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Six Amazing Oil-Free Salad Dressings

For a long time I was skeptical about oil-free salad dressings. How could you possibly get that creamy texture and the perfect coating of lettuce leaves without oil? Well, I have been proven wrong, but it took a lot of experimentation. I tried out dozens of recipes that ended up in nasty stuff going into the garbage. But I found few gems, and some I shaped and polished further. Oh, and gems they are! There are only five of them so far, but each one is delicious (to me at least, and to the people I shared them with at a recent cooking workshop). 

You'll notice a gaping hole here, though. There's no vinaigrette. I haven't succeeded at creating a good enough oil-free vinaigrette recipe. Please post one if you have it. The emulsion of oil into vinegar, lemon juice, or other liquid is very tough to imitate. I've tried recipes with ground up chia seeds, flaxseed meal, and some that just leave the oil out. Nothing has worked for me yet. Any ideas? 

Amazing Oil-Free Salad Dressings

Jill's Oil-Free Creamy Sunflower Seed Dressing (or Sauce)

Peanut Dressing

No-Oil Carrot Ginger Dressing

Sanctuary Dip (Ranch Dressing)

Green Goddess Garlic Dressing

Gracious Vegan Oil-Free Tahini Dressing

 

 

A Dozen Plant-Based Recipes Using Greens

Greens are healthy, versatile, gorgeous, and readily available. I recently found out some things about greens’ amazing nutritional benefits:

See Basic Green Soup 

See Basic Green Soup 

  • Greens are the best source of lutein and zeaxanthin, the antioxidants that may help prevent cataracts and macular degeneration.
  • Greens are the best source of plant-based nitrates, which may play a role in the prevention of heart disease and high blood pressure.
  • Consumption of greens and cruciferous vegetables appears be linked to lower rates of cognitive decline.
  • Greens provide antioxidants, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, and zinc.
  • As an added bonus, intake of greens is associated with reduced facial wrinkling. For more information on this discovery, see a summary of the study.  

Here are some of my favorite recipes featuring greens.

Appetizers

Entrees

Salads

Sides

Soups

Two Meatless Dinner Party Menus

Sometimes it’s hard to think of complementary dishes for a satisfying meal, especially if you’re new to meatless cooking. Here are two ideas for your consideration. They work at our house.

Saucy Plates

If you have 4 or more people (and this is good for a crowd), consider serving this meal buffet-style. Set up the dishes on a counter, and everyone can walk by and take as much or as little as they want, constructing their own unique combination of ingredients.

Thai One On

Here’s the way we eat Thai curry--a bit of fusion going on with Chinese-inspired spring rolls, but it works.

 

Thai Recipes

I love Thai flavors (lemongrass, cilantro, coconut milk). Many creative cooks have taken the flavors and created fusion dishes with influences from other parts of the world. Here are the Thai recipes that are so good they made it to my site.

Entrees

Healthy Broccoli and Cauliflower Recipes

These two cruciferous vegetables are packed with nutrients and definitely worth the trouble to work into your daily, or at least weekly, diet. For more on the specifics of their potential to help your immune system, liver function, cholesterol levels, and cancer risk, start with this short summary and follow links from there.

The great thing about these vegetables is their texture—they stand up to many different kinds of cooking (roasting, boiling, etc.) as well as freezing (raw or cooked). While they have a strong flavor, the right spicing and complementary ingredients make for dishes with a lot of taste impact. 

Entrees

Sides

Soups

Breakfast

Legume-Based Sandwiches

It can be tough to get 2 or 3 daily servings of legumes in your diet. See my ideas for legume-based salads and legume-based soups. Here are six delicious ideas for legume-based sandwiches. Canned beans can lead to wonderful fillings, either as hummus, mashed with other ingredients, or roasted and combined with a spicy sauce. All of these are outstanding. 

Legume-Based Salads

Healthy Salads with Beans and Lentils

Don't forget about salads as a way to get beans and lentils into your diet. Here are a few suggestions, with links to my recommendations where available. 

Besides these special salads, you can also just open a can of beans, drain and rinse them, and use some on your green salad. The key is to see if you can get three servings of legumes a day--your body will thank you. 

 

Legume-Based Soups

Protein, fiber, and other valuable nutrients ... legumes

Spiced Vegan Lentil Soup by Cookie+Kate

Spiced Vegan Lentil Soup by Cookie+Kate

If you're looking to increase your intake of legumes (dried beans, lentils, and split peas), one easy way is to make soup. 

Here are some ideas.

Soups!

I love soup

I often have leftover soup for breakfast. I could eat soup for all my meals.

Menu Ideas for Christmas

The foods I like for Christmas meals are different from my Thanksgiving favorites. Thanksgiving is all earth tones, sage, thyme, potatoes, parsnips, yams…  I prefer dark greens and bright reds at the Christmas table: Swiss chard, kale, spinach, red peppers, beets, tomatoes…  For dessert, I like chocolate—maybe as a contrast to Thanksgiving, but also because nothing goes better together than Christmas and chocolate.

Here are some ideas for your Christmas table.  

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Gracious Vegan's Favorite Thanksgiving Recipes

I love Thanksgiving!

Aside from all the other cool things about the day, it’s a chance to make all your favorite traditional dishes, whether they go back to your childhood or only a few years. I now have so many “special” dishes that I can’t fit them all into one day—and that doesn’t count new recipes I still want to try. I’ll probably spill them into Christmas meal planning or wait until next year.

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Vegan Entrees with Legumes

Beans, lentils, and split peas are so healthy that they deserve a category all their own. Here are some legume-related dinner ideas that may help jog your brain when it needs ideas. I’ve provided links to recipes I recommend.

 

Summer House Guests: Menu Ideas

Photo by Lynn B

Photo by Lynn B

Many of us have guests come in the summer and stay for a few days (or longer!). I've put together some ideas for what to feed guests if you want to stay plant-based. These menus have been tried on my own house guests and found delicious.

Dinners

Taco Night!  Fool Your Friends Tacos, Refried Beans, Spanish rice from a mix, and Guacamole and chips

Burger Night!  World’s Most Versatile Veggie Burger, Sweet Potato Fries (or store-bought frozen regular fries), fruit salad

Chili Night!  Meaty Beany Chili and Cornbread and green salad

Asian Food Night!  Tofu, Veggie, and Sesame Fried Rice (leave off the tofu if you like), Crunchy Asian Ramen Noodle Salad (I use agave nectar instead of honey)

BBQ Night!  Create skewers of vegetables, brush with oil, sprinkle with salt, pepper, and/or other spices (e.g., Montreal steak seasoning) and grill; serve with rice pilaf and (optional) a sauce on the side like your favorite bottled barbeque sauce, Creamy Tomato Sauce, Creamy Roasted Tomato Vodka Sauce, Creamy Cilantro Sauce or you could go with Trader Joe’s Soyaki sauce, with Rainbow Raisin Coleslaw on the side. 

Quinoa Fiesta Night!  Make a batch of One Pan Mexican Quinoa with bowls of optional toppings available to guests, then add a green or fruit salad.

Breakfasts

Waffles! Blueberry Oatmeal Waffles by the great Isa Chandra Moskowitz

Coffee Cake! Around the Clock Vegan Coffee Cake (the best!)

Oatmeal bar! Make a big batch and lay out small bowls of toppings along with a pitcher of warm non-dairy milk; let your guests customize their bowls

Breakfast parfaits! Layers of fruit, granola, and Vanilla Cashew Cream I Use With Everything

Smoothies! For a healthy smoothie, go for the “How Not to Die” Pumpkin Smoothie.

Lunches

You’ll likely be away from home at lunchtime, but if you find yourself at home, consider Gazpacho, other soups (hot or cold), bruschetta (here’s my bruschetta recipe), focaccia (bought or homemade), and salads (here’s my Spinach Salad with Curry Dressing).

Desserts

Explore my Dessert section—vegan desserts are as easy to make as non-vegan and just as delicious (if not more so!). 

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Low-Calorie Vegan Recipes: Lunch Soups and Mains

If you eat plant-based and need to keep your calorie count low, you don’t have to starve. This post focuses on low-calorie vegan recipes and store-bought options for your brown-bag lunch (or for staying home). 

A soup or light entrée as the center of your brown-bag lunch

I find that a warm soup or entrée is perfect for my packed lunch at work. When I’m being a stickler about calories—like after the holidays—I take a low-calorie vegan soup along with a big salad and some fruit and vegetables for snacks. They keep me full all day. In this post I’ll focus on the soup or light entrée ideas.

Low-calorie, but filling and nutritious

My definition of low-calorie for a soup or entrée is about 150 calories per serving. Broth-based soups are the lowest in calories, but often they’re not filling enough. I’ve only included recipes for soups that I consider filling, and all of them have some protein. I especially love low-calorie vegan soups that get their creaminess from blending the vegetables or from lentils being cooked until they’re creamy.

Homemade low-calorie soups and entrées with protein

These are excellent recipes for low-calorie vegan homemade soups and entrées, and all of them include a protein (beans, lentils, nuts, tempeh, or soymilk).

Buy-and-pack recommendations for the non-cook (or when you don’t have time to cook)

Here are some recommendations for low-calorie nutritious vegan options that you can buy. Again, I’ve included only those with some protein, so there’s a better chance they’ll stick to your ribs.

  • Boca Burger (only 70 calories) or other vegan patty. Take a lot of toppings with you: salsa, ketchup, mustard, dill pickles, lettuce, onion, etc. Maybe a small piece of bread (or two patties).  
  • Progresso vegetable soups – they have a lot of vegetable soups. They range from 80 to 160 per cup (there are 2 cups per can). One idea is to take 1 cup of, say, their lentil soup, and take 2-3 cups of baby spinach with you. Combine them in a bowl and put it in the microwave when you’re ready to eat. You’ll have a delicious soup that’s very high in nutrients.
  • Miso soup, individual packets – these are tasty but not filling enough by themselves. You could take 1-2 cups of broccoli slaw mix (pre-cut from the produce aisle) and microwave that, and add the soup.
  • Fresh store-made soups, but avoid high-calorie soups like African Peanut Soup
  • Fresh store-made side dishes, but avoid any that are swimming in oil or have major calorie add-ins

Photo by Maria on flickr

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Church Potluck Dishes Without Meat, Eggs, or Dairy

It can be pretty embarrassing to take a dish to a church potluck and watch everyone else’s food get scarfed up while yours sits untouched. I’ve made winners in my day, and, boy, I’ve made some losers.

Usually the first dishes to be eaten are the familiar and high-fat ones—mac ‘n’ cheese, scalloped potatoes, cheddar-cornbread-chili casserole. Occasionally an underdog wins the day. I once made a Red Lentil Cauliflower Curry from one of my favorite cookbooks, Veganomicon. It was a plain-looking brown dish with cauliflower and parsnips (what was I thinking?), but after one or two people tried it and began spreading the word, it was the first to disappear.

When you don’t eat meat, eggs, or dairy, you automatically forfeit some of the visually appealing elements that catch people’s eyes, like melted cheese, bacon, sour cream, and crumbled sausage. But there are still infinite possibilities--and not just dull-looking ones either. I’ve carefully rummaged through cookbooks, favorite websites, Pinterest, and old recipe cards to devise a shortlist of winning dishes suitable for a church potluck. I’ve chosen only dishes that can be served several hours after making them, since potluck dishes have to sit. And I’ve avoided strange ingredients like tofu or tempeh that might put people off. These are good-looking, good-tasting creations made from 100% plants.

You don’t have to broadcast to the folks at church that the dish doesn’t have meat, eggs, or dairy. Let them ask about it, and even then, make them coax the ingredients out of you. Once the cat is out of the bag, then you can let them know what you’re doing and why.

Give the dish a cute name if the one here isn’t good enough (using “Elvis” in the name is always effective). Doll it up with garnishes and put it in a beautiful dish, with a colorful cloth napkin underneath.

Meatless cooks unite! We do not have to lose to the cheesecake and ham-salad-sandwich peddlers of the world! (Oh, wait, it’s not a contest… right, right…)

Please add more ideas in the comment section or share how a dish from this list went over at your potluck. Happy cooking and eating!

Appetizers

Creamy Artichoke Spinach Dip (from One Green Planet) with slices of baguette: much healthier than the dairy equivalent, and just as good

Red Pepper, Walnut, Tahini Dip (from Real Simple) with pita chips or mini bell peppers: it has an intriguing blend of flavors that will keep people guessing and eating

Indian-Spiced Cashews (from Leslie Beck): I used these for holiday gifts one year, and people talked about them for weeks! They are not hot-spicy – a must-try.

Pinwheels: use your favorite recipe for these, but instead of cream cheese, use hummus; experiment with colorful combinations of vegetables

Salads

Rice and Black Bean Salad with Cumin Dressing: See link for my comments

Spinach Salad with Curry Dressing: See link for my comments

Couscous Salad with Ginger-Cumin Dressing: See link for my comments

Gracious Vegan Mexican Salad: See link for my comments

 Sides

Green Bean Casserole (from the Minimalist Baker): I’ve tried many recipes for green bean casserole without Campbell’s Soup (which contains milk), and this is the best one. Delicious.

Sweet Potato Puree with Browned Butter Maple Syrup (from Martha Stewart): I use Earth Balance margarine instead of butter; this is a marvelous way to take sweet potatoes to a potluck

Roasted Carrots & Parsnips with Shallot and Herb Butter (from Fine Cooking): Every time I take this somewhere, I get requests to make it again. I use Earth Balance margarine instead of butter, and I halve the butter recipe.

Marisa’s Baked Beans (from me, the Gracious Vegan): These are semi-homemade, so they’re half the work; you’ll be amazed at how great canned beans can taste with a little help.

Entrees

Cheesy Vegan Potato and Broccoli Gratin (from I Love Vegan): Wonderful taste and texture—my husband scarfs this up when I make it

Bryanna's Baked Vegan Bubble And Squeak (from Bryanna Clark): This one surprises you; how can cabbage and potatoes taste so good? But they do.

Skinny Vegan Lasagna (from Hummusapien): You might get pushback because this is meatless, but the taste is great. I don’t like bottled spaghetti sauce, so I use my own; otherwise this is a winner.   

Black Bean and Zucchini Tortilla Casserole (from Veg Kitchen): This is a nice alternative to enchilada casserole and tastes yummy.

Vegan Penne Pasta Casserole (from Veganosity): This is another baked cashew-based pasta dish. You can’t have too many of these, really.

Desserts

Candle Café Chocolate Cake: See link for my comments

Apple Raisin Cake: See link for my comments

Carrot Cake (from Robin Robertson): I thought I would never taste carrot cake again after giving up eggs and dairy, but this brought me back from deprivation. It’s as good as my old recipe. I recommend the frosting from www.veganbaking.net (recipe here)

Chocolate Hazelnut Biscotti: See link for my comments

Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies: See link for my comments

Pecan Pie Truffles: See link for my comment

Here is the cookbook that contains the recipe for the Red Lentil Cauliflower Curry. It's a wonderful resource. 

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Life After Cream Cheese

Bitter life sentence giving up cream cheese?

I decided to give up eggs and dairy six years ago after being a vegetarian for thirty years. I can remember the exact moment shortly after that decision when I realized it meant giving up cream cheese. Whoa. My new commitment to healthy and cruelty-free living was important, yes, but cream cheese? It had been a workhorse in my kitchen since I’d learned to cook with my mom. I’d won blue ribbons at local picnics with cream cheese dishes and high praise from my dinner guests. It was the perfect ingredient: cheap, convenient, dependable, a good team player, and not a show-off. It played an indispensable role in cheesecake, carrot cake frosting, and that breakfast of champions, bagels with cream cheese. Would I never buy the iconic silver box again, never again unfold the soft foil wrapper? Was I forfeiting that smooth, creamy deliciousness forever?

Won't miss cream cheese's fat

Sure, cream cheese is a nutritional under-performer. I wouldn’t miss that part of the sacrifice. Just two tablespoons deliver 100 calories, 9 grams of fat, and 6 grams of saturated fat. Light cream cheese lessens the damage (70 calories, 5 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat), and Neufchâtel comes somewhere in between. Even the best food scientists can’t get around the core components: milk, fat (cream), cheese cultures, and stabilizers.

New cream cheese alternatives mean no sacrifice

What are the alternatives? Until recently, tofu-based substitutes were the only option, and they weren’t fooling anyone. But giving up the Philadelphia brick today is not the vow of self-denial it once was. When I dug into my options, I found that plant-based food companies and creative vegan chefs offer many alternatives to cream cheese with the same creamy-tart goodness and the same versatility in the kitchen. The nutritional news was good, too.

The number of companies selling non-dairy cream cheese is higher than ever before. The long-running brands—Tofutti, Go Veggie!, and Follow Your Heart—have been joined by Trader Joe’s, Daiya, and newcomer Kite Hill. Most brands come in flavors like Strawberry and Chive & Onion. These products have devoted followers who use them not just for spreading but also for baking and cooking. Most of these non-dairy cream cheeses are made of water, vegetable oil, soy protein, and thickeners, although Kite Hill goes a different direction with a base of almond milk. The calories per two-tablespoon serving range from 60 to 90. Tofutti brand has the lowest calories (60), while Kite Hill has the lowest saturated fat (zero).

Artisanal cheese spreads incredibly creamy

A new generation of artisanal nut-cheese makers now produces mouth-watering cream-cheese-like spreads using raw nuts, usually cashews. Miyoko’s Kitchen offers gourmet double cream spreads in chive and sundried-tomato-garlic flavors. Other nut-based cheeses are available from Dr-Cow, Parmela Creamery, Treeline, and NüCulture, among others. These alternatives are more for spreading than for baking and cooking, and they’re delicious and unprocessed.

Dropping cream cheese and still being able to make your favorite dishes

Best of all, there are thousands of plant-based recipes online and in cookbooks for making my beloved dishes. They use nuts, tofu, beans, lemon juice, vinegar, and even sweet potatoes to get the texture, taste, and the hold-everything-together smoothness of cream cheese. Below I’ve listed a few of the recipes that took me to non-dairy nirvana. These recipes and the growing number of yummy alternative products have given me the courage to tell Big Dairy to count me out for good.

Appetizers and Dips

 Main Dishes

Desserts

Breakfast Bagels

Lunch Bagels

  • Hummus and any combination of
    • Roasted red peppers, marinated artichoke hearts, Greek olives, capers, onion slices, tomato slices, lettuce leaves
  • Olive tapenade and any combination of the above toppings

  • Vegan pesto and any combination of the above toppings

“red velvet cupcakes,” copyright © 2010 F_A on Flickr and made available under an Attribution2.0 Generic license

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Ideas for Lunch Dishes to Take to an Office Potluck

You’re working on an excruciating spreadsheet when an email hits your Inbox: “Next Week’s Potluck Lunch!” Some well-meaning soul is trying to boost the group’s morale, perhaps during an austerity phase when the company won’t fund pizza parties. The email asks everyone to bring something. The sign-up sheet is waiting in the empty cubicle next to the printer.

If you're not eating meat, eggs, and dairy, don't worry. You won't have to sign up for paper products or drinks. Whether you cook or not, this is an excellent opportunity to show others that your new way of eating is easy and delicious.

I’ve provided some ideas below for dishes to take to an office lunch potluck. It’s not an exhaustive list by any means, but I hope it speeds along your decision about what to take. 

For those of you who cook, I’ve provided links to recipes. All the recipes are tested and approved by me, the Gracious Vegan.  

For those of you who don’t cook and will be buying your contribution, I beg you to skip the big grocery stores and tired brands of dips and chips. See my ideas below. Find a higher-end grocery store with fresh, store-made choices or, better yet, get dishes to go at good restaurants or cafes (e.g., real hummus from a Lebanese restaurant).

Appetizers

If you’re cooking:

  • Red Pepper, Walnut, Tahini Dip (from Real Simple, recipe here) with pita chips or mini bell peppers
  • Spiced Flour Tortilla Crisps (from Real Simple, recipe here) and any guacamole, romesco, salsa or hot refried bean dip

If you’re buying:

  • Tapenade, marinated red peppers, marinated artichoke hearts, and baguette slices or crackers
  • Pita bread and two or three of the following: hummus, baba ganoush, foul madammas, stuffed grape leaves

Main Dishes

If you’re cooking (all of these could be microwaved at the time of serving and/or kept warm in a crock pot):

  • Chili (the link to my favorite recipe is here)
  • Ratatouille (my favorite recipe is here, from Fine Cooking) and some good bread   
  • Curried Chickpeas and Summer Vegetable Stew (also from Fine Cooking, here)
  • Curried Red Lentil Stew with Vegetables (from Epicurious, here)
  • Tofu, Veggie and Sesame Fried Rice (I would leave out the tofu) (from the HuffPost Taste website, available here)

If you’re buying:

  • Look for dishes similar to the ones above at a high-end market or a café that sells by the carton or pound

Salads

If you’re cooking:

  • Curried Couscous Salad with Ginger-Lime Dressing (originally from Jeanne Lemlin, Main-Course Vegetarian Pleasures, available here)
  • Spinach Salad with Curry Dressing (Gracious Vegan, available here)
  • Rainbow Raisin Coleslaw (Gracious Vegan, available here)

If you’re buying:

  • Look for dishes similar to the ones above at a high-end market or a café that sells by the carton or pound

Soups (take in a crock pot)

If you’re cooking:

  • Moroccan Chickpea Soup (from Gourmet, here)
  • Turkish Red Lentil Soup (from the New York Timeshere)
  • Black Bean Soup (Sally Pasley’s Tao of Cooking version is my favorite, but another excellent recipe is here)
  • Minestrone (there are lots of good minestrone recipes)
  • Gazpacho (Gracious Vegan, available here)

If you're buying:

  • Look for dishes similar to the ones above at a high-end market or a café that sells by the carton or pound

Desserts

If you're cooking:

  • Chocolate Cake (The Candle Café Cookbook’s recipe is here, or this one is excellent too)
  • Carrot Cake (the absolute best is from Robin Robertson’s 1000 Vegan Recipes; she shares the recipe here)
  • Chocolate Hazelnut Biscotti (from Veganomicon, recipe here)
  • Chocolate Chip Cookies (a great recipe is in Colleen Patrick-Goudreau’s The Joy of Vegan Baking--see here for link to this recipe)
  • Fruit Crisp (Gracious Vegan, available here)

If you’re buying:

  • It may be hard to find good vegan desserts in your area. One option is vegan ice cream, vegan chocolate syrup (Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup is vegan, but there may be other brands at your store that are fudgier), and maybe some chopped nuts too. If you can find or make vegan brownies, you could blow people away with vegan brownie sundaes.
  • I wouldn’t just bring fruit – that communicates to people that vegan eating is limited and not very exciting. 

Good luck with the potluck. I hope your food is the most popular dish there. 

Five Hard Lessons Learned About Cooking Without Meat, Eggs, and Dairy for People Who Don't Want to Change

I've cooked all my life--since standing on a chair helping my mom make family dinners like salami pizza and tuna on toast (gross!). I love cooking for others and get so jazzed when they like a dish they've never tried before and love it. After going vegetarian in college, I started specializing in gooey cheese and egg dishes, and most of them got the kind of praise I thrived on. 

But once I gave up eggs and dairy, in addition to meat, I found it harder and harder to get the rave reviews I craved. I went into a slump. 

After a particularly long time without sufficient accolades, I decided to be more analytical about what was going on. I started a “problem dishes” list and took notes about anything people said about them. I realized pretty quickly that it was not that I’d lost my cooking skills. It was the choice of dishes and the mis-match with the omnivore palate.

So this post is devoted to the types of dishes I’ve learned to steer clear of when feeding omnivores who aren't open to animal-free eating, are vocal about not wanting to indulge your "crazy" experiment, or who are just new to the idea and are picky about what they eat. 

At the end of this post, I talk about why there's hope--people do change and do open up to new eating experiments, but at first you will need to meet them where they are. 

The problem with traditional egg or cheese dishes

Vegan versions of fondue, omelet, quiche, cheesecake, pizza, or other traditional egg or cheese dishes are a tough sell when cooking for omnivores. I've come to love egg-less omelets made with chickpea flour, and I've sampled many dairy-free cheeses and found a few I've liked. But in the past when I’ve served omnivores dishes like quesadillas or pizzas with dairy-free cheese , they’ve fixated on the differences in taste and texture and said they didn’t like my versions as much as the traditional ones. 

It makes sense, right? They’ve been eating these dishes one way all their lives. Then they’re suddenly asked to try it with substitute ingredients that do taste different. Especially with comfort foods, “different” means “bad” to most people.

Vegan macaroni and cheese is the worst, in my experience. I could fill a Dumpster with what I’ve thrown out after tasting a few bites of the many recipes I’ve tried.  There are better and better substitutes for cheese sauce that get close to the mac 'n' cheese taste (like Heidi-Ho), but I still wouldn’t recommend trying it for a dinner with reluctant omnivores.

The problem with meatless versions of traditional meat dishes

When cooking for omnivores, I used to try meatless versions of meat dishes, like meatless wings, pot pie, meatballs, or meatloaf. I thought I’d meet the omnivores halfway and show them how versatile this new style of cooking and eating could be. But the the meatless versions  called for tofu, tempeh, seitan, or meat substitutes, and most omnivores are very suspicious of these foods. They think tofu is spongy and tasteless. They can’t pronounce “seitan.”  Before they take a bite, their brains are preparing them to hate it.

There are some new meat substitutes that are getting excellent reviews. A brand called Beyond Meat sells Beefy Crumbles, Chicken-Free Strips, and other products that are flying off the shelves in some markets. My experience has been that omnivores can taste that even these products are not meat, and the omnivores are quick and proud to tell you so. You may have family members who like the substitute meats, but I’m still going to avoid meat substitutes for omnivore guests whose reactions to vegan foods I don’t know well, because the unprepared omnivore’s brain will tell the taste buds to reject it.

The problem with bland dishes

Some meatless dishes are not flavorful enough for the omnivore’s palate. I’m talking about dishes like rice casseroles, pasta salads, or stuffed vegetables with minimal added spices.  Many are healthy, but they lack pizazz. Without meat or cheese in the dish, the omnivore needs something sparky and interesting to fill the void. Granted, a lot of animal-based food is under-spiced and bland, but omnivores would claim that the meat and cheese flavors are sufficient in themselves.

I learned this lesson the hard way one week when I cooked two dinners in a row that my omnivore husband roundly rejected. (I’ve recruited him to be my primary taste tester.)  The recipes came from a legendary vegetarian’s cookbook—I won’t mention the name because this was not her fault.  One dish was a red pepper and walnut pesto sauce for pasta, and the other was a baked pasta dish with roasted asparagus and onions. My husband pronounced each of them to be bland and insubstantial. (I adored both of them and ate all the leftovers during the next few days.) How could these wonderful, subtle dishes not appeal to him? That taught me a lot about the need for one or more strong flavors to pop in each dish—even better is a layering of distinct flavors. The omnivore needs spicing to compensate for the missing meat and cheese flavors.

The problem with food that’s too dense or too squishy

Texture is key.  Omnivores will be all over the texture if it’s not “right.” They love to point out when meatless food is spongy or soggy or else dry and dense like a brick. Of course, their idea of the right texture is meat, cheese, and eggs, so it makes sense that they’d be sensitive to the texture of dishes that don’t have the feel of these foods in their mouths.

I've had some doozies when it comes to texture failures.  I remember Mexican Skillet Pasta...  I adapted it from a meat recipe (probably a mistake right there), and by the time I substituted textured vegetable protein for the ground beef, added corn because it looked so nice, used canned enchilada sauce (huge mistake!), and cooked all of them too long with the bow tie pasta, it was a big gloppy mess that neither my husband nor I enjoyed. 

On the squishy end of things, I spent an entire afternoon once making the VegNews recipe for vegan boeuf bourguignon. The broth was fantastic, the spices just right, the vegetables tender, but the seitan’s texture was like water-logged marshmallows. My husband couldn’t stomach the seitan after just one bite. He nibbled at some of the vegetables and requested we skip the second night of this dish.  I hated the texture, too, and ended up throwing most of the dish away. I scrawled a big “X” across the seitan part of the recipe in my notebook. That's when I realized that texture was a critical element of any dish that would win an omnivore's praise. 

The problem with desserts that are dry or “too healthy”

I’ve found vegan baked goods to be the best way to chip away at omnivores’ skepticism. Many of my baked goods have been dubbed by omnivores to be the best in their category, period.

A lot of recipes for vegan baked goods call for whole wheat pastry flour. There’s nothing wrong with that, and the results can be fantastic, but I’ve learned the hard way to try out a recipe first before serving it to guests. I once broke that rule and tried a new recipe for vegan gingerbread cake to take to my church’s coffee hour. The ingredients looked reasonable, and the spicing looked intriguing.  Well, the cake turned out dry—I mean brick-of-sawdust dry.  It was the only sweet offered, so people had to try it. No one (including me) took seconds, and it certainly didn’t get any compliments. I was embarrassed.

I also avoid raw versions of well-known desserts, like “raw apple pie,” “raw fudge cake,” “raw molten lava cakes” (there really is such a recipe). The unsuspecting omnivores will taste the difference between the raw versions and their familiar versions, and the raw versions will lose.  No amount of insisting on the great flavors or the health benefits will change the fact that the raw versions taste different and, therefore, worse. Raw versions are for people who are open to eating differently.

Don’t lose heart…

So what’s left to make for new omnivores in your life? There are actually a lot of meat-, egg-, and dairy-free dishes that will please most omnivores, even if they start out skeptical.  I know this, because I’ve learned from my mistakes and figured out a lot of dishes that have been successful at omnivore gatherings. Please see my recipe recommendation section for a bunch of recipes that are consistent with the lessons learned here and should please most omnivores.