The Forty(-Six) Day Vegan

I love food. Food makes the top 3 reasons to be. It’s gotten me through some tough times, marked some wonderful occasions and made ordinary moments more special. I owe it a lot, aside from you know, life.

My relationship to it has changed a lot over the years. Growing up, we had nightly family dinners that one of my parents would prepare, sometimes with the help of myself or one of my siblings. Being from a small town outside of Pittsburgh, most nights were one-pot meals (think Hamburger Helper / Rice-a-Roni) and a side of tinned corn or canned green beans.

I loved it. I couldn’t get enough of the salty, soggy beans (“B-BEANS!” I called them until I was, well…an age) boiled with a bouillon cube, sometimes with a bit of ketchup. Mm-mmm! One of my favorites was Daddy’s Goulash — 1 part Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, 1 part ground beef, 1 can condensed tomato soup, 1 onion. Pancake breakfast for dinner was always a class-act on my parents’ part. And then there were the old faithfuls like, spaghetti and meatballs and birthday dinners of boiled hot dogs and mac & cheese.

We pulled out all the stops though when it came to baking. Cookies, in particular. And Christmas-time? Hold on to your belts! We got your Russian teaballs, thumbprint cookies, sour cream cookies, no-bake cookies, peanut butter blossoms, cut-out cookies, molasses sticky buns, buckeyes, and of course, the holy grail, Tuft’s Family Chocolate Chip Cookies.

I learned to make these when I was just 3 years old and my father and I would make a weekly batch together between episodes of Eureka’s Castle and Mr Roger’s Neighborhood.

This food was sacred to me, and still is. But when I moved away from home, I got to look at food through new eyes, as well as looking at my environment through new food. College years were typical, aside from living with an ambitious amateur cook who introduced me pan-seared and unwashed radish leaves, the time I blew up a baked potato in my oven in North Philly and thought it was a gunshot, and living down the road from a Whole Foods. Oh, Whole Foods. I’m pretty sure I took out another credit card just to pay for those grocery bills, but by-God did I eat! Non-dairy milks, mysterious grains, CHEESE!, and obscure fruits and vegetables that I’d never even heard of. It was an education in itself.

Then I moved to Europe… I was fortunate to live with a family in England who grew some of their own food and made nearly everything from scratch. I learned new techniques, tasted fresh asparagus for the first time, became acquainted with food seasons, and most importantly, realized that not only was preparing things (like jams, chutney and sauces) from scratch doable but it was even enjoyable.

British diet, depending on locale, has its differences from American cuisine. To generalize, the most notable are less salt, less sugar, fewer food miles and more visible seasons. My palate changed as did my gut’s reaction when I would travel back to the US. But there were still foods that I missed. With 4,000 miles and ten years between me and those childhood favourites, I craved the nostalgia. And since Sainsbury’s doesn’t stock Boston-style baked beans, decent salsa, and certainly not Daddy’s Goulash (nor even the components of it), I had to learn to make these myself.

In the process of trying to recreate a flavor, I’d discover new ones. I started enjoying the challenge of searching for a particular taste or texture, and began exploring new techniques that would never have made a debut back in Western PA. I wanted to know everything I could about how to prepare food and avoided cooking the same thing twice so I could move onto another skill or ingredient. I would devour food magazines and get excited about the latest British celebrity chef’s cookbook whilst also foraging for long-forgotten American classics. Food was becoming not only my way of acclimatizing to a new culture, but also staying connected to my roots.

I’ve been in England for nearly 8 years now. I’ve started baking cakes on commission, I’m a part-time sourdough bread baker (one of a few part-time hats I wear) and my favorite thing to do is throw a dinner party. But lately I’ve been getting antsy for another challenge.

I’ve been surprised by how excited I get about vegetables, spices and herbs. I spend hours in corner shops looking at the produce and scouring my iphone for their origins and recipes. Some health issues have made me more interested in the medicinal properties of cultivated and wild edibles and I’ve taken a particular liking to vegan baking. My new motto has been, “I want more food in my food.”

I started to become disillusioned by the lack of sustenance in my cakes and cookies. Though tasty and often nice to look at, they offered little in the way of nutrition and I couldn’t help but feel I was contributing to a pretty serious epidemic of various food-related health problems. So I started using wholemeal / sesame / quinoa / coconut flours, adding fruit and flaxseed instead of eggs, and swapping butter for coconut or olive oil to see how flavors and textures changed, while trying to get as much food as I could in there.

This past New Years Eve, on a whim, I decided to stop drinking. It was going to be just for January, but then I thought, what the hell, I’ll give myself a challenge and aim for my 30th birthday in April. It’s been two months and so much easier than I thought it would be. Living in London, the biggest challenge is having virtually any social life as British socialising is saturation with and lubrication by alcohol. But a soda and lime and a bit of confidence get you over the initial upset and offence, and my liver and productivity the next day, thank me for it.

When I was recently reflecting on this achievement, my growing interest in plants and the impact food can have on good health, I realized that I wanted set myself an even bigger challenge that would make me more adapt with produce, my spice palate and vegan techniques. It wasn’t so much that I wasn’t already using these things, but so much of my diet was actually made up of things that I’d argue have very little to offer me nutritionally or creatively. Quick foods, processed foods, sugary foods. Uninspired foods.

Creativity loves boundaries.

So I’ve set myself a little challenge. For lent, starting from the 1st of March, I’m only going to eat food that I’ve made myself, entirely from plants, herbs and spices.

The rules:

  • No booze
  • No meat
  • No dairy or eggs
  • No coffee or tea — I want the added challenge to make drinks interesting while cutting out caffeine and sugar
  • No bread, no pasta, no flour*
  • Prepare everything myself — absolutely NO PROCESSED FOOD and everything must be hand-made, by me. (This could add to the social life challenges, but already I’ve turned for a meal into a homemade dinner date.)
  • Everything needs to be plant-based — fresh fruit and veggies (no dried, frozen or canned allowed but dried grains and beans okay)
  • Play with spices and herbs for flavor and diversity and always seek out new ones
  • No processed sugar — honey and maple syrup only additional sugars*
  • Experiment with different grains, seeds and nuts — barley, millet, quinoa, chia, black and red rices, etc.
  • Presentation matters— Plant-based food and vegan diets get a bad rap for being bland and boring. I’m convinced that preparation techniques, creative flavor combinations, variety of textures and even a minimal effort in presentation (we eat with our eyes first) nip this stereotype in the bud.

So it turns out that lent is actually 46 days. (Doesn’t have the same ring to it as 40 days.) But a lot of people take Sundays off from fasting, or whatever they are abstaining from.

*When I was thinking about this challenge, I wondered where baking fits in. As much as I love cooking, baking is one of my main outlets for creativity and I’m kind of bloody good at it. Given that I’ve been experimenting more with vegan baking, it seemed like a shame to not take the opportunity to learn some new skills and take the challenge even further.

So I’m giving myself Sundays “off” to bake. All the other rules apply, but I can use flour, leavening agents and possibly some types of unrefined sugar (TBC). But everything still vegan, still as plant-based as possible and an effort on presentation.

Right. So that’s it. My forty(-six)-day-handmade-plant-only-vegan challenge. I’ll be writing along the way and publishing some of my recipes and techniques. I’m sure you can expect a few hiccups as well. You can check out my Instagram (@jenntuft) too if that’s your thing.

Oh! Did I mention that I’m planning to walk the South Downs Way, a 100-miles hike, over 9 days during all of this? So yeah, just a little challenge.

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