Start Something Delicious

This blog post is sponsored by iHerb but as always, the opinions and experiences expressed in this post are my own.

The hardest part of any new endeavor, big or small, is just knowing where to start. That much is true for figuring out the opening sentence of a new blog post, building a cabinet from Ikea, or embarking on a different dietary path. Many people find the concept of veganism daunting simply because they don’t know where to begin. Seen as one complex tangle of ethics and guidelines, it’s nearly impossible to pick out one thread from that ball of yarn, let alone unsnarl it from that knotted mess. Setting yourself up for success means starting small. Personally, that brings me to the pantry, where all good meals take shape.

Having a solid supply of essential ingredients makes everything else possible, and I’m not just talking about the meals that are directly impacted by such delicious influence. Being properly fueled is the key to thriving, not just surviving, to power smarter decisions, more positive perspectives, and greater adventures at large. Food is where everything really begins, so my Ultimate Vegan Starter Kit focuses in on the staples that make up the foundation of my plant-based arsenal.

Starting strong also means knowing where to shop, which is why I always turn to iHerb. It’s one-stop shopping for all things vegan, compiled for easy reference in their new Vegan Specialty Store. Unlike other online grocers, iHerb takes the time to label and categorize all of their goods by dietary needs, so you can search specifically for items that are plant-based, gluten-free, soy-free, separately or all together if needed! Considering the fact that there are over 6,800 vegan products to chose from, that eliminates the typical search frustration of scrolling through blurry pictures of print labels, and gets right to the good stuff. Orders are shipped to over 150 countries straight from climate-controlled distribution centers, ensuring the quality of their products. You’ll never receive expired goods, in sharp contrast to the gamble you sometimes take when purchasing from massive, multichannel online retailers. If there are ever any concerns, you can email or chat online with a real person 24 hours a day 7 days a week, speaking 10 different languages, no less! From this one-stop shopping experience, I have a few essential recommendations for building your plant-based pantry with ease, and always in good taste.

Stocking a kitchen can sound like a daunting task, but it really isn’t too difficult to gather the essential ingredients that will serve you well through countless meals.

First, I always make sure to have legumes and pulses on hand. That means plenty of canned chickpeas and black beans for ease and convenience, and quick-cooking Arrowhead Mills red lentils. Everything from soul-satisfying soups to rich gravies are no more than 15 minutes away since lentils need no soaking to become meltingly tender. Tofu is like the Swiss army knife of vegan cuisine, effortlessly absorbing any sauce it’s dressed with to make an entirely new dish every time. For my money, Mori-Nu is one of the best candidates to keep around, since it’s completely shelf-stable until opened, and blends the most smoothly for completely silken desserts or smoothies.

Nuts and seeds of all varieties are welcome, although particular emphasis is placed on buttery yet neutral raw cashews, such as those from Bergin Fruit and Nut Company since they can be used to make everything from cheese to mousse. Smooth almond butter is another indispensable staple, and my favorite is Barney Butter since it has no added sugar or salt, making it perfect for any application sweet or savory. Although coconuts are technically fruits, I place them in the same category for the sake of cupboard organization. You could go crazy with all the different types of dried coconut options out there, but my go-to is the Edward & Sons, Let’s Do Organic, 100% Organic Unsweetened Coconut Flakes for their thick cut strips and fresh flavor.

When it comes to seasonings, my spice rack is about a mile long, but there are definitely some bottles that see a lot more use than others. Onion powder, such as that produced by Frontier was a bit of a sleeper hit at the beginning, since I hadn’t anticipated the uniquely savory essence it could contribute even in dishes that aren’t overtly onion-y. Plus, it’s fantastic in recipes that aren’t cooked, since it doesn’t have the sharp, harsh bite of a raw fresh onion. Salt is found in at least a dozen different formats across my stockpile, from coarse to fine, plain to seasoned, and each one has its own special purpose. Gustus Vitae smoked salt is the one I break out for extra fancy foods, since it delivers such a bold, earthy punch, no matter what. It’s a good substitute for liquid smoke as well, in case that’s a trickier item to hunt down. Staying on the salty side, tamari and soy sauce are both the traditional top dogs for instant umami gratification, but there should also be space on the shelf for Bragg’s Liquid Aminos. The differences are faint, but important. It has a lighter flavor that isn’t as overbearing on more delicate dishes, in my humble opinion. The spray bottle format is also quite convenient for spritzing on freshly popped popcorn or a steaming hot baked potato. In a related vein, white miso paste makes all sorts of savories sing, with far more nuance than plain old sodium. Eden Soy makes a variety of organic miso options, but you can also find chickpea miso in case soy is a concern.

Vegan catnip, AKA nutritional yeast, is perhaps the single most important yet misunderstood ingredient when transitioning away from dairy. In small doses, it contributes a subtly buttery taste, and can develop into a full cheesy extravaganza when added with gusto. It can be bought in bulk, but quality varies greatly. To those who think they don’t like it, I would implore you to examine the source before turning up your nose. I’ve used KAL since my earliest days of veganism almost two decades ago, and wouldn’t consider anything else at this point. It has substantial flakes and while some brands can smell like funky gym socks, this one is pure umami bliss.

A house is not a home without pasta, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be plain old white wheat noodles. I love instantly injecting a quick meal with some extra nutrition by using legume-based pasta, such as Seapoint Farms edamame fettuccine. It, along with chickpea, lentil, or black bean noodles have the added benefit of being gluten-free, but I love them for the extra dose of protein they contribute, to say nothing of the distinctive textures and tastes. All you really need to do is toss the colorful strands with some melted buttery coconut oil for some simple, satisfying comfort food.

So, how do all these seemingly discordant components come together to make a delicious meatless meal? I’m glad you asked! There are certain homemade staples I always have on hand as well, essential components that help make a feel more complete, ready and waiting to dispense at will.

Everything is better with bacon, right? As long as it’s meatless bacon, I would have to agree! That impossibly savory, smoky flavor is shockingly easy to replicate on a wide range of plant-based platforms, utilizing everything from eggplant to mushrooms and even banana peels. Reaching into my pantry for the most accessible option, crispy coconut chips form the foundation of my favorite cured pork facsimile.

Invariably, when confronted with the choice of going vegan or staying stuck, the most common refrain from anyone considering the plunge is that they would miss cheese too much. Granted, this was a real concern a decade ago, when I ate my fair share of naked pizzas and waxy grilled cheese sandwiches, there are superlative alternatives now on the market for every type of funky, gooey, or sharp craving any dairy addict may crave. In a pinch, you can even whip up an incredibly authentic Parmesan doppelganger from little more than ground nuts in a pinch of salt! This is one of those recipes that sounds way too good to be true, until you try it.

Egg replacers have long gotten the lion’s share of attention for their essential role in baking, but only recently has the spotlight turned to their place on the table as a stand-alone protein. My goal for this substitute isn’t to make airy sponge cakes or dense, custard-based ice creams, but scramble up a better breakfast entrée. Now you can make your own liquid egg mix, made to JUST pour and go, if you catch my drift…

The grand finale for all this delicious meal prep culminates in the easiest, creamiest, richest vegan carbonara you’ve ever twirled around a fork. Stunningly high in protein and fiber, devoid of even a single drop of dairy, beyond the pull of pork, and without ever breaking an egg, this is the ultimate vegan dinner, made from the ultimate vegan starter kit. After one bite of such a comforting, instantly gratifying dinner, you’ll wonder what was ever stopping you from making the plunge.

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Great Shakes

Dessert emergencies are real. Even worse than a bad case of being hangry, they’re often very specific, exceedingly urgent cravings that cannot be assuaged by just any sort of sustenance. 9 times out of 10, I find myself desperately yearning for a milkshake. In those situations when merely “quick” fixes simply aren’t fast enough, allow me to introduce a genuinely instant answer.

No ice cream, no non-dairy milk, no waiting. Homemade milkshake mix has luscious coconut milk powder blended right in for rich, creamy satisfaction as soon as it hits water. Just add ice for a refreshingly frosty sensation. Flavors can be as wild or mild as your thirst dictates. My four favorites skew towards classic nostalgia, with contemporary superfood upgrades.

Vanilla – The warm, lightly floral essence of vanilla shines through, but with a buttery, tropical, and creamy mouthfeel from the underlying coconut.

Mint Chip – This is a pure, natural version of a classic flavor. The mint is cool and refreshing with wonderful crunchy bites from the cacao nibs. The brilliant green hue comes from the spirulina, which lends just a hint of grassiness to the flavor.

Malted Mocha – You might just want to substitute your morning cuppa Joe with this creamy caffeinated blend. It has a mellow roasted flavor with subtle oaky notes and a “biscuit-y” vibe.

Super Berry – The bright citrusy flavors of punchy acai and goji fruit lend a delicious tang to the light sweetness.

Get the details, short and sweet, on GoDairyFree.org.

Wholly Macaroni

I couldn’t shake the question out of my head. It ran loops around my brain, echoing off the walls of my skull. Surely, there were more important matters to consider, but no. All I could think about was cheese. Mac and cheese, to be precise. It suddenly struck me that many years had passed since I revisited my previous gold standard for Stove Top-Style Macaroni and Cheese, and wondered if it would still hold up to scrutiny.

Considering the great strides that dairy-free foods have made since then, the bar had been raised to lofty heights I could have never imagined back in the day, toiling over the stove with little more than memories of the blue box to light my path. Yes, indeed, it was still good stuff… But it could certainly be better.

A few tiny tweaks make a world of difference. It’s all about incorporating the subtle umami nuances and sharp bite that a good aged cheddar might impart, but nothing earth-shaking that would come as a wild departure from the norm. Just a bit more finesse, some higher-quality ingredients, and a better understanding of the alchemical changes that flavors undergo with varying temperature and time.

Toeing the line between healthy and indulgent, the new and improved sauce introduces a handful of red lentils for body and viscosity, with the side benefit of adding extra protein and fiber into the mix. At the same time, a fearless dose of vegan butter creates that inimitable velvety texture also known as kokumi, enhancing and amplifying flavors, much like salt. Nutritional yeast is essential, of course, but joining it in savory harmony is a dash of miso, lending a greater depth of umami flavor in every cheesy, creamy bite.

Yes, it’s a bit more involved than tearing open a packet of dried dairy-derived mystery powder, but there’s no going back once you taste the difference.

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Mac Off!

Remember that time I judged the Texas Mac Off? What do you mean, I never blogged about it? Well, pull up a chair and have a seat, because I have quite a cheesy tale to tell.

Slung low in the sky, the midday sun fought to burn through the haze and humidity typical of a Texan summer. Undaunted, a dozen brave souls set hot plates and chafing dish heaters ablaze, igniting molten vats of gooey orange sauce, thick with ambition. The stakes were high, with competitors vying for cheese-covered fame, glory, but most importantly, the golden noodle trophy.

Over 300 hungry souls came to get their mac on, to taste and test oodles of noodles. Gluten-free, vegetable-based, whole wheat, and classic white pastas all vied for the title, each one smothered in equally diverse mixtures of spicy, savory, crunchy, gooey toppings. For the casual bystander, this was merely a celebration of the classic childhood treat, but for me, Jessica Morris, and Rolando Garza, my fellow judges, this was serious business.

Personal preferences aside, just how do you evaluate the proper degree of sauciness? Just what constitutes the perfect cheesy flavor? How important is it to stick with the classic preparation, or should more points be assigned to innovations that depart from the expected orange essentials?

By the time the 12th, and then 13th rich, creamy cup was delivered, my head was spinning. Yes, they’re all good, but which ones are great? Which single entry was the best? Coming to an agreeable consensus just among the three of us was fraught with disagreement, dissenting opinions strongly argued as we huddled over cheese-smeared papers smudged with undecipherable ink stains. Luckily, it was a close call at the top, and any of the dominant macs would have been fully welcomed on my dinner plate again.

Innovation won out over classic comfort in the end. First place went to Megan Gross with her blazing Buffalo Cauliflower Mac N Cheeze. Just one point separated this spicy blend from my person favorite, which ultimately came in second; the previous year’s winner, as it turned out, Megan Bee with her Classic Mac and cheeze with a cheezy crumb topping.

It was simply the platonic ideal of the art form in my eyes. Tender yet toothsome pasta tubes, generously sauced without becoming soupy, decadent, slightly salty, savory, and oh so cheesy. Crunchy cheese-infused breadcrumbs sealed the dish in a toasty, slightly nutty blanket, perfectly balancing out textures and flavors. If it hadn’t been pushing 100 degrees in the sun, I could have eaten that whole chafing pan of noodle goodness myself.

Easily the most creative, avant-garde edible was actually a dish not entered for consideration. Mac and cheese ice cream scooped out by Austin’s favorite vegan parlor, Sweet Ritual, blew out all the stops for what one might expect from the average mac. Mercifully sweet rather than full-on savory, this inspired frozen creation laced umami notes through nutritional yeast-spiked breadcrumbs, mingling amidst a smooth base glowing with a heavy turmeric glow. Fearless foodies clamored for a spoonful, curious, shocked, and ultimately delighted.

As with any good, spirited competition, there were clearly no losers in this crowd. Everyone went home in a fully contented, if slightly sweaty state of cheesed-out bliss. Think vegans can’t get their mac on? You should really go to the next Texas Mac Off and taste for yourself.

Poppycock

Delicious, nutritious, and an illicit narcotic? Poppy seeds are an excellent source of fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, and several essential minerals, including calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus and zinc, to say nothing of the morphine residue that may remaining after harvesting from opium poppies.

Yes, opium which is also an excellent source of heroin, morphine, and codeine. While it’s true that an “overdose” may genuinely make you fail a drug test, the seeds themselves contain none of the potent drug. No need to lock your spice rack at night or keep a surveillance camera on your baking supplies; while a junkie might be sorely disappointed, I’d say that the flavor they offer is still powerfully addictive.

Nut and seed blends are gaining traction in the non-dairy aisle, but no one seems to appreciate the power of the poppy seed. This could be said across the board, however, as poor, misunderstood poppy seeds rarely get top billing in any dish. Every bit as capable of creating a creamy, dreamy, dairy-free drink, their subtle nutty flavor bears intoxicating nuances of both sweet and savory notes in every sip.

Toast them to enhance that elusive, rarely touted taste, or keep it simple with a more subtle, straightforward blitz. A mixture of oats and almonds lend a richness and body that could rival anything fresh off the farm.

If you can resist the urge to lift the entire blender right to your lips to gulp down the entire milky amalgamation as is, it happens to make a brilliant creamer for iced coffee, too. Don’t say I didn’t warn you when poppy seed lattes become the next big trend in a month… It really is an addictive drink.

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Now Schmear This

Turn any day into a special occasion with little bite-sized cheesecakes, every bit as rich and luscious as a thick slice but quicker, easier, and ideal for a more intimate gathering. In fact, with these beauties on tap, I wouldn’t hesitate to throw a party for one.

I was lucky enough to snag an early sample of Treeline’s new cream cheese and it was love at first schmear. The cashew-based spread is very creamy and smooth, with a finish that tastes clean, buttery, and definitely rich. The flavor is on point; mild, delicately nuanced, both subtly savory and sweet at once. Easily one of the best options on the market so far, no matter your dietary preferences.

It’s not a dead-ringer for dairy, but quite possibly even better. Beyond slathering it on bagels and toast, it works perfectly in recipes. In fact, it excels in baking since there aren’t any additives, stabilizers or gums. Nothing but pure creamy indulgence here in these mini cheesecakes, from crust to cream topping.

Even if you can’t track down the brand, don’t sleep on these tried-and-true classic treats. Get the recipe details over at GoDairyFree.org and celebrate the everyday, any day.