Vegan part of the time

Mark Bittman / New York Times News Service /


It’s not worth trying to persuade anyone to become vegan, for a couple of very good reasons: One, it’s a losing battle, and two, it’s far from certain that a diet with no animal products is best for everyone.

It’s increasingly evident, however, that a part-time vegan diet — one that emphasizes minimally processed plant food at the expense of everything else — is the direction that will most benefit human health, increase animal welfare and reduce environmental impact. The remaining challenge, an undeniably big one, is to figure out how to make such a diet, which you might also call “flexitarian,” the standard.

My own diet, which I call Vegan Before 6 (and wrote a book about), is one way of tackling part-time veganism, but it isn’t the only way. An intelligent adaptation of the Mediterranean diet, one of the popular “fast today, feast tomorrow” diets or even a so-called paleo diet — one that stresses vegetables rather than animal products (our great ancestors, after all, were gatherer-hunters who saw meat not as routine but as an occasion to feast) — can put you on the right track.

As can this: a day of your choosing when you just go vegan.

There are true vegans who will say that part-time veganism is a little-bit-pregnant kind of thing; that is, impossible. But since the word means a diet without animal products, it can be used to describe something as part-time as a meal: After all, a salad often is a vegan meal. (I am aware, having had this argument dozens of times in the last few years, that many full-time vegans’ primary concern is animal welfare, and that’s a different discussion.)

Being a vegan is not my point, and anyway, it’s as easy to create an unhealthy full-time vegan diet as it is to eat brilliantly as a part-time vegan. It just takes a little thought and a little will, though perhaps less will than you may think at first. Many cooked dishes that contain animal products can be and traditionally have been made without them, usually out of want. The problem for most people in developed countries is not a lack of opportunity to eat animal products but a superabundance.

It isn’t as if vegetables are in short supply. Yes, local or organic produce is expensive (and so inconveniently seasonal!). But if you are going to eat it, now is your chance. It isn’t a coincidence that this column is appearing in September; to me, the period between Labor Day and Thanksgiving is the best time of year to cook — warm enough to grill and cool enough to braise, with the farmers’ market still an absolute paradigm of abundance. Take advantage: In a few months, there may be little more than root vegetables, apple cider and hand-dyed yarn.

When fruits and vegetables are at their best, they give you insight into how the vegan thing can work for you, if only for a day. And given a moderate degree of freshness, most conventional vegetables from ordinary supermarkets can be made to taste good when gardens go dormant.

Plant-based meals contain more than vegetables, of course. Stock the pantry with good grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, oils, vinegars and other classic condiments, and you’re set to make an infinite number of dishes that don’t ruffle a single animal’s feathers, hide or fin.

Here then are some recipes for what you might call a Vegan Day. I don’t pretend that you’re likely to eat all five in the same day, or even that they have much relationship to one another, but they’re each a representation of the kind of thing you might be eating at a given moment.

Some are simple, traditional peasant food: hoecakes made from little but corn and water may seem ascetic until you recognize that this is polenta in a fast, crunchy form, filled with flavor and perfect to bury under a pile of fruit. (You can jazz them up if you like: a little sugar, a little baking powder, a little nondairy milk, maybe some maple syrup, and they start to resemble something far richer and more common. I happen to like the ultraminimalist version.)

Some are elaborate, and designed to satisfy an open-minded if devoted meat-eater at the biggest meal of the day. This ratatouille with chickpeas and fennel is among the best I’ve ever made, and bow ties with bulgur and what amounts to a salad is as good at room temperature as any pasta I know. The others are creatively simple: Carrot candy is as much fun to eat as it is to look at; broiled melon is a lovely and unusual dessert.

Breakfast: Hoecakes with Fruit

Makes 4 servings.

11⁄2 C cornmeal (fine or medium grind)

1 tsp salt

11⁄2 C boiling water, more as needed

3 TBS olive oil

1 C chopped fresh or frozen fruit (berries, apples, pears, bananas, mango or pineapple)

Heat oven to 200 degrees. Combine cornmeal and salt in a medium bowl. Gradually pour in boiling water, whisking constantly. Let mixture sit until cornmeal absorbs water, 5 to 10 minutes. Stir in half the oil and a little more boiling water, a little at a time, until batter is pourable. Fold in fruit.

Put a large skillet or griddle, preferably cast-iron or nonstick, over medium heat. When a few drops of water dance on the surface, add a thin film of remaining oil. Working in batches, spoon in batter, making any size cakes you like; they will be thinner than pancakes. Cook until bubbles appear and burst on the tops, and the undersides are golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes; turn and cook on other side until golden, another 2 or 3 minutes. Transfer to warm oven and continue with next batch, adding more oil to skillet if necessary. Serve warm with syrup, jam or compote.

Lunch: Bow Ties with Arugula, Olives, Bulgur and Tomato Wedges

Makes 4 servings.

Salt

2 TBS olive oil

1 sm red onion, chopped

1 TBS minced garlic

1 C mixed olives, pitted and roughly chopped

Juice of 1 lemon

4 ripe tomatoes, cored and cut into thick wedges

Black pepper

1⁄4 C bulgur

8 oz whole wheat bow-tie or other cut pasta

3 C torn arugula leaves

1⁄2 C chopped almonds

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Put oil in a large, deep skillet over medium heat. When hot, add onion and garlic and cook, stirring until softens, about 5 minutes. Stir in olives, then add lemon juice and tomatoes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and cook until tomatoes are just heated through. Turn off heat.

When water comes to a boil, add bulgur. Let water return to a boil, then add pasta. Cook bow ties until tender but not mushy. (Start tasting after 5 minutes.) Reserve some cooking water, then drain in a strainer to trap grains with pasta.

Toss pasta and bulgur with tomato mixture, adding some cooking water if needed. Stir in arugula and almonds, taste and adjust seasoning. Let rest for up to 15 minutes. Stir again and serve.

Snack: Carrot Candy

Makes 4 servings.

8 med carrots (about 1 lb)

1 TBS olive oil

1⁄2 tsp salt

1⁄2 tsp cumin, optional

Heat the oven to 225 degrees. Peel carrots and cut into 1⁄8-inch coins. Toss with olive oil, salt and cumin, if you’re using it, then spread on a baking sheet in a single layer. Cook until slightly shriveled, dehydrated and sweet but still soft and chewy. You may have to move them or the pan around to ensure they don’t burn or get too crisp.

Start testing carrots after about 2 hours and remove from oven when they’re as chewy or crisp as you like, another 30 to 60 minutes. Cool thoroughly before storing in an airtight container.

Dinner: Chickpea and Fennel Ratatouille

Makes 4 servings.

1 lb eggplant (smaller is better), peeled if you like, and cut into large chunks

3⁄4 lb zucchini, cut into large chunks

1 lb Roma (plum) tomatoes, cored and chopped, or a 28-oz can, drained

1 onion, sliced

2 red or yellow bell peppers, cored, seeded and sliced

1 fennel bulb (about 1 lb), trimmed and cut into large chunks

5 garlic cloves, halved

1 tsp salt, more to taste

Black pepper to taste

1⁄4 C olive oil

3 C cooked or canned chickpeas, drained

1 TBS chopped fresh thyme or rosemary, or 1⁄2 C chopped fresh basil or parsley

Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Combine all ingredients except oil, chickpeas and herbs in a large roasting pan. Drizzle with oil and toss to combine.

Transfer to oven and roast, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are lightly browned and tender and some water has been released from the tomatoes to create a sauce, 30 to 40 minutes.

Add chickpeas, stir and return to oven until beans heat through, 5 to 10 minutes. Add herbs and stir. Taste and adjust seasoning and serve hot, warm or at room temperature.

Dessert: Broiled Melon with Balsamic

Makes 4 servings.

1 cantaloupe or honeydew melon, cut into 1-inch-thick slices, rinds and seeds removed

4 tsp vegetable oil

1⁄2 tsp salt

1⁄2 C chopped pine nuts

Black pepper

2 TBS balsamic vinegar

Turn on broiler; heat should be medium-high and rack no closer than 4 inches from heat source.

Brush melon all over with oil and put on a rimmed baking sheet. Broil until beginning to color, 3 to 8 minutes depending on your broiler.

Turn melon carefully (or skip it if the melon seems too tender to turn), sprinkle with salt. Broil until melon is fully tender, another 2 or 3 minutes; sprinkle with nuts and pass under broiler again until pieces just begin to toast, no more than 1 minute. Sprinkle with lots of black pepper and drizzle with balsamic. Serve warm or at room temperature.