The idea of noshing on a juicy burger or devouring a bacon mac and cheese skillet (okay fine – and a slice of buttercream cake for dessert) is the stuff of comfort food dreams. It’s also the stuff vegan foodie Lauren Toyota, of famed blog and YouTube channel Hot for Food (part of Kin Community), cooks up on a regular basis. “I’m trying to dispel the misconception that, as a vegan, you have to eat raw food, salad or green smoothies all the time,” she says. That’s also the theme behind her just-released cookbook Vegan Comfort Classics, featuring over 100 plant-based recipes that are unapologetically indulgent and drool-worthy. We caught up with the Canadian star to ask about everything from her humble beginnings to her top tips for entry-level vegans.
What inspired you to take such an inventive approach to veganism?
When I first became vegan, I thought I had to uphold some idea of health. I thought I couldn’t enjoy the foods I used to eat when I was an omnivore. But I quickly got out of that trap once I realized, if I don’t change what I’m doing, I’m not going to stick to this whole vegan thing. I don’t want to eat cold food all the time.
Comfort food is just a generic umbrella term because it can be anything to anybody. Whatever is comforting to you might not be comforting to me, because it plays off your childhood, your experiences and your senses. I’m always trying to get my recipes to appeal to as many senses as possible.
Was there a learning curve? What did you eat before becoming vegan?
Before becoming vegan, I had just travelled through the U.S. with a family member, driving through states like Florida and Georgia. We were eating a lot of terrible omnivore food, from po’ boys to Cuban sandwiches. I had gone from eating all of this southern comfort food, which plays into what I make now as a vegan, but then not feeling good. And I went on that trip thinking, this is it. I’m just going to go all out and then come back and get healthy. Whatever that meant.
Once I became vegan I eventually started asking myself things like: How can I make salads more satisfying? I think I probably started there, adding creamier dressings and heavier toppings and then thought, well wait, now I want to experiment more: How do I make cheese as a vegan? How do I make bacon as a vegan?
What are your top tips for beginner vegans?
Stick to What You Know: Which foods do you like? Try to substitute a few non-vegan ingredients for vegan ones, but don’t try to cook something you don’t even know how to make or know if you like – start with your favourite meal or something you eat all the time and recreate it without your default ground beef or Parmesan cheese. Make tiny adjustments without reinventing your entire diet.
Start Cooking: You have to start cooking something, even if it’s a very basic pasta with jarred sauce. Get used to cooking, because I think if you’re going vegan, or mostly vegan, it’s so empowering and something everyone can learn.
Don’t Overhaul Your Fridge and Pantry: It can be a slow transition, integrating one thing at a time, or using up that jar of regular mayonnaise before swapping it for a vegan version. Take the same approach when replacing cheese, and so on.
Shake up Your Grocery Store Routine: Walk through different aisles and start reading labels. Educate yourself and get out of your habitual patterns – if you’re not reading labels, you likely don’t realize that much of what you’re buying probably is vegan. So figure out what you’re already buying that’s vegan, and what you should add to your cart.
Pantry staples you can’t live (or cook) without?
Raw Cashews: They’re neutral in flavour and don’t taste nutty because they’re not roasted. Vegans like to soak and blend cashews to make thick creams or milk. There’s substance and viscosity to it, and it provides the same texture as whipped or heavy cream in a sauce. I also make Parmesan by grinding cashews into a coarse meal with nutritional yeast.
Nutritional Yeast: I use this ingredient a lot in the cookbook – it’s one of those things people may not know about, but it’s been around forever. There’s nothing weird or processed about it. It has B12 and protein and fibre. I incorporate it into everything because it adds depth, like a cheesiness or nuttiness.
Thickeners (like Cornstarch or Arrowroot): Thickeners are great for soups and sauces. You should always keep one in your pantry because it will never spoil.
Spices: These are important for beginners too because you’re basically trying to season food with spices to taste like meat or other dishes you’re used to eating. Stock up on smoked paprika, cumin, turmeric and onion and garlic powder. Spices are also inexpensive and pretty much last forever, as long as you’re storing them in a dry place.
There seems to be growing interest in plant-based eating, specifically vegan comfort foods. Why now?
At the beginning [in Toronto and elsewhere] we saw more juice and salad bars. Now, in contrast, we’re seeing a second movement: the indulgent side. I think it’s helping people get on board with veganism so they don’t fall into that trap of thinking they have to eat one way. It’s great because you can access both types of food, no matter your diet. I think everyone who’s on the same mission as me in the community realizes this is just how we get people interested and through the door.
Where do you see veganism heading? Where will it be five to ten years from now?
In five years, I think we’re going to be at a place where it’s much more normalized. Every restaurant will have more than one plant-based option on the menu, or if not, an isolated vegan menu, which you’re seeing places do now. I hope it’s not so much of a thing to harp on, that it’s just regular food that happens to be made with plants. At the end of the day, the movement is not a trend. It’s really a way to get people adjusted to the fact that this is the future of what you’re going to be eating.