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Vegetarian questions and answers

Health myths, survival tips, recipes, and vices from 17 vegetarian, vegan, and veg-friendly Chicagoans

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Health & environment

IS IT TRULY HEALTHIER TO BE A VEGETARIAN?

It really depends on the quality and quantity of meat one eats versus the quality of one's vegetarian diet. A lot of the vegetarians that I work with are pizza-and-Diet Coke vegetarians. Not a very nutritious diet. You have to be eating vegetables—lots of them—and getting good sources of protein from beans, nuts, seeds, eggs, unsweetened dairy products, and whole grains. If you are a vegetarian and aren't eating kale and quinoa I'd be a bit concerned.

—Breea Johnson, registered dietitian at Sustaining Nutrition in Lakeview

A vegetarian diet is going to be full of disease-fighting compounds from fruits and vegetables, full of fiber to keep you full and remove excess toxins and cholesterol from the body, and rich in healthy fats that can decrease inflammation. The standard American diet is lacking these compounds and is rich in compounds that raise inflammation, such as cholesterol, saturated fat, and omega-6 fats from animal protein and poultry. Inflammation is what drives cancer, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, Alzheimer's, etc.

—Eric C. Sharer, registered dietitian at the Block Medical Center for Integrative Cancer Treatment; Chicago outreach coordinator for the Vegetarian Resource Group

WHAT ABOUT A VEGAN?

Compared to omnivores' diets, vegans typically consume more fiber and nutrients, as well as less calories and saturated fat. Since the only source of dietary cholesterol is from animal products, vegans don't eat any cholesterol at all.

—Jennifer Vimbor, registered dietitian at Nutrition Counseling Services in the Loop

WHAT ABOUT A RAW VEGAN?

A raw vegan diet includes foods that aren't cooked above 118 degrees. The more a food is modified/processed, the more nutrients are lost. Raw food offers minimal loss of enzymes and nutrients.

—Jennifer Vimbor, registered dietitian at Nutrition Counseling Services in the Loop

While I have many friends who successfully and healthily follow a raw vegan diet, I believe most people would benefit from having some cooked foods. Many people will have better absorption if they consume cooked grains and beans. Also, certain plant compounds are better absorbed when cooked, such as lycopene in tomatoes and beta-carotene from orange, starchy vegetables.

—Eric C. Sharer, registered dietitian at the Block Medical Center for Integrative Cancer Treatment; Chicago outreach coordinator for the Vegetarian Resource Group

DOES GOING VEG HELP REDUCE YOUR CARBON FOOTPRINT?

Diets lower in meat and other animal products lower one's carbon footprint as well as other environmental impacts. The breakdown depends on the items reduced and what replaces that item in the diet. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

When we talk about carbon footprint we really mean the greenhouse gas footprint—carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide (yep, laughing gas) are all greenhouse gases associated with agriculture, thus are affected by food consumption choices.

The grain for cattle and other animals not only requires a lot of energy to grow but greatly impacts the quality of our water. Nutrient runoff from row crops in the midwest is a major contributor to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and pesticides contaminate our surface waters and ground waters. More efficient grain use is feeding it to people, not animals.

"Free range" beef may require less energy to produce than "grain fed," but that doesn't translate into a greenhouse gas savings because of increased methane (belching) from the more natural diet.

Bottom line: Reducing the amount of animal products in your diet, particularly beef, can help to reduce one's environmental impact. But make smart and healthy decisions when substituting those foods. Heavily processed and packaged foods can also take their toll.

—Dr. Pamela Martin, associate professor of earth science and geography at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis; director of the Center for Earth and Environmental Science

Restaurants & cooking

AS A MEAT-EATER, WHY OPEN A VEGETARIAN RESTAURANT?

The fact of the matter is I have cooked in ethnic restaurants for over 20 years and wanted to showcase how most of the world eats—less on meat/protein and more on vegetables and grains.

—Jill Barron, Mana Food Bar

We had two [meat] items when we opened, and we stuck with those. It was a farm chicken from close by, and we did a fish. The chicken became an issue with consistency, and we got rid of that and kept the fish. I was kinda stubborn about it, honestly. We sold a lot of it as a single item on a menu that's got 20 to 25 things. So we kept it on. We got a lot of grief from the vegetarian side saying, "What are you?" That's never really why I opened the restaurant. I just felt vegetarian cuisine was underserved in metropolitan Chicago. There are some good examples out there, but I think people were approaching vegetarian cuisine more strictly on a health outlook, more of the granola kind of, "Hey, this is great for you," and that's great. But that's not what I wanted to do. I just felt, "Hey, I want an experience where I can spend a great evening out with wine, with service, a fun, urban place—and it just happens to be vegetarian food." So that's where it started. It got to a point about a year ago that I just said, "You know what, I'm kind of holding onto something with the fish thing." I just thought it may be time to just close that chapter and concentrate [on vegetarian cuisine]. That's where we are now. Things are mostly organic, and they're all in season and from small farms and dairies.

—Shawn McClain, Green Zebra

SHOULD VEGETARIAN RESTAURANTS EVEN BOTHER TRYING TO APPROXIMATE MEAT?

It's been so long since I've eaten meat that I would not really consider myself as an authority on the subject. The two restaurants that do faux-style stuff that seem to perform well with meat-eating friends are Soul Vegetarian East and Chicago Diner. I have never met a meat eater that didn't love the Protein Tidbits and BBQ Twist at Soul Veg, and the Dagwood sandwich at Chicago Diner seems to be designed with the decadent meat eater in mind.

—Trevor Shelley-de Brauw, local musician in Pelican, Chord, and Let's Pet

I loved meat when I ate animals and still include mock version of those foods in my meals. There are fantastic products out there like Gardein, Field Roast Grain Meat, Match Meat, and seitan from hometown heroes Upton's Naturals, just to name a few.

—Dave Sutherland, organizer of Vegan Chicago

The last time we were at a vegetarian restaurant, the place didn't have a fucking stove. We had to sit on pillows on the floor passing nuts and sundried tomato chunks around like some sort of weird hippie ritual. I would have settled for a beef bouillon cube at that point.

—John Honkala, ChicagoGluttons.com

The Chicago Diner comes to mind in that category. So much of what they do is to try to trick one into thinking they need a meat substitute—seitan wings, seitan chorizo, seitan steak, country fried seitan, seitan chicken patty. I get that it is supposed to keep with the diner theme, but there is so much out there in the nonmeat world to be creative with. Places like this tend to perpetuate the myth that meat, or meatlike substitute, is required as the center-of-the-plate item.

I have the luxury of being an omnivore, so to me, the idea of approximating the taste of any food item using other, fundamentally different ingredients doesn't add up. I don't want to go so far as to say, "Stop lying to yourself; if you like the taste of meat, then eat meat," because that is a bit short-sighted and doesn't address all of the issues with the choice to be a vegetarian. I think that there is just so much available in the nonmeat world that is delicious as is. I mean, if you really like the taste of seitan, formed into strips, breaded and deep fried, then call it seitan, not "chicken" or faux-chicken. Does turkey really have to be replaced at Thanksgiving if you don't eat meat for whatever reason? There are a hundred other dishes on the table that can be created without putting a dozen pounds of pureed tofu and seitan and textured vegetable protein into a mold and calling it "turkey." Think back to grade school cafeterias and some of the ghastly food served there—a lot of the actual meat gets stretched with faux-meats, starches, etc., in order to cut costs—and think of how nasty that stuff was to us back then. Think of the uproar about Taco Bell only using 36 percent actual meat in their taco filling and how this is perceived as "disgusting"—yet somehow products meant to be consumed as meat that use zero percent meat are not. It doesn't add up. Rather than being anti-faux meat, I am pro-vegetables and grains and legumes—and pro-natural or real food in general.

—Hugh Amano, chef and founder of the blog Food on the Dole

GOT A FAVORITE QUICK VEGETARIAN RECIPE?

Chop up an onion. Saute in oil with a chopped green pepper or another vegetable. Throw in tofu that you've crumbled with a fork. Add turmeric, a little cumin, a dash, or tamari. Done.

Karen Yates, associate artistic director of the Chicago Opera Vanguard

Macaroni & Teese using the Teese Cheese Creamy Cheddar Sauce. I make macaroni noodles, pour off the water, then add in the sauce directly from the container to the hot noodles. Using medium-high heat, stir the noodles and Teese together for 1.5 minutes. Salt to taste. You can add a bit of soy milk to make it creamier. It's my favorite go-to dish on a cool, rainy fall day.

—Ryan Howard, president of Chicago Vegan Foods (formerly Chicago Soydairy)

One of my favorite Lenten recipes is pickled cabbage rolls (we kept barrels of pickled cabbage heads in the basement) stuffed with rice, carrots, onions, celery, peppers and garlic, and cooked in a tomato sauce. (The non-Lenten version is rice with ground meat—beef or pork—and Italian spices, sort of a Balkan version of sauerkraut and brats.)

No Serbian table is complete without peppers. We've grown acres of peppers for the Chicago Serbian community for decades. Starting around Labor Day we'll sell them by the bushel. Those thick, red, sweet ajvar peppers? I love them in a simple recipe: halve peppers and cut out the seeds then roast/broil them until charred. Put them in a lidded pot until they're cool enough to peel then add a generous drizzling of olive oil and several smashed garlic gloves. Salt to taste.

—Vera Videnovich, Videnovich Farms

WHAT'S YOUR MOST BOOKMARKED COOKBOOK?

The Vegan Table by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau. The tofu/spinach lasagna is one of our favorites.

—Paul McGee, co-owner/head bartender of The Whistler

Oddly enough, although I have a wealth of vegan and nonvegan cookbooks, I gravitate towards nonvegan cookbooks with really simple recipes, and I end up veganizing them and transferring them to a notebook that I keep in the kitchen.

—Laviyah Ayanna, co-owner of Ste Martaen Vegan Cheese and the Vegan Food Truck

The 30 Minute Vegan by Mark Reinfeld & Jennifer Murray, with a very close second going to The Cancer Survivor's Guide by Neil Barnard, MD and Jennifer Reilly, RD.

—Eric C. Sharer, registered dietitian at the Block Medical Center for Integrative Cancer Treatment; Chicago outreach coordinator for the Vegetarian Resource Group

Decisions, decisions

WHY DID YOU GO VEG?

I dabbled with vegetarianism as early as junior high school; I was kind of on and off from the age of 13. It all started when my older brother exposed me to the Smiths album Meat is Murder, which opened the doors to a very different way of thinking regarding food production for my young mind. I went vegan when I turned 16 in the summer of 1994. Sadly, the musical reference point at that time was a little less classy—Earth Crisis was all the rage with my circle of friends. Although I still appreciate those early Earth Crisis records today, I gotta say it is with no short supply of self-deprecating irony that I approach them.

—Trevor Shelley-de Brauw, local musician in Pelican, Chord, and Let's Pet

I was raised vegetarian and I have been vegan for thirteen years. My mother raised my sisters and me on Edensoy, fresh fruits and veggies, tofu, and nutritional yeast. I became a vegan around the time I became pregnant with my first child.

—Laviyah Ayanna, co-owner of Ste Martaen Vegan Cheese and the Vegan Food Truck

CARE TO 'FESS UP TO YOUR BIGGEST VEGAN/VEGETARIAN VICE?

Undoubtedly the honey-free vegan Nabisco original graham crackers. You won't find these in a natural food store, but these bring me right back to childhood. I have been known to eat most of a box in a day with some soy milk or tea.

—Ryan Howard, president of Chicago Vegan Foods (formerly Chicago Soydairy)

There's a recipe for BBQ "ribs" that I could eat forever (vegan-food.net/recipe/1178/Baby-Get-Back-Ribs). I was a big meat eater back in the day so that helps offset that craving. It'll probably scare nonvegans with its crazy exotic ingredients. I guess booze isn't necessarily a vegan vice (whatever that really means), but I'll drink anything with EtOH. I'm not really down on the vegan hippie health tip.

—Dave Sutherland, organizer of Vegan Chicago

I don't know if this counts, but on Sanibel Island in Florida, there's a place, The Island Cow, which has a po' boy sandwich that consists of deep-fried artichoke hearts layered heavily with chevre, pickles, and mayo. As far as I'm concerned, that's where it's at! Beyond that, anything deep-fried: french fries, onion rings, vegetables, cheese. Oh, and pancakes. Lots and lots of pancakes.

—Karen Yates, associate artistic director of the Chicago Opera Vanguard

Hilary's cookies, which are made locally in Chicago and sold at many Whole Foods. Definitely check them out if you haven't had them yet!

—Eric C. Sharer, registered dietitian at the Block Medical Center for Integrative Cancer Treatment; Chicago outreach coordinator for the Vegetarian Resource Group

Survival tips

CAN YOU LET US IN ON SOME OF CHICAGO'S BEST RESOURCES FOR VEGANS AND VEGETARIANS?

For restaurants, Chicago Diner and Soul Veg are classic standbys. Handlebar and Karyn's are also must-visits. Happy Cow is a great site (and app) to help find all the other gems in Chicago, or anywhere else in the country. The two big meetup.com groups, Vegan Chicago and Chicago Veg, have also been a great resource in finding out about the latest veg restaurants and events. Mercy For Animals has done a great job as well, approaching nonveg restaurants and getting them to add vegan options. As for grocery stores, Whole Foods South Loop (Roosevelt & Canal) has the most vegan selections in the city. Other great independents are New Leaf (they have the best delivered weekly produce boxes!), Green Grocer, and Dill Pickle Co-op.

—Dan Staackmann, founder of Upton's Natural's

Personally, the best resource for being vegetarian/vegan is an animal rights group, such as Mercy for Animals. That helps us remember why we do it! Food-wise, I go to the Chicago Diner or Native Foods.

—Ryan Howard, president of Chicago Vegan Foods (formerly Chicago Soydairy)

I feel lucky to have the Dill Pickle Co-op and Logan Square Farmer's Market within a few blocks of our house. Our favorite restaurants include Lula Cafe, Karyn's On Green, and Green Zebra. We have also had amazing meals at Boka, Girl and the Goat, and Schwa. I feel that more and more restaurants are catering to vegetarian/vegan diets.

—Paul McGee, co-owner/head bartender of the Whistler

The CSA farmer I admire most is Vickie Westerhoff of Genesis Growers. Vickie got into farming after some serious health problems and taking care of herself seems to include taking care of the land where she works her butt off growing an amazing array of vegetables. I'll go out of my way to visit her at Green City Market, and she also sells at the Oak Park Farmers Market.

The first time I noticed "gourmet" varieties of vegetables at the farmers markets was at Nichols Farm & Orchard's booth. Fava beans, fingerling potatoes, heirloom apples. They grow over 200 varieties of apples! Nichols added a CSA model recently, and even though I haven't spied into their boxes I'm sure they include many of the crops I see at their market displays. Localharvest.org lists a lot more farmers who deliver CSA boxes to Chicago.

—Vera Videnovich, Videnovich Farms

I've found the Green Grocer in West Town to be a great source of locally farmed food. I've always thought Alice and Friends, which is now called the Loving Hut, up on Broadway was pretty good, and they do the copy-meat thing to a somewhat lesser degree. But you gotta deal with all the cult propaganda up there. Any CSA in general is a great way to learn new ingredients and to expand your repertoire. And of course, I have to plug the Food on the Dole Salon and say that what we do on the Vegetarian Salon nights is all about using whatever is available to make a nourishing, delicious, and satisfying meal, keeping things spontaneous and real—meaning that we cook together and create recipes, rather than working off of written recipes, to make some really good food.

—Hugh Amano, chef and founder of the blog Food on the Dole

kwarwick@chicagoreader.com

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