I always used to picture vegans as frail, pasty people who wore flowers in their hair and meditated a lot.
My perception changed when I watched a documentary by filmmaker Louie Psihoyos called The Game Changers last December. The film makes the case that vegan diets are superior to omnivorous ones because they promote heart health, decrease inflammation, lower cancer risk, and most importantly for me, improve your physical performance.
The film has its flaws, which are sometimes glaring. Critics have pointed out factual inaccuracies and some misleading information. Some of the experts involved in the documentary also have financial interests in vegan products (including the film’s executive producer, James Cameron, an outspoken vegan who founded plant protein company Verdient Foods). But even with all of those caveats, The Game Changers was sufficiently convincing that, as the credits were rolling, I made a decision to try it out for six months.
In the documentary, a parade of athletes claim that a plant-based diet was responsible for superior performance. This did it for me, as I am very active. I train in the gym almost every day and love biking, hiking and running. I wanted to see if I would notice any positive or negative change in strength or endurance.
I prepared myself mentally for what I thought would be a torturous and dull half year of grilled vegetables, soups and too many pasta dishes. Friends started sending me vegan cookbooks, recipes and restaurants to try that opened the door to a whole new world for me. As someone who loves to cook, trying these new recipes was tremendous fun, and some of them are now among my favorites. The variety seems endless.
My conversion also stirred a lot of debate among friends. On the one hand, I was getting an abundance of praise from other vegans. I was cheered on to the “right side” with enthusiasm that bordered on the evangelical. There is definitely a very militant side to the vegan world. Conversely, some friends were more circumspect, only asking me to clarify exactly how long this fad was going to continue.
The six months just ended, and to sum up my experience, I would say that my strength and energy levels were not adversely impacted. My digestive system definitely felt better. I confess that I did hedge my bets and started taking vitamin supplements during the same period. I lost approximately five to seven pounds in the process. Cooking at home became a fun adventure but going out for dinner or dining at friends’ homes posed occasional challenges. Most people try to accommodate, but you inevitably end up with a plate of grilled vegetables. And being a pacifist by nature, I felt better about myself, given that I was no longer one of the murderous links in the animal food chain and that my new behavior was also better for the environment.
I am a believer in tweaking your diet now and then to see if the changes make you feel better. I cut out dairy a few years ago and it made the world of difference in my digestion. I had also largely eradicated red meat from my diet.
Before my vegan experiment, I was eating the Mediterranean diet, which is largely vegan except for fish. As my six months came to an end, I decided to go back to including fish. Not so much because I missed it, but because it’s more convenient when not home cooking. I hope my new vegan friends will find it in their hearts to forgive me.
Here are two of my favorite vegan recipes from my six months.
The following recipes are from Vedge: 100 Plates Large and Small That Redefine Vegetable Cooking, © Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby, 2013. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment.
Summer Corn with Green Chile Cream
I get greedy and impatient with corn. Who can wait for Jersey corn? The Florida corn starts in late winter, the Georgia corn in April, and my favorite, Carolina corn, comes in May. If you have access to an outdoor grill, please try the “On the Cob” method for a nice outdoor barbecue. Looking for an extra kick? Substitute jalapeños for the poblanos. Or, for an irresistible summer soup, served hot or cold, puree it all with 4 cups of Vegetable Stock.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Serves 4 to 6
4 ears corn
½ cup finely chopped seeded poblano peppers
¼ cup finely chopped onions
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons vegan sour cream
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
- Preheat the oven to 400°F.
- Shave the corn kernels off the cobs into a large bowl and toss with the poblanos, onions, canola oil, salt, and pepper. Transfer the mixture to a sheet pan and bake until the top of the mixture starts to char, about 15 minutes.
- Return the mixture to the bowl. Fold in the vegan sour cream, cilantro, and 2 tablespoons water, then serve.
“On the Cob” Method
- Preheat the grill to high.
- Brush the shucked ears of corn with 1½ teaspoons of the canola oil, then grill the ears directly on the grill racks until lightly charred on all sides, 4 to 8 minutes.
- Meanwhile, heat the remaining 1½ teaspoons canola oil in a large sauté pan over high. When it starts to ripple, add the poblanos, onions, salt, and pepper. Cook, stirring, until brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the vegan sour cream and 2 tablespoons water and cook for an additional 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the cilantro.
- Serve the ears of grilled corn drizzled with the green chile cream.
Hearts of Palm Cakes on Curried Lentils
Hearts of palm are unsung heros in the vegetable world. Vedge’s hearts of palm hail from the Wailea Agricultural Group on the big island of Hawaii. Sustainably farmed and flown to us each week, fresh hearts of palm have a flavor and texture that can’t be beat. Their crunchy, clean-tasting white flesh is reminiscent of a fresh artichoke heart. If you don’t have a small tropical farm filling your produce orders on a weekly basis, canned or jarred hearts of palm make for a very good runner-up.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 35 minutes
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons minced green bell peppers
- 2 tablespoons minced scallions, white and light green parts only
- One 16-ounce can hearts of palm, drained, cut into 2-inch chunks
- 4 teaspoons curry powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ¼ cup minced onions
- 4 cups Vegetable Stock
- 1 cup dried yellow or red lentils, picked through and rinsed
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
- ½ cup vegan mayo
- Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a large sauté pan over high heat. Add the bell peppers and scallions and cook, stirring, until brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the hearts of palm chunks, 2 teaspoons of the curry powder, and ½ teaspoon of the salt. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning, then transfer the mixture to a large bowl and let cool. Pulse the mixture in a food processor to achieve a coarse, shredded consistency. Set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 400°F.
- Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large saucepan over high heat. When the oil begins to ripple, add the onions and cook, stirring, until brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the remaining 2 teaspoons curry powder and cook for an additional 2 to 3 minutes. Add the stock and lentils. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the lentils are tender, 12 to 15 minutes. Stir in the remaining ½ teaspoon salt and the cilantro. Remove from the heat and cover to keep warm.
- Fold the vegan mayo into the cooled hearts of palm mixture. Form the mixture into four balls. Transfer the balls to a sheet pan, flatten them into round cakes about 2 inches thick, and bake until the edges turn brown, 6 to 8 minutes.
- To serve, spoon the lentils onto four plates and place one hearts of palm cake on top of each portion.