Vegan Comfort Food: Ingredients That Will Transform Your Meals
When I became a vegan in 2017, I had to totally rethink how I ate. Obviously. That's the whole the point of being vegan.
As someone who loves to cook, I had go-to recipes I used for years stored in my head. Initially, many of those just went out the window because they contained meat. My significant other used to say that chickens should be afraid of me because I ate so many of them. Now that thought makes my stomach flip.
My significant other used to say that chickens should be afraid of me because I ate so many of them. Now that thought makes my stomach flip.
But now I've learned to make most of the comfort foods I used to love, and I'd like to share the ingredients I use to do that.
To see them, you can click on the sections in the Table of Contents below or just scroll down the page.
Table of Contents
I use the items in the sections below to stock my pantry, fridge and freezer. Each section also has some recipe tips that incorporate some of the products.
Vegan Recipe Experimentation Pays Off
Eliminating meat and dairy products left a pretty big gap between what I used to eat and what I wanted to eat going forward. It took a while and a lot of experimentation but I finally regrouped and was able to transform many of my favorite recipes to vegan versions. Now every time I make a dish that used to contain meat or be laden with butter and cream or milk, I literally smile. There's a great sense of satisfaction to be able to create food I love and know that no animals had to be harmed to do it.
Before I got to the point that I had enough recipes to provide the variety I needed, though, I went the manufactured meat route. There are so many meat substitutes these days and I tried many of them.
I was like a kid in a candy store, especially when I discovered Gardein products. They have some of the best faux meat I have tried. I particularly love a few of their products, which I'll mention below. But I found that I didn't like the way I felt when I ate manufactured meat day after day. My body felt heavy and out of balance. So I put those products in their place--alongside plenty of fresh, live fruits and vegetables. Just like I wouldn't eat ice cream sundaes several times a day, I couldn't eat these manufactured products that often either. But they do factor in when I start to crave the rich foods of my meat-eating days.
There are vegans who eat only live and totally "pure" foods. I'm not one of them, although I respect the heck out of people who can do that. After having some pretty life-changing stomach surgery in my twenties, I can't restrict my diet to only live foods. Without going into details, let's just say they move through my body at an uncomfortably fast pace. So I've learned over the years to balance what I eat with foods that temper that effect. This means I've learned to include a certain amount of gravy, pasta, pizza and similar foods. Fortunately, those also taste great.
I'm a big believer in answering my body's cravings. I think the body is pretty wise in the messages it sends. If I craved sugar 24/7, I would worry I was out of balance and possibly sick. But that's not the case and not what I am addressing here. Setting out-of-balance cravings aside, the body will tell you what it needs if you listen and don't judge those messages. Sometimes I need a lot of live foods and sometimes my body wants something heavier and more substantial. I'm not a doctor or a nutritionist, so I'm not trying to advise you on how or what you should eat. You have to find the balance that's right for you.
Many of the foods I'm going to recommend below definitely fall in the comfort food category. So that means they should be used in moderation. But when combined with plenty of fresh fruits and veggies, they can give you the feeling that you not only aren't missing anything by giving up meat, but that there's even more richness to be had by being vegan.
I listed condiments, flavorings and spices first, because these make such a big difference in vegan recipes. When you are no longer counting on the flavor that meat brings, it needs to be replaced with something else if you want that same comfort food effect. Here are the products I use nearly every day and couldn't do without:
Better Than Boullion Vegetarian No-Chicken Base
I used the real-chicken version of this product constantly when I ate meat and was devastated at its loss until I found of it. I add this to just about everything I cook because it provides a savory base that's hard to beat. this vegetarian version
It's a little hard to find; I have only been able to get it at Whole Foods or on Amazon. I've provided a link to it on Amazon below for your convenience.
Edward & Sons Not-Chick'n Cubes
These have a very similar flavor to Better Than Boullion Vegetarian No-Chicken Base (BTB), but they're in cube form. This makes them a little less handy than BTB, which can be scooped out of the jar in any quantity. But they're terrific for large-batch soups and sauces, or even to put in a mug to make a cup of broth.
Although the packages aren't expensive, they also don't have a lot in them. But they don't need to be refrigerated like BTB does after it's opened, so they're a good pantry item to have on-hand.
This is expensive (at least at Sprouts) but it tastes like real mayo to me. It's expensive but worth it, in my opinion.
Follow Your Heart Vegenaise
Although not quite as sumptuous as JUST Mayo, this is a more affordable version that's almost as good. They also have different varieties (none of which I've tried), such as reduced fat, pesto, soy-free, organic, grapeseed oil, roasted garlic, chipotle and others.
I see a wide difference in online pricing for both these brands, so they might actually be similarly priced from some stores.
Decades ago I volunteered to serve meals to the homeless in Los Angeles. I served alongside a wonderful 90-year-old cook named Ada Robinson. She introduced me to the joy of dried onions and I've been using them ever since. It's amazing how much flavor these add to your food. Raw onions are great, too, of course, but the dried version provides a concentrated flavor that fresh onions don't. They're also a great substitute if you happen to be out of the fresh variety.
Dried onions aren't brand-specific and can be purchased just about everywhere--with the possible exception of dried red and spring onions. I get mine at Sprouts but Amazon carries them too.
I always keep dehydrated garlic on-hand to give dishes a punch of flavor, but I really love using browned fresh garlic. So I buy fresh, already-peeled garlic cloves, slice them into thin pieces, add some avocado oil and put them in lunch bags. I then pop them into the freezer. I fill each lunch-bag with reasonable amounts of garlic that I think will work in most recipes.
When it's time to use the garlic, I just pull a bag out of the freezer, throw it in my cast iron pan, brown the slices slowly and then mash them with a fork. If my pans are being used on other things, I'll wrap the garlic pieces in foil and put them in my toaster oven at about 150-200 degrees F. It takes a while but this low-heat cooking will brown the garlic nicely if you're patient.
Here's what one of my bags looks like:
I rotate these items in and out of my pantry, because freshness is important for them. So I don't always have all of them at once. But having them around gives me the ultimate flexibility to make fun comfort foods, vegan-style.
I live in Georgia, so my grocery store of choice is Publix. They have terrific organic baguettes, baked fresh daily, under their Greenwise brand. But you can get baguettes at a lot of stores, so they're not hard to find. When I get one, I slice it into four sections, wrap each section individually and put them in the freezer. That way I always have fresh-tasting bread when I want a sandwich. I particularly love to use them for avocado subs (JUST Mayo and avocado topped with lettuce, onion, avocado oil, vinegar, oregano, salt and pepper) or a Po Boy with vegan crab cakes. See the Faux Meat section for my recommendation for the vegan crab cakes. They're delicious.
Hot Dog Buns
I use these when I get a craving for hot dogs or chili dogs, which is often. See the Faux Meat section below for the brand of vegan hot dog I recommend and the Canned Goods section for an easy vegan chili recipe. I usually get the buns at Whole Foods or Sprouts. I don't have a favorite brand; I just try to find the ones that have the fewest chemical additives.
You can do amazing things with pizza dough, which is why I almost always have a package or two of it in my freezer. I love to make garlic rolls with it, even more than I like making pizza.
I've tried several varieties and my favorite by far is from Whole Foods. It's available in the refrigerated case near the prepared foods. If you don't find it there and your Whole Foods location makes pizza, ask them if you can buy some dough.
The pizza dough shown in the photo above is from Trader Joe's. (It was the best photo I could find.) I haven't tried it because Trader Joe's is too far from where I live, but most their products are very good.
I don't need to explain why it's good to have pasta in your pantry. Unless you have problems with gluten, it makes convenient and tasty dishes, even if you only use canned tomatoes and some garlic. I also love to get lots of veggies in my diet by making pasta salad with broccoli, artichoke hearts, asparagus, squash and whatever seasonal vegetables are available.
I really missed Taco Bell tacos when I went vegan. I didn't eat them all the time but when I wanted them, I WANTED them. Now, thanks to the miracle of a certain type of vegan crumble that closely replicates beef, I can make tacos that taste pretty darn close. See the Faux Meat section for my crumbles recommendation.
I've tried a lot of taco shells and many are very good. But my favorite kind comes from Whole Foods because they're light and crispy--as long as they're heated in the oven according to the package directions. (They will seem stale if you don't heat them.)
As I said at the beginning of this article, I can't eat these manufactured meats every day. But boy, do they fill the bill when I need comfort food. If you have one or more of these in your fridge or freezer at any given time, you'll never be far from having a treat.
Lightlife Smart Dogs and Smart Ground
Although they don't have the exact texture of a hot dog, Lightlife Smart Dogs are close enough. And when you use them to make chili dogs, you really can't tell the difference between real and faux. They're also really good all by themselves on grilled buns with spicy mustard.
And I can't say enough about Smart Ground. It's the key to satisfying my Taco Bell cravings. I always have packages of it in my freezer, so I can have tacos whenever I want. I just use taco flavoring that comes in packets and can be found at any grocery store, and add the grounds instead of beef. Keep in mind that Smart Ground packages contain 12 ounces and most taco seasoning call for 16 ounces of ground beef. So I just add the seasoning to taste and adjust the water accordingly.
Gardein Crabless Cakes and Fishless Filets
As far as I'm concerned, Gardein has the best faux meat. They have quite a few kinds but my favorites are the Crabless Cakes and Fishless Filets.
I use the crab to make hot crab dip (using the sour cream, cream cheese and American cheese slices in the Dairy Substitutes section) and amazing Po' Boy sandwiches. And the fish makes great fish and chips when paired with French fries. They also make terrific fish tacos.
It's sometimes hard to find Gardein products, so I apologize for teasing you if you can't get them in your area.
Here's a video with Gardein's version of fishless tacos. I personally don't like tartar sauce, so I make a chipotle sauce instead. But this video will show you just how easy it is to make amazing fish tacos quickly:
Gardein Baja Fishless Tacos
I really missed dairy, specifically cheese, when I first became a vegan. I tried some varieties but they were pale comparisons to the real thing. So this category has some flat-out essentials that I'm never without. They factor into far more dishes and snacks than I could even count.
Kite Hill Chive Cream Cheese Style Spread
This is very much like Allouette or Rondelé cheeses, in that it's terrific on crackers. It works nicely on bagels, too, because of its cream cheese-y texture. I often add some dried onions and garlic to punch up the flavor but it's good right out of the tub too.
It also makes a great creamy sauce for pasta, either combined with the Tofutti sour cream substitute found below or by itself.
Kite Hill also makes a version of their cream cheese without chives. Or, you can try this product, which is less expensive than Kite Hill:
Tofutti Better Than Cream Cheese
This is great on bagels but it also is a real star in recipes. It's not aggressively sour like dairy cream cheese, so it acts as a great thickener for cream-based dishes.
Also, if I can't get Kite Hill, I add dried onions and garlic to a tub of this and get a wonderful cracker spread.
Tofutti Better Than Sour Cream
I am NEVER without this fabulous staple in the fridge. I was big into cream soups, gravies and sauces when I ate meat and it was very difficult to let that go. Then, I found this terrific product and realized I didn't have to give up those foods. The reason it's so wonderful is that like Tofutti's Better Than Cream Cheese, it's not overly sour. So I use it in place of cream to thicken anything cream-based. If I happen to want it to taste more like sour cream, I just put a tiny bit of lemon in it.
I used to have to drive a bit of a distance to get this from Whole Foods but recently the grocery store a block away started carrying it. I was so excited, I almost bent down and kissed their floor.
Earth Balance Natural Buttery Spread
I grew up eating margarine as a child, so I couldn't wait to be on my own and have butter in my fridge. So I wasn't about to go back to margarine when I became vegan. Earth Balance tastes remarkably like butter and it comes in many varieties, like organic, soy-free, olive oil, Omega-3 and others.
Follow Your Heart American Style Slices
In addition to allowing me to have grilled-cheese sandwiches again, this lovely product also melts really well into recipes. I combine it with Tofutti Better Than Sour Cream to create amazing macaroni and cheese, and with green chilies to make queso.
No pantry would be complete without canned goods. They're perfect for making a number of dishes and they pinch-hit for you when you haven't been able to get to the store for fresh food. The following canned products help me make some of my favorite meals:
Refried Pinto Beans
Refried beans make great impromptu burritos, either combined with avocado and Better Than Cream Cheese and other goodies, or all by itself. You can even skip the tortilla and just eat them without. They're especially good with a Follow Your Heart American Style Cheese slice melted on it. The brand doesn't matter for the beans (unless you have a preference); only that they're vegan.
You can also add some of the chiles mentioned below for some extra Mexican flavor.
Old El Paso Green Chiles
Melting these in with Follow Your Heart American Style Cheese and a little Tofutti Better Than Sour Cream makes an AMAZING vegan queso dip. You won't believe it's vegan; it's that good. And you can add some of the petite diced tomatoes below to punch up the flavor even more.
Muir Glen Diced Tomatoes
I'm very picky about canned tomatoes. I like them petite-cut, so they blend in well. And I like Muir Glen because their quality is good. Their tomatoes come in a number of ways--plain, with garlic or basil, fire-roasted, etc. I love the fire-roasted with garlic variety to make vegan chile and the garlic and basil for pasta sauce (see the bottom of this section for my secret pasta sauce ingredient).
Whole Pinto Beans
You'll be just a few minutes away from amazing vegan chile by combining these with fire roasted tomatoes and some Mexican spices. I also throw in some Better than Boullion to round out the flavor.
I prefer organic but other than that, I don't think the brand of the beans really matters much.
Muir Glen Organic Pizza Sauce
I love the mixture of spices in this pizza sauce. As a bonus, it's really inexpensive! I definitely use it on pizza but far more often I find myself using it as the base for pasta sauce. I just add a can of diced tomatoes to a can of the pizza sauce and throw in some Better Than Boullion and a bit of Earth Balance Buttery Spread to mellow out the flavors and it comes out really delicious every time. It's quick too.
So, there you have it. Those are the basics I use to keep me in vegan comfort food.
Yes, I know a lot of this stuff is fattening. Comfort foods and what many people consider healthy are often at odds with each other. But sometimes you need food that soothes the soul as well as fills the tummy. Just make sure to incorporate plenty of fresh fruits and veggies into your diet too.
© 2018 Carla Chadwick