Veganuary 2021: My Plant-Based Journey
The Side Dish and I have started dabbling with a new Instagram project called @CinLinDoes where we dabble in adventure and lifestyle. We tried out a month of sobriety last November, and decided we should dive into 2021 by participating in Veganuary (a month of exploratory veganism). We were polluted with cheese, wine, eggnog, chocolate, and holiday turkey, and welcomed a few dietary restrictions.
In preparation, I totally immersed myself in Vegan Facebook, Vegan Reddit, Vegan YouTube and watched all the documentaries: Cowspiracy, What The Health, Dominion, Forks Over Knives, Fat Sick and Nearly Dead, Supersize Me II: Holy Chicken!, Gamechangers, Vegucated, Speciesism. I researched recipes, nutrition, ethics, environment. I was all-in!
The Side Dish, who I often refer to as “my carnivorous wife”, was less gung-ho, but she embarked on this journey with willingness and an open mind.
I’ve experimented with various diets in the past, mostly to satisfy my own curiosity. I bought a juicer back in 2008 and managed to keep up a juice fast for 3 days before surrendering to the joys of solid food. I tried raw food vegan (for a week), which I can only describe as a week of “starvation euphoria”. I’ve also gone keto for 30 days, feasting on bacon and eggs, and taking pebbly poops between sluggish workouts with noticeably brittle finger nails.
Since my early 20s I’ve had a predominantly pescatarian kitchen (a lot of tofu, chickpeas, yogurt and seafood). But the more disposable income I had, the more I started eating out, and the more I went to restaurants, the more meat ended up on my plate.
Then the UN climate change report came out in 2019, recommending a shift to a plant-based diet. The Side Dish has always been a bit of an environmentalist, and I was ready-to-go with my tofu skillz and textured vegetable prowess. We were keen to be better stewards of the earth.
But could we go vegan?
The hardest thing about Veganuary was remembering to be in “vegan mode” – always on the search for hidden ingredients: whey, milk powder, gelatin, egg, L. Cysteine, honey… they hide in everything! Gone was the luxury of absent-minded eating. That veggie burger at our local pub? Not vegan. The French fries? Battered with egg. Salt and vinegar potato chips? Contains milk ingredients. Why?!
Skinnypop White Cheddar Popcorn: VEGAN!
Despite her agony over our limited junk food choices (the girl needs her buttered popcorn, alright?), The Side Dish loved the food. Within the first week she declared herself a vegetarian!
Our go-to meals were stir-fries, Buddha bowls, curries, salads, and tacos. Even before Veganuary, we preferred our tacos filled with crispy tofu, walnut mushroom meat, and tvp/Beyond products.
Ground beef is so passé.
Our Top 5 Veganuary Meals at Home:
1. Mushroom Paprikash
Ever since I discovered Hungarian food, chicken paprikash has been one of my favourite things to make.
Mushroom paprikash is totally a thing, but to make it vegan you need to omit the sour cream. Creamy sauces are one of the more intimidating culinary hurdles when it comes to the vegan kitchen. You’ll inevitably have to familiarize yourself with coconut milk, soft tofu, or, in this case, cashew cream. Many vegan recipes start with soaking cashews overnight, and pulverizing them with a bit of water in a high speed blender. We had just bought a Ninja, so this was no problemo!
I found this recipe on Connoisseurus Veg. I added a bit of spinach, and served it on crispy fried potatoes.
2. Liv B’s Pub-Style Black Bean Burgers
Liv B is a Halifax-based vegan author, blogger, and YouTuber. I figured I ought to try one of her recipes for Veganuary, and her pub-style black bean burgers were just what I was looking for – simple, economical, and tasty.
3. BBQ Pulled King Oyster Mushroom Sandwiches
When people talk about vegan food being more expensive, they aren’t thinking about lentils and cabbage. They are thinking about processed foods and artisanal specialties. But also: mushrooms!
We excitedly bought some king oyster mushrooms, perhaps because Veganuary gave us license to splurge on pricey produce. I’m always ogling the fancy mushrooms at the store, but they can be intimidating.
I wasn’t sure how to best put these to use, but a quick Google pulled up a recipe for BBQ pulled mushrooms. I loved the idea, and they did indeed pull apart nicely.
The Side Dish declared that my cooking was “restaurant quality” upon eating these. I used this recipe.
4. Tofu Scramble
I have made tofu scrambles before, but never with the intention to mimic scrambled eggs. To be honest, I’m not a huge egg lover so this is not something I would long for on a vegan diet. But I was curious.
I had read about Himalayan black salt (or, kala namak) which, due to its sulphur content, is often used in vegan recipes to impart an “eggy” flavour.
Most recipes say to use extra firm tofu, but I used medium firm because I thought it would better emulate the texture of eggs (I was right). I basically just doused it with turmeric (for colour), nutritional yeast, black salt, black pepper, and green onions. It surprisingly tasted like scrambled eggs, only dare I say, better?
5. Seitan Char Siu
The Side Dish and I decided to team up to make the always intimidating seitan (a.k.a. wheat meat). I made this once before (a decade ago) so I knew I wanted The Side Dish doing all the work, measuring and kneading and pushing and pulling. She’s the baker in our house, and this is kind of like baking, so…
Good times! And we surprisingly enjoyed this, especially after crisping it up in the cast iron pan with a little extra glaze.
For the first two weeks of Veganuary, our bodies were transitioning to the fiber. We expected The Side Dish’s sissy stomach to protest (and it did), but I was surprised by my own gastro-intestinal struggles. Some days I felt bloated and gassy, other days I felt nauseated, and my stomach contents always felt sorta disorganized. By the 2 week mark I had completely adjusted to the diet, and it was business as usual.
However, The Side Dish still hadn’t adjusted after 3 weeks, and her arthritis was only getting worse. She was having strong cravings for oily fish, so after three weeks she jumped ship straight into a can of sardines.
I was jealous.
Towards the end of my third week I started having more junk food cravings. I started drinking more beer, and eating more take-out (veggie burritos and falafels saved me from lapsing into carnivorism). There may have been a beer and nacho situation… (I’m sorry, Vegans… my ego had fatigued). But I kept it up as best I could. I stopped checking labels (I conveniently ignored the horse hooves in my gummy candies) and I stopped quizzing my servers (I am pretty sure that agedashi tofu had bonito flakes).
I wasn’t exactly craving meat. I just felt exhausted by it all.
I’m so happy that Halifax has so many vegan-specialty and vegan-friendly restaurants. I couldn’t come close to exhausting them over the course of the month. But here are my Top 3 Veganuary restaurant dishes:
1. Chickpea Caesar Wrap – Springhouse
Of all my Veganuary meals, this is the one I think about the most. That Caesar salad dressing was on point, the greens were fresh and hearty, the chickpeas soft and silky, and there wasn’t an obnoxious coconut flavour (that I often find with vegan Caesars).
I could eat this every day, vegan or not.
2290 Gottingen St, Halifax
2. Baladi Tray – Kam-Moon
I have always loved how many vegetarian and vegan options are naturally found in Mediterranean cuisine. One of my new favourite restaurants is Kam-Moon, which specializes in Egyptian fare, and especially house-baked pita.
The Baladi Tray comes with ful medames (warm fava bean dip), aish baladi (Egyptian flatbread, made with whole wheat flour), 4 falafels, pickled carrots, and tea with mint. This is a fantastic meal for two: $21.99.
2013 Brunswick St, Halifax
2. Vegan Supreme Pizza – G-Street Pizza
I did a special vegan edition of my Pizza Quest back in May 2019, when I was doing a Vegan Month on Eat This Town. (I actually ate a vegetarian diet that month, but posted vegan content). I enlisted a few volunteers from the Halifax Vegan and Vegetarian Facebook Group, and we critiqued a few of the vegan pizzas in Halifax.
I have to admit: I hated it. I found the vegan cheeses very off-putting, and my favourite pizza of the day (On The Wedge) was the pizza that just omitted the cheese entirely.
G-Street started offering vegan pizza shortly after the pizza quest, so I hadn’t had a chance to try it. The Side Dish and I just happened to see the G-Street delivery car when we were out for a walk and spontaneously decided that it was pizza night!
The pizza looked good, and we hesitantly took out first bites, quietly and thoughtfully. Then we looked at each other and said, surprised: “This is actually good.”
I gotta give props where props are due.
I thought I would end up eating more processed seitan and soy products, but I surprisingly had no trouble sticking to mostly whole foods. Originally I wanted to try every vegan cheese on the market, but it turns out there are so many options that I wouldn’t have the time or money to try them all.
I did get to try a few products, though, and here are my favourites:
1. Earthli Plant Powered Superfoods
Earthli is a Halifax-based company specializing in Maritime grown hemp products. Hemp seeds are a nutritional powerhouse, high in protein, and easy to sneak into your meals. I love the chocolate protein powder for my post-gym shakes, and I have gotten in the habit of sprinkling hemp seeds on my salads, grain bowls, soups, pastas, etc. I also splice these products into my overnight oats, baking, and veggie burgers.
2. Outcast Upcycled Nutrition
The average sedentary person only needs about 50g of protein per day, which is pretty easy to achieve (even with plants). However, The Side Dish and I are gym-goers. We supplemented with protein shakes while omnivore, so obviously this is something we wanted to continue doing while vegan. Outcast Foods are a Halifax-based company that make protein powders from upcycled food waste. Surplus produce that would otherwise end up in a compost heap, is converted into useful nutrition.
I love this concept!
I have had plant-based protein powders that have tasted like trash, but Outcast actually tastes good.
3. Fresh Start Fauxmage
Fresh Start Fauxmage is a P.E.I.-based company making cheese-like spreads from nuts. Compared to some other brands of vegan cheese, the ingredients are very natural. The Baked Feta style is just filtered water, almond meal, olive oil, garlic, sea salt, citric acid, and natural flavour.
At first I was kind of put off by it, because I was hoping for something just like feta cheese to put in Greek salads. What I found instead was that this is a fantastic spread for crackers or bread. It worked fabulously as an alternative to cream cheese.
I will likely buy this again.
4. Sheese Greek-style
This product ended up being my feta cheese replacement. The Side Dish and I eat a lot of Greek salads, and this cheese mimicked feta so well you really wouldn’t be able to tell. It is an award winning vegan cheese from Scotland, and I recommend it.
However, the ingredient list is a little bit longer: Water, Coconut Oil (23%), Modified Potato Starch, Maize Starch, Salt, Natural Flavourings, Oat Fibre (Gluten Free), Tricalcium Citrate, Thickeners (Carrageenan, Guar Gum), Modified Maize Starch, Acidity Regulators (Lactic Acid, Sodium Lactate), Colour (Carotenes).
I would buy this again if I was still following a vegan diet.
5. Nuts for Cheese
Nuts for Cheese is a company from London, Ontario making high quality, nut-based vegan cheeses. I quite liked the blue cheese, which was silky soft and had that funky flavour (not as pungent or crumbly as I like, but I can’t complain). I was able to make a nice blue cheese dressing with it for a cobb salad, and I also enjoyed it sliced on toast.
The ingredients are natural and you can see how they achieve that funk: cashews, quinoa rejuvelac (fermented quinoa juice), water, coconut oil, nutritional yeast, sea salt, chickpea miso, fermented oregano extract, spirulina.
I would buy this again if the price was right.
What I Liked: It felt good to eat vegan. I felt lighter, and more nourished. I had more energy and stamina at the gym (thank you, carbs!). I enjoyed the diversity of the plant kingdom, in contrast to the usual limitations of beef, chicken, pork, and fish. I did not miss meat. I enjoyed the flavours, textures, colours, creativity and ingenuity.
What I Didn’t Like: I did not like worrying about hidden ingredients. I did not like interrogating my server, or feeling like an ungracious guest when offered food. People with allergies HAVE to live this way, and I’m sure a lot of them would love to not have to worry about it all the time. To actually choose this mindset is something I can’t understand. It’s one thing to actively not participate in the demand for animal-based options, but it’s a whole other thing to live within the rigid limitations of ethical veganism.
Veganuary has inspired me to cut down on my animal products (no hard rules for me, though). It made me realize how much I over-relied on dairy and eggs, and how easy it is to use alternatives. Going forward, I think I will adopt a largely plant-based Mediterranean diet.
… with the occasional donair, of course.
See: Vegan Month 2019