We are lucky in the U.S. to have supermarkets filled with a variety of fresh vegetables and fruit. Some countries don't have this resource, making it difficult to be vegetarian. Cuba is one of those countries where a dominant meat culture and lack of access to vegetables limits vegetarian cooking. However, it seems that things may be changing. Check out this article.
The first question one gets when talking about vegan diets is about protein. How do you replace the protein from meat or fish? This article lists 5 common protein sources for a vegan diet. They are all great ingredients in vegan meals, adding texture and bulk, balancing well with the seasoning and other vegetables, and taste delicious. I add tofu to stews, marinated tempeh to salads, quinoa to replace rice, blackbeans in vegan burritos, and almonds to garnish kale. Once you become comfortable using these ingredients, you'll be surprised at how many great and simple meals you can make. Just practice with the flavor you enjoy and integrate these protein source slowly as they combine well and see what you like.
Tofu has many different forms which have unique textures, depending on the meal you want to make. If you want to try various versions before cooking them yourself, visit a Chinese restaurant and ask them for dishes with the different tofu styles. Most stores offer soft/silken, firm, and extra firm tofu. I use firm and soft/silken tofu frequently. Both types will absorb the flavor of the ingredients used to cook the meal. Soft tofu can be used in smoothies. Firm tofu is very good in stews and mixes well with mushrooms, a favorite combination of mine!
Buying local fruit and vegetables is a major trend and expect it to gain even more momentum in 2012. I have started buying more vegetables from farmer's markets near to where I live. Usually there are ones on the weekend and some during the week throughout the day. The vegetables are pesticide free, fresh and full of true flavor. When you start cooking with vegetables, it becomes apparent that the fresher the vegetables are, the better the meal tastes. Nothing beats fresh ingredients.
Farmer's markets are fun, too, since you get to know the farmers and sellers after a while. The atmosphere is usually festive and convivial (except when it's really cold). Sometimes, the markets offer more exotic vegetables than grocery stores such as heirloom tomatoes, Peruvian purple potatoes, and unique chilies. It makes cooking a bit more fun when you're buying the veggies directly from the farming family.
Now with the development of 'urban farms', the veggies and fruit may be growing next door to you if you live in the city. I'm intrigued by the concept and practice. I'm not sure if I've bought vegetables from an urban farm yet, but I'll be on the lookout. It seems like a good use of space and maybe more efficient to support food needs in cities. Perhaps new high rise condos will have a farm on the 20th floor and you'll just take the elevator up to buy corn and lettuce! We'll see what happens. Below is an article about urban farms.
One way I enjoy eating vegetables is to give them robust seasoning with flavorful spices. The right seasoning takes any meal from good to memorable. There are many ways to season a meal and it can be done without adding salt. Also, spices have many health benefits. This article lists some great spices and details their healthy benefits.
My website and book advocates going green by reducing the amount of meat in the meals people eat. However, it's only one way to make an impact. This article lists eleven other ways that may fit your lifestyle better. All twelve are useful and effective at sustaining the environment.
Loma Linda University School of Public Health has produced a nice document about the vegetarian diet. It includes the vegetarian food pyramid, food groups with dietary purpose, and vegetarian FAQs. It delivers a wide range of very useful information for those wanting to learn more about the vegetarian diet. You can download the PDF here.
A vegan diet provides many health benefits. For example, vegan meals have zero cholesterol since cholesterol is a component of animal products. Vegan meals also provide proper nutrition when a variety of vegetables, fruit, and grains are eaten. This is a great article which summarizes the positive health effects of a vegan diet along with nutrition tips and recommendations. It also provides quotes from registered nutritionists from the American Dietetic Association.
It's useful to know on which initiatives the EPA is working. It provides a snapshot on the current progress we are making to create a sustainable environment. This article summarizes one of the main tensions faced by politicians when creating environmental policy - help the environment or protect jobs.
If you are interested in expanding to new ingredients beyond the common vegetables used in most veggie meals, one option is to explore sea vegetables. There are more edible sea veggies than the seaweed wrapped around sushi. To be honest, I haven't used sea vegetables in my cooking except for a short time when I made my own sushi at home. However, in many kitchens in Asia and other parts of the world, consuming sea vegetables is very common and nutritious. This article lists some of the ones you're likely to find in the supermarket or specialty markets. It also provides some nutrition information.
The process to becoming vegetarian or vegan is gradual and the pace is determined somewhat by how much you enjoy and appreciate the cuisine. Learning to enjoy a satisfying meal without meat or even dairy products is the first step recognizing that living off such food is feasible and pleasurable. So the question is where do you start? What is your first meal and what is going to be your comfort food?
If you are not used to a vegetable and whole grain based diet, then these are difficult questions for sure. Changing your eating habits is one of the hardest things to do, especially if fantastic alternatives are not identifiable and immediately available. One technique that I used and that many vegetarians have followed is to start eating more Asian and Mediterranean foods. Asian foods include Chinese stir-fries, Japanese tofu dishes, Thai noodle dishes, and Indian curries. Mediterranean foods include Greek salads and lentil soups, meatless Italian pastas and eggplant dishes, Middle Eastern grain dishes made with couscous, and Spanish vegetarian paellas. Ethiopian cuisine also offers many vegetarian options. In fact, the more you explore, the more great meals you can find from cultures around the world.
I started the transition by learning to enjoy vegetables from a mixture or Indian, Chinese, Malaysian, and Indonesian dishes. The food tasted so good, I didn’t even care that meat was not an ingredient. It was the flavor from the spices that won me over. The food was also filling and gave me great energy. Once you starting trying new flavors and cooking styles, the vegetables almost become a secondary concern. They are just a vehicle and foundation to try the different flavors. They also absorb the flavors better in my opinion increasing the enjoyment of the dish.
As you start to eat more types of food from around the world, it starts to give you perspectives on your own local cuisine and how vegetables are cooked and prepared. It also begins the process of learning to enjoy the veggies for their own flavor. You learn to pick and choose the ones you like and create ways of eating them based on all of the recipes that you’ve tried previously. Finally, it becomes apparent that it’s not hard to duplicate the flavors simply in your own kitchen and before long you’re developing uniquely personal recipes for food that you love and can eat any time.
This is the transition that I went through and it was very expansive and transformational. I came to realize how many flavors there are to try and I learned to like so many new ingredients. The world became a more interesting place and it started by simply trying new food. I hope you can enjoy a similar experience!
Make Simple Vegan Meals