Plant-Based Food is Not Boring

If you love plant-based eating, this article is not for you. Well, you can keep reading, but I’m not here to preach to the choir about going vegan or vegetarian. What I am interested in is whether you think plant-based and say “ew” or “I’m not interested in that hippie BS” or “tempeh tastes like soggy cardboard.” This latter comes directly from my mom.

A plant-based diet has two simple facts stacked against it: Meat tastes good and human beings do need protein. Many people’s point of entry into plant-based eating, the Impossible Burger, is probably much more processed than grass-fed beef from an organic farm. So, for this week’s “Who Says,” we at TABLE decided to investigate how you skeptics of plant-based eating might give it a successful try.

Yes, Takis and Swedish Fish are Vegan

I started eating plant-based when I lived with two animal rights activists. Their stance on veganism was not rooted in its health benefits—we ate Takis, Oreos, and a whole host of ultra-processed Trader Joe’s branded snacks that probably did some damage to our systems. I stopped eating meat essentially because I stopped cooking with it.

While a common gripe about veganism is that it’s expensive and difficult, cooking meat is also time-consuming and pricey. As a twenty-year-old with no money, it was much easier to live off of Takis than to have to spend ten valuable minutes I could have used to watch TV, drink Modelo, or argue with my parents on learning about how to cook a chicken properly. Ah, the moral high ground of veganism: #cleanliving. Don’t worry, I have evolved since then. I now fall into a category of loosely vegetarian or “plant-based.” I couldn’t give up eggs and cheese, and I will eat oysters at Fet-Fisk.

But thinking about what you eat and why you eat it elicits questions a lot of people don’t actually bother to ask themselves. What tastes good? What do you like to cook? What’s easy and accessible to you? What has health benefits you feel you need? Also, what are your personal standards and values reflected in your food?

Our Takes on The Substitutes

Let’s give a shoutout to some of the meat-substitutes with bad reputations. Associate Online Editor Kylie Thomas mentioned eating seitan almost by accident in a college dining hall. She wasn’t able to tell that it wasn’t chicken. The thing with seitan is it is bread-based, which, if you’re seeking the cleanse angle of plant-based eating, maybe isn’t optimal—though editor-in-chief Keith Recker said “That’s why I like it!”

Tempeh, fermented soybeans, is controversial. Keith gave me a look when I brought it up. But I like frying it in olive oil and putting it in a salad or pasta bowl. Our Director of Operations Star Laliberte sometimes makes patties at home with quinoa and mushrooms and a binding agent like flaxseed to replace store-bought Impossible Burgers. She recommends to just make the effort with something like flaxseed, even if it’s intimidating.

What the Pros Say

But what can you eat if you don’t want to substitute meat with something you feel is lesser? A huge part of it is learning to recognize flavor profiles. The perfect case study is Pittsburgh’s own Apteka (4606 Penn Avenue). Apteka is doing a lot to make plant-based food seem exciting. It’s clearly resonating given that chefs Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski were semifinalists for a James Beard Award and made a 2022 New York Times list of the top 50 restaurants in America. All vegan, but you won’t find any meat substitutes in their recipes. The restaurant advertises itself as “a vegetable restaurant” rather than vegan.

A key example on their menu is Kluski śląskie: Silesian potato dumplings with celeriac, onions, white wine, roast mushroom, mushroom jus, “herbes de Pittsburgh” (a combination of local greenery hand-selected by Skowronski and Lasky), and spring onions. Notice how much mushroom is in there. Mushrooms are protein-rich. The real key is to perfect the method of cooking them to the right texture and unlocking their flavor. Much of the savory experience of eating meat can be matched with mushrooms—much more so than from an impossible burger or other “fake meat.”

When I spoke to Lasky about how Apteka builds out their flavor profiles, she said: “There’s a lot of ingredient building, fermentation, smoking, things like that in our recipes. We also try to be as minimally wasteful as possible and use everything. Celeriac scraps become sauce bases. We save all cores and peels and cook them down into reductions.” Much of what makes Apteka work is that it isn’t just vegan for vegan’s sake, there’s a real philosophy behind it that sees plant-based food not just as a fun trend but as a way of life and an experience. They seek out ways to source their ingredients locally, hence the “herbes de Pittsburgh” in the Kluski śląskie. The Apteka team tries to make the experience of a plant-based meal feel bountiful.

“DIY Cooks”

“Most people choose to be vegan for ethical reasons, not because it’s a culinary experience,” Lasky continued. She and Skorownski are both vegan, but they also see plant-based eating as being about what you can include rather than exclude. “There’s a whole world of things you can do without animal products. It’s actually completely normal to have a meal without animal products.” And while Apteka is fine dining in an earthy, grounded environment, Lasky encourages the people who love their food to try to make their own recipes. “People tell us ‘I’d be vegan if I could eat here every day,’ but we’re only open three days a week!” They also describe themselves as “DIY cooks” who just seek out ingredients at local farmer’s markets and create food based on what’s available.

No pressure to start trying to make James Beard nominated Silesian dumpling recipes in your own kitchen. But plant-based eating forces you to think bigger. Maybe why it inspires such ire is that nothing interesting ever just gets a ‘meh, it’s okay.’ There’s always going to be somebody who hates innovation.

Story and photography by Emma Riva / Photography by Laura Petrilla 

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