Note: this is a guest post from Esther at A, B, C, Vegan.
It’s time we admit it. We’re weird.
I mean that in the best way possible. And I know at least a few people agree: three years after Matt wrote it, The 17 Weirdest Things I Do Now that I’m Vegan is still the most popular post ever on No Meat Athlete.
But you know what the weirdest part is, right? The ingredients we use!
You know, the stuff you buy at the strange-smelling health food store. The foods your friends are scared to try. The ones that melt like cheese, gel like gelatin, and chew like pulled pork.
And of course, the ones that most people still associate with As-Seen-On-TV plant-pets from the 80’s.
It’s not just weird ingredients, though. Even when we use totally normal ingredients, we often do it in very unexpected ways.
But as weird as our ingredients may be, we use them for a reason: because they’re wonderful.
These ingredients (and the strange ways we find to use everyday ingredients) help us fuel our plant-based lifestyles in a healthy way, while allowing us to experience some of the tastes and textures that we still crave.
So here goes, kiddos: one weird vegan ingredient (or weird use of a normal ingredient) for every letter of the alphabet.
A is for Aminos:
Specifically, coconut aminos. Liquid aminos are an interesting easy way to add those building blocks that come from protein to your diet. More importantly, they’re a gluten-free alternative for the soy sauce flavor (if using Bragg’s, the brand you will commonly find), and the coconut aminos provide a soy-free and lower-sodium option as well!
B is for Banana:
While bananas themselves aren’t weird, one of my all-time favorite discoveries is: one ingredient vegan soft-serve! Freeze bananas in one- to two-inch chunks, add to food processor, and blend ’til smooth. Eat ice cream. 🙂 It’s absurd how creamy and delicious this is. Feel free to mix it up with flavor additions — chocolate, peanut butter, cinnamon, whatever!
C is for Chia:
Chia is a seed that’s a complete plant-based protein, full of fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, calcium, phosphorous, and manganese. It also provides valuable minerals, and helps keep you feeling full and full of energy. And … it gels! Which is just crazy cool and surprising, and makes chia a base for a great, filling breakfast pudding (potentially in place of your usual oatmeal or carbohydrate-happy meal) that keeps you satiated throughout the day.
D is for Daiya:
An easy one. For a lot of people, one of the biggest mental blocks to going vegan is the idea of giving up cheese. These days, that is just not an issue! There are starting to be more and more artisan vegan cheeses (and with books like Artisan Vegan Cheese from Miyoko Schinner you can even make your own!), but the best basic, melty, cheeze you can find in most supermarkets these days is Daiya — in shreds, wedges, and singles slices.
E is for Ener-G
Ener-G is the main brand that people think of for commercial egg replacer, but Bob’s Red Mill makes it as well. Ener-G says their box contains enough egg replacer to replace 113 eggs — and I’m pretty sure that’s true, as I’ve had my box for years and I’m still working through it!
Egg replacer works well as a vegan baking substitution in recipes that call for one or two eggs; more than that and it doesn’t have enough structure to hold things up. But for that, it works like a charm — as a binder, a leavener, and a moistener.
Quick caveat: egg replacer works well for baking, but will not substitute in dishes like quiche or an omelette, where you need the body and texture of an egg. There are lots of other recipes out there for how to do that instead.)
F is for Flax:
Speaking of egg replacer… 1 Tablespoon ground flax seed + 3 Tablespoons water = 1 “egg” for vegan baked goods. Remember that formula and any cake or cookie recipe requiring one or two eggs (not more) will be veganized in a snap. The secret key is to let the mixture sit for 10-15 minutes before adding to the batter, to develop that egg-like consistency.
Full of omega-3s and fiber, flax can be used in so many other ways to get those great nutrients. Just remember to always use the ground seeds — the oil is processed so you only get the omega-3s, without the other benefits, while the whole seeds are too small for your body to digest so they just pass right through you.
G is for Greens:
This one is the key to a healthy, filling, and delicious whole-foods plant-based diet! There is no other food that contains more nutrients per calories than leafy greens, so you want to make sure you get a generous portion in your daily diet. A big salad, a green smoothie, under your stir-fry instead of rice — any way it works for you, get creative and eat those greens! To get started on the smoothie habit, check out Simple Green Smoothies for their “Beginner’s Luck” recipe.
H is for Hemp:
Hemp — a complete protein, filled with omega-3s, and alkalizing to boot. Given its perfect proportions and rich nutrient profile, hemp has even been called the most nutritious and easily digestible food on the planet. According to Brendan Brazier in Thrive, it’s the only source of the amino acid edestin, which is “considered an integral part of our DNA,” and therefore “makes hemp the closest plant source to our own human amino acid profile.” Easy ways to add hemp to your diet include hemp milk, which makes a very creamy and delicious smoothie base, and hemp seeds, which can be sprinkled on top of salads, stir fries … anything where you want to add a nice little crunch.
I is for Irish Moss:
Irish moss is a 100% natural way to thicken puddings, gels, pie filling, mousses, sauces, drinks, etc, with a host of health benefits attached. A sea vegetable that grows on both coasts of the Northern Atlantic ocean, Irish moss is a plant-based source of thyroid hormones; is full of potassium, iodine, and selenium; is made up of 10% protein; and has a long history of medicinal use for respiratory and digestive ailments because of its soothing propertieson the mucous membranes. Most likely you will have to order it online, and then follow these instructions from Meghan Telpner to create the gel you will need. Use it to create fancy concoctions like this drool inducing Cinnamon Marshmallow Mousse from Sweetly Raw.
J is for Jackfruit:
Jackfruit is the weirdest fruit ever (IMHO): it has a MEATY texture so you can sub this 100% natural FRUIT for pulled pork or chicken. I know, I know, I didn’t believe it until I saw it for myself. You must try it. There’s and easy pulled jackfruit taco recipe here to get you started — perfect for a summer BBQ!
K is for Kale:
Kale is a nutritional powerhouse, and low fat and low calorie to boot. As already mentioned, nothing has more nutrient density per calorie than your dark leafy greens, and kale may just win for the top of all the leafy greens, being an exceptional source of Vitamin A, C, K, calcium, iron, and protein. The important thing to know about kale is that it is actually more accessible to your body when the fiber is slightly broken down, so you will want to lightly steam or sauté it, or prepare a massaged kale salad. (This is the key to making it less bitter and much more enjoyable as well!)
L is for Lucuma:
Lucuma is a fruit grown natively in Peru — lucuma ice cream is as common there as vanilla is here. Lucuma is a natural sweetener, with a distinctive, maple-like taste. Therefore, when you see a recipe call for lucuma, it is to add sweetness to the recipe naturally. You can occasionally find Lucuma in health food stores, but your best bet is probably to order it online, like many of the more obscure ingredients.
M is for Miso:
Most people have heard of miso soup, but miso appears in many other recipes to add that little something extra. It is a traditional Japanese fermented seasoning that comes in a thick paste, and lends a salty-sweet-indescribable flavor element to any dish. It lasts for ages in the fridge, so it’s always worth having some on hand. Try mixing some in to your favorite stir-fry, dressing, or marinade and see what happens!
N is for Nutritional Yeast:
THE staple in any vegan pantry, “nooch” adds a richness, a saltiness, and most importantly, a *creaminess* to anything and everything. You’ll find that most recipes replicating cheese-based mixtures and sauces will call for nutritional yeast in varying quantities.
Plus, it’s super good for you! Because it’s often fortified, nooch can provide your daily requirement of Vitamin B12, the one supplement all vegans (and probably everyone really) need to take. Not all nutritional yeast is created equal however, so make sure you get a variety that includes B12. Nutritional yeast also contains 8 grams of protein in just 1 1/2 Tablespoons, so it’s another easy way to sneak a little extra protein in. 🙂
O is for Okra:
…because okra’s actually really good! It gets a bad rap for being slimy, but really, that’s totally avoidable if you prepare it well. I first learned to like okra deep-fried at Indian restaurants, but it’s seriously easy to make deliciously and much more healthily at home (Susan at FatFreeVegan explains the super easy steps here). Okra is high in fiber, Vitamin C, folate, anti-oxidants, calcium, potassium … it even has a few grams of protein per serving. It’s often used in gumbo and is a favorite vegetable of the South, but I think the rest of the country is missing out!
P is for Parmela:
The holy grail for vegan substitutions: cheese. What do we do instead of cheese? Parmela is an exquisite parmesan cheese substitute, with that perfect aged, nutty flavor — really, way better than the “real” Kraft version. I picked this one up on a whim, and man, am I glad. Use it on everything that you might want to use parmesan on: spaghetti, stuffed zucchini, garlic bread … the sky’s the limit!
Q is for Quinoa:
Quinoa is such a useful element of any chef’s pantry. The texture takes some getting used to, but it’s well worth it. Quinoa is a seed that can act as a grain in recipes; known as a “pseudocereal.” It originated in the Andes, where it has been a staple of the diet for thousands of years. It’s a complete vegan protein, containing all of the essential amino acids. Quinoa will expand your horizons: do a quick Google search and you’ll be overwhelmed with recipes, but experiment on your own too! Some cooked quinoa plus some veggies, plus a nice dressing — magic!
R is for Red Chili Peppers:
I’m not a spicy foods person, but I can’t argue with the ancient Aztecs: they believed that their spicy hot chocolate had healing properties, and it turns out modern science backs them up. Chocolate and chili peppers have both been shown to have definite preventative benefits for the cardiovascular system, so the combination is perfect. The other benefits of chili peppers are numerous, but they include anti-inflammatory properties, and pack more Vitamin C than oranges. Give it a shot yourself with this Aztec Hot Chocolate recipe from Chocolate by the Week.
S is for Seitan:
Seitan is one of the basic meat substitutes you will come across. It is also known as “wheat meat”, as it is a vegan meat made from gluten (so this one isn’t for the gluten-free crowd). Seitan has 20 grams of protein in only about 1/3 cup, and unlike tofu or tempeh (the other 2 basic vegan protein substitutes), seitan has a great meaty texture. It also soaks up marinades and is hands down the best substitute I’ve found for chicken in my dad’s chicken and cashews recipe, or for a good Philly cheesesteak! For the latter, use the Italian style of my favorite brand, Upton’s Naturals.
You can even make your own seitan with a little bit of kneading and experimenting to find the right dough texture. The great thing about making your own is you can flavor it however you like, and create many different options. I’m currently drooling over this Cinnamon-Ginger Seitan from JL Goes Vegan.
T is for Tempeh:
Out of what I think of as the three basic vegan meats (tofu, tempeh, and seitan), there’s no question tempeh is my favorite of the three. It’s also a wonderful source of protein, providing 20 grams of protein in just 4 ounces (1/2 of the typical block size in stores). Tempeh is a traditional fermented soy product from Indonesia, where the culturing and fermentation process binds the soy beans together into a solid block. It produces an easy meat substitute that has a slightly nutty flavor, but easily takes on any other flavors and textures, depending on preparation. The possibilities are endless.
I love tempeh in pretty much any form, and seem to never eat it the same way twice. One easy thing to do is crumble the block up, saute it, and mix into a spaghetti sauce to create spaghetti bolognese. The first thing I made with it was these meatballs from Vegan Dad — only 2 weeks into being vegan, I still knew exactly what meat tasted like … and I swear I couldn’t tell the difference!
U is for Umami:
Umami is the fifth of the five basic tastes, along with sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. The word “umami” itself is derived from the Japanese word for “deliciousness.” Making sure you include this fifth flavor on your plate helps you feel your diet is complete and satiates that feeling of “something’s missing,” which can help in transitioning to a vegan diet. The taste of umami comes from the amino acid L-glutomate.
What the umami taste is is a bit more difficult to describe, but it is somewhat salty, somewhat meaty … just that something special that you can’t really put your finger on in a great dish. It also works in synergy with the other four basic tastes — it’s why parmesan cheese goes so well on pasta with marinara. While umami is very often found in meats and cheeses, it’s also in many vegetables as well as aged and fermented foods. If you make sure to incorporate foods like as mushrooms, ripe tomatoes, Chinese cabbage, spinach, celery, sauerkraut, nori, tamari, miso, kimchi, balsamic vinegar, nutritional yeast, green tea, and wine, umami will help counter any potential cravings for animal products. Also, VegNews swears their mac and cheese is the best on the planet, and cheezy flavors are a great source of umami.
Umami is a bit hard to wrap your head around, so if you’d like to dig deeper check out the vegan r.d..
V is for Vinegar:
Specifically, apple cider vinegar (ACV). The purported benefits of ACV are many. For example, ACV may help with diabetes by regulating blood sugar and improving insulin sensitivity. ACV can potentially contribute to weight loss, and it may reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering cholesterol and blood pressure. But there are downsides to drinking it straight, so you’ll want to mix just a tablespoon into a glass of water and drink it throughout the day.
Also, ACV can be used for an extraordinary number of other tasks — household cleaner, fertilizing your garden, getting rid of dandruff, soothing heartburn — but my favorite is key for vegans: ACV adds a little lift to your baked goods, and a teaspoon of baking soda and a teaspoon of ACV added to any recipe. Leavening magic! This helps a lot with removing eggs from non-vegan recipes. Pro tip: Don’t mix the vinegar in until the very last thing before putting your batter into the oven— you don’t want the baking soda + vinegar reaction to occur early.
W is for Whole Grains:
X is for Xanthan Gum:
Xanthan gum is a natural-forming fermented-sugar product that can fill a number of different roles when rehydrated in bread, pastries, and even ice cream! It is also important for gluten-free baking. It is an emulsifier, a thickener, and provides volume by helping starches combine to trap air, mimicking the function of gluten in traditional baked goods. For breads and pizza doughs, you want to use 1 teaspoon for each cup of gluten free flour used, and for most other baked goods (cakes, muffins, cookies, etc), 1/2 teaspoon for each cup of flour. Add it last to any recipe, and don’t mix more than five or six times after that, or your results may end up thick and gummy.
Y is for Yogurt:
You don’t have to give up yogurt! Most of the plant-based milks (soy, almond, rice, coconut, etc) are now made into plant-based yogurts, and are relatively easy to find. My personal favorites are the So Delicious coconut milk based varieties — super creamy, and they even make them in Greek yogurt style. Top with a nice granola and you have a rich, filling, portable breakfast or afternoon snack.
Yogurt is also an important ingredient in baking and even savory dishes. In recipes you can almost always sub your choice of plant-based yogurt for the dairy version, like in Heidi Swanson’s Almost Cheeseless Pasta Casserole from 101 Cookbooks, one of my favorite sites. Sub in a plant-based yogurt (I used plain soy yogurt), leave out the eggs and leave off the feta — it’s now vegan and absolutely delicious.
Z is for Zucchini:
Zucchini is such a versatile vegetable, used easily in main dishes, desserts, and even replacing pasta sometimes! Plus it’s delicious just baked or sauteed on its own … not many things beat thoroughly melty, sweet, fresh-cooked zucchini. It’s also extremely low in calories: 1 medium zucchini has only 31. But for those 31 calories you also get 2 grams of protein, 2 grams of fiber, and 56% of your daily RDA for Vitamin C! B6, potassium, manganese, and folate are just some of the nutrients found in abundance in zucchini, followed by smaller amounts of almost everything the body needs. I love wrapping up this post with zucchini, because it so clearly demonstrates the possibilities of a plant-based diet. Look how much you get in one little vegetable, for so little calories. Multiply that out and you will get everything you need without ever leaving the plant kingdom.
So … How Weird Are You?
Which of these do you already use? Which are you excited to try? And what weird tips should we add to the list? Let us know in the comments; I’m always looking to embrace my weird just a little bit more!