Inadvertently Vegan

In 2007 when I moved home from cooking school, Erik and I made a pledge that we'd only buy meat from the grocery store if it was local and sustainably raised. We knew that we’d never give up meat entirely, and I still choose to support many an independent restaurant (read: Wiener's Circle) even if it isn’t organic. But keeping feedlot meat out of our home was a simple act of being more discerning in the place where we eat the most. 

Throughout the years, maybe because of this grocery guideline, we’ve realized that we cook primarily vegetarian and- more often than not- vegan. This realization came as quite a surprise to me, because, as a cook, it always seemed like veganism posed so many obstacles and to be inadvertently vegan almost an impossibility.

But I wasn’t trying to deny myself anything. (I once tried to be a strict vegetarian for a month and that devolved into me eating a spicy pork skin burrito at 2am. This wasn’t that.) Instead I found that my vegan dinners were not about avoiding something to make a point but instead about realizing that I love vegetables so much that no animal products were required to complete the meal.

Sure, sometimes these dishes would be super delicious with a piece of meat or big hunk of cheese. And, goodness knows, eggs can round out a dish. Or, if you want to add some butter, do it! Butter is delicious.

But I want to share these vegan dishes because I think they are tasty just as they are, and they might be as eye opening to someone else as they were to me.


Lots of these meals included foods not from the Midwest. Coconut milk and avocado are two of my favorite indulgences—especially this time of year when I want spicy and creamy food. I also rely heavily on olive oil and lemon. As a promoter of local eating, this feels like a conflict.  But who the hell knows what’s right. Hopefully, Michael Pollen is and simply making deliberate food choices, even if they are inconsistent and not strict, is the best course of action. It’s been lip-smackin' so far. 


Spicy Chickpeas with Sweet Potatoes and Mushrooms

Serves 2 generously

1 small sweet potato, diced into medium cubes

½ thai yellow chili (habanero or any other spicier pepper will work)

1 14oz can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

2 portabella mushrooms, sliced

1 small red onion, sliced thinly

3 cloves garlic, sliced

1 C cooking white wine

1 can coconut milk

1 handfull of spinach per bowl

  • In a large sauté pan, heat a good glug of neutral oil (I generally use safflower) until it shimmers
  • Add the potatoes and the half a chili with a good pinch of salt (you can use the whole thing but this will make it plenty spicy for my tastes) and fry until the potatoes are caramel-ly brown on the outside and tender when proded with a fork
  • Add the mushrooms and continue cooking until they start to color and give up their pasty white centers
  • Add the onion, garlic and white wine and turn down to a medium heat. (By adding the ingredients in this order, you can sweat the onions and garlic in the same pan as the potatoes without having to transfter or use multiple pans. The wine will help cool everything and keep the garlic from burning. Plus, as the wine bubbles and evaporates everything will soak up the acidity not just the onions and garlic.)
  • Let cook until the wine is reduced to a syrup
  • Add the chickpeas and coconut milk and cook till the chickpeas are warm and the coconut milk is reduced to a thick stew-y consistency.
  • Taste for salt, adding more as you like. If it is too salty or too thick, add some water to thin.
  • Put a handful of spinach in each person’s bowl and ladle the whole lot over the top. (The heat from the chickpeas will wilt the spinach gently so it won’t be an over cooked slime bag.)

This would also be good with some sour cream or yogurt swirled in at the end.

A nice piece of seared or baked fish on the side wouldn’t hurt either.