How it started...
My journey to animal-friendly eating was incremental. It started when I was 13, when I nervously asked my mom if I could stop eating red meat. Having never been a huge fan anyway, this wasn’t a monumental change for me, and because I still ate chicken, it didn’t ruffle too many feathers (ba da dum tss) at family gatherings. A few years later, I was ready to give up chicken and with only one or two hiccups (a chicken pie here and there after a night out), I became a pescatarian for my late teenage years. During this time I fell into the trap of replacing meat with carbs: I lived on pasta, toasted sandwiches, toast and those dreadful (but amazing) cheese pies. When you’re new to the world of meat-free eating, the simplest way to fill the animal-shaped hole is to stuff it full of bread. And pasta. And maybe some potatoes.
In the beginning, it’s easy to turn to your old friend spaghetti for comfort. I didn’t so much turn to carbs as run full-speed into their arms, vowing never to let go.
When I moved into the dorms at college, I decided I was done with fish too and became a fully-fledged vegetarian. For the next three years, I ate soy-meat pizzas served with potato bake and broccoli, margarita pizzas served with a portion of chips and, my favorite (were it not for my tastebuds), puréed-broccoli bakes with chunks of soy meat served with nondescript veggies. We were allowed to take four slices of bread with each meal, which I did so I could have tea and toast after dinner. Yup, varsity food was pretty much carbs on carbs on carbs. Because how else do you feed the weirdos who don’t want to eat meat?
How it’s going…
I’ve now been vegan for about four years and I’ve learnt there are many healthy ways to feed a vegan – without relying solely on refined carbohydrates. With just a little bit of thought and regular scrolling through Insta for inspiration (have you seen @the_green_dietitian, @earthyandy, @rachelama_ and @24karrotsonline?), you realize how many amazing vegan meals there are out there. Meals that don’t rely on carbs to fill you up.
My road to veganism has been slow and I’ve learnt many lessons along the way (like pizza and potato bake have no business being on the same plate), so here are my tips to help any new vegans out there…
Always be prepared
When everything is new and unfamiliar, having a few go-to recipes and a pantry full of staples is invaluable. It’s harder to justify ordering takeaways when you have the makings of a delicious curry sitting in your kitchen. Over the years, I’ve curated a collection of recipes that I love, ranging from quick and easy to more involved. In terms of staples, I always try to have tinned tomatoes, chickpeas, black beans and coconut milk around, as well as curry powder, cumin, chilli flakes and garlic. This way, I can make some spicy Mexican-inspired beans (recipe below) or a chickpea curry without any hassle.
Learn to cook things the way you like them
I mistakenly refused to eat tofu until this year – too many restaurants mess it up and I was put off by its squidgy texture. But it’s so easy to cook at home, is high in protein and low in carbs (the ultimate combo) and because it has such a neutral flavor, you can dress it up any way you want. I’ve even got my fillet-steak-loving husband eating this much-maligned protein – in curries, stir-fries and crunchy slaw salads. Pro tip: buy the extra-firm kind if you have a problem with texture.
Make use of meat replacements
Some people turn their noses up at meat replacements, but they definitely have their place in the food chain, and they can make transitioning to a meat-free life much easier. There are a range of high-protein, low-carb meat replacements, such as the Quorn and Beyond Meat products, available at supermarkets.
Don’t underestimate the humble legume
I rely heavily on legumes when I cook, not simply to bulk up meals, but because they’re delicious in almost anything and are packed with a myriad of nutrients (and there are those studies that show that eating legumes every day prolongs your life). Some of my favourite legume meals are the spicy beans mentioned above, lentil dhal (a meal-prepper’s dream), butter-bean purée, Ottolenghi’s confit mushrooms with butter-bean purée (which will change your life) and, of course, vegan gold, hummus.
Always offer to bring something
Finally, when eating at a non-vegan’s house, the simplest way to make sure you’ll have something to eat is to offer to bring that something. In the past, Christmas with my meat-eating family usually involved me picking through the sides to make up a plate of food. But now I insist on contributing to the meal. It’s not low-carb (and not everything has to be), but my puff-pastry, tomato tart Christmas tree is delicious to vegans and non-vegans alike and last year I made a fully vegan trifle from scratch. Meals like this are about togetherness, so make sure you have something to share.
Spicy Bean Bowl
For the beans:
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp cayenne pepper (or to taste)
1/4 tsp smoked paprika (or to taste)
Sprinkle of dried chilli flakes
2 tbsp cumin
1 tin black beans, drained and rinsed
1 tin chopped tomatoes
Salt, sugar and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
For the guacamole and salsa:
1 avocado, mashed
2 tomatoes, finely diced, divided
1/2 onion, finely diced, divided
Big handful coriander, roughly chopped
Freshly squeezed lime juice, to taste
To make the beans
1. Add a good glug of olive oil to a pan and heat over a medium heat.
2. Once the oil is hot, add the onion and fry for a few minutes, until translucent. Add the garlic and cook for a few more minutes, stirring often.
3. Once the onion and garlic are cooked, add in all the spices and cook until fragrant (you might need to add some water to loosen things up).
4. Add the black beans, the chopped tomatoes and half a cup of water and stir to combine.
5. Turn down the heat and let the mixture simmer until the liquid has reduced and the sauce has thickened.
6. Season with salt, sugar and freshly ground black pepper, to taste.
To make the guacamole
1. Place the avocado, half the tomato and half the onion into a bowl and stir to combine.
2. Add half the coriander and season with salt, pepper and a squeeze (or three) of lime juice.
3. To make the salsa, mix the rest of the tomato, onion and coriander together and season to taste.
To serve, place the beans, guacamole, salsa and nachos into a bowl, keeping the ingredients separate, Buddha bowl-style. Optional: serve with extra lime wedges.