Our Vegan Month Progress: Week 1

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Eating vegan is easy when you have meat-free chili on hand. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Kenji's an old pro at this vegan thing now: he's on year four of The Vegan Experience. But this year he's not going it alone: Serious Eats Overlord Ed Levine has joined for the second attempt at an animal-free diet, along with staffers Leang Chaing and Ben Fishner. We asked them a bit about the challenges they faced getting started this week.

Ben Fishner's Diary

I'm joining Vegan Month mostly as a personal challenge to myself, not because of any particular reasons of health or ethics, although those are certainly on my mind.

To prepare, I got rid of most of the dairy-filled stuff in my fridge, although I will admit my freezer is still somewhat full of frozen chicken stock and one smoked pork trotter. I also made a huge, double batch of Kenji's vegan chili, a recipe I've made with great success in the past. It's totally delicious, and I knew that having a bunch of it in the freezer would be helpful on nights when I didn't have dinner planned, or for taking to work for lunch.

The prospect of going vegan got me reading ingredient lists on food labels a lot more closely, and I went back and referred to Kenji's posts on stocking a vegan pantry and vegan miracle ingredients.

Next I set about gathering recipes. I went through all of my recipes in Paprika (a recipe manager I use) and tagged the ones that are vegan (and the ones that could be vegan with small modification). I cook at home a lot, and I'm really excited to try some new recipes in the kitchen. I wouldn't say that my cooking repertoire is particularly meat-centric, but it's pretty rare for anything I make to be totally free of animal products. I'm looking forward to changing it up.

I have to admit: I feel like I'm cheating a bit. I time-shifted my vegan month, as I was in Chicago for the start of February and only got back on the 3rd. So Ben's Vegan Experience started at sundown on 2/3—we ate tortilla chips and guacamole brought back from the Tortas Frontera in O'Hare Airport along with some of the aforementioned vegan chili for dinner that night—but then I woke up with a stomach bug on Wednesday 2/4, and other than a bowl of oatmeal with walnuts, raisins and maple syrup for breakfast and a piece of toast for dinner, I didn't eat anything. Anticlimactic! As I write this I'm still a bit under the weather, but hoping my appetite returns shortly so I can actually get started.

Ed Levine's Diary

As a veteran of the "become a vegan for the month of February" challenge, I was surprised at how easily I agreed to participate in this year's journey into veganism. Last year was difficult, for sure—especially the first week—and we probably shouldn't mention how I fared the year before (I lasted about three hours that time.)

But this year I was ready and much more aware of all the potential pitfalls. Kenji reminded me of one recently: It's really easy for new vegans to use carbs as a crutch, to fill up on carbs when it just seems like the easiest option. So the first day I knew not to buy a big bag of potato chips. And on day three, something strange happened: I ordered a little bag of house-made potato chips from our local bagel place, Baz, and ate a few chips as I walked down the block. Then, to my astonishment, I threw them away. It turns out that a few potato chips—and I love potato chips—go a long way.

So what am I eating around the office? Lots of Baz's bagels—sweetened with malt instead of honey—with tofu scallion spread. But Kenji's carb-crutch warning is ringing in my ears...perhaps I should dial back the bagels a little.

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I also brought in a bag of roasted peanuts in the shell for snacking. They're messy, for sure, but also delicious and time-consuming (shelling each peanut shell takes a few seconds). That process slows you down a little.

I have been eating more vegetables and salad, though I have to admit I've been buying take-out. One challenge: the hidden dairy products everywhere. I ordered two vegetarian dishes from my local Chinese restaurant, Red Farm; the Chinese Broccoli with Superior Shitake Flower Mushrooms, and Sautéed Brussel Sprouts with Japanese Pumpkin in Black Bean Sauce. I asked the bartender, who takes the take-out orders, if these were vegan, and the answer surprised me: they both have butter in the sauce. Glad I asked. I guess butter makes a lot of sauces taste better, but he went back to the kitchen for me and came back and told me the kitchen could make both dishes vegan. The Chinese broccoli in particular was incredible, served over their delicious steamed Koshihikari rice.

This coming week I'm hoping to cook some of Kenji's vegan recipes for dinner. I promise not to sneak any butter into the sauces.

Leang Chaing's Diary

Having done a month of eating vegan last may, I came into February ambitious, arrogant, and...completely unprepared. I ended January with vodka pies at Emily, a tasting menu at Battersby, and more fried chicken than is really recommended for any human over the course of a week. By the first day of Vegan Month, the only thing in my fridge that I could eat was a pint of hummus, plus some nutritional yeast left over from my last go.

I was pretty easy-going when I went vegan for a month last May, but this time around I dramatically expanded my banned list to include all traces of animal products—eschewing refined cane sugar, carmine, gelatin, lecithin, etc.—to see how disruptive becoming a level 5 vegan will be on my social life, health, and general merriment. What I didn't anticipate was how quickly I would be tested—while out with friends at a generic Soho restaurant known mostly for its bottomless brunch, I had my first gut decision to make as a vegan: were products fried in the same oil as meat banned as well? Will I not get my vegan-based superpowers since my plantains had touched animal suffering?

I compromised, since 1) I was hungry and 2) I'm really aiming for sustainable eating habits for the long haul. I realize that I'm not going to change the world by going vegan for a month. I won't actually make a dent in the global carbon footprint by turning down that bite of office babka. However, if I can leave Vegan Month with a few handy tricks for eating better, I'll have accomplished my goal.