I switched to a plant-based diet in October. It was the only way to manage my high cholesterol without medication, and my commitment to my heart health supercharged my motivation. The holiday meals came and went without incident.
Going vegan was easy peasy until the coronavirus crisis emerged.
Suddenly, I faced an unknown number of weeks or months of social distancing with a strong urge to drown my feelings in ice cream, butter, and cheese.
I steeled myself for a challenge that threatened to break my resolve. But as time passed, I was surprised to learn it isn’t harder to stick to my vegan diet during the lockdown. It’s easier.
As people freaked out over egg shortages, my 10-pound stash of Morganics oatmeal made me feel great about months of breakfasts. I didn’t need to take increasingly perilous trips to the market for more milk — soy milk in cartons is almost indefinitely shelf-stable, and I had enough to last me two months.
As the meat eaters in my life fretted over exactly how many days ground beef or chicken thighs can keep in the refrigerator, I counted up my roughly six-week supply of tofu and tempeh and concluded, “I’m good!” Now, on the heels of meat production plants closing or cutting production due to COVID-19 outbreaks, industry experts predict a meat shortage may be upon the nation, adding more stress about keeping it on hand.
In light of all this, I am not in the bad food mood I had anticipated at all, but experienced vegans knew all along this would be the case.
“I didn’t even have to go shopping when all of this started because I had so much stuff in my pantry that wasn’t going bad anytime soon. It was a relief, like this one silver lining,” says Tami Lynn Andrew, of South Philadelphia. She’s been vegan for seven years and helps coordinate the vegan pledge program, a free 30-day online guide with recipes and support for omnivores who want to try a plant-based diet. So if you’ve ever toyed with the idea of trying out a vegan diet or a flexitarian approach to food, now might actually be a good opportunity to try. I talked to a few local vegan experts, including a cooking instructor and registered dietitian, and here are some reasons why now is the best time to go vegan.
Financial worries are keeping many of us awake at night, with a record number of people filing for unemployment. “You get more value for your buck when you shop plant-based,” says Char Nolan, a plant-based chef and cooking instructor based in Drexel Hill. “Just look at the price of beans compared to the price of meat!” As long as you stick to whole foods — not pricey packaged vegan convenience food — you’ll definitely see your grocery bills go down. In fact, one pound of chicken breast runs $5.99 and yields four servings ($1.50 a serving). A pound of dried chickpeas, on the other hand, costs $2.18 and yields 10 servings (22 cents per serving).
One of the biggest advantages you have right now is you can explore a plant-based diet without having to tackle social situations at the same time. “It can be awkward to go out with friends, attend events, or have dinner at your mom’s and then have to walk everyone through what you’re not eating and why,” says Andrew. “None of those things are an issue right now.”
If current events have you homebound, you are likely spending more time in the kitchen. “This is the perfect opportunity to try new recipes. There can be a little bit of a learning curve with vegan cooking, so this could be the ideal time to jump in,” says Andrew.
With a well-stocked vegan pantry and freezer, you can easily plan two to four weeks of well-balanced vegan meals without going back to the store. “I bought a lot of frozen vegetables,” says Nolan, who recommends the Hanover brand. She likes a mixed bag of kale and garbanzo beans, as well as cauliflower rice.
Wilson says when you do get groceries, choose the fresh vegetables that last longer, including cabbage, cauliflower, and sweet potatoes. All of these can stay good for a month if kept dry in the coldest part of your refrigerator. (Don’t forget to store veggies, once chopped, in a sealed container or storage bag.) Mix and match your fresh and frozen veggies with beans, whole grains, pasta, and tofu or tempeh for weeks of dinners without repeating yourself.
Food and cooking can be a much-needed form of entertainment and activity right now. And you might love the new challenge of a different way of cooking. You might see some of your favorite ingredients in a new way as they move from the sidelines to the center of the plate, according to Andrew. A fresh approach can bust cooking ruts and bring new life to your kitchen.
Another perk of a plant-based diet is you might start feeling better — fast. “Right away, clients tell me they feel more energetic. You don’t have to wait months to see a difference,” says Wilson. According to Andrew, vegan pledge participants report better skin and improved digestive health. “A plant-based diet doesn’t magically protect you from coronavirus, but a well-balanced vegan diet does support better immune functioning,” says Wilson.
When you need a break from cooking, there are plenty of local vegan options for pick up or delivery. Nolan has ordered salads from Honeygrow recently. And Andrew has made a point of ordering food once a week to support the restaurants she loves. “The last three have been Triangle Tavern, Soy Cafe, and 20th Street Pizza,” she says. These meals won’t be as healthy as your home-cooked food, but if you’re going to move your diet in a plant-based direction longer term, you’ll definitely need some treats.
Here are some of the pantry-based vegan recipes that have helped me through this crisis:
This recipe from Joe Yonan’s cookbook Cool Beans has been on repeat at my house. I happened to have berbere on hand, but if you don’t have it, you could sub harissa or even some hot sauce or red pepper flakes to give the dip its essential kick. Should you be without fresh ginger, go with ½ teaspoon ground.
Makes about 2 cups
¼ cup sunflower, grapeseed, or other neutral vegetable oil
1 cup chopped onion
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon berbere
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
1 cup red lentils, rinsed and drained
Pour the oil into a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. When it shimmers, stir in the onion and garlic and sauté until tender and starting to brown, 6 to 8 minutes. Stir in 1 tablespoon of the berbere, the tomato paste, ginger, and salt and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the lentils and 2 cups water, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are tender and the mixture is very thick, about 25 minutes.
Stir in the remaining 1 teaspoon berbere, taste, and add more salt if needed. Serve warm or at room temperature, with pitas or other chips or crudités.
Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to one week.
— “Reprinted with permission from Cool Beans: The Ultimate Guide to Cooking with the World’s Most Versatile Plant-Based Protein, with 125 Recipes by Joe Yonan, copyright © 2020. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.”
This is my MVP quarantine recipe. Even in its most basic form here, it’s a delight to sit down to a big bowl of these vegetable-packed noodles. I “fry” tofu in a dry skillet, which creates a brown crust without oil. Don’t worry — thanks to the peanut butter, it will still be rich and satisfying. If you have any fresh ginger, add a teaspoon or two to the sauce. If you have fresh limes, add a tablespoon of lime juice, and cut the vinegar to 2 tablespoons. If you have cilantro, by all means, shower it over your noodles before serving.
¼ cup smooth peanut butter
6 tablespoons hot water
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon sriracha or other hot sauce
1 tablespoon brown or white sugar
1 block firm tofu, cut lengthways into 6 slabs
6 ounces dried strand pasta or Asian noodles
1 tablespoon neutral cooking oil
10 ounces shredded cabbage
2 medium carrots, grated
Make the sauce: In a mixing bowl, combine the peanut butter, hot water, rice vinegar, soy sauce, hot sauce, and sugar and whisk until smooth.
Heat a large well-seasoned cast-iron or nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Season the tofu slabs with salt and pepper. Place the tofu slabs in the hot skillet and cook, undisturbed until brown on the bottom, about 4 minutes. Flip, and cook on the other side, another 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from skillet, chop into bite-sized pieces, and set aside.
Bring a pot of water to a boil and cook noodles according to package directions. Drain and rinse well.
Add the oil to the skillet over high heat, and add the cabbage and carrots. Cook, stirring, until just tender, about 3 minutes. Lower the heat to medium, and add the noodles, tofu, and sauce. Toss well, and serve immediately.
Serves 2 to 3
Socca is one of the best pantry-friendly clean-out-the-fridge dishes I know. It's basically a big savory pancake made from chickpea flour (aka garbanzo flour). It has a pizza vibe. Before you get started, forage in your refrigerator for vegetable odds and ends you'd like to use up. Onions, bell peppers, kale, mushrooms, tomatoes, or olives are all good choices. Just slice them thin or cut them up small. I love to serve this with a salad; cooked frozen vegetables of all kinds would also be a good side dish here.
1 cup chickpea flour
1 cup water
¾ teaspoon salt
1 to 1 ½ cups finely chopped vegetables
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for brushing
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees with a large cast-iron skillet inside it.
In a mixing bowl, combine the chickpea flour, water, and salt. Whisk well to combine.
When the oven is hot, film the bottom of the skillet with the 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Put it back in the oven until the oil is just smoking, about 1 minute. Carefully pour the batter into the smoking hot skillet and quickly even it out with a spatula.