Friday, March 8, 2013

A Cooking Rut

I would not say that I have natural talent with cooking. I have talked about my cooking failures extensively with most of my friends and I even wrote about it for the blog of my mom's old bakery (RIP Flour Girls and Dough Boys). There have been times in my life where I haven't cooked a single thing in months. That was okay while I was in college, since social opportunities to eat out were common and my income source somehow never ran dry. However, at age 24, I am now somewhat of an adult, and I think it is important to be able to cook for myself if necessary (and in the last couple months, my then-impending and now current #unemployment has made it necessary to cut costs where I can).

Whenever I thought about cooking meals for dinner or even packing a lunch for work days, I was completely stuck. How could I decide what to eat? There were infinite options! It's not like I kept my kitchen stocked with food, so I would have to go to the grocery store no matter what. Analysis paralysis (please forgive that annoying rhymed cliche) plagued me and I was incapable of doing anything about it. So I didn't cook. I would snack, I would eat at restaurants, and I would accept meals from friends. But my cooking skills were getting no better and my wallet no fatter.

Toward the end of December, I decided to introduce a challenge into my culinary routine starting January 1. The challenge was being VEGAN. Yup. I said it. I decided to cease my consumption of all animal products (meat, dairy, and eggs) for a period of 11 weeks. And besides the health benefits and the increase of discipline I have developed, it has done wonders for my cooking abilities. I can't find acceptable food at parties or at most restaurants. My kitchen is the source of almost every thing I eat. And therefore, I have learned how to cook everything I want to eat.

It has been thrilling to learn how to veganize my favorite foods. I have tried tons of recipes and some of them have failed, but most of them haven't. I have created for myself a goldmine of recipes that are easy and quick and tasty. I have cooked for several of my non-vegan friends and they have enjoyed these meals because apart from being vegan, they are independently delicious.

This week I had a friend over while I was cooking. I chopped onion, garlic, bell peppers, and butternut squash and then added cumin, chili powder, black beans and rice to the pan and served dinner. He was surprised that I had done it so quickly and effortlessly. When I told him he could make the same meal easily, he said "no, I would need to know the exact amount and length of time for everything." I recognized my former self in his words, but I realized how far I have come. I am kind of a cook.

One other important aspect of my vegan cooking: I don't really believe in replacements for meat or cheese. I have never purchased tofu or tempeh or Daiya cheese or even nutritional yeast. I look for recipes that are made with food that anyone with a "normal" diet would eat, and I prepare them in a way that is flavorful without begging for added animal products. That has had the best result for me.

I have linked my favorite recipes below. The message I hope you get out of this post is not that you should become vegan (because I realize that it sounds impossible and awful to most of you). Rather, if you are in a cooking rut, I suggest giving yourself some sort of challenge and seeing what happens. And, I recommend trying some of these recipes because they are honestly delightful.

Sweet potato chili is my go-to vegan recipe that literally everyone likes.
Orzo spinach soup was a recipe I found when I realized I had a huge bunch of spinach that I had to use before it went bad, which moment was a huge step for me because previously I was never even aware of what food items I had that were about to go bad and much less was capable of finding a recipe to use them in.
Thai curry was a dish I always thought would be impossible to make. Surprise! It's actually not very hard and super tasty.
Sweet potato black bean burritos. I have seen a bunch of recipes like these floating around and I'm sure they're all similar. The idea is that you put sweet potatoes and black beans together in a burrito and it's delicious. I left out the cheese and did not miss it at all.
Thai chili quinoa I actually made two days in a row. Embarrassing to admit? Maybe. I left out the chicken obviously.
Tacos with nut meat. This recipe is more complicated than the rest of them, but not because it's hard to make, just because there are a lot of steps. Also, my roommate is still laughing about the phrase "nut meat," so that's added value.
Peanut butter apple pie. I actually did not make this myself, but I found the recipe and started the crust. My dear friend Carol Ann finished it up and it was phenomenal. It tasted more like caramel than peanut butter in a super delicious way. Plus, most of the ingredients are actually not unhealthy, so as far as desserts go, this is a winner. We subbed coconut cream for heavy cream.

My original goal was to be completely vegan until March 16, which is the day I am running a half marathon in DC. I have a few non-vegan meals planned for that weekend, but this vegan diet is in no way exiting my life completely. If you have recipes you'd like to share, please do! I am definitely interested in maintaining and improving the skills I have developed.