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Vegan with a Vengeance: Pizza

Vegan Pizza, pre-bake.
Vegan Pizza, pre-bake.
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall

We'll get it out of the way right now: I'm being a bit loose in my veganism. I'm not eating any animals, dairy products, or eggs, but I'm not strictly avoiding sugar, nor actively eschewing honey. Call me a bad vegan. That's fine, because I'm not actually a vegan, I just play one on TV. Or for Lent. That's kind of the same, right?

I didn't figure it would be a terribly tough leap, as my family eats a varied diet with relatively little meat. Many of my routine meals either are or could easily be converted to fit vegan parameters, and I've done the vegetarian thing several times, for significant stretches. No big deal.

When I told my wife I planned to go vegan for Lent, she wasn't exactly thrilled. "It doesn't mean *you* have to go vegan," I told her. She was having none of that, though, complaining about the added time and labor costs of cooking two versions of dinner on a semi-regular basis. If I was vegan for Lent, so were they, at least when eating dinner together at home.

The kids had similar reactions. "What are you going to EAT?!" asked my oldest. I asked her to name the animal products we eat routinely, and she started ticking off animals: beef, chicken, pork, fish ..." She still had fingers left when she started trailing off, running out of foods with a face. "OK," I challenged her, "start naming fruits and vegetables." She spit out a good dozen, going full-steam ahead when I stopped her, asking if she'd gotten my point. "Yeah, I guess you can still eat most things," she said slowly, a surprised look on her face. While a bit reductive, the lesson points to a concept central to the way I'm approaching my temporary veganism, and equally central to what I've historically disliked about that diet and its more freewheeling cousin.

While it's certainly not fair to say this describes all vegans (if you're a vegan or vegetarian, and this doesn't apply to you, never mind my ramblings), most of those who have passed through my circles of acquaintance have approached the diet from a perspective of restriction. Focusing on what they can't eat, rather than the bounty of what they can, I see a lot of vegans and vegetarians settling into a "Boca, tempeh, repeat" dining philosophy that makes me immensely sad.

When I dabble in faceless food, I always prefer to approach it from a different angle. While there are certainly challenges in moving from an omnivorous diet to a vegan one, I see those challenges as something to embrace. I see it as an opportunity to try new ingredients, ideas, and techniques. I see it as a way to stretch myself as a home cook, and have always found things to carry forward in my cooking.

Of course, none of this has any bearing on whether or not I find myself craving foods I cannot have. Overall, I've found the transition to veganism fairly simple, though occasionally a bit inconvenient. Every once in a while, though, I just really need a slice of pizza.

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Really, vegan pizza is not that big of a leap. There are authentic versions of pizza and pizza-like foods that fit the vegan framework, from focaccia to pizza bianca. All you have to do is strip the cheese off of a "standard" pie, and you've got a vegan one. Of course, when most folks are after pizza, they're not after pizza bread. I wanted to find something that hit all (or most) of the craving points that come along with pizza.

The biggest stumbling block, for me, was the cheese. I didn't want to go the way of processed imitation cheese, because gross. I did want to capture some of the creamy, rich qualities of cheese, though. Toward that end, I decided to go with a modified mushroom duxelles.

Finely minced button mushrooms, sweated down with a few shallots and some olive oil, would form both the base of my pizza, replacing sweet/tart tomato sauce, and replace some of the creaminess of the absent cheese. Toward the end of cooking, after deglazing with a bit of vermouth, I stirred in a half cup or so of silken tofu. The day before, I'd whisked it up with the a bit of lemon juice and zest, and a few sprigs worth of thyme. After 24 hours in the fridge, it tasted and felt startlingly like freshly made ricotta.

The duxelles took on a rich, earthy, slightly sweet and mildly creamy character. Not quite cheese-like on its own, but hitting enough of the same pleasure points, not to mention delicious enough in its own right, to replace the dairy without compromise. I spread it liberally on a focaccia base (something like this, only subbing sweet potato, and enriched with a good glug of olive oil), leaving scattered bare spots for more textural contrast in the finished product.

Repeating the flavors in the dough, I shaved rounds of sweet potato and tiled them across the surface. Thin slivers of red onion went on next, for a bit of sharpness. Brussels sprout leaves and a drizzle of olive oil finished the pie.

Oh. I forgot to mention one thing. When I plopped the dough out on a sheet pan to proof and spread, I did so on top of a generous slathering of olive oil. I wanted the bottom of the crust to crisp and brown in the oil. A little tip, however: While you can technically pull this dough together and bake in about an hour, it really works better if you allow it to rise for a few hours to overnight, just to get a bit more lift out of the dough. One of the great things about focaccia is the pillowy interior, and mine was a bit shy of that mark.

After a quick bake, with a few extra Brussels sprouts thrown on halfway through, for color, the pie was done. I cut it into squares, scattered a fine chiffonade of raw sweet potato on top, gave it another good drizzle of olive oil, and served. When I'd told the kids I was making vegan pizza for dinner, they groaned. They groaned again as they ate it, but in a very different tenor.


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