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Where actions and principles align: Ellen Vaagen dishes on being a vegan chef

Chef Ellen Vaagen has followed a plant-based diet for more than a decade. Photo by Wolfskull Creative1 / 2
Bonnie Ambrosi2 / 2

Vegan chefs and chefs with attitude are hot items these days. Duluth’s own rock-star vegan chef is Ellen Vaagen.

When she’s not busy creating plant-based take-out food for The Juice Pharm, making vegan burritos for special events or teaching people how to cook without animal products, she’s probably either traveling or adding a new entry to her blog. VaagensVeganSauce.com is where she shares recipes and tales of her plant-based life in a saucy, no-holds-barred style that is as spicy as her food.

No newcomer to the vegan scene, Vaagen has followed a plant-based diet for more than a decade. She founded her blog Vaagen’sVeganSauce in 2016 to share her passion for vegan cooking. You’ll find recipes for Busy Babe Quinoa, Lentil Sloppy Joes, Patsy’s Famous Jambalaya and many more, with colorful notes about the origins and nutritional value of the dishes.

Other fun and helpful things to read in Ellen’s blog include travelogues, a guide to vegan dining in the Duluth area, and “Vegan by Vaagen: A Beginner’s Guide,” an e-book she published in 2017. I also recommend her post “What Vegans Eat: a Week in Review.”

I caught up with Ellen recently and asked her a few questions about her life and work.

Q: What led you to adopt a vegan diet?

A: I began my journey as a vegetarian around age 17 in an effort to align my actions with my principles regarding violence towards sentient beings. While I was a student at UMD, I took a course called “Animals in Society” where I learned how animals are used not only for food, but also for entertainment, clothing, and cosmetic- and drug-testing. It became clear to me that our manipulation of animals is not only unethical but is causing great harm to the health of our planet, our bodies and our souls. Our professor suggested we watch the documentary “Earthlings” for extra credit, and that was the proverbial icing on the cake. I knew I couldn’t participate in the animal agriculture system any longer and still sleep soundly at night.

Q: You’ve been vegan for almost eleven years. Have you seen a change in people’s attitudes towards vegan food during that time?

A: Yes. Many more people have adopted or become familiar with plant-based diets. I think the documentary "Forks Over Knives" helped a lot of folks think differently about nutrition and animal agriculture. Many people used to consider veganism a torturous and unfulfilling diet borne by oversensitive, instinct-denying hippies. Now thanks to the upsurge in scientific evidence that eating a diet of mostly plants can prevent — and, in some cases cure — many diseases, people are beginning to take it seriously and change their ideas about veganism. And there are so many more plant-based options in grocery stores, restaurants and airports than when I first became a vegan in 2008.

Q: Do you have any tips for people who are interested but hesitant to go vegan?

A: I've heard a lot of good feedback about the VB6 (Vegan Before 6PM) approach, which simply means eating a vegan diet throughout the day and then eating whatever you like for dinner. Many people eat breakfast and lunch by themselves or at work without the demands or influence of others. The VB6 approach might also alleviate some fears of "deprivation" or "missing out" by allowing some flexibility at dinner. I think planning ahead and making large meals to freeze or enjoy as leftovers is vital to avoid getting hungry and making choices that don't fit your goals. My e-Book "Vegan by Vaagen" is an informational guide for beginning vegans. It outlines reasons one might become vegan, how to stock a vegan pantry, nutritional information and recipes.

Q: How would you describe your cooking style?

A: Hmm, "Spicy World Cuisine?" I enjoy making dishes from all over the planet. Many cultures have a rich history of plant-based cooking prior to globalization and Western influence. I like to seek traditional plant-based dishes and also "veganify" foods with exotic flavor profiles. I love Mexican and South American, Indian, Thai, Ethiopian, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Chinese and Japanese cuisines. There’s no shortage of delicious discoveries.

Q: Do you have a "signature dish"?

A: I'm probably best known for my burritos. They are one of my favorite things to make as you can put anything in them! I like to make large batches to freeze and enjoy in a pinch.

There are so many great recipes on Vaagen’s blog that I found it difficult to choose three for this column. But since she’s the “Sauce Boss,” here are two delicious vegan sauces to liven up your life, plus a pasta dish you can whip up in a jiffy.

Chipotle Tahini Sauce

“I love this sauce! It's delicious on tacos, burritos, bowls, tofu scrambles, nachos, etc. It is rich, bright, spicy, and very easy to make. Simply double the recipe and keep some in the fridge for up to one week.” — Ellen Vaagen

Makes about 3/4 cup

2 tablespoons freshly-squeezed lemon juice

1 or 2 cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped

¼ cup tahini

1 chipotle pepper in adobo sauce

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ teaspoon sea salt

½ teaspoon agave nectar or real maple syrup

¼ cup water, more or less depending on consistency you like

Combine lemon juice and garlic in a blender and blend until smooth. Add remaining ingredients except water and blend. Add water in small amounts until desired consistency is achieved.

Eazy Cheezey Sauce

“I have to share this recipe because it is the bomb! Many of the folks who attended the Blog Launch Party were amazed at the cheesiness of this sauce and I nearly ran out of recipe cards!” — Ellen Vaagen

1 medium Yukon Gold or other waxy potato, peeled and diced

1 medium carrot

½ cup white or yellow onion, diced

1 clove garlic, chopped

1 cup water or vegetable broth

½ cup cooked navy beans (canned is okay)

½ cup cashews

¼ cup canola oil

¾ teaspoon fine sea salt

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Combine potato, carrot, onion, garlic and water/broth in a small stockpot with a lid. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer until vegetables are tender — about ten minutes. Place cooked vegetables, the cooking liquid and all remaining ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth and creamy.

Ellen’s Avocado Garlic Pasta

Makes 2 servings

8 oz dried pasta, any shape (Ellen prefers linguini or angel hair)

2 tablespoons olive oil

3-4 cloves garlic, very thinly sliced

¼ tsp crushed red pepper flakes

1 ripe avocado, diced

½ lemon, juiced

¼ cup cilantro, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

Optional additions: cooked chickpeas or pinto beans, chopped walnuts, green onions, chopped tomatoes

Cook pasta al dente per package instructions, drain, and return to pot. Meanwhile, in a small skillet, warm olive oil over medium heat and add sliced garlic and red pepper flakes. Reduce heat to low and stir occasionally until garlic begins to brown. (These garlic chips really make the dish!) Add chunks of avocado and saute, stirring gently. Add optional ingredients at this time. Using a rubber scraper, transfer avocado-garlic sauce onto warm pasta and stir to combine. Add lemon juice, cilantro and salt and pepper. Devour!

If you’re in the market for a vegan coach, contact Vaagen at ellen.vaagen@gmail.com.

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