I am no stranger to a cooking challenge. My interest began years ago in San Francisco watching the original Iron Chef on public television (KQED?). Briefly we engaged some friends in a swanky cooking club called the One Up Supper Club. But then grownup life took over and somehow it fizzled. Later I enlisted my mom to go shopping at the Asian grocery stores to supply me, my husband, my sister and my niece with a mystery bag which we would cook from in teams. More recently came Meatless March—much harder because of the DENIAL and DURATION—but I did it twice with success.
I chose to not do Meatless March this year assuming I’d have a beautiful garden by end of summer and could revel in the bounty. But then we had to replace our sewer line and despite the two beds we’ve managed to plant, our yard still looks like a war zone. Of course I submit countless recipes to the Food52 challenges almost every other week. Just when I think I will take a break and not bother with trying to cook something in time for a nice photo (especially true when my recipe has not made the cut and I’m pouting) I find I can’t shake the new ideas bouncing around my head. And that is the first reason I like a challenge. It spurs creativity that is not otherwise there. And it was on Food52 that I became increasingly aware of the VB6 diet.
I happen to be so lucky that my neighbor drops off her New York Times Magazines for me. Not the whole pile of paper that will just pile up and depress me, but the cerebral candy that I just love love love. And one thing I look forward to has been Mark Bittman’s food column. He describes food, techniques and ingredients in such a way that a seasoned chef or a novice and nervous cook can enjoy. He often offers a base recipe with numerous variations for inspiration. And over the last several years and years of eating and eating he has come up with a new diet aimed at making him feel better, do a little better for the planet and lose weight. And it is called VB6 (Vegan Before 6).
I am the first to admit that vegan has bordered on bad word for me. I feel certain my nose would wrinkle up in a slight display of discust just like my dad. Even coming from someone who loves vegetables and got through Meatless March with just a little bit of boredom and only a couple intense cravings, vegan was crossing the line. No cheese!? Milk in my coffee? EGGS?!?!?! Appalling. Who would DO that? Well, I would. For a week. Anyone could do THAT. So I got Mr. Bittman’s book and began to read. And before I even finished the intro by Dean Ornish, president and founder of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute, I knew this was something to consider way beyond a week. It was something important to consider in every day life….for the rest of my life.
The basic idea of VB6 is pretty simple. You eat vegan until 6 at which point you can eat whatever you want within reason. And by reason it means you shouldn’t subsist on raw leafy greens all day just to wash it down with a cheeseburger dinner with fries, several beers and an ice cream float. I liked the idea that if I wanted an egg on my lentils or just some cheese and crackers I could. Just after 6. While this idea was still a little daunting I felt pretty good about it after a brief brainstorm with myself at 3 am. I just needed to identify my weak spots and head them off before they became a problem. I knew I was creative enough to find good food that satisfied me. I knew I liked to cook enough to prep the ingredients I’d need to not lose myself to last minute junk foods. And most importantly I knew I was craving some forced mindfulness to get me back on track after what seemed like a careless few weeks.
So in pondering the week ahead, I came up with these weak spots I needed to be prepared for:
One morning leading up to my week I was buttering some toast with salted butter, looking forward to that hot, crispy, melty bite and I stopped mid-air. Crap! No butter! One friend recommended a coconut spread of sorts which I planned to look into, but then I saw an article on Food52 with the tease “Avocados: nature’s butter” and figured that would be more than fine. I already eat that without thinking it is vegan. I also had a list of breakfast foods to make which would give me 3-4 days each removing any sort of early morning thinking: overnight slow-cooked steel-cut oats, breakfast porridge, breakfast quinoa, chia pudding….all meals I already enjoy, but just take a little planning.
This could also be called SNACKS. In my preparation for the week I realized just how much I reach for cheese and crackers or chips or other salty snacks throughout the day. I figured I would need an arsenal of better items I could not ignore and wrote a list: hummus, pecan mushroom pâté, apples and almond butter. As for the creamy cheese love I could pour cashew cream on my enchiladas and satisfy with some cheese at dinner.
I mostly work at home so it should not be a big deal to craft some good vegan lunches. But inevitably I get busy or am missing some key items. So I made a list of things that might require some prep ahead of time but would provide good, simple, filling lunches: roasted eggplant in place of lunch meat, crunchy roasted chickpeas, sweet potatos, greens, grains for salad, nuts, good vinegars. As far as the pantry went, I was in great shape.
With all that in mind I wrote down several meals, fine tuned my grocery list and headed out to H Mart where I knew I’d find tons of interesting and inexpensive vegetables. I also hit Costco hoping for the big bags of farro they have (they didn’t) as well as some citrus. They happened to have big bags of organic baby kale and I got my fill of meaty samples on the eve of the new plan.
Arriving home I put in a couple hours prepping some things. I don’t mind this kind of activity on a Sunday and I don’t think every weekend will be like that. In fact, I aim to do a few bulk things each week to rotate into the freezer. I imagine once you get started and are able to stay organized things get quicker and easier. Especially if you have a mom nearby who is interested in splitting the spoils. I caramelized 4 large pans worth of onions, roasted a pan of tomatoes into some deeply flavorful jam, cooked up a huge pot of quinoa and farro and prepped purple, white and orange sweet potatoes for roasting the next day. That night we enjoyed a grilled, grass fed, happy-running rib eye from my husband’s step-sister’s farm (served with sweet potato fries we HAD to clear out of the freezer) and a spinach salad. And I went to bed ready to tackle my new plan.
Since I had not managed to get my very first breakfast porridge organized, I happily ate avocado toast and half of my daughter’s mango that she left behind (commonly known as the mom diet). I did cheat by putting milk in my coffee but Mr. Bittman himself admitted as much so I felt fine about that. I was not ready for black coffee or nut milk coffee. So be it. By 11 it is safe to say I was very hungry. So I tossed the sweet potatoes in some oil, salt and garlic powder and roasted them until they were tender and browning. I came back to blanche some baby kale, toast some almonds and make a vinaigrette of black vinegar, sesame oil, a squeezed cutie, some chili paste and pepper and tossed it all with the farro/quinoa mixture. I was eating by 11:50 and it was awesome. I was so surprised by how different the sweet potatoes were from each other- especially the white which almost tasted lemony and floral.
And by about 2 I noticed I was intensely hungry again. So I snacked on some roasted seaweed I had gotten at Costco. They are super easy and satisfying and even though they are roasted in oil I feel confident it is better than a pile of cheese and crackers. By 3 I knew I needed something else and went downstairs only to be mocked by a huge pile of apples. So I grabbed one, cut it up and put it in a bowl with some almond butter and headed off to a yoga class.
I had not been to yoga in several weeks and it was intense. An hour and a half of standing poses which I was grateful for but will for sure feel tomorrow. And needless to say, by the time it was over I was starving. I stopped at the store on the way home and grabbed a rotisserie chicken because in all my planning I neglected to think about dinner. And I will say this: Do not go to the grocery store hungry, at 6:10pm, on your first day of VB6. Because the jars of queso and the bags of chips ahoy will mock you and you will be forced to hold your head high. Arriving home I threw broccoli in a pan to crisp it up, added the roasted sweet potatoes to heat up, some chopped chicken, a can of black beans and some of the super condensed tomato love I had made. Voila! Dinner was served.
And that brings me to now. A few sheets of seaweed later and I’m at the end of my first day. It was not that hard and I think if I make those snacky things tomorrow like I had intended I will fare better between meals. I have the amazing slow-cooked oatmeal in the crockpot and will stir almond butter and maple syrup into it tomorrow and make more colorful salads and savory snacks. Mostly I am looking forward to eventually feeling more energetic and healthy. And in meantime I am appreciating the mindfulness accompanying each food decision and the new, tasty meals I am creating.