A Crash Course in Veganism, Plus Recipes from Social Bites Vegan Edition

Food blogger (and butter pusher) Chef Michael Robertson escapes his comfort zone for sold-out, vegan edition of Social Bites.

Credit: Michael Robertson

Diners enjoy vegan fine-dining at Social Bites’ vegan supper

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.


Vegan Social Bites to return

The vegan edition of Social Bites was so popular (selling out in under one hour!) that founder Annika Reinhardt announced she’d be organizing another. Check the website for details.

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).


Click through for the recipes for our winning vegan menu >>>


Herb chips and Bloody Marys


Apéritif – Jellied Bloody Mary with Herbed Chips


Bloody Mary

¼ cup vodka

½ cup tomato juice

1 tsp vegan Worcestershire sauce

½ tsp celery salt

2g Agar-agar

Celery ribs

Shredded daikon to garnish (optional)



Combine the first five ingredients in a saucepan. Stir and bring to a boil. Decant the mixture into a pouring jug and allow to cool slightly.


Cut the celery ribs and peel the stringy layer from the outside.


Place the celery on a plate, concave side up. Pour the Bloody Mary into the celery. Spread the shredded daikon along the top. Leave to set.


Herbed Potato Chips

2 medium potatoes

1 handful of chives (or similar)




Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a baking sheet with oil.


Peel the potatoes and slice them very thinly. Arrange the potato slices on the baking sheet. Centre the herbs on every second slice of potato. Cover the herbed potato with its unadorned neighbour, oil side up. Match up the side as closely as possible and press the two slices together to seal the herbs in and remove any air pockets.


Bake until the underside begins to brown (around 5-6 minutes).  Turn the chips over and brown the other side.


Mushroom Scallops & Beet Salad

Première plat – Mushroom scallops on sunchoke purée


Mushroom Scallops

2 large portobello mushrooms

2 tbsps canola oil

2 tbsps craisins (optional)



Soak the craisins in the canola oil (the longer, the better).


Remove the stalks and peel the outer layer off the mushroom. Using a cookie cutter, or similar, cut your scallops from the mushrooms (save the peel, stalk and off-cuts for stock or a mushroom jus).


Strain the oil and heat it in a large fry pan over a med-high heat. Add the mushrooms, top side down, and fry until golden. Turn over and cook through.


Sunchoke Purée

2 lbs of sunchokes

boiling water


1 tbsp vegan ‘butter’ (optional)

1 tbsp soy milk (optional)



Peel and chop the sunchokes. Add the sunchokes and a little salt to a pot of boiling water and boil until the sunchokes are soft.


Drain the water off and purée the sunchokes. If you wish you may add a little butter or soy milk for a more unctuous purée.


Caper Sauce

2 tbsps of capers

2 tbsps of vegan ‘butter’

mushroom pan



Add the capers and the knobs of butter to the mushrooms juices left in the frypan from sautéing the mushroom scallops. Sauté until the butter has melted and the capers are heated through.


Carrot Caviar

1 1/4 cups of water

4g sodium alginate

2/3 cup of carrot juice

4 cups of water

10-15 drops calcium chloride



Combine 1 ¼ cups of water and the sodium alginate in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Set aside for 10 minutes to cool.


Take the sodium alginate syrup and combine it with an equal amount of carrot juice. Stir until well-blended.


In another bowl, combine 4 cups of water with the calcium chloride. Stir to combine. Using a pipette, drop beads of the carrot solution into the calcium chloride bath.


Nutmeg Cloud

2/3 cup of water

2/3 cup of soymilk

2g soy lecithin

nutmeg to taste




Combine all the ingredients and beat briskly until a light foam forms.



Cashew & Date Vegan Ice Cream

Entre-plats – Cashew & Date ‘Ice Cream’

Served as a palate cleanser between courses.


Cashew & Date Ice Cream

2 cups of cashews

3 cups of water

8 dates

2 tbsps agave syrup

½ cup soy milk

1 vanilla pod


Cover the cashews with the water and soak for 24 hours. Purée the soaked cashews and water to a smooth paste, adding more water if needed.


Soak the dates in water for 10 minutes to soften them. Chop very finely.


Add the chopped dates and agave syrup to the cashew paste and blend until well combined. Scrape the vanilla pod into the milk and bring it to a boil. Leave to cool then combine with cashew mixture. Refrigerate mixture for 8 hours. Freeze in an ice-cream maker.


Barley Risotto in Mushrom Jus

Deuxième plat – Barley risotto in mushroom jus


Barley Risotto

2 cups pearl barley

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup finely chopped onion

3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

8 1/2 cups (about) vegetable stock

1/2 cup chopped arugula

2 teaspoons grated lemon peel

1/2 cup freshly grated soy cheese (opt.)

1/2 cup hazelnuts, toasted & chopped



Stir barley in heavy large saucepan over medium heat until lightly toasted, about 5 minutes. Transfer barley to a bowl.


Heat the oil in the same saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and garlic; sauté until tender. Add barley and stir.


Add 2 cups of stock; reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until liquid is absorbed, stirring frequently, about 7 minutes.  Keep adding stock, a cup or two at a time, and simmering until the barley is tender and creamy but still slightly firm to bite (3-4 hours). Mix in ‘cheese’, arugula and lemon peel. Season with salt and pepper.


Mushroom Jus

3/4 pound assorted mushrooms

1 cup boiling water

1/2 oz dried mushrooms

1 tbsp olive oil


black pepper

1 cup vegetable stock



Pour the boiling water of the dried mushrooms and let stand until completely softened. Then strain the liquid from the mushrooms (set the mushrooms aside for another use).


Heat the olive oil in a large fry pan. Lay the chopped assorted mushrooms into the pan and season with salt and pepper.


Use a smaller pan to weight the mushrooms down (this’ll hep them brown deeply and evenly). Cook until the underside is browned (around 5 minutes). Flip the mushrooms pieces and brown.


Remove the mushrooms from the pan and add the liquid form the dried mushrooms in their place. Bring to a boil and keep boiling until reduced by half. Add stock and boil until it has reduced by a cup.


Result: as well as the jus you will end up with the re-hydrated mushrooms and some pan fried mushrooms. You can use this with this dish or another.


Vegetable Stock

2 med. onions

8 ribs of celery

4 carrots

2 tbsp olive oil

Assorted vegetables

Cold water

Bouquet garni




Roughly chop the first three ingredients to make your mirepoix.


Heat the oil in a large saucepan and sauté the mirepoix until the onion is soft.


Add all the other vegetables, for me this is usually a collection of vegetable peelings and ends that I kept in the freezer. Cover the vegetables with cold water. Add the bouquet garni. Simmer over a low heat until reduced by half.


Salt to taste.