you back? Are there any specific recipes or techniques you'd like me to focus some attention on? Or for those of you who have gone vegan (or dabbled in it), what were the most challenging parts for you?
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer 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.