Modern Vegan Comfort Food

By Debra Daniels-Zeller

Described as satisfying food with traditional ties, comfort food differs from culture to culture. The term "comfort food" first came into use in 1977 and was used to describe carbohydrate-heavy savory dishes. As cuisines change, comfort food evolves. Early comfort foods relied on canned soups, and casseroles may have been topped with crushed corn flakes. Comforting dishes of our youth created memories and satisfied when nothing else would do.

Many of us still love these foods. It's time we give comfort foods a healthy twist. Add hearty winter greens or root vegetables. Try different flavor combinations for old favorites like Tex-Mex Mac with No Cheese or Broccoli-Mushroom Mac. Consider substitutions or additions such as vegan sausage, seitan, tempeh, or tofu.

Whether we are far from home or tired after a long day, comfort food brings back memories of friends, family, and the foods we love. Like an old friend, comfort food should be a gentle reminder that delicious food is also good for us.

Black Bean Chili with Cornbread Dumplings

(Serves 6)

San Antonio is home to the first documented recipe for chili, but rumor has it that chili was originally a spiced up version of a bean dish that originated in Spain. Sweet potato or squash adds color to this long-time favorite. Beans can take more spice, and if you like your chili spicy, be generous with the chili powder.


  • 1 cup black beans, soaked in 4 cups water for 8 hours and drained
  • 1 Tablespoon oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
  • 1 cup diced carrots
  • 1-2 Tablespoons chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • ½ teaspoon oregano
  • ¼-½ teaspoon chipotle chili powder (optional)
  • 3-4 cloves garlic, pressed
  • 1 teaspoon agave nectar
  • ¼ cup no-salt tomato paste
  • 1 cup corn, frozen or canned
  • 1 cup diced peeled sweet potato or delicata squash (optional)
  • One 8-ounce can chopped olives, drained
  • One 28-ounce can no-salt diced tomatoes
  • 1-2 cups water

Heat a heavy soup pot over medium heat and add canola oil. When the oil is hot, stir in the onion, green pepper, and carrots. Stir and cook until vegetables soften. Blend in chili powder, cumin, oregano, chipotle chili powder, and pressed garlic. Stir and cook for a few more minutes.

Stir in agave nectar, tomato paste, corn, sweet potato (if desired), olives, diced tomatoes and drained black beans. Simmer over medium-low heat for 1-1 ½ hours or until beans are tender. Add water to thin. Cook over medium-low heat for 1 hour. In the last 15 minutes of cooking, drop the dumplings (see below) by spoonful over the simmering liquid.


  • ½ cup whole wheat pastry flour
  • ¾ cup cornmeal
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup unflavored rice, soy, or almond milk
  • 1 Tablespoon canola or olive oil

Sift together whole wheat pastry flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt. Stir in milk and oil until a batter forms. Drop into chili, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Total calories per serving: 379 Fat: 10 grams
Carbohydrates: 64 grams Protein: 13 grams
Sodium: 597 milligrams Fiber: 12 grams

Roasted Vegetable Pizza

(Makes 6 individual pizzas)

Originating in Italy, pizza has spread to nearly every country. In Spain, pizza is made with a flatbread using cornmeal — a popular idea because the dough turns out every time. Use your hands to knead the dough, and you will never need to worry about over-kneading.


  • 1 cup water
  • ⅓ cup cornmeal
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 package yeast
  • ½ teaspoon organic sugar
  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 ½ cups hard wheat or bread flour

Over medium heat combine cornmeal and 1 cup water in a pot. Stir and cook until cornmeal thickens — about 5 minutes. Add ½ cup room temperature water and stir mixture until the temperature is around 105 degrees. Stir in yeast. Then allow mixture to sit while yeast begins to work.

After about 10 minutes, add sugar, oil, and salt. Blend well. Stir in flour until dough is soft and smooth. Knead on a hard, floured surface for 5 minutes. Place in oiled bowl. Cover and set aside to rise in a warm place for one hour or until doubled in bulk.


  • 8 ounces sliced mushrooms (optional)
  • 16 ounces pizza sauce
  • ¼ cup chopped onion
  • ¼ cup chopped olives

Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the mushrooms, stir, and cook until mushrooms lose their moisture and begin to squeak. Blend in pizza sauce, onions, and olives, heat until warm, then remove from the heat.


  • 1 green bell pepper, seeded and sliced
  • 1 red bell pepper, seeded and sliced
  • 3 small (5-inch) zucchini, sliced
  • ½ Tablespoon olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper (to taste)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Combine peppers and zucchini with oil. Spread in one layer in a baking dish. Roast vegetables until fork-tender 25-30 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Divide dough into six portions. Roll each into a ball, then flatten into a pizza. Ladle tomato sauce on each. Place roasted veggies over sauce. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes on a pizza stone or screen. Crust will be lightly browned on the bottom.

Total calories per serving: 301 Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 56 grams Protein: 9 grams
Sodium: 518 milligrams Fiber: 11 grams

Grits and Greens

(Serves 4)

A traditional Native American dish, grits remain a go-to comfort food in the South for breakfast or dinner. As grits sit, they begin to solidify. The texture is very similar to polenta. When you add a plant-based milk while cooking, the texture becomes rich and decadent.

  • 2 cups low sodium vegetable stock or vegan mushroom stock
  • 1 cup coarse cornmeal
  • 2 cups plain/unflavored almond, soy, or rice milk
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 ½ Tablespoons oil
  • 6 tempeh slices or strips
  • 1-2 shallots, peeled and minced
  • 1 bunch collard greens, middle stems removed and leaves rolled up and thinly sliced
  • 2-3 Tablespoons apple cider or juice
  • ½ teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Heat stock in a heavy pan over medium heat. When stock boils, add coarse cornmeal ("grits") in a thin stream. Once the grits have been added, stir in the milk and salt and stir for 2 minutes. Adjust heat so mixture simmers but does not boil. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Uncover and stir for 1 minute. Repeat this process two more times. The mixture will be very thick. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add tempeh slices or strips and shallots; cook until shallots caramelize and tempeh strips brown. Remove from pan and add collard greens and apple cider. Stir, cover, and cook on low, until collards wilt. Add lemon juice before serving over grits and tempeh/shallot mixture.

Total calories per serving: 291 Fat: 11 grams
Carbohydrates: 40 grams Protein: 11 grams
Sodium: 472 milligrams Fiber: 7 grams

Country Biscuits topped with Warm Mushroom Gravy

(Serves 6)

Early Europeans brought simple biscuits and gravy to America, and the dish remains popular in the southern and western United States today. Mushrooms give the gravy a deep savory flavor and they have a meaty texture. These biscuits are best eaten warm. Freeze leftovers. Reheat, wrapped in tin foil in the oven, for about 10 minutes at 350 degrees.


  • ⅔ cup unflavored or plain almond or soy milk
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice or vinegar
  • 2 cups whole-wheat pastry flour
  • 2½ teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¼ cup vegan margarine

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Lightly oil a baking sheet, or line with parchment paper.

Combine milk and vinegar. In another bowl sift together flour, baking powder, and soda. Cut margarine into the flour until tiny particles form. A fork or pastry blender works well for this. Stir in milk after margarine is well-blended.

After a thick dough forms, turn dough out onto a floured counter. Knead until the dough is smooth. Roll the dough out with a rolling pin to ½- to ¾-inch thick. Use a biscuit cutter to cut rounds. Place on baking sheet and bake for 10-12 minutes. Slice and serve with mushroom gravy (below).

Mushroom Gravy

  • 1-2 ounces dried porcini, shiitake, or wild mushrooms
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 cups boiling water
  • 1 ½ Tablespoons arrowroot powder
  • ¼ cup unflavored or plain almond or soy milk
  • 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
  • ½ cup diced onion
  • 1 sliced vegan sausage (optional)
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper (to taste)

Place the mushrooms and bay leaf in a bowl. Pour the boiling water over them. Let mushrooms soak for an hour or more. When mushrooms are soft, remove, chop, and return them to the liquid. Discard bay leaf.

Combine arrowroot powder and almond or soy milk. A small jar or shake container with a lid works well for this. Make sure the arrowroot powder and milk are well-blended into the liquid.

Heat a heavy skillet. Add oil, onion, and optional vegan sausage. Stir and cook until onions begin to brown. Pour in the mushroom broth and mushrooms. Whisk in the almond or soy milk-arrowroot mixture. Stir and heat until gravy thickens. Spoon the gravy over warm biscuits.

Total calories per serving: 237 Fat: 10 grams
Carbohydrates: 30 grams Protein: 6 grams
Sodium: 360 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

Lentil Loaf with Garlic Mashed Cauliflower Potatoes

(Makes 1 stuffed loaf; 8 servings)

I made my first lentil loaf from The New York Times Natural Foods Cookbook in 1971. This classic loaf has changed many times since then, dropping the eggs, adding a variety of vegetables. This recipe serves lentil loaf as two dishes in one, and if cauliflower isn't your favorite vegetable, add diced rutabaga, parsnips, turnips, or sweet potatoes to the mashed potato mix. I often cook the lentils and mash the potatoes the day before. Use gluten-free bread crumbs for a gluten-free loaf.

  • ¾ cup green lentils
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 pound Yukon Gold or waxy white potatoes, diced
  • 2 cups cauliflower florets
  • 2-3 Tablespoons vegan margarine
  • Vegan stock or broth to thin
  • Salt and pepper (to taste)
  • 1 Tablespoon oil
  • 1 small onion, small dice
  • 1 carrot, small dice
  • 1 celery stalk, small dice
  • 2 cloves garlic, pressed
  • 1 teaspoon sage
  • ½ teaspoon thyme
  • 1 small sweet-tart apple, diced with seeds removed
  • 1 cup breadcrumbs or crushed croutons
  • 3 Tablespoons ground flax seeds
  • 8 ounces no salt added tomato sauce
  • ½ cup lightly toasted chopped walnuts or pecans
  • ¼ cup barbecue sauce (optional)

Place the lentils in water and cook over medium-low heat until very soft, about 35 minutes. Steam potatoes and cauliflower until soft — 12 to 15 minutes. Mash potatoes and cauliflower with vegan margarine, using stock to thin to desired consistency. Add salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil a loaf pan. Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add onion, carrot, and celery. Reduce heat, stir, and cook until vegetables soften. Combine the drained, cooked lentils, garlic, sage, thyme, diced apple, and breadcrumbs.

Combine ground flax seeds and tomato sauce in a blender and blend until tomato sauce is thick. Blend or stir the lentil mixture into the tomato sauce. Stir in the toasted nuts.

Place mixture in loaf pan and flatten the top, making a slight indentation in the middle for the mashed cauliflower potatoes. Spread a thin layer of barbecue sauce over the top of the loaf. Bake 30 minutes. Spread a portion of the mashed cauliflower potatoes over the top and continue baking another 15-20 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes. Remove from pan, slice, and serve.

Total calories per serving: 291 Fat: 11 grams
Carbohydrates: 38 grams Protein: 10 grams
Sodium: 155 milligrams Fiber: 10 grams

Shepherd's Pie

(Serves 6-8)

This recipe likely originated in Scotland in the late 1800s as Cottage Pie stuffed with meat and topped with pastry crust. Today, mashed potatoes are the accepted Shepherd's Pie topping. Shiitake mushrooms provide hearty flavor here. Use an oven-ready, heavy skillet such as cast iron. Soak the mushrooms and mash the potatoes ahead of time for easy preparation.

  • 1 ½ pounds yellow or red potatoes, washed, skinned if desired, and diced
  • ¼ cup unflavored rice, soy or almond milk
  • 1 Tablespoon vegan margarine
  • 1/8 cup dried shiitake mushrooms
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 1 ½ cups shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, caps sliced
  • 1 Tablespoon oil (canola or extra-virgin olive oil)
  • ½ cup diced onion
  • 2 stalks celery, sliced thin
  • 1 carrot, small dice
  • 1 cup cauliflower, chopped
  • ½ red pepper, small diced
  • 1 cup seitan (cubes or strips) or cooked/canned white beans
  • 1 cup green beans, frozen, thawed
  • 1 cup corn, frozen, thawed or canned
  • 1 Tablespoon arrowroot
  • 1 Tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika

Steam potatoes for 10 minutes, or until soft. Mash the potatoes, milk, and vegan margarine. Set aside.

Pour boiling water over dried mushrooms. Rehydrate for at least an hour. The longer the mushrooms are in the water, the more flavorful they'll be. Strain, reserve liquid, and finely chop the mushrooms.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat. Cast iron is best. Add fresh mushrooms and dry fry, stirring them until they are limp. Add the oil, onion, celery, carrot, and cauliflower. Stir and cook until vegetables soften. Stir in the pepper and seitan or beans and continue to stir and cook for 5 minutes. Blend in the chopped, soaked mushrooms, green beans, and corn.

Stir arrowroot and soy sauce into mushroom liquid until well blended. Pour over vegetables, stir, and spread the mashed potatoes on top; sprinkle with paprika. Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until the mixture bubbles.

Total calories per serving: 195 Fat: 6 grams
Carbohydrates: 24 grams Protein: 14 grams
Sodium: 312 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

Baked Beans

(Serves 4)

Baked beans have a long history and the sweet ingredients and breads they're served with change across geographic regions. In Ireland, a tomato-sugar sauce is used and baked beans are eaten on toast. In Boston, molasses flavors white beans simmered in cast iron skillets and brown bread is served. In Quebec, maple syrup flavors baked beans. When cooking, keep the heat on low and add water to thin to desired consistency. You can serve these beans with coleslaw and corn or brown bread, or enjoy them over toast.

  • ½ cup ketchup
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • ¼ cup molasses
  • 2 Tablespoons organic sugar or brown sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1 Tablespoon canola oil
  • 1 large onion, peeled and diced
  • 1 green pepper, seeded and diced
  • 1 medium carrot, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, pressed
  • 1 cup white beans, soaked overnight and drained

Water as needed to thin.

Combine the ketchup, water, mustard, molasses, sugar, and cayenne in a small bowl. Set aside.

Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add oil, onion, and green pepper. Stir and cook until the peppers and onions soften, then add carrots and garlic. Stir and cook for about 5 minutes.

Blend in beans and molasses mixture. Cover and simmer for one hour or more, adding more water as needed.

Total calories per serving: 347 Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 67 grams Protein: 13 grams
Sodium: 453 milligrams Fiber: 9 grams

Debra Daniels-Zeller is a regular contributor to Vegetarian Journal. She resides in Washington and also writes on her blog,