Going Vegan: Trimming My Waistline, Trimming My Budget, Expanding My Horizons

For the past two weeks, in an attempt to experiment with new ingredients and foods, I've been eating vegan when I haven't been working. Admittedly, I "work" -- that is, eat -- for about half of my meals. But the other half have been [almost] entirely vegan. And it's been a fulfilling challenge.

As the Boston Globe reported today, a growing number of people are choosing to go vegan for reasons other than a concern for animal welfare. For some, it's about reducing the impact that the meat industry has on the environment. For others, like me, it's about reducing cholesterol and saturated fats in your diet and learning to enjoy the broad spectrum of alternate protein sources in the world.

All-vegetable meals at upscale restaurants and pop-up dinners are even all the rage these days, and not necessarily because of any larger health or ethical trends. In advance of his own recent vegetable dinners in August, Houston chef Justin Yu wrote on his blog recently: "I'm not trying to play to any favors in dietary restrictions or or make any sort of political stance. I'm not cooking vegetarian because of the fact that it's vegetarian, but because I just really, really enjoy cooking vegetables."

But vegan doesn't just mean emphasizing vegetables and doing away with meat; that's vegetarianism, and the two definitions cannot be used interchangeably. Going vegan eliminates every single animal byproduct from your diet, including milk, cheese, eggs, butter and even honey.

This, of course, leads to some interesting discoveries in the kitchen.

Fitsugar has a list of the must-have foods you should buy if you're attempting to experiment with veganism, as well as a list of excellent recipes for creating meals with complete proteins. Getting enough protein is one of the primary concerns of a vegan diet, although it's simple to accomplish with the smallest amount of planning.

The majority of my protein in my vegan meals has come from quinoa and steel-cut oats. Everyone finds their favorites that they turn to in certain diets; quinoa and steel-cut oats are mine.

A bowl of steel-cut oats for breakfast every morning has eight grams of protein as well as plenty of iron, another nutrient that's often lacking in vegan diets. Topped with maple syrup (real maple syrup, mind; not maple-flavored sugar water) and fresh berries, it's a breakfast that's also full of Vitamin C, antioxidants, fiber, manganese and zinc. The oats take a little bit longer to cook, but have an addictively nutty, crunchy flavor and texture that beats the hell out of a cold bowl of Special K.

Quinoa is my other great weapon: it's got the same nutty flavor as steel-cut oats, but with the fluffy texture of couscous. It also cooks up quickly, making for a fast meal after a long day at work. Just like rice, it's incredibly versatile and can be topped with nearly anything. Unlike rice, however, quinoa is actually a grass -- not a grain -- and is a complete protein, offering all nine essential amino acids.

I like to top my quinoa with roasted vegetables, another easy-prep meal that provides additional protein and fiber on top of the 24 grams of protein and 12 grams of fiber in a cup of quinoa. Roasted carrots, parsnips, potatoes and onions make a hearty evening meal, while roasted beets with a drizzle of olive oil and some toasted hazelnuts make a bright and tasty lunch. Quinoa also absorbs spices easily, so I'll often add things like cardamom and nutmeg to complement the beets, or sage and thyme to complement the roasted carrots and other root vegetables.

Baking isn't completely out, either, as I found out when I made a simple chocolate silk pie with vegan chocolate and silken tofu. It was billed as the "ultimate chocolate fudge pie" (seen above) by the blogger who created it, and it wasn't an exaggeration. Pair it with the easiest vegan pie crust recipe around and you have a dessert that both tastes good (no, seriously; I'm a food critic and I wouldn't lie to you) and is legitimately good for you. As an added bonus, you get even more protein -- complete protein, too -- from that silken tofu.

Buying ingredients to bake a vegan chocolate pie was costly, however, and not something that I'd do on a regular basis. Sticking to a vegan diet doesn't have to be expensive, though, and ideally shouldn't be. After all, it's meat that's generally the most expensive item on your grocery bill, especially as the drought is expected to drive up the cost of beef soon. Eating vegan can be a way to trim your budget as well as your waistline...

As an example, the quinoa that I buy is roughly $5 a box and contains seven servings, for a cost of 71 cents a serving. The steel-cut oats I buy are $3 a bag and contain 15 servings, for an even lower cost of 20 cents a serving. Vegetables (even frozen ones) are similarly inexpensive, as are fruits. And buying fresh or frozen instead of canned keeps the cost down and the nutrients up.

Where going vegan gets difficult is in the substitutions: the meat substitutions, the dairy substitutions, even the honey substitutions.

But if all you're focused on is forcing one product to try and imitate another, you're missing the entire point of going vegan: enjoying plants on their own merits, and exploring new foods for their own inherent possibilities. Miss butter? Try avocado. Miss honey? Try agave nectar. Miss butter? Try olive oil. Miss dairy? Try almond milk. Miss cream? Try coconut milk.

My favorite discovery from this short amount of time has been roasted jicama. I'm a big fan of roasting vegetables in general -- it takes very little prep work and even picky eaters can be convinced to eat a nicely browned and caramelized carrot with a pinch of salt on top. I experimented throwing jicama into a bunch of different cold salads, but quickly grew bored of this application. Instead, I cut the fibrous vegetable into French fry-like slices, tossed them in olive oil and salt, then threw them into a 425 oven for an hour to see what happened.

It turns out that roasted jicama is the magical intersection of a roasted potato -- with its satisfying little crunch -- and a roasted carrot, the jicama's inherent sweetness only enhanced by the roasting time.

If I weren't experimenting with a vegan diet, I wouldn't have discovered this new favorite. And I can't wait to see what discoveries I encounter next.

Stick around tomorrow when we highlight some of the best vegan restaurants around town.

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