Vegan Cowboy Cuisine

When I was young, my familiarity with cowboy cuisine came from old John Wayne movies and 1950s TV westerns like Rawhide. More recently, I learned that mobile wagon wheel kitchens carried vinegar to replace lemons and molasses because sugar was in short supply. And in 1866, Charles Goodnight invented the chuckwagon. I imagine Charles thought this wagon was going to revolutionize trail food cooking, and it did for awhile. The elaborate cooking wagon contained drawers and storage nooks for cookware and pantry foods, and it came with a hinged box on the back that could be opened as a food prep surface. Most of the dishes stirred up in this traveling kitchen came from plain pantry ingredients—flour, beans, rice, and dried fruits. The cook could supplement recipes with wild berries and greens they found along the way.

The wagon wheel chef, usually an old cowboy, made twice as much money as the average cowboy, and nobody messed with the kitchen tools and supplies. Typical savory side dishes were composed of beans, like cranberry or Jacob's cattle beans. They were slow-cooked in campfire coals in Dutch ovens. Though the original dishes weren't vegetarian, they're easy to convert. Just leave out the meat and fat, and these old-fashioned recipes taste much better.

Sourdough starter, flour, and cornmeal were traveling pantry staples for biscuits, flapjacks, cornbread, and desserts. Pickled vegetables made dishes sparkle, and dried fruit made sweet desserts when fresh fruits and wild berries were scarce. By the 1880s, railroads entered the west, and wagon wheel kitchens became obsolete.

Check out cowboy cuisine on the Internet today, and you'll find entrées and side dishes laden with fat, smothered with cheese, and drowning in sodium. But true cowboy cuisine takes us back to a time when delicious comfort food was made from plain, pronounceable ingredients and cooked with simple equipment. The beauty of this cuisine is that these are everyday dishes that you'll want to eat over and over again.


(Serves 4)

This is a great everyday salad, and it goes perfectly with baked beans. Of course, Grandma didn't use agave nectar or vegan mayonnaise, but if she made this salad today, she might. Try variations like dried fruit or another shredded vegetable, such as golden beets or parsnips.

  • 3 cups shredded cabbage
  • 1 medium-sized carrot, grated
  • 3 Tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup vegan mayonnaise
  • ½ Tablespoon ketchup
  • 1 Tablespoon agave nectar
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

In a large mixing bowl, combine cabbage, carrots, and lemon juice. In a separate small bowl, combine mayonnaise, ketchup, and agave nectar. Stir into cabbage mixture. Add salt and pepper to taste. This salad is better if it is allowed to marinate for approximately an hour in the refrigerator.

Total calories per serving: 85 Fat: 5 grams
Carbohydrates: 11 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 196 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams


(Makes 4 sandwiches)

The beauty of these hot sandwiches is that they make an easy dinner, served simply over a bun and eaten with a fork. Tempeh works best here because the crumbly, slightly chewy texture is most reminiscent of the original sloppy Joes. The peppers, celery, and carrots make this sloppy hot sandwich a full meal deal.

  • 1-2 Tablespoons safflower oil
  • 1 cup diced green or red peppers
  • 1 cup diced celery
  • ½ cup diced carrots
  • 8 ounces tempeh
  • 2 cloves garlic, pressed, or ½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 Tablespoon molasses
  • 1 Tablespoon red wine vinegar or plain vinegar
  • 2 Tablespoons chili powder
  • One 15-ounce can no-salt-added tomato sauce
  • Dash of cayenne
  • Salt to taste
  • 4 whole grain rolls or buns, sliced in half

Add oil to a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add peppers, celery, and carrots. Stir and cook until vegetables soften, adding a little water if necessary. Crumble tempeh and stir in with garlic. Stir and add molasses, vinegar, chili powder, tomato sauce, and cayenne.

Cover and simmer on low heat for 20 minutes. Taste and then add salt, if desired.

Toast buns on a lightly oiled griddle, if desired. Spoon tempeh topping over the buns. Serve with coleslaw.

Total calories per serving: 335 Fat: 12 grams
Carbohydrates: 46 grams Protein: 15 grams
Sodium: 335 milligrams Fiber: 8 grams


(Serves 4)

Unlike traditional ribs, these vegan ribs aren't swimming in a pool of fat. Lemon adds zing to the sauce. Look for chipotle chile powder in natural foods or specialty stores. If you can't find it, use a smoky vegan hot sauce.

If you have leftover sauce, don't throw it away. Use it to flavor a pot of beans for another meal.

  • 2 Tablespoons oil
  • 8 ounces tempeh, sliced into 4 servings
  • 1 cup water
  • ½ cup ketchup
  • 1 ½ Tablespoons vegetarian Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 teaspoons chili powder
  • A pinch of chipotle chile powder or dash of smoky hot sauce
  • 1 large onion, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1 lemon, sliced

Add oil to a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add tempeh and cook for approximately 4 minutes on each side or until lightly browned. Remove from heat. Transfer tempeh to a clean towel and drain.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. While the oven heats, combine water, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, and chili powder in a small saucepan to make the barbecue sauce. Simmer on low for 5 minutes. Stir in the chipotle chile powder or hot sauce.

Lay tempeh in a baking dish and pour the sauce over it. Lay onions and lemons over the tempeh. Cover and bake for 30 minutes.

Remove from oven. Briefly place tempeh under the broiler to blacken the onions. Serve these tempeh 'ribs' over rice, quinoa and corn, or soft polenta with coleslaw on the side.

Total calories per serving: 218 Fat: 13 grams
Carbohydrates: 18 grams Protein: 11 grams
Sodium: 427 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram


(Serves 4)

Baked beans are one of my favorite everyday foods. I loved them when I was young, too, but back then, our beans came from a can. Today, canned varieties can't compete for taste with these easy homemade baked beans.

The secret to good baked beans is molasses and slow cooking, and the key to a vegetarian smoky flavor without the campfire coals is chipotle chiles. Be sure to take them out before serving because the seeds make these smoked jalapeños quite hot inside. You can find dried chipotle chiles in many natural foods stores.

If you want to use canned adobo chiles from any grocery store (in the international aisle), use only ¼ or ½ of a chile. Freeze the remainder. Use an old ice cube tray so you can freeze each chile individually. For this recipe, take your time, slow down, and make some Country Cornbread while you wait.

  • 1 Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil or safflower oil
  • 2 cups diced onions
  • ¼ ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
  • One 15-ounce can no-salt-added tomato sauce
  • 1 or 2 dried chipotle chile pods
  • 1 ½ cups diced carrots
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 ½ cups white beans (any kind but garbanzo), washed and soaked 8 hours
  • 2 Tablespoons unsulphured molasses (not blackstrap)
  • 1 Tablespoon agave nectar or Sucanat (organic sugar)
  • 1 ½ Tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • Salt to taste

Add oil to a heavy skillet over medium heat. Stir in onions and pepper flakes. Sauté until onions are soft and slightly browned. Add a little water if necessary.

When onions are done, combine them in a small soup pot with tomato sauce, chili pods, carrots, water, and white beans. Bring to a boil, and then reduce heat and simmer for an hour.

While beans cook, blend together molasses, agave nectar, and mustard. Add this when beans become tender. Cook until most liquid is absorbed. Salt to taste.

Total calories per serving: 420 Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 78 grams Protein: 19 grams
Sodium: 238 milligrams Fiber: 16 grams


(Serves 8)

What are Baked Beans or Spicy Barbecue Tempeh 'Ribs' without cornbread? Baked in an old-fashioned cast-iron skillet, this recipe can also be baked in oiled and floured muffin tins.

For an egg replacer, I use ground flaxseeds blended with water. Look for ground flaxseeds in the refrigerated section at a natural foods store, or find whole flaxseeds in the bulk bins and grind the seeds in a clean coffee or seed grinder. Refrigerated ground seeds should be used within a month since the oil they contain can go rancid. Freeze for long-term storage. I keep whole flaxseeds on hand in my freezer and grind them as needed.

  • Vegetable oil spray
  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 1 cup unbleached flour
  • 1 Tablespoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 Tablespoons ground flaxseeds
  • 6 Tablespoons cold water
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar (Use your favorite vegan variety.)
  • 1/3 cup safflower or corn oil
  • 1 cup plain soymilk

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Spray or lightly oil a 9- or 10-inch cast-iron skillet and place it in the oven.

In a large bowl, sift cornmeal, lour, baking powder, and salt together. Combine flaxseeds and water in a blender. Cover and turn on high for 3 minutes. The mixture should be foamy. Add sugar and blend until smooth. Pour in oil and mix. Stir in milk last. Combine wet and dry ingredients. Stir just until blended.

Use mitts to remove skillet from oven, pour batter in, spread evenly, and place it in the oven. Bake for 25 minutes. Use a toothpick to check if the cornbread is done. If it isn't quite done, bake for another 5 minutes. Remove from oven and serve while warm.

Total calories per serving: 239 Fat: 11 grams
Carbohydrates: 32 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 302 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams


(Serves 4)

Thick cooked cornmeal and beans become perfect partners in this rustic dish. You can make the corn cakes a day ahead because they have to cool to thicken. Simply reheat for a few minutes in the microwave or for 5-10 minutes in a 350-degree oven.

Always check the ingredients in enchilada sauce because some varieties include lard. I have the best luck with enchilada sauce at natural foods stores. Use the remainder for another bean dish or freeze it and use later.

For a variation on this recipe, trying using squash instead of zucchini. Squash has a wonderful smoky flavor when grilled; however, you also can roast it and run it under the broiler briefly. Another ingredient that's good in this dish is roasted or grilled sweet red peppers, peeled, seeded, sliced into ribbons, and placed with the zucchini between the layers.

This dish has a mild flavor. If you like hot and spicy, add salsa.

  • 1 cup coarse cornmeal
  • 3 ¾ cups water, divided
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup corn, fresh, frozen, or drained canned
  • ½ cup diced shallots or onions
  • ½ cup diced green bell peppers
  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil or safflower oil
  • 1 ½ cups cooked black beans or one
  • 15-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • ½ cup mild vegetarian enchilada sauce
  • 2 medium-sized zucchinis, cut lengthwise into ¼-inch slices

Place cornmeal, 1 cup water, salt, and corn in a saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring continuously. As mixture begins to thicken, gradually add more water, stirring, until mixture pulls away from the sides of the pan. This may take approximately 20 minutes. When mixture is thick, spread into a lightly oiled 9-inch square pan and let cool for an hour. Cut in half and with a spatula remove the thick cooked and cooled cornmeal onto a plate.

Sauté shallots or onions and green peppers in oil in a 9- or 10-inch heavy skillet until soft. Add drained black beans and enchilada sauce. Simmer on low for 10 minutes. While these simmer, lightly spray the zucchini slices and grill or roast (at 350 degrees for approximately 10 minutes) until lightly browned and soft.

Top half of the cornmeal cake with half of the black beans mixture. Next, place layers of zucchini and then top with the remaining cornmeal square. Spoon remaining black beans over the cornmeal square. Lay the remaining zucchini over the top.

Total calories per serving: 308 Fat: 6 grams
Carbohydrates: 56 grams Protein: 12 grams
Sodium: 398 milligrams Fiber: 11 grams


(Serves 4)

Though cheese is part of the word, quesadillas can easily be made without cheese. At the Ballard farmers' market in Seattle, the Patty Pan Grill cooks fresh vegetable quesadillas, and it's the sauce that really makes them special. Also, when making them at home, resist overstuffing.

If you don't have access to wild mushrooms, use portobellos from the grocery. Portobellos are best because they're big and meaty. Scrape off the gills, cut the mushrooms into ½-inch slices, and grill. For variation and protein, try adding a spoonful of baked beans to the filling.

  • 1 ½ Tablespoons olive oil or safflower oil
  • 2 medium zucchinis, sliced in half lengthwise
  • 2 medium sweet onions, peeled and sliced
  • Vegetable oil spray
  • 2 cups sliced mushrooms, or 2 portobello mushrooms, sliced
  • Salsa to taste (optional)
  • 2 cups baby spinach, rinsed and dried
  • Four 8-inch flour tortillas

Heat a 10-inch heavy skillet over medium heat. Add oil, zucchini slices, and onions. If grilling, simply spray or paint a thin coating of oil on the vegetables first. Cook until these vegetables are soft and slightly browned.

Remove from pan and add mushrooms. Stir and cook them over medium heat until done. Add the onions and zucchini back into the pan.

On another burner, heat a griddle over medium heat. Use a non-stick griddle or lightly spray a griddle with oil so tortillas don't stick. Place two tortillas at a time on the griddle, and place vegetables on half of each tortilla. Spoon on the amount of salsa desired and top with baby spinach. Fold tortillas, flip, and cook the other side. When both sides are lightly browned, the quesadilla is done. Repeat with remaining tortillas. Serve hot.

Total calories per serving: 196 Fat: 8 grams
Carbohydrates: 29 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 249 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams


(Makes approximately 2 cups or sixteen 2-Tablespoon servings)

Salsa's origins can be traced back to the Incas, Mayans, and Aztecs, but the earliest known printed salsa recipe was published in 1898.

Salsa is practically the state condiment in Texas, and it brings cowboy cuisine to life. Enjoy this salsa with quesadillas, beans, or rice. Or you can use it to top tostadas, tuck into burritos, or spice up tacos.

  • 4 medium tomatillos, husked and chopped
  • ½ cup minced sweet onions, such as Walla Walla, Vidalia, or Maui
  • 1 poblano chile, stem removed and seeded
  • 1 medium tomato, chopped
  • 1 cup peeled and diced cucumbers
  • ¼ cup chopped cilantro
  • ¼ cup green salsa
  • 1 Tablespoon lime juice (optional)
  • Agave nectar to taste

Place the tomatillos, onions, chiles, tomatoes, cucumbers, cilantro, salsa, and lime juice in a blender, salsa maker, or food processor and briefly purée. Drizzle in agave nectar to taste, starting with 1 teaspoon. Add more until the taste is perfect. Serve with warm corn tortillas and with rice, beans, corn cakes, or potatoes.

Total calories per serving: 9 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 2 grams Protein: <1 gram
Sodium: 23 milligrams Fiber: <1 gram


(Serves 4-6)

*Pictured on the cover. I imagine that, when cowboy chefs found wild berries on the trail, they splurged with recipes like this one. Emigrants who traveled along the Oregon-California trail wrote about using lemon extract for flavoring in biscuits and desserts. We're fortunate to have real lemons year-round in grocery stores today. Remember to zest the lemon before juicing it. One heavy medium lemon contains approximately 1 / 4 cup or 4 Tablespoons of juice. My favorite way to serve this recipe is with lemon or coconut sorbet and a sprig of mint.


  • 5 cups mixed berries (2 ½ pints of blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries)
  • ½ cup water
  • 2-4 Tablespoons sugar (Use your favorite vegan variety.)
  • 2 Tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons lemon zest
  • 1 Tablespoon arrowroot

Place berries, water, sugar, lemon juice, lemon zest, and arrowroot in a 9- or 10-inch heavy skillet. It's best to use a non-reactive metal pan for this recipe, but if you only have cast-iron, use that. Bring the berries to a simmer over medium heat. Then, turn to medium-low and cook for 5 minutes. Stir frequently. While berries cook, continue stirring and prepare biscuits.


  • 1/3 cup soymilk
  • 1 Tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 cup flour
  • ¼ cup sugar (Use your favorite vegan variety.)
  • 2 Tablespoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 Tablespoon chopped lemon zest
  • 2 Tablespoons cold, nonhydrogenated vegan margarine

Combine soymilk and lemon juice in a small container. In a medium-sized bowl, blend the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and zest. Mix well. Cut in margarine with a pastry blender or fork. Try not to touch it with your fingers because this cold, hard fat determines how flaky the biscuits will be. Mix in liquid until just moistened.

Drop biscuit batter from a teaspoon onto the simmering berries, going around the outside of the pan until you reach the middle, covering the entire fruit mixture. Cover and simmer on low heat for 30 minutes. When inserted toothpicks come out clean, they are done.

Total calories per serving: 372 Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 75 grams Protein: 6 grams
Sodium: 778 milligrams Fiber: 11 grams