Growing up, I had a couple long stretches of being a pretty strict vegetarian. I'm grateful for it because it taught me to get creative in the kitchen and learn to embrace vegetables in a way that I'm not sure I would have otherwise. But, inevitably, I would succumb to temptation — good cheesecake; a hunk of Parmesan cheese studded with hard, salty crystals; a bagel with cream cheese, capers and lox; my mom's lasagna.
It was this ongoing cycle of abstaining and indulging, to the point where I finally fell away from vegetarianism because I felt like I wasn't doing it right. I described it much in the way people who slowly stopped attending church do.
Instead of being a lapsed Catholic, I was a lapsed vegetarian.
RELATED: Jessica Seinfeld on being a part-time vegan: "If I can do it, anyone can do it"
However, this year I set one New Year's goal that feels not only achievable, but necessary: Eat more vegan meals. Food writers and chefs far more eloquent than I have weighed in on the importance of incorporating more plant-based meals into our diets for both our personal health as well as that of our planet (if you're interested in learning more, I'd encourage you to read Alicia Kennedy's great newsletter which, as a bonus, includes a fair amount of vegan baking recipes).
Going into 2022, I knew that it was the right decision for me personally. These days, I consider myself a "weekday vegan." The concept isn't novel — Mark Bittman's "vegan before six" philosophy has reemerged in recent years, while cookbook author Jessica Seinfeld describes herself as a "part-time vegan" — but it was an easy organizing mechanism for meal planning that has benefited both my health and my budget.
You know those "pantry staples," like fancy beans and good coconut milk, that everyone stocked up on during the pandemic? They're a cornerstone of my day-to-day eating and they're still cheaper than bargain meat. And since I'm cooking and eating vegan throughout the work week, I'm committed to finding and developing recipes that aren't tremendous projects and don't require a bunch of esoteric ingredients that will just clutter my pantry.
If you're looking for inspiration to incorporate more vegan meals into your diet, maybe you'll find it in the food diary below. This is a typical week for me:
Envision this: A sweet potato, roasted until tender and slightly caramelized, drizzled with some coconut yogurt and then topped with chia seeds, lime zest and agave. I began dreaming about this breakfast last night. I got into bed, turned to my boyfriend, Stephen, and announced that I would be up early for some low-and-slow sweet potato roasting. He wasn't nearly as enthused as I was about this proposed development (to be fair, it was 2 a.m.) but he feigned excitement about my tuberous root vegetable dreams.
Fast-forward seven hours and I've slept through my alarm. I check my phone. My day is packed with meetings and I have a tour scheduled at Phoenix Bean, a small-batch tofu factory that's about a mile away from my apartment. I check the weather. It's in the low 30s — basically Chicago spring! — so a little nippy, but walkable.
I put my breakfast dreams on hold and decide on a quick bowl of cereal. I grab a bowl, some Whole Foods brown rice crisps and oat milk. When I reach in the refrigerator, I realize that Stephen has left a cold brew for me; he does this pretty much every morning, but it's always really sweet.
I work for a few hours and make lunch — flour tortilla spread with black beans, avocado and some shredded jicama — and take it with me for the walk to Phoenix Bean. Its owner, Jenny Yang, is incredibly cool and she gives me a few packs of their tofu to try at home with the note that since it's fresh it's best when used within two weeks. That shouldn't be a problem!
When I get back, I'm feeling a little snacky, so I sprinkle some popcorn with nutritional yeast and red pepper flakes and grab a sparkling water. Fancy sparkling water, like these Dram cardamom and black tea guys, are an enduring vice of mine. I also start soaking some red beans for dinner. Should I have done this last night? Probably, but they'll have three or four hours to soak before I start prepping and that's going to have to be enough.
Meetings come, meetings go. I get a push notification from Eater Chicago and see that "A Plant-Based Ramen Shop Announces Plans to Open in Uptown," which is my neighborhood. I immediately send the link to Stephen and 1) set a calendar alert for their opening day and 2) vow to buy some ingredients for ramen for later in the week.
After a couple more hours of plugging away, I put my ramen craving on the backburner and start work on dinner: vegan red beans and rice. It's a real "clean out the crisper drawer" adaptation of Budget Byte's recipe, which is shockingly flavorful for only about $1.23 a serving. The key to getting that deep, slow-cooked flavor without the meat? Smoked paprika.
It starts to snow while dinner is bubbling on the stove which feels super cozy. I curl up with an extra large bowl, topped with an absurd amount of fresh scallions, and catch up on a few shows before I start fading to sleep.
My sweet potato breakfast dreams are finally realized. I tweaked the recipe a bit since I had time this morning to riff in the kitchen before work. Here's what you need:
- 1 sweet potato with the skin rubbed in neutral oil
- 2 tablespoons of coconut yogurt
- The zest of 1 lime
- 2 tablespoons of nuts or seeds of your choice (I went with toasted pecans)
- Agave, to taste
Loaded Sweet Potato (Ashlie Stevens)
The cooking process is pretty simple. I poke the sweet potato skin with a fork before baking and let it roast in a 350-degree oven for about 40 minutes. After letting it cool just enough to handle, I slice it in half vertically and drizzle it with coconut yogurt. Next I sprinkle it with the pecans and lime zest. For a little sweetness, I top the potato with just a little bit of agave.
It's perfect. The balance between sweetness, acidity and creaminess is ideal, especially when paired with today's cold brew. I then proceed to do that thing where I have too many iced coffees in a row simply because I'm drinking them out of a fancy reusable straw.
When I finally look up, it's 3pm and I have a light, caffeine-induced headache. I'm planning on making pasta for dinner, so I want something light and quick for a late lunch. I settle on a slab of sesame seed-covered manakish and hummus that I'd gotten from Middle East Bakery and Grocery over the weekend. I had also eyed their vegan soup selection — including a potato variety that was absolutely packed with dill —and I regret not grabbing a tub now.
After wrapping work, I grab the train to make a dance class just to get some movement in for the day. By the time I make it back, it's starting to snow again. Perfect evening for a mushroom ragù. I toss some garlic and shallots into my Dutch oven with some olive oil and cook over medium heat until they get jammy. I do the same with some really well-salted sliced mushrooms and carrots. I toss a little red wine over the mixture and let that reduce before adding some vegetable stock and tossing it in the oven to simmer for an hour or so while I call a friend to catch up.
When I pull it from the oven, it's rich and incredibly thick. I quickly boil some linguine and add ¼ cup of the pasta water to loosen it up a little bit and help it bind to the pasta. I separate it out into a couple bowls and top it with a heaping scoop of Kite Hill almond milk ricotta, which I've been pretty obsessed with recently, and some toasted Panko breadcrumbs.
I'm up early with my coffee, there's sun streaming in through the windows and I've just downloaded TikTok, so I feel compelled to make an aesthetically-pleasing breakfast. Since I have leftover almond milk ricotta and strawberry jam, I decide on "checkerboard toast," which had a moment when the folks at Davelle, a hole-in-the-wall Japanese café on New York's Lower East Side, began making and posting their creations.
I take the next few minutes to painstakingly alternate between swishes of ricotta and jam. Is it perfect? No. Is it delicious? Actually, yes. Especially because it's kind of cute and I'm happy while eating it (it's the little things these days, right?)
Almond milk ricotta toast (Ashlie Stevens)
After meeting my afternoon deadlines, Stephen and I hop the train to find lunch. We're still in the process of getting reacquainted with Chicago since moving back in January, so we'll occasionally just pick a stop and walk until we find something that piques our interest. Today, it's 11 Degree North, a Venezuelan-inspired arepa and coffee shop. I get the "Palm Shade" arepa, which is packed with portobello mushrooms, hearts of palm, avocado, hummus, red onion and spring mix.
I know it's going to be a late night because Stephen and I are up against a deadline for an audio documentary we're working on together, so we enjoy the sunshine for as long as we can before trekking home. After a few hours of turning the living room rug into a jumbo storyboard covered with notecards, it's time for a break.
I scoop the rest of the almond milk ricotta into a blender with some pre-cubed and boiled butternut squash, nutritional yeast, olive oil and a generous pinch of salt and pepper. I boil some bucatini and use the pasta water to get the butternut squash mixture to a sauce-like consistency and add a few heaping handfuls of spinach to the pot. Once it steamed and got a little soft, I stirred it through the pasta.
This was a really easy, vegetable-packed dinner that wasn't so heavy that I immediately wanted to sleep. Powered by pasta, we kept working for a few more hours then treated ourselves to some Sweet Loren's vegan chocolate chip cookies.
Thursdays are always a bit of a blur (I work during the day and teach at night) and today is no exception. I skip breakfast, but realize that a good lunch is non-negotiable. I make what is actually one of my favorite brunch foods — a savory coconut rice bowl. It's easy to make and infinitely riffable. Here's what I put together today:
- 1 cup of instant rice
- ½ can of full-fat coconut milk
- 1 teaspoon of not-chicken bouillon
- ½ avocado, sliced
- 2 tablespoons of pumpkin seeds
- 2 radishes, thinly sliced
- Scallions for garnish
- Red pepper flakes for garnish
I toss the instant rice, coconut milk and a few tablespoons of water into a small pot, along with the not-chicken bouillon and stir over heat until it's thick like oatmeal.
Savory Vegan Breakfast Bowl (Ashlie Stevens)
I transfer the rice mixture to a bowl and top it with the avocado, pumpkin seeds, radish, scallions and red pepper flakes. If I'm feeling saucy, I may add a drizzle of oil and rice vinegar. Chili crisp would be amazing here, too.
I toss back some popcorn and another fancy sparkling water after I go to the gym, but before class, and by the time I wrap up, I'm starving. Thursdays are typically either take-out or leftover night. I finish up the rest of the red beans and rice while Stephen grabs some leftover butternut squash pasta.
We round out the day with a few more vegan chocolate chip cookies.
It's almost the weekend! I so enjoyed my coconut rice bowl from yesterday that I make another and down an iced coffee and some water with lemon.
For some reason, I'm incredibly snacky today, so I make a "trail mix" to keep at my desk. It's a mix of vegan chocolate-covered blueberries from Middle East Bakery and Grocery and cashews.
For lunch, I shift into savory snacking mode and chop up some cucumber, radishes and carrots to eat with hummus alongside some pita and miniature falafel, also from that market.
We're planning on eating out a couple times this weekend, so we decide to stay in for a quiet night at home. Stephen had brought home these gorgeous wide rice noodles from Viet Hoa Plaza, and we decide to cook them up like Penny's Noodle Shop, one of our favorite local restaurants, does. There, you can get this dish where the rice noodles are pan-fried until they are crispy and then are doused in a gingery sauce and topped with broccoli, carrots and tofu.
Thanks to Jenny, we are stocked up on tofu, so we give the dish a go! It's not a deadringer, but it's pretty close and it feels like a wholesome way to cap off a harried week.
More vegan recipes: