Guest writer Penny Lapenna tells Rooted all about cooking vegan for her family of five for a whole week for the first time. If  you have a family to cook for and are new to veganism, or just v-curious, her experience is full of helpful hints, meal ideas and some surprising soy-based facts! 

As the food organiser in our household, inventing recipes seven days a week, 365 days a year, is sometimes a challenge. Roast dinners are a common weekend pleasure, plus several pasta and rice meals midweek, with shop-bought pizza and fish and chips cropping up after a long day when I can’t even face planning a meal, let alone cooking one. But I also have a health-conscious husband and three teenage daughters, who would all refuse McDonald’s or Nestle products, insist on scouring food labels to check for added sugar and salt, and love fresh salads. A mixed bunch, you could say.

Wanting to mix things up even more, I decided to set us a challenge. Could we eat only plant-based meals and feel satisfied, while ensuring that I wouldn’t be frazzled from hours of food prep in the kitchen? Could I feed all of the five food-lovers in my typical Devonshire omnivorous family only vegan food for one week, without a mutiny…?

For a start, I looked up the top ten family meals in the UK for a bit of inspiration.

Britain’s top 10 family favourites (Thanks, Sainsbury’s!)

  1. Roast dinner
  2. Spaghetti bolognese
  3. Fish and chips
  4. Chinese Chicken and noodles
  5. Beef Curry
  6. Sausage and mash
  7. Shepherd’s pie
  8. English breakfast
  9. Fajitas
  10. Chilli con carne

I was surprised pizza wasn’t on the list – a staple in our household. Initially, though, it looked pretty easy; we already cook several vegetarian meals a week without really trying – veggie bolognese, pizza, curry, risotto. But these meals often involve dairy products. How would we fare trying to make the meals tasty without that little splash of cream or Cheddar?

We got carried away buying some of the enticing vegan options for the speedy chef

We did a recce shop in Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Waitrose to see what new options are available for new veganites, and found that supermarkets have really responded to the changing opinion and lifestyles. We were easily able to buy vegan cheese (Tesco Free From Strong Soya Cheese or Violife), vegetable spread (Flora Freedom) and multiple dairy-free milk options, ranging from oat, almond, soya, hemp and rice. I opted for soya, as I’m already a convert, since discovering I have a dairy intolerance and that soya is recommended for pre/post-menopausal women in particular. Apparently, in countries where more tofu, olive oil and soya are eaten, there are fewer problems with the menopause – in Japan, there is no word for hot flush!

We also got carried away buying some of the enticing vegan options for the speedy chef – Linda McCartney’s Shredded Hoisin Duck (Tesco), and her Vegetarian Chorizo and Red Pepper Sausages, and vegan dessert treats such as chocolate Cornettos (available from Morrison’s, but they do contain Palm Oil) and raspberry sorbet (Asda).

I then designed some vegan recipes based around our family favourites: Vegan Bolognese with Garlic Bread, Butternut Squash and Spinach Curry with rice, Hoisin Duck and Noodles, Vegan Pizzas and a Sunday Roast with all the trimmings.

Crush garlic and herbs into olive oil and drizzle it on for tasty slices of vegan garlic bread

For the Bolognese we substituted lentils for the mince, as the girls prefer the texture and flavour to a soya mince alternative, making sure we had durum wheat spaghetti, without added egg, which we found was cheaper anyway. Another lucky find was that Ella’s Artisan Bakery in Ashburton make all vegan breads, so it was easy to carve up a handsome loaf, crush garlic and herbs into olive oil and drizzle it on for tasty slices of vegan garlic bread. We could have used the Flora spread, but the olive oil has that Mediterranean flavour and is loaded with antioxidants and healthy fats.

So, meal number one was a breeze and went down well with the whole family. Success! Next up was to recreate the flavour of a Chinese. The adults would have been happy with a mushroom version but as the kids don’t like the texture, we opted for Linda McCartney’s Hoisin Duck. This has the benefit of looking like pulled pork, and readily absorbs flavour so additional Hoisin sauce, edamame and kidney beans and noodles turned this into a delicious meal. We almost cooked egg noodles by mistake, but on realising our error we were happy to find vegan wheat noodles easily.

It was easy to add ready-made vegan pakoras and samosas to make it a curry feast

For an alternative to beef curry, we went down the vegetable-loaded route. The girls love butternut squash and sweet potato so I decided to make a version with big orange chunks of squash, red onion, spinach, chickpeas and tomatoes, and fluffy Basmati rice. It was easy to add ready-made vegan pakoras and samosas to make it a curry feast, and garlic Portobello mushrooms for the adults, which were so filling we could have substituted them as a ‘meat’ component. As the girls were starting to feel virtuous at having become temporarily vegan, we spoiled them with the Cornettos from Morrisons for dessert, and once they’d gone to bed we happily polished off the tub of raspberry sorbet!

Cue a slight setback towards the end of the week when we realised that not all wine or spirits are vegan. Had we been consuming animal products without realising? We discovered that popular animal-derived fining agents used in the production of wine include: blood and bone marrow, casein (milk protein), chitin (fiber from crustacean shells), egg albumen (derived from egg whites), fish oil, gelatin (protein from boiling animal parts), and isinglass (gelatin from fish bladder membranes). At this point we raced to Tesco, and after a bit of mid-aisle Googling found a reasonably priced Oxford Landing Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz that has vegan credentials. All was not lost – and it was half-term, after all.

The following evening, we made homemade pizza bases, using olive oil instead of butter, blitzing tomatoes and tomato puree into a passata sauce, and topped it with red onion, green pepper, sweetcorn, jalapeños and a sprinkling of Vegan cheese. It looked like a pizza, the cheese melted and initially tasted good, but we all noticed an aftertaste from it. I’m not sure it was entirely a success, but I shall try out some of the other vegan cheeses we saw in the supermarket to see if I can find one I prefer.

The week ended with a busy Sunday – hubbie on a 50km bike ride, my early-morning yoga (which takes place in the early morning so the kids don’t snigger at me in lycra yoga pants) and the usual scramble to finish the home learning that the girls had all week to do – so we were all looking forward to a roast dinner. Nut roast was the plan, but with one daughter suffering from a nut allergy, I made an alternative as well – a Paxo-stuffing style dish, alongside the usual components of roast potatoes, cauliflower cheese, broccoli, carrots, peas and onion gravy. I used the remains of the vegan cheese and soya milk to make a sauce for the cauliflower and no one seemed to notice the difference!

If my family are anything to go by, it’s easier and more affordable than you think.

The nut roast was made from breadcrumbs, sage, diced garlic and onions, chopped mixed nuts with a splash of olive oil to bind it, and a teaspoon of Marmite. Once pressed into a loaf tin, I decorated the top with almonds and paprika. It tasted like a really savoury meatloaf, and as I’d made too much for the tin I formed some into stuffing balls, which crisped up in the hot oven. By the time I’d piled everything onto our biggest plates I realised I’d over compensated for the lack of meat by making tons of everything. It took less time to prep the nut roast than I’d usually take when cooking meat, but there were also some tasty looking ready prepared versions in supermarkets like the M&S roasted butternut, almond and pecan roast. A fulfilling end to our vegan week.

So, why wouldn’t you want to be vegan, when it can be this easy? Especially when you see all the media coverage about how animal-based foodstuffs are full of hormones, how poorly livestock are treated, and how their too-short lives are ended in distress for our benefit? But, perhaps it’s even simpler than that. Maybe you’d like a planet that could be self-sufficient, feed all of its people, and cause less harm to the environment for future generations. Or you’ve had a health scare, or a body reevaluation, and now you want to grow plants to eat plants, and feel healthier? If my family are anything to go by, it’s easier and more affordable than you think.

Click here for a helpful list of vegan supermarket offerings, compiled by The Vegan Society.