Diners enjoy vegan fine-dining at Social Bites' vegan supper excursion
On Saturday I had the pleasure of participating in Social Bites's inaugural vegan supper. Despite being a lover of all things meaty, eggy and dairy-y, I was roped in as the fourth hobby-chef for the dinner excursion slash competition.
The other chefs were all vegan, with years of experience experimenting with dairy-free recipes. I felt like a Kiwi in an ice-skating race against Canucks. I was going to have a steep learning curve if I was to cook on their terms.
Surprise foods on the vegan blacklist
One of the first steps in decided what I would cook was to determine what I mayn’t cook. Obviously, meat, dairy and eggs were out but where do vegans stand on honey? (Opinion is divided.) Worcestershire sauce (which contains anchovies), gelatine (made from animal bits) and refined sugar (bone char is used to decolourize the sugar) also appear on the vegan blacklist.
As substitutes for these last three, I made my own Worcestershire sauce (minus the anchovies), used agar-agar (a seaweed extract and thickener) and agave syrup.
Replacing dairy and eggs
Those who know me will be understandably surprised that I was planning to cook a meal without butter. Fortunately, like Alice down the rabbit hole, my eyes were opened to a whole new world. I discovered a world full of mock-butters and mock-cheeses (but no mock-turtles). I purchased a range of products to taste and trial. Here are my impressions:
On trial: Vegan 'cheese'
The “cheese” looked like the illegitimate child of a block of tofu and a sexy havarti. It acted all cheesy but its taste was very much tofu, and as one of my competitors confided in me “don’t make the mistake of thinking that vegans like the taste of tofu.” Also, apparently, vegans aren't big fans of fake cheese either. For good reason.
On trial: Soymilk
The soymilk was serviceable as expected but lacked the fat content that I wanted for some of my recipes. I’m told that full fat versions of soymilk exist, but in every store I visited the terms vegan and low-fat were pretty synonymous (this hypothesis was supported by the lack of obese diners).
On trial: Earth Balance vegan buttery flavour sticks
The real boon for me was the discovery of Earth Balance vegan buttery flavour sticks, which gave food the butter taste that I look for in my food.
A balanced diet
One of the first truths that came home to roost for me was how heavily I depend on dairy products in my cooking. They are not normally the primary ingredients, but they are ever present.
While being free of this dependency, the vegan diet seems to rely heavily on cashews and soybeans to fill the void. Though some vegans eschew the use of processed foods such as soy products, from soy-cheese to soymilk to chicken-wing-shaped soy-protein, it’s possible to eat a meal comprised entirely of soy products. I found this particularly troubling considering the prevalence of Monsanto GMO soy and the potential health risks for men of consuming large quantities of the phytoestrogens found in soybeans.
From an evolutionary perspective as well as one of global sustainability, it would seem to me that a balanced diet, including as many different types of food as possible, makes the most sense.
Cooking vegan challenges the meaning of 'What’s for dinner?'
In homes across our city, across the country, the question “what shall we have for dinner?” is most often met with single word responses: “chicken," “pork,” “steak.” The same can be said of restaurants: “I’ll have the lamb.” Vegetables and complex carbs play second fiddle to the viand virtuoso. Planning a vegan meal forced me to reconsider this paradigm.
Vegan cooking requires planning (unless you want to spend a year living on tofu, rice and broccoli). Often the key players—tofu, lentils, quinoa, etc.—are relatively void of flavour. Rather than being a deficit, my cooking partner Christi and I came to view this as a great opportunity. Here was a blank tableau that we could infuse with subtle flavours—unlike meat dishes that tend to be accompanied by stronger and saltier accompaniments.
Veganism, the privilege diet?
During my mini foray into the vegan world I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the pros and cons of veganism. Debate rages about whether or not veganism is a diet for the first world privileged. This seems inherently absurd when you reflect on how expensive meat and dairy products are, which is why many people in poorer countries live largely vegetarian diets. It’s evident that veganism (or vegetarianism) is far from being a privilege enjoyed by the wealthy. What is a privilege, however, is choice. Any person who has the luxury to exclude nutrient-giving foods from their diet by choice, whether it’s based on a dislike of turnips or a desire to see animals treated respectfully, is partaking of a privileged diet.
Choosing a vegan lifestyle
If you’ve chosen, or are thinking about choosing, a vegan lifestyle, Vancouver has a bevy of vegan-friendly restaurants.
My three vegan counterparts in the Social Bites cook-off also have great websites chock full of tips and resources for vegan Vancouverites:
The Vegan Project – Recently selected as a finalist for the 2011 Best Health Blog Awards, The Vegan Project is jam packed with resources, recipes and tips for on how to survive and flourish as a vegan in Vancouver, from vegan fashion to vegan food. As well, their recipes and menu ideas have regularly appeared on the pages of Granville Online.
For the Love of Food – as well as providing advice and inspiration on her website, Julie Beyer offers private classes in people's homes. She'll come and teach your family and friends how to integrate a whole plant-based lifestyle into their everyday lives. Her classes include vegan cooking and raw vegan cuisine. Contact her directly at julie[at]loveoffood[dot]ca.
Vegan Mischief – Sick of mundane vegan brunches, Kaylie Barfield and Malloreigh took matters into their own hands and began serving a Saturday vegan brunch out of their home. It used to be at The Perch but now acts more like a secret supper club. If you're quick you may be able to get in this weekend (Feb 26). Otherwise you'll have to wait until they resume on March 19. Contact Vegan Mischief for details on how to get your hands on Vancouver's best tofu scramble, They also offer recipe development, catering, personal chef and in-home dinner party services.
The Social Bites experience
Social Bites works as a neighbour supper club of sorts. Four amateur chefs welcome eight diners into their homes (two seatings of four people) and attempt to wow them with their culinary skills. During the course of the evening, the eight pairs of diners will each dine at two of the four chefs’ homes and will dine with two different pairs.
The experience is very sociable and a fun way to meet other foodies.
At the end of the evening, everyone (diners, chefs, et al.) meet at a venue (in our case it was Forsya Boutique and Gallery) for a dessert (we had vegan cheesecake courtesy of Sprout Vegan Bakery), a chance to discuss the evening and to present the hobby-chef winner, as voted by the itinerant diners, with a gift certificate for dinner at Provence Marinaside (which serves a Meat-free Mardi Menu).