By Grant Butler, The Oregonian
OK, I'll admit it: It was a journalistic stunt. At least partly ...
On February 1, 2010, I flipped a culinary switch and became a vegan overnight. For a month, I planned to shop, cook and eat without any animal products. No meat, eggs or dairy, period.
The intent was mostly earnest. Portland has a large and quickly growing vegan community. And after seeing documentaries like "Food, Inc." and reading works by Michael Pollan, I'd become increasingly convinced that eating less meat -- perhaps even eliminating it altogether -- was the greenest, most-humane thing I could do.
But I love a good gimmick, too, and going vegan for a month has become a popular way for journalists to immerse themselves in vegan culture. So I dived right into the vegan pool. For four weeks, I stuck to a plant-based diet, blogging about it every day as I learned new things, tried new products and dined at Portland's many vegan-friendly restaurants.
Recipes included with this story: South of the Border Black Bean Saute, Spicy Garbanzo Beans, Walnut-mushroom Pate, Potato-asparagus soup, Quinoa Salad With Rice and Black Beans
Then a surprising thing happened. March 1 came around, and I didn't want to go back to my old way of eating. Vegan eating, I discovered, is anything but boring, and the cooking experience is exhilarating and fun. And it with comes some fringe benefits. Physically, I feel great. During the day, I have so much energy that I've kicked my afternoon coffee habit. At night, I'm sleeping better -- I suspect because my body isn't having to work overtime digesting meat. And I've effortlessly lost all the weight I gained over the holidays, without ever experiencing the sort of hunger pangs that come with traditional dieting.
So I've stuck with it. Who would have guessed that a stunt would lead me to such an unexpected place?
Learning new ways of shopping and cooking
One of the first things I discovered as a new vegan convert was that shopping requires a different approach. I used to start at the meat counter, but now I spend the bulk of my time and money in the produce section, where I've added more leafy greens, peppers and squash to my recipe repertoire. From there, I head into the aisles with canned beans, bulk grains and whole-wheat pasta, seeking out things I've never cooked with before, like red jasmine rice, black quinoa and red lentils.
I've also tried some meat-replacement products, with mixed results. While I liked the spiciness of Field Roast's Mexican chipotle sausage -- awesome crumbled in tofu scrambles and soups, and the basis for a black bean sauté that makes splendid soft taco filling -- the other faux sausages I tried had a rubbery texture. And the less said about the bizarre Tofurky roast, the better.
Paying close attention to food labels is my new norm. All sorts of products that I had assumed were vegan actually contain honey, dairy or eggs. And by avoiding things like cheese and eggs I've reduced the amount of fat and cholesterol in my diet -- which might be part of why I'm feeling better, too.
In the kitchen, my philosophy about what goes on the plate has changed dramatically. Dinners used to need a meaty focal point, with a side dish or two built around it. Now vegetables are no longer an afterthought and I'm putting my energy into using them in creative ways.
Vegans reach out, from near and far
Converting to a plant-based diet was made a lot easier by all the support
I received through the comments on OregonLive.com, as well as
social-networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. I never expected to
get tips and encouraging words from readers as far away as Melbourne, Cape
Town and Kuala Lumpur. It's great to know there are so many people out there
who are excited about vegan eating as well as concerned about animals and
To celebrate my dedication to vegan eating, and to honor some local folks who had proved particularly supportive, I threw a dinner party earlier this month. Joining me at the table were author and chef Isa Chandra Moskowitz, food scientist Ryan Keck, screenwriter Lauren Simon, along with wine columnist Katherine Cole and Oregonian film critic Shawn Levy, an avid barbecuer and resident skeptic.
We started things off with a Walnut-mushroom Pâté that Moskowitz made from her cookbook "Veganomicon." It looked so much like goose liver pâté that it startled everyone -- but the flavor was rich and foresty. The heartiness continued with a Potato-asparagus Soup that I made from Moskowitz' "Vegan With a Vengeance." I was so nervous cooking a recipe for the person who dreamed it up that I actually forgot to add the fresh lemon juice right before serving. Even without the citrus, the mostly puréed soup had the advantage of asparagus at its peak.
After a simple green salad with apples and walnuts, the action shifted to India with a stew of spicy garbanzo beans that was loaded with ginger, cumin and onions, served on a bed of red jasmine rice. If Levy seriously doubted that vegan food could pack a ton of flavor, this one set him straight. As I was eating, I could feel my scalp starting to sweat from the endorphin rush.
With it all, we sipped a vegan zinfandel from California's Organic Vintners, which was pretty blah with the soup, but had enough cinnamon and clove notes to go well with the spicy stew.
For dessert we had carrot bundt cake from Back to Eden, the Alberta District vegan bakery, covered with a vegan cream cheese glaze that was shimmery and delicious.
Moving forward: classes and a column
From here, my vegan adventure will continue in a variety of ways. I've enrolled in a series of cooking classes sponsored by Northwest Veg that will teach me the secrets of cooking with ingredients like tempeh and seitan. Later this spring, I've got another class lined up that will show me more things to do with tofu other than make breakfast scrambles.
And I'll be sharing with you the things that I find. Because there was so much interest in the Going Vegan project, a new twice-monthly FOODday column called "The Plant-Based Plate" debuts in April. It will feature recipes focused on the veggie world, profiles of the taste makers of Portland's growing vegan dining scene and whatever personal insights I gain as I explore a new way of eating. Whichever direction it takes me, I'm certain it's going to be delicious.