In today’s post and episode I wanted to address our attachment to cheese, which isn’t a bad thing, nor the thing or craving that shall not be named once you go vegan, but that can in fact help us on our vegan journey when we have awareness of it. I’m going to share some personal and family cheese stories to show you just how present it is in our culture no matter where we come from, and how my mindset shifted and my way of experiencing veganism completely changed along the way. I’ll also share why I think we’ve been going about the “saying goodbye to cheese as a vegan” thing all wrong, and why it’s ok to miss certain animal foods that have been such a huge part of our eating lives, of our culture, and of our food memories. To finish I’ll be giving you four very practical and simple tips to incorporate some cheesy goodness in your life asap.
But first, BIG announcement!
If you follow us on Instagram (@brownble), you probably saw us reveal the big secret we’ve been keeping from you. On December 6th, our newest vegan online course “Melt: The Ultimate Vegan Cheese Course” will be live! You can visit brownble.com/melt to get a sneak peek at what will be included in the course, watch our trailer, look at the photos of all the cheeses that will be included in the course and more. We’ve been working on this project for a very long time and I still can’t believe it will be live in just a few weeks. On that page you can leave us your name and email and we’ll notify you as soon as the course goes live as well as send you an early bird special deal, a great discount for early birds who enrol in the course.
We’ll be teaching you how to make actual cultured and aged wheels of vegan cheese, cheeses you can grate and brown over lasagna or casseroles, spreadable and creamy cheeses, cheeses that melt, cheeses you can pour on goodies, cheeses you can dip goodies into, the most perfect bloomy camembert style cheese, vegan fresh mozzarella balls, melty mozzarella, and so much more including bonus videos where you can learn how to make some delicious recipes using your homemade vegan cheeses, things like our perfect NY style cheesecake, Italian tiramisu, our loaded nacho platter, a delicious caprese salad, and so much more. You’ll be learning all the basics of vegan cheesemaking at home so you can create your own delicious creations. We’re too excited to show you!
Cheese, Carlos and I
The more I look into the cuisines of different cultures and parts of the world, the more I see that although of course certain groups of people have a stronger attachment to cheese because of the place they grew up in (hello Italy and France!), there are very few cultures that haven’t had some type of cheese as a part of people’s plates for years or centuries.
From the gooey melty cheeses of North America, to fresh and tangy ones in Central America, to feta, goat’s cheese and strong aged cheeses along the Mediterranean, to the rich and enormous wheels or cheese balls the Dutch enjoy, to the strong, creamy and pungent cheeses of France. From the softer and more acidic varieties in the Middle East and others throughout Asia, to the strong, bloomy blue cheeses of England, to the delicious, fresh, and salty white cheeses of South America, to the sheep’s, goat’s and even camel’s milk cheeses in Africa. It seems that pretty much everyone has grown up with some form of cheese.
Growing up in Venezuela, it was impossible to fathom a life without cheese. Back home we had a myriad of offerings from many different parts of the world, since we were so close to the US, and we had so much immigration coming from Europe after the great wars, and from the more southern part of South America.
In my family alone, I had relatives from Brazil, Argentina, the US, England, Russia and Poland, with all of those influences appearing every time you opened our fridge, and also, the local cuisine seeping into our pores with every passing year.
Carlos’s family originally came from the Andes mountains in the far western region of the country, and from Spain, both of which have huge dairy farming traditions.
We grew up eating a very specific kind of cheese that is at the heart of Venezuelan cheesemaking, cheeses that are very fresh, salty, soft and white with names like “queso telita”, “ queso guayanés”, “queso de mano”, “queso paisa”, “queso palmizulia” and “queso duro”. Cheeses that make anyone who tries them fall in love instantly, as they are rarely found anywhere else and are oh-so-good!
I remember being a young girl and travelling one hour away from the beach we used to go to (which was already 3 and a half hours away from our home in the city), to visit a small town called Clarines, where they were masters at making telita or cloth cheese, a very flat white and slightly salty cheese they sold in these aluminum trays. We’d park the car in the gravel road in front of this little hut, and they’d sell us a disposable aluminum pan with the flat cheese inside, and they’d give us plastic spoons for the road. We would eat it in the car, right out of the pan, or on our way to the car, or after finding a beach or river to have a picnic on. It was such a big, slightly un-glamorous tradition.
Carlos grew up eating that same cheese as an appetizer before barbecues with crunchy cassava bread (casabe), and very thinly sliced basil and olive oil.
We’d eat these delicious cheeses in arepas (Venezuela’s most iconic street food), cachapas (a kind of large thick pancake made out of sweet pounded corn filled with these fresh cheeses), and empanadas.
At Carlos’s house, they’d serve a big ball of Dutch cheese during the Holidays, that everyone would hollow out and nibble on while we waited for Christmas dinner (which is served at around 1 or 2 am at his house (yikes, I know…). Then his grandma or mom would use the remaining hollowed out cheese ball to add chicken inside and melt the whole thing until it collapsed in the oven and became this gooey cheesy casserole that would be served the day after Christmas.
When I moved to New York as a wee girl, I discovered how they sold bags of shredded cheese (very unusual in Venezuela except for grated parmesan), that you could just rip open and use to top everything from scrambled eggs, to casseroles, to potatoes, and string cheese started appearing every day in my lunchbox. Burgers were suddenly unacceptable unless they had lots of melted cheese (and bacon), and pizza became the ultimate comfy, cozy, takeout. So much so, that when my grandmother had me over for lunch (the woman did a great many things but she couldn’t cook to save her life), she would order me a double or triple cheese pizza. That’s it, the only ingredient was cheese, more cheese, and extra cheese on top of that.
My mom and I also had this tradition called midnight snacks, where we’d go to a local delicatessen and she would let me pick some of the goodies we couldn’t normally afford to buy, things like these very special smoky sausage links, Polish pickles, mini baby bell cheeses, and laughing cow cheese wedges (and always, always marzipan fruits for some reason), and she’d make up a big tray, and come get me at midnight to have the most fun midnight picnic on her bed.
Whenever we had people over my mom would make her baked brie. She’d put brie or camembert in a baking dish, drown it in honey and chopped walnuts and bake it until melted, and whenever my mom and I had something to celebrate, she’d take me to have cheese fondue at this lovely Swiss restaurant on the top of a very gloomy hill with forests below that made you feel you were in the Swiss Alps (sort of).
I could go on and on about the love affair we had with cheese, but these are just examples to tell you that:
A) Almost no one is born vegan.
B) Almost all of us have a close-knit relationship with cheese, that we have to learn to manage when we wish to go vegan.
C) Telling yourself you can never again have your cheesy favorites isn’t the answer. It keeps painting veganism within this space of prohibition, limitation, and restriction, when it doesn’t have to be. It is often times our yummy vegan favorites, those comforting foods (whether store-bought or made from scratch) that help us find a happy balanced place of including both fun foods and nourishing foods, and that can help us sustain this way of eating for longer, hopefully for life, receiving all the many benefits for years to come. Benefits to the animals, our enviornment, our fellow humans and our health.
Continue to work on releasing the mindset of restriction
I want you to get the idea of restriction when it comes to veganism, out of your head.
Of course it feels like you need to learn new skills and recipes, that’s what making cool changes entails. Just like if you were learning to play the guitar, or a new hobby, but when you get down to it, vegan food is about the simple swap of an animal-based ingredient for a plant-based one, and you simply have to practice until seeing the abundance and the options becomes the default, instead of focusing on what you’re removing from the plate.
If you’re constantly in a fight against cravings, a fight against family members, a fight against traditions, a fight against dishes you used to love that you feel you can’t have anymore, the process will feel much bumpier. Ditto if you’ve fallen into the many restrictive forms of “veganism” that are out there, that can not only make you take steps back because you feel it’s too extreme, but it can lead to obsessions with food and ingredients, disordered eating and even full blown eating disorders.
It’s why I always ask you to practice lots of awareness in noticing not only what is healthy, and full of nutrients, but what textures you miss, what flavors you like, and take them into your choices when making meals and snacks, rather than push them out. See what options are available to you and incorporate them so that you feel there are more options, not less.
Bring them in
If cheese is one of those dealbreakers when going vegan, if you feel you could never ever give up cheese, or if missing cheese is something that is turning this new change into a battle, bring it in, in its vegan version, with something as simple as buying a brand you love at the store, or embarking upon this beautiful hobby that is vegan cheesemaking at home, to produce delicious, cultured, aged, sharp, tangy, soft, creamy, melty, even bloomy and stinky cheeses that will satisfy any cheese craving.
Four easy places you can start, even if you aren’t fully vegan right now:
1) Go to a health food store and buy some nutritional yeast flakes (not brewer’s yeast which is something different). This inactive form of yeast has the most delicious texture and cheesy flavor and can be added to cheesy sauces, to make vegan cheese, to flavor cashew cream and make a killer bechamel, or even as the base ingredient to make creamy dressings.
2) Buy deodorized coconut oil or refined coconut oil. It is coconut oil that has been steamed and that doesn’t have a coconut smell or aroma but all the richness and silkiness that cheesy sauces are famous for. Another key point, coconut oil firms up when it’s cold and melts when it is heated, giving you both the properties of firmness, or gooeyness, depending on what you’re looking for. Combine it with non-dairy milk or a cream made out of blending previously soaked and softened cashews, some of that lovely nutritional yeast and you’ll see a cheesy and even stretchy sauce form before your eyes.
3) In a food processor, grind up some almonds, some nutritional yeast and some salt (or just the almonds and salt), or alternatively, buy ground almonds and simply mix them with some salt. Keep this in a jar and add to pastas and salads for a delicious texture and flash parmesan alternative.
4) Buy some tapioca starch and use this instead of cornstarch when you want to make a cheesy sauce that is gooey and even stretchy. It comes from the root vegetable yucca or cassava, and it has magical properties no other starch can provide, because it both thickens and creates a stretch-like quality.
Four easy steps you can take even if you haven’t started swapping your dairy-based cheeses for vegan ones but you’re trying to and wanting to, and of course, we’ll be getting as cheesy as it gets making actual cultured cheeses at Brownble before you know it.
I would love to hear of any old time cheesy favorites, cheesy traditions, or recipes you love or used to love that feature cheese and how you’ve made them in their vegan versions, or, ask me any questions for substitutions that you might need in the comments below!
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