At the grocery store, I stocked up on vegan foods, including almond milk (that was the presidential recommendation), and faux turkey and cheese to replicate my daughter’s favorite sandwich. But despite my good intentions, my cold-turkey attempt to give up, well, turkey (as well as other meats, dairy and eggs) didn’t go well. My daughter and I couldn’t stand the taste of almond milk, and the fake meat and cheese were unappealing.
Since then, I’ve spoken with numerous vegan chefs and diners who say it can be a challenge to change a lifetime of eating habits overnight. They offer the following advice for stocking your vegan pantry and finding replacements for key foods like cheese and other dairy products.
NONDAIRY MILK Taste all of them to find your favorite. Coconut and almond milks (particularly canned coconut milk) are thicker and good to use in cooking, while rice milk is thinner and is good for people who are allergic to nuts or soy. My daughter and I both prefer the taste of soy milk and use it in regular or vanilla flavor for fruit smoothies and breakfast cereal.
NONDAIRY CHEESE Cheese substitutes are available under the brand names Daiya, Tofutti and Follow Your Heart, among others, but many vegans say there’s no fake cheese that satisfies as well as the real thing. Rather than use a packaged product, vegan chefs prefer to make homemade substitutes using cashews, tofu, miso or nutritional yeast. At Candle 79, a popular New York vegan restaurant, the filling for saffron ravioli with wild mushrooms and cashew cheese is made with cashews soaked overnight and then blended with lemon juice, olive oil, water and salt.
THINK CREAMY, NOT CHEESY Creaminess and richness can often be achieved without a cheese substitute. For instance, Chloe Coscarelli, a vegan chef and the author of “Chloe’s Kitchen,” has created a pizza with caramelized onion and butternut squash that will make you forget it doesn’t have cheese; the secret is white-bean and garlic purée. She also offers a creamy, but dairy-free, avocado pesto pasta. My daughter and I have discovered we actually prefer the rich flavor of butternut squash ravioli, which can be found frozen and fresh in supermarkets, to cheese-filled ravioli.
NUTRITIONAL YEAST The name is unappetizing, but many vegan chefs swear by it: it’s a natural food with a roasted, nutty, cheeselike flavor. Ms. Coscarelli uses nutritional yeast flakes in her “best ever” baked macaroni and cheese (found in her cookbook). “I’ve served this to die-hard cheese lovers,” she told me, “and everyone agrees it is comparable, if not better.”
Susan Voisin’s Web site, Fat Free Vegan Kitchen, offers a nice primer on nutritional yeast, noting that it’s a fungus (think mushrooms!) that is grown on molasses and then harvested and dried with heat. (Baking yeast is an entirely different product.) Nutritional yeasts can be an acquired taste, she said, so start with small amounts, sprinkling on popcorn, stirring into mashed potatoes, grinding with almonds for a Parmesan substitute or combining with tofu to make an eggless omelet. It can be found in Whole Foods, in the bulk aisle of natural-foods markets or online.
BUTTER This is an easy fix. Vegan margarines like Earth Balance are made from a blend of oils and are free of trans fats.