Good-tasting vegan options abound, say Middletown eatery owners

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MIDDLETOWN — ION Restaurant owner Renana Magee started eating a plant-based diet at a young age, making the choice to become a vegan at 7.

“My parents were hippies. We were living on a commune then, and as kids, we named each animal, including the ducks,” she said. Her decision was cemented when she saw the meat stored in the freezer. 

She went for a camping trip as a child with her father. “My dad told me and my brother to pick out lobsters — then they were plopped down in front of us, dead and steaming, next to corn on the cob,” the restaurateur added.

Magee, who runs the 606 Main St. eatery in the North End of the city, which offers creative on traditional menu offerings, such as seitan turkey with cashew gravy, sausage made with pea or soy protein, lemon aioli crab cakes, cheeseburgers with a house-made beet and mushrooms, and surf and turf: grilled seitan with trumpet mushroom scallops.

She is among local restaurateurs sharing their meat-free recipes for Thanksgiving, Christmas and other holidays who say it may take a little convincing to encourage carnivores to take a stab at plant–based food.  

“The learning curve is different” when learning to prepare vegetarian and vegan dishes, Magee explained.

“The trend to make ‘fake meat’ — something that’s supposed to taste or look like meat — that ended,” Magee said. “Now, people are going for really delicious food.”

Recently, cauliflower dishes have become very popular with diners. One ION favorite is prepared with a whole cauliflower, which is braised then cooked. “It’s savory and delicious,” Magee said. Roasted cauliflower bites are another favorite. “It’s pretty easy to transition to that. Meat eaters don’t get it. but it’s good,” she said.

Mushrooms add the texture meat eaters enjoy, explained the owner, who buys exclusively from Mystic-based Seacoast Mushrooms. “You can use oyster mushrooms; pretty much any mushroom you can imagine. It’s easily turned into that mouth feel you get with meat.”

Fungi can be used as a substitute for chicken or other meats, such as ION’s pasta dish with plant-based scallops. “People love that,” Magee pointed out.

Vegetable-based dishes that all will enjoy include mashed potatoes with garlic gravy, and gluten-free cornbread stuffing with celery, carrots, herbs, vegan butter and even turnips. 

Quinoa is very popular now, Magee said, as “it’s light and fluffy and it’s got protein, so it’s good.”

Just as with tofu, quinoa needs to be seasoned with herbs, sauces and other marinades. “It has no flavor,” she added. “You give it the flavor. People pick up something like tofu and say, ‘what do I do with it?’

“They don’t do anything to it, and say it doesn’t taste good. Anything you would do to your normal food if you’re a carnivore, you have to do to tofu,” Magee said.

At ION, the tofu is pressed to remove the water, sliced and cooked on a large sheet pan with sesame oil, tamari and olive oil for 20 minutes. 

“Then you have a base you can do anything with,” she said. “It’s absolutely delicious when you cut it up into little cubes that will soak up all that flavor. You can eat it cold and it’s still good.”

ION’s Thanksgiving Day menu is seitan “turkee” with cashew gravy, walnut sausage cornbread stuffing with golden oyster mushrooms, maple miso glazed honeynut squash, garlic butter-roasted broccolini, and pepitas and tart cherry with cranberry compote.

Soulfully Vegan food truck is run by lifelong residents and Middletown High School graduates Allison Vaughan and her husband, Calvin, who left their corporate jobs to serve up healthy fare beginning in May 2021. This is the third year the couple have been entirely vegan, Vaughan said. 

Veganism has moved beyond its roots, which Vaughan characterized as “terrible.”

“The problem is, people hear the term ‘vegan’ and it’s such a taboo word. Even still, people say, ‘What is this? Celery? Is it salad? What are we getting here?’”

Encouraging people to adopt the lifestyle is about changing perceptions, she added. “Vegan just means without an animal product. It doesn’t mean it’s lackluster in flavor. I’m still packing the punch in terms of all the good flavors you’ve missed and you recognize.

“We’re putting those back into the food,” Vaughan explained. “It’s almost like it’s vegan — it’s an incidental thing. … All vegan food gets a bad rap.

“The need for vegan options are not trendy anymore,” she added.

Today’s meatless options can be indistinguishable from the real thing, something Vaughan prides herself on. In fact, her three children have adopted the diet. “If you can trick kids into veganism, you can convince anybody,” she said.

Their burgers are made from Beyond Meat, which has the same texture of meat, she said, unlike bean burgers, for example, which are a little “earthy” for some, and often fall apart in the cooking process.

Vaughan admits the vegan world is “super ambiguous.”

“We have folks who subscribe to vegan silos,” she explained, such as finicky eaters who say they don’t want processed, or “unhealthy” foods with added sugar or salt, or plant-based ingredients that don’t look or taste like meat.

“We try to stay in the middle,” with an introductory menu, she added. “There’s such a void for it.”

The truck was at the Big E this year in Springfield, Mass., which can take some 20 years to get in — or others not at all, Vaughan noted. “It was the Grammys of food trucks.”

The family’s Thanksgiving meal will include candied carrots and vegan meatballs, mashed potatoes, creamed corn with vegan cream cheese, whole cranberry sauce and cornbread.

Home cooks can replace eggs in recipes with applesauce and bananas, which also acts as a binder.

To make leftovers more appealing, Vaughan transforms menu items such as corn and bakes a shepherd’s pie the next day.

“Vegan food isn’t this abstract, scary thing,” she said. “It has been, and we understand that. We really, truly are trying hard to change the narrative.” 

Magee shared her stuffing and “cracklin” marinade recipes.

Cornbread Stuffing

3 cups cornbread cubes, diced ½-inch thick
¼ cup diced yellow onion
¼ cup diced celery
1 cup butter
2 cups vegetable stock
1 teaspoon each parsley, thyme and rosemary, fresh or dried, chopped fine

Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Toast cornbread cubes until firm, spread flat on cookie sheet, cook for about 10 minutes.
Melt 2 tbsp butter and saute onions and celery in a saucepan until soft. Add rest of butter and cook until melted. Add stock and cook until hot.
Pour liquid over cornbread and toss until moistened. Add herbs and toss to combine.
Bake in a dish for 30 minutes.

Cracklin marinade

3 tbsp vegetarian bouillon
3 cups water
1 cup canola oil
2 tsp each onion and garlic powder
3 cups nutritional yeast
Rice paper

Combine ingredients in half of a hotel-size pan. Half fill another with water.
Dip rice paper in water, then cracklin marinade ,and lay flat on sheet pan coated with food-release spray.
Cook in 350 degree oven for four minutes, then flip and cook an additional four minutes or until desired crispiness

Vaughan offered two recipes, which are “very convenient for someone who needs a dish that can accommodate any diet in the room, but can still contend as a crowd-pleaser,” she said.

Candied Carrots

1 bag raw carrots, washed and peeled
 
Brown sugar sauce:
4 tbsp margarine
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
½ tsp vanilla extract
3 tbsp brown sugar
Salt to taste

Easy Vegan Appetizer Meatballs

2 bags of frozen vegan meatballs
1 16 oz can marinara sauce
1 medium onion and green bell pepper (chopped)
½ tsp onion powder
½ tsp garlic powder
Salt and pepper to taste

The Soulfully Vegan truck will be stationed at GastroPark in West Hartford Friday from 4 to 9 p.m., and Cyclocross National Championship at Riverside Park in Hartford, a nationally televised event, from Dec. 9 to 11.

For information on ION, visit ionrestaurant on Instagram, IONRestaurant on Facebook or the website at ionrestaurant.com. To learn more about Soulfully Vegan, see soulfullyvegan.com or the Facebook page at SoulFullyVeganLLC

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