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A few good recipes and words of advice from a veteran vegan cook

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Having followed a mostly vegan diet for almost 20 years and having worked in a couple vegetarian restaurants, I've got a few tips and recipes under my sleeve that I'd like to share with my colleagues during their Vegan Challenge week.

First, my advice:

-  Don't have time to cook? You'll probably get the most vegan bang for your buck at restaurants that serve Indian, Middle Eastern, Asian, or Mexican/Central American food. It's usually easy to find several dishes on the menu that are vegan, or that can easily be made vegan by asking them to hold the cheese -- but will still taste great.

Keep it simple; don't worry about byproducts. I know I will horrify many by writing this, but I honestly don't think it's worth your time to try to memorize the name of and then scan ingredient lists for every possible substance that may be derived from something that was once a part of an animal. (Apparently animal bone is sometimes used to process white sugar, so some vegans won't eat white sugar.) Once you start going down that road, there is no end to it: what about that book you're reading? How do you know the glue used in the binding doesn't contain a bit of cow hoof? You don't, and it doesn't matter. Just ask yourself, what is the point of your participation in the Vegan Challenge? I'm guessing it's that you recognize the factory-farmed-animal-laden diet of affluent countries is trashing the planet, and you want to help turn that trend around. If that's the case, then just feel good about trying out a diet that is 99 per cent plant-based and encouraging others to do the same.

Do not believe anyone who tells you there is some vegan product or recipe that "tastes just like cheese." Yes, even Daiya. Sure, it shreds and melts like real cheese, and tastes fine (unlike some imitation cheeses which are just revolting) but the flavour isn't really cheesey. At best, it is a passable imitation of some very bland mozzarella. If you're looking for stronger cheese flavours like cheddar or Parmesan, forget it. Oh, and especially beware those pandering recipes for "cheese sauce" made of nutritional yeast. Nutritional yeast tastes nothing like cheese, it tastes like yeast. It's an acquired taste which I've never acquired. I think the only reason these people can hold such illusions is because they haven't eaten cheese in so long they don't actually remember what it tastes like. Because I'm not purist about eating vegan, and I occasionally nibble a piece of cheese when it's served at someone else's house, I do. The only thing that tastes like cheese is cheese.

-  In general, I think you're better off just trying out new recipes (like the ones I share below!) than trying to adapt ones that have lots of cheese, dairy or eggs in them. (One exception is baked goods like muffins, cookies, and cakes. It's generally very easy to vegan-ify these and still have them taste just as rich and mouth-watering.)

If you like baking, and you have recipes for muffins, quick breads, pancakes, cakes, cupcakes, cookies, bars or pancakes that only have one or two eggs in them (mixed into the batter, that is, not whipped up as an eggy filling or something), just leave the egg out, and add a splash of water to make up for the lost moisture. Forget about all that "egg substitute" stuff. Sure, a bit of ground flaxseed or other substitutes can moderately improve the texture of an eggless muffin, but it's not absolutely required. Just use what you have on hand. Use soy, coconut or any non-dairy milk instead of dairy, margarine instead of butter, oil instead of melted butter, and you're set.

Okay, now we get to the good stuff. Here are a few of my favourite vegan recipes that are fairly quick and easy to make, and totally delicious:

Black bean and rice burgers

2 cups cooked black beans (or 1 19-oz. can)

1 1/2 cups basmati rice

2 cups vegetable broth

1 Tbsp chili powder

2 tsp cumin

1/4 tsp hot pepper sauce or cayenne pepper

1/2 cup dry breadcrumbs

2 to 5 Tbsp. oil for frying

Combine all ingredients except the breadcrumbs and oil in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to medium-low and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring frequently, or until rice is cooked.

Let mixture cool for a few hours.

Heat the oil in a frying pan or skillet on medium heat. Form the burger mixture into patties, coat each with breadcrumbs, and fry for about 4 minutes on each side.

Serve these bad boys with salsa and your usual burger fixings. (Maybe a bit of chopped fresh cilantro too.)

Spicy chickpea burgers

1/3 lb firm tofu

2 Tbsp oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 Tbsp fresh grated gingerroot

1/2 Tbsp chili powder

1 tsp red chili pepper flakes OR 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

1 Tbsp mild curry paste or 2 tsp curry powder

1 tsp each ground cumin and coriander

1 19-oz can chickpeas, drained

1 tsp salt

1/2 cup dry breadcrumbs

2 to 5 Tbsp oil, for frying

In a food processor, purée the tofu, along with the oil, garlic, ginger, and spices, and curry paste/powder, until it forms a smooth paste. Transfer to a large bowl and add the chickpeas. Using a pastry cutter or fork, partially mash the chickpeas; they should still be chunky. Mix well with the tofu.

Heat 2 more Tbsp. of olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Form the mixture into burger patties (makes about 8). Coat each with breadcrumbs on both sides, then fry about 8 minutes (4 on each side), until golden-brown and heated through.

Suggested toppings: mango chutney, lime pickle, sliced tomatoes, chopped fresh cilantro, crisp lettuce.

Black bean and avocado salad

1 cup black beans, cooked (about 1/2 of a 19-oz. can)

3/4 cup sweet corn, cooked

1 ripe avocado, diced

1 small cucumber, diced

8 cherry tomatoes, halved, OR 2 large ripe tomatoes, diced

1 bunch fresh cilantro (coriander), finely chopped

1 Tbsp lime juice

4 Tbsp olive oil

1 large clove garlic, minced

1/2 tsp each ground cumin and coriander

1/4 –1/2 tsp salt, to taste

Mix together the beans, corn, avocado, cucumber, tomatoes, and cilantro in a salad bowl. Whisk together the lime juice, oil, garlic, and spices, and pour over the salad. Toss to coat. Serve immediately. (If you need to make the salad a few hours ahead, hold the avocado and add it just before serving.)

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