Friday, August 26, 2011

To Cheese or Not to Cheese: A Former Cheese Lover's Dilemma

Okay, I confess the hardest part of being Vegan was having to sacrifice cheese. What would a slice of pizza, lasagna or eggplant parmigiana be without oozing layers of melted cheese? What about all those platters loaded with different varieties of cheese, crackers and fresh fruit? I am French and Italian. We live for cheese!

When I first became a Vegetarian many years ago, I relied heavily on cheese as a major source of protein. This was way back when being a Veggie wasn't so popular. There were no Boca Burgers, faux chik'n nuggets and other meat alternatives like we have now. It wasn't so easy giving up meat back then. Everything had to prepared from scratch. I was fearful of not getting enough protein in my diet ( the importance of meat had been drilled into my brain by my parents and at school) so I always made sure I ate plenty of cheese. Cheese was there to pick up the slack just in case all those home made lentil loaves and egg dishes weren't doing the trick. I certainly didn't want to wither away.

There is no real nutritional benefit from low-fat or no-fat varieties so I was eating raw, whole milk, rennet-less cheese by the pound. A good old grilled cheese sandwich was a delicious alternative when I wasn't in the mood to actually cook something. So was home made spinach quiche (loaded with eggs and cheddar cheese) and pizza. I lived on that stuff for a very long time. After a few years of eating this way, I noticed all that cheese was making me sluggish and making me fat! I was also getting more colds in the winter than ever before, despite that fact that I thought I was so healthy.

I've since fine-tuned my diet and eliminated animal products. No dairy- no milk, no eggs, etc. But what about my cheese? Cheese is dairy. It comes from cows. I've since learned I don't need it for protein (I get plenty that from all my other food) but I really love mac and cheese and pizza. My all-time favorite dish: eggplant parmigiana. The thought of never having those foods again made me want to throw in the towel altogether. But I am dedicated and determined to stay a Vegan. I am healthier, I feel better, I look better, and I am able to manage my weight easier by eating this way.

Vegan cheese alternatives are widely available. I have sampled several and for a real cheese lover like me, most leave much to be desired. They really aren't tasty enough to slice and eat. The consistency just isn't right. Some melt beautifully, others turn into a glob of oily mess. My famous mac and cheese loaded with real butter, cream and tons of Gruyere cheese topped with breadcrumbs is now a thing of the past. I tried making another version with a good brand of Vegan cheese and soy milk. It's not the same but it tastes pretty good. I did manage to create a lovely dish with layers of marinated, grilled eggplant and fresh tomatoes topped with melted Galaxy  "mozzarella". It's my healthy version of eggplant parm, baked to perfection, without all the oil, eggs, flour, breadcrumbs or frying. It's always a hit with guests when I serve it.

I go back and forth on using Vegan cheese because no matter how I look at it- it's processed. I am a bit of a purist when it comes to my food and common sense tells me in order to tranform a soybean, a handful of nuts, or a grain of rice into a block of "cheese" it must endure quite an ordeal. I have mixed emotions about all that. A hunk of rennet-less cheese made from raw milk is definitely NOT as processed. But then there's the whole cow thing. I don't really want to eat anything from a cow.

I openly admit, since becoming a Vegan, I have eaten REAL cheese. Sometimes I had no choice in the matter, especially if I was unprepared, at a party, or invited to dinner. Well meaning hosts and hostesses automatically serve me dishes oozing with cheese because they know I don't eat meat. Unless I specifically warn them ahead of time or bring my own food, I have to eat what they prepared and I have a thing about being rude. If somebody goes to the trouble of preparing a special dish for me, I feel obligated to try a tiny bit of it, just to be polite. Shame on me, right? Well, this is a character flaw of mine--the need to make everybody happy, regardless of my own personal convictions. Nobody is perfect. We are all a work in progress.

To cheese or not to cheese? Personal choice. As a rule, I choose NO CHEESE. Occasionally, I've broken my own rule. I might have to again in the future but I refuse to punish myself over it. Eating well should never be a burden. If I slip up now and then, it's okay. I forgive myself and get right back on the path again. I will tell you a little secret, though. Since I no longer eat cheese, if I do have it, the first bite or two tastes really good. After awhile the consistency of it makes me sick and the next day, I feel the effects from it: fatigue, bloating, upset stomach, digestive issues. I am not and never was lactose intolerant. Cheese obviously clogs my system and slows everything down.  My body just doesn't want it anymore.

As for Vegan cheese, I eat it but I don't depend on it as a source of protein. I don't use it as back up plan when I am too lazy to cook something healthy and nourishing. I don't eat it as a snack. I don't melt it over vegetables to make them taste better or more nutritious. I depend on other sources of protein: beans, grains, nuts. These types of foods keep me very healthy, full of energy and feeling good.

I use Vegan cheese sparingly as a condiment because I always remember it's not really natural. In a perfect world, I would make my own cheese from nuts. That's a big, involved, time-consuming project and who has that kind of time? I certainly don't so, I buy it ready-made. Sometimes I shred it and sprinkle it over baked vegetable casseroles for a little extra pizzaz. Or mix it into home made chili or lentil soup. Once in a blue moon, I will make soy mac and cheese. It's a lot of work and although it's quite good, it's not the same as the traditional REAL cheese dish so I am never really satisfied. If it's comfort food I'm craving (I think mac and cheese is the ultimate comfort food), I will slice up an avocado and eat the whole thing. I get the creamy, buttery, fatty consistency and satisfaction I crave without much effort and I am not harming an animal or eating too much of something that is overly processed. Overall, I eat a healthy diet that includes good, pure, natural, nourishing food. Since I've been eating this way, that desire to completely smother my food with fatty, oily cheese is pretty much gone.

Here's the thing:  if it's a piece of real or vegan cheese, a slice of chocolate cake or glass of wine you crave, choose the best versions made with finest ingredients you can find. Nourish your body with good things. In return, you will be vibrant, healthy and bursting with life. That's the payoff for treating yourself well. If you slip up, indulge, or make a mistake, forgive yourself and move on. That goes for everything in life. Time is much too precious to waste beating yourself up for not being perfect.

Here is an article about the pros and cons of Vegan cheese, complete with suggestions of the best brands to try.

What is Vegan Cheese?

There is also recipe on this site for pepper corn "goat cheese" made from raw cashews they claim is tasty enough to serve with crackers and wine to guests. I definitely have to try that.

And this is my Daily Cyn................

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