We live in a culture of labels: old labels, new labels and old labels with new meanings. All of these labels, with their nuanced—and changing—connotations, try valiantly to give us some footholds in this fluid world in which we live.
The dynamic realm of food and dietary choices is no different. Just as some people were getting a handle on “vegetarian” and “vegan,” “plant-based” entered the lexicon. What does it all mean and, more importantly, why does it matter?
Vegetarians, quite simply, eat no animal products, though they do eat animal-derived products, namely eggs, dairy and honey. Vegans, on the other hand, do not eat, wear or use anything derived from or tested on an animal. So their choices have broader lifestyle implications and include clothing, cosmetics and cleaning supplies just for starters. Many vegans, however, do not feed their pets vegan diets, but that is a topic for a different time.
The problem with the vegan diet for plant-based enthusiasts is that it is not necessarily a healthy diet because, though it is naturally cholesterol-free, it does not restrict calories, fats or sugars. Products like Oreos and Fritos are naturally vegan and, nowadays, there is a vegan equivalent for virtually every “junk” food you can think of. So, the plant-based thinking goes, if vegans do not make smart choices about ingredients and portion sizes, their diets will be better for the animals—and perhaps the environment (though excess packaging for processed vegan foods is an issue)—but not for them.
So what exactly are the hallmarks of a plant-based diet? They may vary depending on whom you consult but, generally, a plant-based diet relies on little added oil and sugar and tends to avoid heavily processed ingredients. It, instead, embraces whole foods, that is, foods eaten close to the way they emerge from the ground. While research can often “prove” whatever you want it to, it appears increasingly certain that this diet, which is low in saturated fat and rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, can lower your risk of heart disease (including heart attack and stroke), high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, digestive disease, certain types of cancers like colon and breast and obesity, while reducing total and LDL cholesterol.
All diets, including the “healthy” ones, require planning to insure that our bodies’ protein, vitamin and mineral needs are met. Special considerations for, especially, vegetarians, vegans and plant-based adherents are adequate protein, calcium, Vitamin D (the latter is needed to absorb the calcium), zinc and B-12. But those nutrients are easily obtained in milk alternatives like soy, almond, rice or hemp; dark leafy greens and beans; mushrooms; whole grains; soy products; fortified cereals; and nutritional yeast with its cheesy-nutty flavor.
Instead of the government’s food pyramid, which has also been in flux, think in terms of consuming these four food groups at every meal: plant protein, fruit, vegetables and whole grains. To help you get started in ways that are as bodacious and delicious, as they are nutritious, we offer these recipes that will leave you feeling satisfied rather than deprived.
By Betsy DiJulio
Baked Oatmeal with Blueberries
Yield: 8 servings
Where a healthy breakfast meets bread pudding.
6 ounces firm silken tofu
1 cup soy milk
1/2 cup canola oil
3/4 cup natural sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
3 cups old-fashioned oatmeal
2 tablespoons natural sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 pint of fresh berries, rinsed, drained and patted dry
Lightly grease a 9-inch glass or ceramic pie pan and set aside. Combine the tofu, soy milk, canola oil, sugar, baking powder and salt in a food processor. Process until smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Transfer the mixture to a medium mixing bowl and stir in the oatmeal. Spoon this mixture into the prepared pan, gently smoothing the top. Sprinkle the surface with the remaining sugar and cinnamon, cover with foil, and refrigerate overnight. When ready to bake, remove dish from refrigerator and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Stud the top surface of the oatmeal with berries and bake for 35 minutes or until just firm. Serve hot. Note: The oatmeal may be reheated by covering the baking dish with foil and placing it in a cold oven. Turn the oven temperature to 300 degrees and heat for about 20 minutes, or until warm.
Vegan Smoky Bean, Pumpkin and Kale Chili
Yield: app. 10 1-cup servings
This rich-tasting stew is pleasingly complex in flavor, but simple to prepare.
(Note: all cans are 15 to 15.5 ounces.)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 bell pepper, diced (yellow, orange or red)
3 to 4 celery hearts, finely diced
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
3 to 4 large cloves garlic, minced
1 can fire-roasted tomatoes
1 chili in adobo sauce
1 tablespoon maple syrup
2 cans beans, rinsed and drained, any kind (I like a tri-bean mix plus cannellini beans)
1 1/2 cups frozen corn, thawed
Optional: 1/2 bunch cilantro, tied with kitchen twine
1 can pumpkin puree
1 can green enchilada sauce, medium heat
1 package taco seasoning
1 tablespoon ground cumin
12 ounces beer or nonalcoholic beer
12 cups lightly packed baby kale (I don’t remove stems, but you can)
Up to 1 cup water
Optional garnishes: vegan sour cream, vegan grated cheese, sliced green onion, fresh or pickled sliced jalapeno, sprigs of fresh cilantro, roasted and lightly salted pepitas, etc.
Heat olive oil in a large heavy pot like a Dutch oven over medium to medium-high. Add onion, bell pepper, celery and a pinch of sea salt. Sauté, stirring frequently, until softened. Add garlic, and sauté, stirring, for 30 seconds. Then, simply add all remaining ingredients, except kale, bring to a light boil, lower heat and simmer for about 30 minutes to allow flavors to meld. Add water to thicken if necessary. Remove cilantro. During the last 10 minutes of cooking, stir in handfuls of kale and allow to wilt. Serve in cups, mug, or bowls garnished as desired.
Acorn Squash Stuffed with Stovetop Brown Rice Casserole
Yield: 4 servings
A simple one-dish family meal that looks special enough for company.
2 acorn squash (about 1 pound each), cut in half horizontally, seeds and membrane removed with a spoon
1 tablespoon olive oil + additional for oiling baking dish and basting squash
1 medium onion, diced
4 large cloves of garlic, minced
4 cups lightly packed mixed greens, large leaves torn if necessary (e.g. baby kale or spinach, arugula, etc.)
Approximately 1/2 cup coconut milk
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cups cooked brown rice
Garnish: approximately 12 smoked almonds
Preheat oven to 400 degrees and lightly oil a roasting pan. Place squash halves, cut side up, in pan. Brush lightly with olive oil and sprinkle very lightly with sea salt. Roast in the center of the oven for 45 to 60 minutes or until tender, yet still firm enough to hold its shape. After about 30 minutes of roasting, begin stovetop casserole. In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil until shimmering. Add onion and a pinch of salt, and sauté, stirring frequently, about 3 minutes or until onion is softened. Add garlic and greens and continue sautéing, stirring, until greens are wilted, but still bright green, about 2 minutes or so. Stir in coconut milk, black pepper to taste and cooked rice. Adjust seasoning as desired. Continue cooking, lowering heat if necessary, until flavors marry and mixture is heated through. Add additional coconut milk if required to reach desired consistency, which should be quite thick, like an oven-baked casserole. When squash has finished roasting, fill each half with one-fourth of the casserole. Garnish each with three smoked almonds and serve immediately.
Banana Ice Cream
Yield: 4 servings
A four-ingredient treat as decadent in taste and texture as it is nutritious.
4 large bananas, peeled, cut into 1-inch chunks and frozen
2 tablespoons cocoa powder (I like Hershey’s Special Dark)
Optional: a tablespoon or 2 of non-dairy milk (soy, almond, etc.)
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Optional garnishes: walnut halves and mint sprigs
Place all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and blend until smooth and creamy, pulsing at first, and then letting motor run. Add a tablespoon or 2 of non-dairy milk if the mixture is too thick initially to blend easily. Enjoy right away or freeze in an airtight container. Thaw for a few minutes on the countertop or a few seconds in the microwave before trying to scoop. Top, if desired, with walnut halves and mint sprigs.