Article by Adam Wilson, Senior Manager, Culinary Exploration, Vitamix®
Saturated fats, added sugar, and dairy are three food categories that some health-conscious diners are aiming to limit these days. They are also three things that make food taste good, so this sets up a challenge for chefs.
Fortunately, there are natural, plant-based substitutions that can be used across the menu, without significant compromise to taste or texture. As a member of the Vitamix Culinary Team, I work collaboratively with chefs across the country, and I am always impressed by their ingenuity in substituting common ingredients for traditional standbys.
Nondairy Milks, Creams and Cheeses
There are a host of alternatives to traditional cow’s milk, and many can be made in-house with a high-performance blender. Oat milk, for one, has been all the rage, but there are other popular options, including milks made with almonds and cashews, that may stand up to heating and frothing better. Another entirely feasible option is making dairy-free milk with some combination of these ingredients, such as raw cashews plus rolled oats, coconut flakes and water.
Cashews are an extremely hardworking replacement for all types of dairy products, as they can be blended and whipped to create everything from sour cream to salad dressing. One of our favorite recipes is an entirely plant-based lasagna that uses cashew cream in place of ricotta or mozzarella cheese, alongside whole-wheat lasagna noodles. It’s a comfort-food hit with diners who prefer plant-based options, as it delivers all the luxurious texture, warmth and flavor of traditional lasagna.
To create the cashew cream, add about two cups of raw cashews to the Vitamix with one cup of water, as well as some lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, salt or other flavoring (e.g., basil, oregano, garlic, nutritional yeast, Dijon mustard). Hold back on some of the water and add it sparingly during the blending, as needed. Among the vegetables, consider mushrooms for their umami flavor. Cooked red lentils will add a meat-like texture to the marinara sauce, if desired.
Parmesan cheese is a desirable topping for the lasagna, but for those interested in a nondairy alternative, cashews again provide a tasty substitute. Crush them in the Vitamix, adding nutritional yeast, garlic and/or onion powder and salt. Another option is hemp seeds, with the same supporting ingredients. With the hemp seeds, there is no need to blend the ingredients; just stir them together.
Fruit, Without Added Sugar
For diners aiming to avoid added sugar, fruit is a good option. The sugar in whole fruit is combined with fiber, which slows down the rate of absorption in the body. Fruits like berries and apples also contain nutritional benefits (e.g., flavonoids and antioxidants). Raspberries, blackberries, strawberries and blueberries are all relatively low in sugar and make for delectable and visually stunning desserts.
For recipes that call for more sweetness, consider dates, raisins, prunes, bananas, dried mango and apricots, which are higher in sugar than other fruits but also contain fiber. Medjool dates are particularly popular, appearing in many recipes from smoothies to salads, salad dressings and desserts. Blended in a Vitamix, dates will virtually dissolve in liquid. Or, when mashed or blended without water, they will form a paste or syrup. You can blend dates, for example, with vanilla extract, nondairy milk, tahini, salt and flaxseed to make a delicious and creamy vegan caramel sauce that you can use on just about anything.
Healthy Fats Through Nuts and Seeds
As an alternative to butter, tree nuts, such as almonds, walnuts, and macadamias, can be blended into a wide variety of high-protein, heart-healthy spreads and butters. In lieu of cooking with dairy-based cream, try pureed carrots, potatoes, chia seeds, lentils, or tofu, as well as beans (white, black, kidney or garbanzo). You can also replace fat or oil in pancakes, muffins, quick breads or cakes with mashed fruit or vegetables, including avocado, applesauce, pumpkin, sweet potato, prunes or bananas.
As a substitute for cream cheese in a delectable cheesecake, try cashew cream. For the crust, some good candidates are almonds, rolled oats, pecans, flax seed, chia seeds, hemp seeds, almond flour or dates. For the filling, whip two cups of raw cashews (soaking overnight helps with the blending), along with lemon juice and fruit flavoring to your liking.
If you don’t tell them, diners have no way of knowing what fats are in their food, unless they are visually recognizable in the form of red meat or cheese. If you offer assurances on your menu, you are sure to win some hearts, and cooking and baking without saturated fat is not a steep climb.
Chefs are a resourceful group of people, and experimenting with new flavors and ingredients is always exciting and challenging. If you’re able to discover creative alternatives to saturated fats, added sugar and some dairy products, you will create special moments for your vegan, vegetarian or health-conscious diners, and you may also win some customers for life.
Adam oversees recipe development and testing for Vitamix® as Senior Manager of Culinary Exploration. As a member of the Vitamix Culinary Team, Wilson is constantly developing new approaches and recipes for household and commercial customers around the world.