What do Bill Clinton, Sandra Oh, Ellen DeGeneres, Alanis Morissette and Thich Nhat Hanh have in common?
They all are vegans, just like Robin Asbell.
She's the author of the new Big Vegan (Chronicle Books, 544 pages, $29.95), and she's thrilled to see the growing interest in this way of eating, which isn't new at all, despite its unfamiliarity to many of us.
Think of vegans as hyper-focused vegetarians, who avoid all forms of animal products — including dairy, eggs and honey, in addition to meat. Vegans do so for various reasons, be they spiritual or religious, or for health, environment or animal-rights reasons.
But this way of eating is not about deprivation, Asbell says. It's about possibilities and what can be done within a wide range of dietary choices that include vegetables, fruits, beans, grains, nuts and seeds.
Still, vegan diets have had an image problem for years, even though the American Dietetic Association gave them an official nod of approval in 2009. Skeptics might raise their eyebrows, rather than their forks, at the prospect of a dinner plate without a hunk of meat or a pat of butter on it.
Asbell was undaunted by the task of trying to persuade meat eaters that they can go without. "I wanted to make the food as appealing and delicious as I could," she said in an interview.
That meant maximum flavor. So Asbell looked to other cultures and flavor combinations.
"One of the great adventures of going vegetarian and vegan is to explore cultures where people have eaten this way or a long time," she said.
Her secret flavor? Umami, the fifth type of taste, beyond sweet-sour-bitter-salty. It's the Japanese term for that indefinable meaty taste, which technically is tied to amino acids. It can be found in mushrooms, ripe vegetables, soy sauce and, of course, meat. To add it, Asbell often incorporates small amounts of miso, nutritional yeast and other umami-rich ingredients to her recipes.
She also turned to her restaurant training for inspiration. "I wanted to bring in reduction, caramelization, layering certain flavors. I used more sophisticated techniques, while also keeping it easy to prepare," she said.
Judging from the number of new cookbooks geared toward vegans, Asbell is right on the mark with this mini-trend.
"I've been anticipating this for a long time," she said. "I thought all this would happen a lot faster. The current boom is due to the environmental aspect. In recent years, people have been thinking about the environmental impact, the carbon footprint of food."
From whole-wheat maple-cherry scones to black bean-and-quinoa burgers, Asbell offers more than 350 recipes, including how to make your own mock beef, or seitan.
But as she reminds cooks, "It's not vegan food. It's just good food."
Indonesian rice noodles with long beans and seitan
2 tablespoons canola oil
8 ounces seitan, chopped into bite-size pieces (see notes)
8 ounces fresh long beans, chopped into 1-inch pieces (see notes)
1 large carrot, thinly sliced
4 large shallots, chopped
1 large fresh red Thai or serrano chili, chopped, divided
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 inched peeled fresh ginger root, finely chopped
2 medium limes (1 zested and juiced, 1 quartered), divided
1 teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
6 ounces dried rice vermicelli
¾ cup coconut milk
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon dark miso (see notes)
1 teaspoon molasses
½ cup fresh Thai (or regular) basil, julienned
¼ cup dry-roasted peanuts, chopped
Bring big pot of water to boil. In wok or large frying pan over high heat, warm oil. Add seitan, beans, carrot, shallots, half the chili, garlic, ginger, lime zest, coriander and turmeric. Stir-fry until vegetables are crisp-tender. Taste and add more chili, if desired.
Cook noodles in boiling water according to package directions. Drain and rinse.
In cup or medium bowl, whisk together coconut milk, soy sauce, miso and molasses. Add to vegetables, and bring everything to boil. Stir in 1 tablespoon lime juice. Add drained noodles, coating them well with sauce. Cook until sauce is thick and clinging to noodles. Add basil and serve, topped with peanuts and with lime wedges on side.
Makes 6 servings.
Notes: Seitan is made from wheat and is protein-rich, with a meatlike texture. It's next to soy in the refrigerated section or in the freezer of supermarkets; in Asian markets, it's found in cans labeled "mock duck." If you can't find long beans (also called Chinese long beans or yard-long beans), substitute fresh green beans. Miso is a soybean paste; find it in the Asian section of the supermarket.
Nutrition information per serving: 304 calories, 11 g. fat, 590 mg. sodium, 50 g. carbohydrates, 56 mg. calcium, 13 g. protein, 0 mg. cholesterol, 5 g. dietary fiber.
Lentil chili with bulgur and anchos
1 cup lentils, soaked and rinsed
4½ cups vegetable stock or water
1 medium carrot, chopped
½ cup chopped onion
1 bay leaf
2 green bell peppers, chopped
1 large dried ancho pepper, toasted and crumbled (see notes)
1 can (14 ounces) fire-roasted crushed tomatoes
½ cup bulgur (see notes)
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon salt
Put lentils in soup pot. Add stock, carrot, onion and bay leaf. Over high heat, bring to boil, then reduce to simmer, cover and cook for 20 minutes.
Add bell peppers and ancho. Simmer 20 minutes, then check lentils for doneness. They should be very soft. Add remaining ingredients.
Simmer 15 minutes more to bring flavors together and finish cooking bulgur, adding more water or stock if needed. Taste and adjust seasonings before serving.
Makes 5 servings.
Notes: Bulgur is the wheat kernel that has been steamed, dried and crushed. It adds a chewy texture to this dish, and it can be found in the grains aisle or natural-foods section of the supermarket. To toast a dried pepper, place it in a dry pan over medium high heat for a few moments, then crumble it.
Nutrition information per serving: 243 calories, 2 g. fat, 596 mg. sodium, 47 g. carbohydrates, 99 mg. calcium, 14 g. protein, 0 mg. cholesterol, 13 g. dietary fiber.