29 Days an Orlando Vegan.
Call it a chemistry experiment. A rattling of the cage. My metaphors for Orlando Eats’ month-long journey into plant-based eating. My colleagues? A descent into culinary madness. Cruel and unusual punishment. Let’s just say their reaction wasn’t rah-rah-rah excitement. Despite this, we all had fun, came through unscathed, and – in my humble estimation – better off for the experience. Let’s break down the why’s, where’s and what’s.
Why did we do it?
We eat and drink a lot. A lot. A bit of abstinence would surely help flush the accumulated crud so we could accumulate more crud. Granted, we like food so it wasn’t a daunting proposition. Broccoli, tofu and brown rice is absolutely on par with steak frites at Orlando Eats. We also hoped it would bestow a sense of mellowness and interconnectedness (it didn’t – we remain angry and anxious).
Where (and what) did we eat?
Initially, we marveled at the ease of dining out in Orlando – the lion’s share of our better restaurants either have a genuinely tasty vegan option or will happily accommodate you. Then laziness set in. We found ourselves heading to restaurants that didn’t force us to peck around, to ask silly questions – to think. Several eateries (see below) benefited from our lazy veganism.
We also cooked and cooked and cooked. We cook all the time, but half the time of all the time we just throw an animal protein on a bed of greens so we can quickly get back to drooling in front of the TV. In our newly stocked vegan kitchen, we had to be concerned with getting full proteins, supplementing with B12 and combining all manner of fresh and dried ingredients to achieve a balance that cheesy meaty normally covers.
Between farmers markets and what appears to be a new focus on local produce at Publix and Whole Foods (despite there still being a grossly inexcusable amount of imported stuff), we were able to stock up on all variety of sorta-local fruits and veg – from soursop to lions mane mushrooms. Vegan cooking requires a lot of prep and creativity so turning our spoils into something tasty see-sawed between being a chore and a delight.
Let’s start with what we ate at home and segue into what we ate at restaurants.
Vegan at the House
Roasted Eggplant with Fake Feta
A very satisfying dish that’s also super simple. The eggplant is bled of bitter and simply roasted. We topped it with a quick, bright tomato sauce, creamy fake feta and paired with salty citrus kale. As a side note, we worked our way through a lot of faux dairy (which along with almond milk became an essential source of B12) and found Violife’s Feta the most tasty and flexible in terms of usage. If we leveraged affiliate marketing, we’d link you to it. What the hell – we’ll link you anyway – we like this stuff and will continue to keep it in the fridge.
Roasted Cauliflower with Quinoa and Romesco Sauce
Everyone loves roasted cauliflower. It always seems to come to the rescue of those in pursuit of a meatless bite of meaty. In our kitchen, the cruciferous crusader was browned and paired with the protein punch of quinoa and romesco (a Spanish sauce buoyed by roasted red pepper, almond, garlic and vinegar).
Sichuan Tofu and Greens over Soba Noodles with Veggie Pho Broth
We’ve had up and down results with a newly gifted air fryer, but tofu tends to benefit from its suck-the-moisture-out-of-everything gimmickiness. We tossed cubes in a little oil and roasted ground Sichuan pepper and air-fried away. For the uninitiated, soba noodles are buckwheat noodles and buckwheat isn’t wheat – it’s related to rhubarb. But – and stay with me here – sometimes soba noodles do have wheat as they’re not 100% buckwheat. Check the package, but Eden brand does a 100% good one. Regardless, buckwheat is gluten-free and a complete protein so when paired with tofu, you’re getting a double whammy.
Spaghetti Squash with Kale, Tomato and Fake Feta with Olive Vinaigrette
A dish we’ll make again, meat or no. The squash is roasted and shredded with a fork before tossing with the kale, tomato and fake feta that had been marinating in a very simple olive vinaigrette.
Romanesco and Sweet Potato over Quinoa and Brown Rice with Walnut Kale Pesto
Sounds far better than it ate. This dish needed some tweaking in terms of veggie prep and execution, but the pesto grain mixture was fantastic.
Chickpea Stew with Rose Harissa and Charred Chard
Charred chard. Giggle. This is a beauty of a straighforward dish that we stumbled across on the Guardian. If you’re vegan, do yourself a favor and follow Meera Sodha’s New Vegan column here. We fell in love with harissa, the North African spice paste, while living in the UK and, in particular, rose harissa which includes rose petals. Belazu is a reliable brand but has to be ordered from Amazon (here). Most of the store-bought harissa we’ve found in the States is dumbed down or off base flavor wise. The heart of this stew is onion and red pepper mixed with garlic, tomato paste and harissa. Chard (ours from Frog Song Organics) is seared in a skillet and hit with salt and lemon before dropping atop. A great dish – I’m actually cooking a variation with roasted eggplant as I type this.
Vegan on the Town
Winter Park’s darling of a resto was low hanging fruit. We’re fairly close by, we’d already fawned over it in an earlier review (here), and they have good booze. Almost exclusively vegan with a dairy option or two thrown in for good measure. Always excellent.
Part of the Proper & Wild family and equally tasty to its sistren. As far as we’re concerned there is very little argument against The Sanctum and Proper & Wild being the cashew cream of the crop when it comes to Orlando vegan restaurants. Everyone else is competing for second place.
Charming and friendly SoDo newcomer with solid vegan options even if a gaggle of dirty Yelpers descended on the eatery just before our visit to clean them out of targeted Cauli-Tots.
Asian restaurants in Orlando are fertile ground for vegans, but this East Aloma strip maller has one of the more genuinely thoughtful vegan/vegetarian menu sections we’ve come across.
Hunger Street Tacos
Hunger Street makes it hard to stay away. Sure, we worship its rib taco, but you can eat well at the Winter Park standout without having a bite of flesh. As a side note, the bane of our vegan existence became tortilla chips. We quickly learned that chips, guacamole and salsa were 100% fair game and they seemed always close at hand (see zero weight loss below)
This Mills 50 lifer is straight-up hippie boho – in its old home digs, it reminded us of former haunts in midtown Atlanta. There is a lot of faux here and even though we loved the place, I can’t say the grub was blow you away good. Great iced tea, lovely atmosphere, lots of options. Fun stuff, but apart from a very tasty broccoli soup, not overly impressive.
What did we learn?
Quite a bit. First, Orlando is very vegan friendly. Also, there’s a lot of vegan junk food – highly processed garbage that no one should be eating. We did our best to stick with whole foods, diving into the junk here and there. Physically? If you’re looking to veganism for weight loss, look elsewhere. Of the three of us that went meat and dairy free, only one lost a few pounds. In order to get the stuff your body needs you tend to eat more grains and nuts. Our carb intake went way up. However – in terms of feeling good, there were very real results. We slept better, had more energy and found ourselves exercising more. The downside? A gnawing hunger that had to be fed all the fucking time. Finally – if moral and ethical certitude is what you seek, you’re on your own. Detached relativism (or, if you prefer, apathy) is kind of our thing.