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How to Make Vegan Soul Food

Chef Rene Johnson serving food.
Chef Rene Johnson (left) serving food. blackberrysoulrene/Instagram

Soul food, with its comfort food classics of fried chicken, mac and cheese, and collard greens, is not the friendliest cuisine for vegans; it’s full of pork, chicken, and smoked meats. Even seemingly vegan soul food dishes like simmered collard greens or reds beans and rice feature the addition of smoked turkey or ham hocks.

This doesn’t have to be the case according to Chef Rene Johnson. The owner and founder of Blackberry Soul Fine Catering, cookbook author of From My Heart to Your Table, Chef Johnson’s “Soul Fusion” is all about reinventing traditional soul food without sacrificing flavor. Chef Johnson loves to use healthier, organic ingredients along with modern techniques to create innovative soul food that still replicates those traditional flavor profiles. Her take on soul food has many avid fans, including celebrity clients like Vice President Kamala Harris, California Governor Gavin Newsom, Dr. Cornell West, and actor Danny Glover. Chef Johnson is also on another mission — to demonstrate that vegan cooking isn’t expensive or boring. The key is to start your vegan cooking journey with items within your budget and to be creative with substitutes.

“Moving into a vegan lifestyle is not as hard as you think, there are so many wonderful alternatives to meat and dairy,” said Chef Johnson. “I like to use rice, beans, quinoa, chickpeas in place of meat. My other favorite is to use tofu instead of eggs. I use tofu like scrambled eggs. My wonder trick — use firm tofu mixed in a blender to make the best vegan French toast ever. Game changer for sure.”

Vegan Red Beans and Rice

Bowl of Vegan Red Beans & Rice with Cornbread slices on a table.
Chef Rene Johnson’s vegan red beans and rice.

It’s very important to soak the red beans in water before cooking. Soaking the beans will reduce cooking time and remove some of the beans’ natural sugars (this aids in reducing the digestive issues that can accompany beans). Although this recipe is vegan, feel free to add any smoked or cured meat of your choice if making a non-vegan version. Serve these red beans and rice with a slice of cornbread for a satisfying and hearty meal.

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb bag of small red beans
  • 1 medium onion chopped
  • 1 medium green bell pepper diced
  • .5 cup olive oil
  • 6 to 7 bay leaves
  • 7 to 8 sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 1 tsp granulated garlic
  • 1 tsp granulated onion
  • 1 glove of mince garlic
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  • .5 tsp cumin
  • 1.5 tsp sea salt
  • .5 tsp pepper
  • Cooked rice

Method:

  1. Bean soaking techniques: Quick Soak – place washed and sorted beans in a large pot with at least 3 inches of water over them. Bring to boil for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit for at least 1-4 hours. Overnight Soak – place washed and sorted beans in a large stock pot with at least 3 to 4 inches of water over them and 1 tbsp of salt. Let beans soak for at least 4 hours or overnight.
  2. In a large stock pot add oil, chopped onions, garlic and bell pepper. Sauté until onions are tender.
  3. Drain red beans from soaking water. Place beans in a medium size bowl. Add soaked beans to stock pot, cover with water (3 inches over the beans).
  4. Add all dry ingredients into the pot, stir and cover the everything with a lid.
  5. Lower heat to medium-low and cook for 1- 1.5 hours till beans are fully cooked and tender. Note: Salt can be added to your taste. Remove bay leaves and thyme before serving

Auntie Dorothy’s Mustard Greens

Vegan mustard greens in bowl with cornbread.
Chef Rene Johnson’s mustard greens.

This recipe is inspired by Chef Johnson’s auntie Dorothy. Be sure to wash your greens thoroughly before cooking — there’s nothing worse than eating a mouthful of gritty greens. Any kind of greens can work for this recipe, including collard or turnips greens. Chef Johnson prefers mustard greens, which have a naturally peppery and slightly bitter flavor. The sharp flavor of the greens is a perfect complement to the spices and salt of the simmering broth. These greens are delicious by themselves or as a side dish for an entrée. Chef Johnson’s advice is to serve these greens with a piece of cornbread (traditional or hot water cornbread).

Ingredients:

  • 10 bunches greens – ( I always pick curly mustard)
  • 1 medium green bell pepper chopped
  • 1 medium onion chopped
  • 1 tsp chopped garlic
  • 1 small serrano pepper sliced
  • 2 tsp sea salt
  • 1.5 tsp granulated garlic
  • 1.5 tsp granulated onion
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • 1 tbsp chili powder
  • 1 tbsp smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • .5 cup olive oil
  • 1 cup water

Method:

  1. Open up the bundles of greens and separate the individual leaves. Lay the greens flat on a cutting board, front side down. Using a small paring knife, run the knife up and down the inside of the stems to remove them. Or, remove the stems by pulling the leaf away by hand.
  2. Fill your kitchen sink with cold water and 1 tbsp of salt. Put your greens in the water bath, fill the sink as full as possible, but leave room for your hands to push the greens down in the water. Wash your greens well. (You will probably see grit in the sink once you have washed all of your greens).
  3. Place washed greens in a large stock pot. Add bell pepper, onion, garlic, serrano pepper, all dry spices, oil and water. Cook on medium high heat. Note: your pot will be full but remember the greens will shrink during the cooking process (about half the initial size).
  4. Cover with lid and cook for 45 minutes until greens are tender. Taste and add salt if desired.

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