THE WASHINGTON POST – When she first adopted a vegan diet in 2011, Kim-Julie Hansen says, “I didn’t know any vegans, so I thought all vegans ate were nuts and seeds and rice crackers.”
As someone who became vegan out of a concern for animal welfare, she was committed to a new way of eating that didn’t harm them, but she found herself facing what she calls the two most common misconceptions about it: “The number one would be that vegan food is boring,” she tells me in an interview from Belgium, where she lives part of the time.
“The other would be that veganism means healthy. Healthy is good, but people think if you’re vegan you eat salads, you’re super skinny, and that’s the main goal of it.”
Through her popular Instagram account, Best of Vegan, and the new book of the same name, Hansen has made it her mission to prove both ideas wrong. In the book, she features some recipes that she developed and others that she worked on with collaborators, including such tempting concoctions as Hawaiian tofu musubi, Sri Lankan pumpkin curry, Baja-style “fish” tacos, and the one I’m sharing here, Jalapeño Popper Grilled Cheese Sandwiches.
She also takes aim at critics who react to so many vegan recipes with the same ill-informed (or malicious, depending on how you want to look at it) questions: “Why create vegan versions of non-vegan dishes?” and “Why not just call them something else?”
For the first, she writes, “Because veganism, at its core, has nothing to do with not wanting to eat animal products and everything to do with not wanting to harm animals. Many of us grew up eating and loving animal products and made the switch only for ethical reasons.
That doesn’t erase a lifetime of memories associated with eating meat, fish, eggs and dairy.”
The second question? It’s one I often find myself answering, too, and Hansen’s response is the best I’ve ever read. “Someone who misses tuna isn’t going to search for ‘marinated and baked watermelon cubes,’” she writes.
“Growing up, my fish sticks looked nothing like fish and my chicken nuggets bore no resemblance to live chickens,” she writes. “That’s why I believe that describing vegan products using terms associated with non-vegan foods isn’t as problematic as some make it out to be. Overall, I find it to be more helpful than not.”
Hansen brings a wealth of experience cooking vegan recipes to the table, and as someone who spent so much of her life eating a more conventional diet, she knows what it takes to satisfy longtime vegans as much as eaters who might be merely dabbling.
Take this grilled cheese recipe. Hansen knows that vegan cheeses sometimes “need a little help melting,” as she put it, and some recipes address that by calling for you to add a little more oil (like I did when making a vegan “frico” in the spring) or to cover a pan to add moisture from steam.
Her recipe uses a method I had never seen before: You pile the shreds directly into a nonstick pan, and you don’t add a slice of bread to each pile until they melt. I’ll admit to being a little skeptical that I could easily flip the combination over, but it worked beautifully.
That bread, by the way, is first smeared with a mixture of vegan cream cheese, spices and jalapeño slices, which is where the “popper” idea comes into play. The result is messy, in a good – I mean, really good – way. It’s an indulgent sandwich, with textures and flavours from the crusty bread, melty cheese and spark of jalapeño, that are anything but boring.
Eat this, whether you’re vegan or not, and you’ll never believe that fallacy again.
JALAPEÑO POPPER GRILLED CHEESE SANDWICHES
Total time: 15 minutes;
The recipe calls for one or two jalapeños; use one for a mild spice, or two if you enjoy it a little hotter.
– Half cup vegan cream cheese, such as Miyoko’s
– One to two fresh jalapeños, stemmed, seeded and thinly sliced (may substitute 10 sliced pickled jalapeños)
– One tablespoon chopped fresh chives
– One teaspoon garlic powder
– One teaspoon onion powder
– Pinch ground black pepper
– One tablespoon unsalted vegan butter
– One cup vegan cheese shreds, such as cheddar or mozzarella style
– Four slices sourdough bread
In a small bowl, mix together the cream cheese, jalapeño, chives, garlic powder, onion powder and pepper.
In a large, nonstick pan over medium-high heat, melt half the butter. Add the vegan cheese shreds to the pan in two piles roughly in the shape of the bread slices.
While the cheese is melting, spread the cream cheese mixture onto each of the four bread slices (about two tablespoons per slice).
Once the cheese is melted, top each pile with a slice, cream cheese side facing down, and gently press down.
Using a spatula, carefully flip the bread and cheese, add the rest of the butter to the pan, and place the remaining slices of bread on top, cream cheese side facing down. Cook on each side until golden brown, two to three minutes.