For many New Yorkers, part of a healthy lifestyle means adopting a plant-based diet. Those that don’t eat meat or fish, but can’t quite say goodbye to dairy products, are considered vegetarians. If you forgo all animal products, including dairy (eggs, milk and cheese), then you’re a vegan. Whether you choose to become a vegetarian or vegan for ethical, environmental, health or spiritual reasons, you’re in the right place to do it. New York City is host to a variety of foods from all over the world that are easily accessible, healthy, delicious and animal-free. By Caroline Cooney
Know Your Meat Substitutes
If you’re a recent convert to a meat-free diet, it’s a good idea to become familiar with common meat substitutes. ‘Seitan’, or ‘wheat meat’, is high-protein wheat gluten that looks and tastes surprisingly similar to meat. Protein and calcium-rich ‘tempeh’ is made by fermenting cooked soybeans, and has a nutty, firm texture. ‘Tofu’, also made from soybeans, has a spongy texture and easily soaks up the flavors of spices or sauce.
Where to Eat
It’s liberating to go to a restaurant and know that everything on the menu is free of animal products.
Angelica Kitchen and Zen Palate are two vegan anchors among hordes of downtown vegetarian restaurants. Vegan restaurant Blossom has a fine dining outpost in Chelsea and a cafe on the Upper West Side. Likewise, on the Upper East Side, the vegan Candle Café has an upscale counterpart located a few blocks north, Candle 79. To find similar restaurants in town, visit SuperVegan.com. The site has a search engine that allows you to find vegetarian restaurants by neighborhood, price range, and cuisine.
Where should you eat when dining out with meat-centric company? Restaurants that feature foods from countries with large Buddhist or Hindu populations usually have a decent number of vegetarian options. Thus, Indian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Korean restaurants are a good bet. Many Mediterranean restaurants also have vegan menu options. Nanoosh is a Mediterranean hummus bar that serves vegetable-based soups, hummus and mushroom wraps, and quinoa salad, as well as chicken, tuna and beef dishes.
In restaurants without vegetarian entrees, you can start with a salad and order a combination of side dishes as your entrée, such as sautéed mushrooms and mashed potatoes. It gets trickier for vegans because they can’t eat anything prepared with butter. At the very least, vegans should be able to order steamed vegetables and a garden salad with vinaigrette. If the restaurant has whole grain bread, ask for olive oil for dipping and add salt and pepper for flavor. Be wary of soups in meat-serving establishments. Always ask what the base is, because many restaurants serve vegetable soups made with chicken or beef broth.
Supermarkets vs. Health Food Stores
Before you become well-versed in label reading, it’s a good idea to shop for animal-free foods at your local health food store. Not only are products at health food stores clearly labeled, but the staff is familiar with their vegan and vegetarian options. Health food stores like, Health Nuts, Natural Frontier Market, and Life Thyme Market are a great place to find a huge selection of meat and dairy substitutes, such as veggie burgers, chicken-free nuggets, and dairy-free mayonnaise and sour creams. They are also one of the only places to purchase vegan (gelatin-free) vitamins and supplements. If you’re looking for the freshest locally grown produce available, shop at one of the 50 greenmarkets in the five boroughs. Detailed information on all of the city’s greenmarkets is available at GrowNYC.org.Supermarkets offer a limited, but ever-increasing, amount of meat substitutes. While shopping, you can use your smart phone to look up unfamiliar ingredients. There are several free or low cost apps for vegans or vegetarians such as the Animal Free app for iPhones.
Amy’s is a natural frozen food brand found in most city supermarkets. Their consistently tasty vegetarian meals, soups and snacks are clearly labeled and often organic. Amy’s offers quite a few vegan options, like the addictive Roasted Vegetable No-Cheese Pizza and Dairy-free Vegetable Pot Pie.
The popular Odwalla brand of pure-squeezed, flash-pasteurized juices targets a variety of nutritional needs. Vegans concerned about getting Vitamin B-12 will love their ‘Blueberry B Monster’. Per serving, it has 360% of the RDV of Vitamin B-12, and there are two servings per bottles. Odwalla juices cost around 4 dollars a bottle, but due to their high vitamin potency you can mix them with water, or take a “shot” or two throughout the day, and still get your daily dose.
Organic or Not?
As a health-conscious vegetarian, it can get expensive buying only organic fruits and vegetables. If you’re looking to save on groceries, consider this question, do you peel it? Buy organic apples and blueberries because they have thin and edible skins. Even after washing, these fruits may contain traces of pesticides. Whereas fruits like oranges, bananas and avocadoes have thick skins that get discarded, so a lot of the pesticide residue is avoided. For more ideas on how to save money on organic produce, check out the Daily Green’s Clean 15.
Stocking Your Kitchen
In addition to fruits, vegetables, juices and meat substitutes, stock your vegan kitchen with nut butters, brown rice, flax and sesame seeds, eggless pastas, quinoa, and raw cashews and almonds (fantastic with your morning coffee). Rice, coconut and soy milk are helpful to have around to add to drinks, smoothies and sauces.City markets have a large selection of spices, pastes, and oils that can give flavor to your pasta and rice dishes. Be aware that it may only take a fraction of the recommended serving to add rich flavor to your favorite grains. Try using one teaspoon of rich pastes, like Taste of India’s savory ‘Paste for Vegetable Biryani’, per ½ cup of rice. Mexican hot sauce, pesto (with or without cheese), curry pastes and tapenades (even those traditionally used with meats) can be used sparingly to liven up pasta, rice, spinach and other vegetable dishes. You should experiment and then load up on your favorite brands.
What about Dessert?
Being vegan doesn’t mean you have to yank your sweet tooth. There are several dairy-free soy ice creams and sorbets available in supermarkets. Sharon’s Sorbet is a popular vegan brand. Two of their flavors rival the tastiest of milk-based ice creams: Sharon’s Coconut Sorbet and Dutch Chocolate Sorbet.There’s an easy to make a luscious vegan dessert that you have to try to believe, and all it requires is a few bananas and a food processor. Peel and slice bananas and then freeze them. Blend the frozen banana slices in a food processor, and after a few minutes you’ll have delicious, creamy banana ice cream. Believe it!
But What About Protein?
Animal proteins, like fish, meats, and dairy products contain all of the ‘essential’ amino acids and are considered complete proteins. What a lot of people don’t realize is that it’s easy to eat complete proteins without consuming animal products.You can mix two incomplete vegetable proteins throughout the day which your body will then combine to create complete proteins. Legumes (beans, peas, peanuts) combined with grains (rice, pasta, rye, wheat), nuts, or seeds (cashews, almonds, sunflower or sesame seeds, etc) are sources of complete protein. By eating foods like rice and beans, or peanut butter on wheat bread, you’re getting complete proteins from a single vegan meal. Additionally, there are two vegetarian foods that contain complete proteins: soy products (like tofu, soy milk and tempeh), and quinoa, the South American “Mother Grain”.
The NYC Community
If your vegan or vegetarian lifestyle has you feeling isolated, or you want to grow your circle of like-minded friends, visit SuperVegan.com’s ‘NYC Calendar’. There, you’ll find out where you can enjoy four-course vegetarian meals with a table of new friends or meet other vegans out for drinks. If you’re a parent looking to socialize with veggie-friendly families, try the NYC Vegan/Vegetarian Parents & Kids Group. To learn vegetarian cooking techniques, take a class at the Natural Gourmet Institute or the Bowery Culinary Center located inside the Whole foods on the Lower East Side.