The fourth year of The Vegan Experience has come to a close, though I hesitate to use that term. How can a lifestyle or a series of decisions ever really come to a close? Veganism is a full time reality for many of our readers and a lifestyle that affects my personal food choices throughout the year. I like to think of February not as my "once a year vegan thing," but more as the one time of year in which I focus firmly on an important aspect of my regular life.
Beyond the interesting intellectual aspects of veganism, I also enjoy February because developing vegan recipes is so damn fun. It's a style of recipe writing that forces me to be more creative than I often am, and some of what I consider my best recipes are my vegan recipes. As a recipe writer who places great technique and flavor above all else, it's also a delight to find that my vegan recipe are popular not only with vegans, but with omnivores as well. The first year I wrote about vegan food, I was fully prepared for our traffic to take a hit during vegan month. Gladly, I've found that it's not the case. Our traffic and audience engagement don't suffer one bit during vegan month. This in itself is a comfort to me and makes me confident that the flavor-first vegan/vegetarian book I've decided to work on after my upcoming Food Lab book is released this fall will find its way into many homes.
All of my omnivore-oriented recipes are flavor-trumps-all. Why should my vegan recipes be any different?
This year I've produced what I believe are my best recipes yet. I love that this vegan queso dip (complete with crispy vegan chorizo) is so tasty that even friends who eschew any and all things vegan chowed down with relish when I served it to them (we even had a reader whose kids request it over the real deal). I've discovered that shirataki noodles are not only vegan, but they're delicious and easy to serve as well (my fridge will never again be without them). I made myself a vegan banh mi to end all vegan banh mis by first coming up with a technique for grilling tofu that really layers on the flavor and texture.
Then there were the "accidental vegan" dishes. The one that don't come from a mindset of veganism, but just happen to fall into the category. The Sichuan Hot and Sour Eggplant my wife and I first tasted in Chengdu, China. The Sicilian caponata that graced the hors d'oeuvres spread on our dinner party table for a few weeks in a row (it's that good), or the five minute Spanish bean salad that will forever change the way I entertain.
There were soups, the most surprising of which might be this vegan Ajiacó Negro, a recipe from my wife's native Colombia where vegetarian food is difficult to find, much less fully vegan food. There was a hearty cheesy baked potato soup, complete with crumbles of a new-and-improved mushroom bacon recipe.
There was a dehydrated olive, miso, and rosemary crumble that if not outright replacing Parmesan, will at the very least have a permanent place in my pantry to be pulled out and sprinkled over any dish that needs an extra burst of flavor.
Oh, and of course, there was ramen. And not just any ramen, but the best darned bowl of ramen I've ever made, and I've made a lot of ramen in my life. Seriously: if I had to bet on a single one of my recipes being the one that I could open a successful restaurant around, it'd be that ramen. Creamy, rich, layered flavors, multiple techniques and toppings, it's a serious recipe with lessons to learn whether you're a vegan or not.
Still hungry for more? Don't worry, you can find the entire archive of Vegan Experience recipes right here. That's over 100 recipes, soup to nuts, and the list is only getting bigger.
On Cheating, or Lack Thereof
Now a few words:
I'll admit it: this is the first year of The Vegan Experience in which I ate some meat. I wasn't proud of it, but I wasn't hard on myself about it either. It started with a trans-continental flight from San Francisco to Orlando where I've been attending the wonderful Food Blogger Forum held at Disney World. The first leg of my flight was a redeye to Charlotte, where—at least within a reasonable distance from my gate—there were very, very few vegan options for breakfast. I've written about the problems of vegan food while traveling before, but this is a new level of difficulty. As someone who is allergic to raw fruits, my single option was a plain bagel with a bit of jelly.
My next opportunity for a meal was at the opening event for the conference where it turned out that out of the entire sizable display of food offered—grits, chicken, barbecued ribs, cornbread, etc.—the one and only vegan option was a chafing dish filled with braised greens. Even the salad was pre-dressed with mayonnaise and eggs.
By the time I got back to my hotel room, all of the restaurants at the resort had already shut their doors. If you've ever been to a Disney World resort, you'd know that while they make an amazing effort to offer you every possible comfort during your stay, they make actually leaving the property nearly impossible. I was a prisoner in the Happiest Prison on Earth with no choice but to order off the late night in-room-dining menu. I didn't expect much by way of vegan options, but I was a little surprised and dismayed to see that not only were there no vegan options, but that the only vegetarian option was to order an entire large cheese pizza for myself.
I ended up ordering a burger, inhaling it in my ravaged state before my brain even had time to catch up with my body. To Walt Disney World's immense credit, after I emailed them to mention that their late night dining menu had no vegan or vegetarian options, I received a personal call back from the head chef at the resort who then offered to personally oversee any dining experience we had during the rest of our three day stay here, whether it was in one of the restaurants or in our hotel room. We gladly partook of a wonderful vegan meal at one of the restaurants the following night.
Why am I telling you about the burger incident? It's not because I have a guilty conscience and am trying to come clean as a way of absolving myself of my sins. Any reasonable vegan (or any person really) will tell you that it's better to eat meat than to starve yourself. It's also not to make any new or struggling vegans feel like they can or should eat meat when they feel like it. A decision like that has to be a personal one and not one you base on the actions of others.
I'm actually telling you this to brag just a little.
If you look back, you'll notice that I've very consciously avoided using the term "cheated," because that makes me feel like I consider the whole thing some sort of game with a beginning, some rules in the middle, and an end goal. For me, The Vegan Experience is far more than that. It's an opportunity to continue to explore a lifestyle and a set of standards that if not outright guiding my life during the rest of the year, at the very least affect every decision I make. Since first exploring the vegan lifestyle four years ago, my wife Adri and I have made some serious and lasting changes in our lives to the point where we no longer order meat when we go out to restaurants or purchase meat for our own consumption at home.
As a first time vegan, I was extremely strict with myself. My fear was that if I fell off the wagon with even a bite of pizza or a nibble of meat that I'd never get back on and the whole point of the exercise would be lost. I no longer have that fear. I've got nothing to prove to myself or to my friends or colleagues. I know the sort of peace of mind that being more mindful of my food and bringing my food choices more into alignment with my moral compass has brought me, and I know that a single hamburger in a time of need is not going to somehow stop the needle from spinning on that compass.
It's been a long, interesting, sometimes difficult, but ultimately joyful road I've been walking down for the last four years, and it's hopefully a road that I'll never reach the end of.