Vegan Super Bowl? Plant-based food blogger shares universally appealing recipes

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen
Lauren Hartmann and Julie Grace are the forces behind Rabbit & Wolves, a vegan comfort food blog. Hartmann's new cookbook, Southern Vegan, focuses on plant-based versions of Southern staples, from gumbo to pot pie.

"Rabbit and Wolves" is not just an elegant name for a vegan comfort food brand. It's also a concept. Lauren Hartmann, the classically trained pastry chef turned blogger, food photographer and cookbook author, said the name speaks to the accessibility of her food. 

Hartmann, an ethical vegan, said she's not into plant-based food for better health. "A lot of people say my recipes aren't healthy," she said, laughing. "The general concept is comfort food, and making food that also speaks to omnivores."

And it does. With the help of food photographer and communications director Julie Grace, Hartmann turns out a visually arresting array of truly delicious-looking recipes. There are fried and saucy wings. There are gooey bowls of mac and cheese and recipes for cheesecake. This is not your typical vegan blog festooned with brightly colored juices and austere grain bowls. This is fare that would be right at home at your Super Bowl party. 

More:Your guide to 'Veganuary': Plant-based recipes to help you start the new year off right

Hartmann said her classical pastry training has informed her style. "A lot of the reason I wanted to be a pastry chef is because of the beauty of pastries," she said. 

Her knack for aesthetics has helped pave the way to a robust following; the Rabbit and Wolves Instagram account has 387,000 followers. Her individual recipes can rack up close to one million page views. 

But even though they have the stage, neither Hartmann nor Grace, who is also vegan, are interested in proselytizing about a meat-free diet.  

"I don't think it's a great way to get my message across, by acting superior," Hartmann said. "But putting out good food is a great way to get the message across, because people realize they can eat well on a plant-based diet, and it can even be a part-time thing."

Grace said Hartmann excels at showing people how to take the comfortable, nostalgic foods of their childhood and think about them in a whole different light. 

More:Chef Rene Johnson's vegan soul food is perfect for the stars, and your holiday table

"She's done a great job of not convincing people to join, but showing people who have already made that choice how to eat great food," she said.  

Vegan seitan wings come together in a food processor and finish in the oven.

Hartmann's most popular dishes are some of the most decadent. A vegan caramelized onion dip mac and cheese remains a constant favorite among readers. Another version of mac and cheese, topped with fried and spicy buffalo broccoli, is also a hit, as is a vegan creamy "sausage" soup.

Some of it is made to satisfy her dad's Kentucky-based family, who delight in the homey cornbread and soy curl barbecue Hartmann executes without animal products. Grace's mother-in-law, who is not vegan, makes Hartmann's Nashville hot tofu religiously.

Nashville style hot tofu nuggets.

"I always ask what's the one thing that, if you went vegan, you'd absolutely miss the most, and I try to make the best version of that," Hartmann said. 

She's helped along by an explosion in the market for vegan products, including Beyond Meat and other surprisingly meaty ingredients. Even Kentucky Fried Chicken is getting into the game, adding vegan "chicken" to its menus.

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Try your hand at the tofu (and seitan and broccoli)

Crispy, creamy and spicy-sweet vegan "bang bang" broccoli

Addictive vegan Nashville hot tofu nuggets

Vegan "honey gold" seitan wings

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It's a nod to how many people are working to not necessarily give up meat, but cut down on its consumption, Grace said. 

"They're doing meatless Monday or removing red meat," she said. "There's a shift in the mindset that's creating demand for more plant-based options. It's a cool time we live in when even fast-food restaurants are offering plant-based options."

Fast food options are good, but what about bringing meat-free home? Hartmann's blog is a good start. "I don't have any advice except for telling people to learn to cook," she said. 

Sweet, spicy and crisp, this fried broccoli begs to be served with fried rice.

One thing you'll pick up is how to make tofu a zillion different ways. It can be crispy. It can be silken. It can even become dessert. "Someone told me I was the queen of crispy tofu, and I felt really good about it," Hartmann said. 

Tofu and other vegetarian proteins, she said, are more adaptable than most think. 

"I think what I've seen is people concerned with, is it going to be bland and not taste like anything?" she said. "They think meat is flavor, and that's a myth. You can make vegetarian food taste like anything — it's a lot like a blank canvas, where you can create anything you want."

More:Try this vegan quinoa 'meatloaf' as the centerpiece of your meat-free Thanksgiving

Even if Hartmann's a whizz with tofu, she won't force you to like it. 

"I absolutely think people should eat whatever they want," she said. "Food is not bad. food is food. It's all about balance."

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com