Turn Over A New Leaf:
Vegan Diets Are Moving More Solidly Into Mainstream

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Turn Over A New Leaf:
Vegan Diets Are Moving More Solidly Into Mainstream

By Korky Vann
October 2009

There's a new food trend simmering, but if you want to give it a try, you'll have to revise your grocery list. Meat, poultry and fish? Out. Milk, cheese, eggs and dairy of any kind? Gone. Oh yes, and that bear-shaped container of honey in your cabinet? History.

Instead, you'll be stocking up on fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, nuts and soy products, all mainstays of a vegan diet. But forget the things you've heard about this type of cooking being boring and tasteless. Vegan gourmet is in, and that's no tofu baloney.

Vegan cookbooks, complete with glossy, gastro-glam pictures and sassy attitude, are sprouting like wheatgrass.

BabyCakes, a high-profile Manhattan vegan bakery, and other upscale vegan confection shops have propelled the vegan baking movement into the mainstream.

Ecorazzi.com, a "green" gossip website, just named Ellen DeGeneres, Ginnifer Goodwin, Alicia Silverstone, John Salley and Emily Deschanel the "top vegan celebrities" of 2009.

Vegans, it seems, are the latest high-profile foodies.

The Beginning And End

Donald Watson might be surprised by all the attention.

Convinced that a diet completely free of animal products, including dairy and eggs, was the "beginning and end" of a true vegetarian lifestyle, Watson coined the term "vegan" in 1944, using the first two and last three letters of the word "vegetarian." Shortly afterward, the quiet Englishman founded the Vegan Society, a group of about 25 like-minded individuals.

Things have changed over the past 65 years. These days, about a million Americans identify themselves as vegan, according to a 2008 Harris Poll commissioned by "Vegetarian Times." While contemporary vegans share the same philosophy as Watson and his followers, their diet and message have become more mainstream.

The change is as well-timed as a perfect, egg-free soufflé.

According to Publishers Weekly, the interest in eating locally has led to a rise in vegetarian and veggie-oriented cookbooks, including vegan titles.

"We're trying to overcome the crunchy-granola reputation," says Priscilla Feral, national president of Friends of Animals in Darien and author of "The Best of Vegan Cooking" (Friends of Animals Nectar Bat Press, $19.95). "Our image needs to be polished. People think that a vegan diet is a sacrifice, that it's tasteless and unappealing. It's not. They think you can't get enough protein, calcium or iron. You can."

Feral, a former chocolate recipe designer for Godiva, explores the diversity of "plant-based cuisine" and includes recipes by New York food columnist Mark Bittman, restaurateur Susan Wu and other high-profile chefs in her collection.

The book's intro includes a brief explanation of Watson's philosophy of living in harmony with the planet, but the overriding message is one of healthful eating and fresh, well-prepared dishes.

No Longer So Radical

"As recently as five years ago, a vegan diet was considered alternative and radical," says Mary Lawrence, owner of Well On Wheels, a Connecticut-based personal-chef service that provides vegan meals prepared in clients' homes. "Now, with the new emphasis on healthy lifestyles, people are more open and interested."

Lawrence, who also teaches vegan cooking classes, says the availability of ingredients and meat alternatives has made vegan eating an easier choice.

"You can find vegan options at Whole Foods," says Lawrence. "Even restaurants are adding vegan dishes to their menus."

Along with Feral, a number of other cookbook authors have released trendy vegan titles.

Dynise Balcavage, a hip, young blogger who details life as a city vegan on her blog, UrbanVegan.net, has written "The Urban Vegan: 250 Simple, Sumptuous Recipes from Street Cart Favorites to Haute Cuisine" (Globe Pequot, $16.95). Selections range from Marsala mushroom crepes and sweet potato gnocchi with basil cream sauce (made with soy milk) to minty mojitos and sherry-infused pâté (made with cremini mushrooms and pecans, rather than goose liver). As she puts it, newer recipes have transformed vegan cooking from "oat cusine" to "haute cuisine."

"Vegan Brunch: Homestyle Recipes Worth Waking Up For — From Asparagus Omelets to Pumpkin Pancakes" (DaCapo Press, $19.95) is a new cookbook by Isa Chandra Moskowitz, author of the best-selling "Veganomicon" and creator of The Post Punk Kitchen website. Her offerings include fennel breakfast risotto, Swiss chard frittata, stuffed artichokes with ginger and chervil and pain au chocolat.

"Quick And Easy Vegan Comfort Food," (The Experiment, $17.95), coming out next week, includes Fried Chik'n Seitan (seitan is made with wheat gluten and soy flour), Tuno Casserole (garbanzo beans stand in for tuna) and dozens of other down-home recipes by Alicia C. Simpson, contributing writer to the Vegans of Color blog.

No More Lecturing

Bill LeBlond, editorial director of food and wine at Chronicle Books, calls the new emphasis "the second wave of veganism."

"We're certainly seeing the second generation of vegan cookbooks," he says. "Less rhetoric and more great recipes."

In other words, no mock hot dogs and "save the seal" lecturing, says LeBlond.

"Vegans are always going to be a niche market," he says. "The average person isn't going to totally adapt to this way of eating. But consumers are interested in eating locally, eating seasonally and eating a diet that's good for them and good for their family, so they're open to new ideas."

Chronicle has a vegan cookbook in the oven, due out next fall. The compendium of more than 450 recipes, by Robin Asbell, forgoes political messages and dishes featuring imitation meat made of tofu. Instead it focuses on flavorful, interesting culinary creations.

"If the food is delicious, there's no need to justify or explain," says LeBlond. "We're not looking for foods that taste 'good for vegan cooking.' We're looking for a collection of recipes that are just good, period."

This chowder recipe comes from Priscilla Feral's cookbook, "The Best of Vegan Cooking."

Manhattan Vegetable Chowder

Heat olive oil in large saucepan over medium heat. Add onions, smoked paprika and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft but not browned, about 10 minutes. Add carrots, celery, fennel, zucchini and thyme, season with a little more salt and cook for another 5 minutes, stirring often. Pour in white wine, increase heat to high, and bring to a boil. Add vegetable stock, tomatoes, bay leaf, marjoram, oregano and chili flakes. Return to a boil, add potatoes, and reduce heat to medium. Simmer for 30 minutes, add orange zest and juice along with a dash of hot pepper sauce, and continue to simmer until vegetables are soft. Taste and adjust seasonings with lemon juice, salt and freshly ground pepper. Serve with crackers.

Serves 6 to 8.