Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Switch to plant-based diet not so hard; Marshall restaurant makes it easier

By Meredith Shamburger
April 11, 2017 at 9 p.m.

Chef Monica Lombard prepares a black bean salad  March 21 at The Blue Frog Grill in Marshall. The restaurant first started cooking plant-strong items when former Mayor Ed Smith and his wife, Amanda, launched HealthFest, a national vegan conference in Marshall. (Michael Cavazos/News-Journal Photo)

Kim Stone McMurry's switch to a vegan and plant-strong diet started out as an experiment.

She had been trying to eat healthier when she stumbled across a documentary on plant-strong diets called "Forks Over Knives." The film looks at how plant-based diets can positively affect a person's health.

"That night, I was like, 'I'm going to go home and try this. I'm going to try this and see what happens,'" McMurry said. "I didn't say I was going to be vegan or anything. I was going to try it and see what happens."

Turns out, McMurry really liked it. That was about three years ago, and she's still eating that way today.

For McMurry and others, the switch to a diet without meat or animal by-products is not as challenging as it seems.

McMurry said the original switch was hard at first, especially because she would be tempted by smells walking past restaurants. But she'd think back to "Forks Over Knives" and knew she wanted to stick with a plant-strong diet.

"I really liked it, and I started feeling better," she said. "I started noticing that I didn't feel sluggish or heavy after meals, and I seemed to have more energy and I just felt better."

Shawne Somerford, owner of The Blue Frog Grill in Marshall, first started cooking plant-strong items in her restaurant when former Mayor Ed Smith and his wife, Amanda, launched HealthFest, a national vegan conference.

The Blue Frog had been tapped to cater the original conference, so they dived into vegan and plant-strong recipes to serve about 200 people throughout the weekend.

"So by the end of the weekend, we had pretty much learned what it meant to be plant-strong," Somerford said. "When you have a menu as we do with a culinary team that prepares everything from scratch anyway, it's not difficult to incorporate into the menu. The most difficult part of us is having enough people come and sustain its presence on our menu."

The Blue Frog Grill's menu contains a lot of non-vegan and non-plant-strong foods, Somerford said. But one of The Blue Frog's most popular items has always been the black bean salad with hearts of palm and onions. That's as plant-strong as you can get.

"The black bean salad is core," Somerford said. "We always have that. We have non-plant-strong customers that eat it. My son loves to eat it. It's a wonderful thing."

The restaurant also keeps a black bean burger and a lentil loaf on its regular menu. Both of those recipes started out as part of the "Engine 2 Diet" cookbook, with the restaurant making slight tweaks.

"We always have the lentil loaf, and that is something that can be served as a piece of meatless meat on a plate with quinoa and kale salad or it can be something that's crumbled and made into a stuffed bell pepper, a stuffed avocado, a stuffed tomato or something like that," Somerford said.

Overall, McMurry is happy with her diet switch.

"I don't really miss it," she said when talking about non-vegan foods. "I don't miss it at all."

Finding alternative products at stores also has gotten easier, she said. In addition to many varieties of non-cow's milk, there also are items such as vegan "eggs" and vegan "chicken strips." The "chicken strips" are "kind of like vegan junk food," McMurry admits, but it's there for people who want it.

"I love the cashew milk," she said. "That's like the closest to me. They have soy milk, and that's great for recipes, and a lot of people like the soy milk. That's pretty close."

Somerford said one of the challenges with cooking vegan or plant-strong is going without staple items found in almost every recipe.

"We use a lot of cream and a lot of butter in our regular menu," she said. "So learning how to manipulate recipes and do things that don't contain dairy are absolutely a challenge, but it's something we've learned what you can use that's going to taste good."

One of McMurry's favorite dishes is red beans and rice — with a side of cornbread. To get the cornbread, she uses flax meal and water as an egg substitute.

"You mix that up and let it sit in the fridge for a little bit, and then it gets the consistency of egg," she said. "It binds everything together like an egg would in your recipes. That's worked for baking mixes, that sort of thing."

Somerford said the most important thing is reading labels.

"Now gluten-free is very popular," she said. "And you may get something that has the appearance of being gluten-free, but when you look at the label, you see that it contains wheat flour or something that someone who has that disease really can't have. So it all goes back to education. It really is, 'Don't assume anything; know how to read a label and educate yourself.'"



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