How To Survive When You’re Vegan And A Horrible Cook

(Originally published here on FullGob.com)

Let’s face it — some of us are born and grow up without the invaluable piece of knowledge that is cooking. And even when we’re taught to sear a steak and boil and egg, that doesn’t really apply to vegan cooking. Next thing you know, we’re on our bum, fresh-faced and hungry, but unable to boil a pot of spaghetti without charring half the pasta. It’s fine. It happens. Some people just flat out can’t feed themselves.

But, that doesn’t make them immune from the necessities of sustenance — we all gotta eat, man, and not knowing how to cook won’t change that. So what’s the solution for people with ambitions in vegan cooking (namely, to survive)?

If you’re unable to cook without messing up, don’t worry — you’ve still got plenty options for food, and none of them involve learning anything more complex than a few basic wrist motions and an eye on the clock.

For vegan cooking, stick to the basics.

The basics are the vegan equivalent to knowing how to boil an egg — this won’t make you a gourmet, but you’ll survive. Deliciously.

Boiling

Boiling is the biggest basic, especially when it comes to staples. Vegan cooking typically involves buckwheat, quinoa, rice, potatoes, noodles — the finest vegan carbs (maybe sans the noodles), and the easiest way to prepare them is to stick them in extremely hot water. Now, a primer — get a pot, put your dry ingredients in (keeping in mind that buckwheat and rice grow in size when cooked, and quinoa becomes up to 400% larger), put enough water in to cover them (for rice, you’ll need the same volume of water as rice – so a cup of rice asks for a cup of water), and then wait for the water to boil (bubble). Season lightly with salt, then look for these signs:

Buckwheat: Buckwheat should be added as the water begins to boil, without salt. Stir and let the groats sit until they absorb the water they’re cooked in. Then salt them (otherwise they’ll toughen up while cooking).

Rice: Rice needs to absorb the water it’s cooked in, but watch the heat — unless you have a rice cooker that automatically warms rice instead of overcooking it, you run the risk of charring. When no water is left in the pot, turn the heat off.

Potatoes: Potatoes, like rice, should be added to temperature water before it boils. After it begins to bubble, periodically stick a fork in the potatoes to see if they’re through — if cut, remember to keep slices/dices roughly the same size to make sure everything cooks evenly. If the fork slides into the potatoes easily, drain them in a sieve — if not, wait some more.

Quinoa: Wash quinoa under running water for ten minutes to remove any bitterness, then boil the grain — turn the flame off after a minute of bubbling water, and wait for the quinoa to absorb the water.

Noodles: Noodles are tricky compared to everything else on the list, but you’ll get the hang of them. Get a pot of water to boil, then add salt and pasta. Stir the pasta to avoid clumping, and keep an eye on the number of recommended minutes for al dente pasta (roughly meaning hard enough to still bite).

Stir Frying

Stir frying is the fastest way to prepare vegetables — chop em, throw em in a tiny bit of hot oil, stir them to avoid sticking to the pan and in a minute or so, they’ll become just a little bit more saturated and vibrant — that’s when you turn the flame off and serve your veg. There’s not much to say – here’s a basic recipe as an example.

Steaming

Steaming involves letting vegetables cook over boiling water, instead of in it. An economic way to steam veg is by carefully placing two knives on the pot’s edges, and then bridging them together with a few more knives perpendicularly. Wait until the water begins to boil, then set your veg on the knives and, if possible, cover with a lid. An alternative method is to buy a bamboo steamer that fits your pot. Vegetables that steam well include okra, eggplant, asparagus, broccoli, carrots, beets and beans, to begin with.

Pan Frying

Pan frying is for vegan cooking recipes that involve a little more heat than finely chopped, delicate greens. I’m talking tofu, I’m talking shiitake, oyster and portobello mushrooms, and I’m talking falafels. While you may want a little more practice for the last (and first) thing in that list, mushrooms are incredibly easy to prepare and make delicious. A little oil and some onions, and a few minutes of pan frying until golden on some edges.

Roasting

Nothing makes vegetables more delicious than the heat of an oven and extra virgin olive oil. From squash and potatoes, to eggplant and tomatoes, garlic and onions, and all sorts of gourds. It’s just a matter of 400 degrees Fahrenheit, a baking tray with baking paper/parchment, and anywhere between fifteen minutes to an hour depending on your vegetable(s) of choice.

Consider going raw.

If you’re really not one to cook at all, then your best bet is going raw. That means your job in the kitchen is restricted to chopping, tossing, maybe adding a dash of cold-pressed oil here and there — but you’ll be eating tons of fresh fruit, fresh salads, and fresh veg in general. Sliced turnips, soy sprouts, carrots and cherry tomatoes — the combinations are endless. But they’re also tough.

Although going raw may seem like the healthiest thing ever, some foods are made more bioavailable when cooked. It’s also tough to get all of your essential fats, especially when you’re not regularly using oil. But if you’re diligent about your eating (which you should be, one way or the other), you’ll do just fine.

Remember, take out is sort of acceptable.

When all else fails, it’s time to call the Chinese. And fast food joints for the french fries. And pizza joints that don’t laugh at you when you tell them to “leave the cheese”. Sure, it isn’t healthy, but it’s a way to stuff yourself — and some days, when broke or out of food, that’s the only criteria our solution needs to hit. Vegan cooking isn’t healthy cooking — you can be entirely unhealthy and entirely vegan. It’s kinda like how not all big things are elephants — some big things are vegan.

Eat at eateries.

Eatery, diner, carinderia — whatever it is where you are, cheap food served on street corners is always a decent idea. And being vegan, you’re avoiding mystery meats. One out of three times, you’ll even have an old fashioned, talented mom cooking up a storm of local dishes. With MSG. But they’re local! And fresh! Mostly. Vegan cooking isn’t usually expensive, it’s just not the first option on the menu.

You can’t have everything, pal.

Row, row, fight the hunger!

Sometimes, your best bet is to eat things that make you not want to eat things. Appetite-reducing foods aren’t exactly plentiful, partially because that’s sort of counter-intuitive considering that in nature, you wanna eat anything you can get your hands on, but they do exist — and a major one is coconut. Almonds are another example. Coffee, avocado, sweet potatoes and water works as well (water works because it fills your stomach, triggering nerves that sense your stomach stretching and filling). Anything rich in fiber does the trick, as well — and a protein high diet (think lentils, veggie burgers, oats and seitan) lowers your appetite too.

Consider functional foods.

Functional food is the scientific name for a super food. Foods that can be part of an optimal human diet, rich in vitamins, minerals, and disease-reducing phytohormones, phytochemicals, and antioxidants. Quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat are examples of this in the carb group. Moringa is another example, as are blueberries and cacao, and flax and chia seeds. This way, you can easily ensure that you’re getting the micronutrients you need far quicker than a diet devoid of this food group. And there’s barely any vegan cooking involved!

Try meal replacements!

While I don’t advocate it, there are vegan meal replacement powders that (at least attempt to) contain everything the human body needs to not starve to death. Just mix with water!

Smoothies, son.

Yes, smoothies. They’re easy to make, delicious, nutritious (sort of), and a great way to fight back against the afternoon blues — or as a quick breakfast. Take a vegan milk of your choice, mix with fruit (mangoes work well, as do berries, grapes and bananas) and the optional ice cubes. No added sugar, and finish with a couple chia seeds if they’re in your budget.

Go on a juice fast!

While juice fasts may not be recommended for extended periods of time, fasting is a great way to train your body to get used to not always eating as it wants to — and it’ll boost your senses as you go into “survival mode” — an evolutionary skill built to better find food. Besides that, if you live near a farmer’s market (that isn’t overpriced), juice fasts are easy on the pocket. Just keep your fruit juices down to one a day, because they’re really sugary.