by guest blogger Gillian Francella, writer, editor, and newly converted vegan
What is a world without the gooey goodness that is a basketful of melty mozzarella sticks or a crockpot stuffed to the top with macaroni and cheese? When I first became a vegan, it seemed this new world sans dairy products was going to be a living nightmare. Where would I ever find the same level of comfort that my mom's macaroni so generously provided me?
The answer came in an unexpected place: cauliflower.
Steam it, sauté it, add some nooch, almond milk, and tomato paste, and you're on your way to whipping up a vegan dish that even the most carnivorous dinner guests will enjoy. And as cheesy (pun intended) as it may sound, I liked the vegan mac 'n' cheese taste even better than the heavier, dairy-packed version I'd been eating my whole life--and no stomach pains later in the evening.
Besides helping those who have lactose intolerance enjoy the heavenly goodness that is cheese, plant-based foods like my vegan mac 'n' cheese contain little to no cholesterol, making them more heart healthy. In fact, according to a recent study in the journal Circulation, a pro-vegetarian diet that contains higher portions of plant-based foods than animal-based foods can lower risks of heart disease and stroke by up to 20 percent.
And more people are opting for vegan alternatives that provide the same texture without the fatty or cloying sensations sometimes found with animal products. Mintel Reports research found that 43 percent of Americans are willing to try a dairy-free cheese as a healthy alternative to their usual cheddar.
What's more, many vegan alternatives mimic non-vegan options so well that people can't tell the difference, says Miyoko Schinner, author of The Homemade Vegan Pantry: The Art of Making Your Own Staples.
Nooch was the game changer in my macaroni dish. But what exactly is it? Nooch, or nutritional yeast, is deactivated yeast cultured with pure strands of yeast fungi and a mixture of sugarcane and beet molasses. Did I lose you at "fungi"? Before you write it off as hippy wonderdust, consider this: One serving contains up to 9 grams of protein and 100 percent of the daily recommended amount of B12, a nutrient that supports nerve and blood cell health.
Nooch's cheesy, nutty flavor is densely packed into tiny flakes, making it the perfect ingredient to sprinkle over veggies for a healthy side dish, dust over beans for Tex-Mex recipes, or toss into tofu scrambles for an omelet-like taste.
I decided to do some digging on more plant-based, natural ingredients that recreate (and revamp) traditionally non-vegan entrées. Here are 3 more plant-based ingredients that even non-vegans won't be able to resist:
What it is: While regular tofu is typically made from pressing soy curds and separating them from whey, silken tofu is the by-product of soaked soybeans being solidified right in a container--no separation or pressure exerted.
Use it in: The supersoft texture easily whips into a yogurt replacement for protein-rich smoothies or chills to mimic ice cream. Chop it up a bit in frying pan with a hint of hot sauce and nooch, and you have vegan scrambled eggs.
What it is: High-fiber seeds from the flax plant, an herb that grows in deep, moist soils like sand, silt, or clay. These tiny brown seeds are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are linked to therapeutic effects on several conditions, such as heart health, inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, high cholesterol, stomach ulcers, and migraine headaches.
Use it in: Flaxseed is a surprisingly versatile ingredient. Sprinkle the seeds over a salad or a bowl of veggies for a rich, nutty flavor. Or soak them in water for several hours and their "goop" can be used to bind ingredients in vegan baking. Whip soaked seeds or flax meal with water, and you have a replacement for eggs--perfect for vegan meringue or buttercream.
What it is: Tropical tree nuts are rich in magnesium, a mineral vital to regulating heart, muscle, and kidney function. Even better, magnesium helps regulate calcium levels to support bone health and ward off osteoporosis.
Use it in: Dying for a rich, creamy pasta sauce? Add nuts. Soak the nuts overnight, then toss them in a food processor or blender, and you're more than halfway there. "Cashew cream can thicken into a creamy sauce without having to make a roux with fat and flour," says Miyoko in The Homemade Vegan. That means you can whip it up in half the time of traditional Alfredo. Or, chill your cashew cream in the fridge to make a cultured vegan cheese in just a few days.
Gillian Francella is a writer, editor, and newly converted vegan/vegetarian. By day, she's an editorial assistant with Rodale Books. But night, through trial and error, she works through various cookbooks to discover delicious dishes that test the limits of her tiny kitchen. She strives to make cruelty-free foods and tweak classic recipes from her childhood into healthy, vegan treats, all while ballin' out on a 20-something's budget. Chances are, if she can make it, so can you!
For more from Maria Rodale, visit www.mariasfarmcountrykitchen.com