The Cheesy Happy Vegan

I had an easy time transitioning into vegetarianism. I had never really liked meat that much before, never ordered a burger or a steak and found hot dogs to be pretty repulsive. I really didn’t think twice about becoming a vegetarian. I could still go to all my favourite restaurants, I could eat loads of mac and cheese, pizza and creamy dishes. Life was good and I was happy!

My love for cheese was an addiction, an obsession. I always had sharp cheddar, parmigiano reggiano, goat , Oaxacan, gruyere, and sopero, a nice salty Mexican cheese. These were just my staples. Whenever I could find an artisan cheese shop, I would stock up on more. If my cheese pantry ever got too low it made me nervous. If someone ate the last of the cheese, I would get angry.

All of my meals revolved around cheese. Whether homemade ricotta raviolis swimming in a creamy sauce or a six cheese mac n cheese, cheese was always the star. My salads and soups would always end up with goat or sopero cheese garnishing the top. The beautiful stringy and tangy Oaxacan ,fresh from the market, could be a meal in itself. A ball of that cheese, freshly made, with hot corn tortillas and some salsa would have been perfect for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

My culinary world as I knew it came crashing to an end nearly two years ago. I was informed by a family member that I needed to watch a movie on veganism. I can’t remember which movie it was because, frankly, I never watched it. I had seen bits and pieces of these documentaries and refused to watch them because I knew it would change my world and that scared me. Instead of watching the documentary, I knew what I needed to do.

I needed to try every vegan cheese available to see if I would be able to give up my favourite food. I began a journey of investigating vegan cheese. It didn’t start out well, but I knew if I could find just one cheese that would satisfy me, I could give up cheese and then I didn’t need to watch a movie about torturing animals. I could just live in peace knowing I was doing the right thing.

My vegan cheese journey was difficult being that I live on a tropical island with only a few grocery stores, most of which don’t carry any vegan items. I had to order the cheeses online, find someone that was traveling to my island and ask them to bring me cheese. I was able to get my hands on several artisan cheeses and the taste tests began. I found one cheese that I really liked and figured with that one cheese, I could make this work.

As my journey continued, I found local vegan cheese mongers and was able to get cheddar, jalapeño jack, fresh mozzarella, cream cheese, and manchego, along with a variety of fermented and aged cheeses.

The problem, however, was they didn’t melt the same way as regular cheese. They behaved differently and tasted a little different as well. The key, I realised, was you had to learn to modify recipes and cooking methods. Most of the cheeses needed a little more stringiness, so I would play around with options like corn starch or potato starch. The lack of umami in some of the cheeses lead me to play around with things like huitlacoche, a corn fungus, mushrooms, vinegars, amino acids or pretty much anything that smelled funky.

Baking times on casseroles needed to be reduced to get the same creaminess as before. Cheese sauces needed to be cooked at lower temperatures. Once I started figuring all of this out, I became fascinated with my new techniques in the kitchen. I’ve always loved to cook and considered myself an expert, but when you add cheese and cream to most dishes, it’s pretty easy to whip up a tasty dish. When you are working with plant based cheeses, it takes more effort, imagination and creativity to make a lush, creamy dish.

I am not only a well fed, happy vegan, but I am now a much more accomplished cook.

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Megan Alexander

Megan Alexander

Chocolate maker. Journalist. Vegan foodie. Traveler. Optimist. Owner at Chocolateria Isla Bella .www.chocolateriaislabella.com