Wednesday 17 January 2018

The stylish vegan - Derry food blogger Áine Carlin

It's official: veganism is the new cool. But embracing a life free of animal products doesn't have to mean bland dishes (or ugly sandals) says Áine Carlin, the Derry food blogger leading the charge.

Derry food blogger Áine Carlin
Derry food blogger Áine Carlin
The New Vegan
Tortilla Soup
Black Bean Taquitos with an Enchilada Sauce

Claire O'Mahony

If you have any interest in current diet and eating trends, you will have observed that veganism is having a bit of a moment. There's still a full week to go in 'Veganuary' - the new Dry January, whereby you try bypassing meat and dairy for a month - and there's the rise of Pegansim, which combines elements of last year's dietary obsession, Paleo, with veganism.

High profile advocates such as Rosanna Davison and part-time vegan Beyoncé are also adding their sheen of glamour to it. But the celebrity endorsement notwithstanding, it's still a lifestyle choice that remains daunting to many people. The sandal-wearing connotations might be receding but veganism's constraints have always appeared to be difficult to incorporate into everyday life, not to mention the restrictions it imposes in terms of eating out and supermarket shopping.

Step forward Áine Carlin, the Derry-born food and lifestyle blogger, who is rapidly becoming the poster child for accessible and stylish veganism. Following on from the success of her first book, Keep it Vegan, her latest, The New Vegan, offers up recipes and advice for anyone considering venturing down the vegan path. And as a quick look at her blog reveals, she makes veganism look like no hardship with recipes such as baked aubergine with lemon-infused couscous, and buckwheat beetroot brownie bites banishing thoughts of steak or butter in quick time.

Carlin went vegan five years ago and yes, she is firm believer in the health benefits of veganism and its importance in relation to environmental and ethical issues, but she doesn't proselytise. Nor does she believe that it's merely 2016's latest hot diet trend. "I know that a lot of people think it's a fad and we'll be onto something else next year. I really don't think it is," she says. "I call it a journey. It's a gradual process and nobody has to be vegan overnight."

Her own beginnings were more artistic than foodie. After studying music at Goldsmith College in London, she did a postgrad in drama studies and worked as a professional actor for a number of years. It was after relocating to Chicago with her husband Jason, an animator, that her vegan epiphany occurred. Before the Stateside move, she didn't really know what veganism was ("Six or seven years ago in the UK, that wasn't a word that was bandied about very much," she says) and they didn't know any other vegans. But in Chicago, she and her husband started becoming more interested in the origins of their food, and they had ethical and environmental concerns as well.

Carlin began to delve into the vegan lifestyle and it wasn't long before they both saw the benefits.

"We realised we were sleeping more soundly; we had more energy because we didn't feel lethargic. Definitely my hair, skin, and nails [improved] - just a variety of little niggles that were irritating me at time. I had probably put on a little bit of weight and I wasn't happy with it. Within three weeks I could see a change."

Pursuing her acting career in the States, away from London, proved difficult. At her husband's suggestion she started her blog, which is now a huge part of her daily routine. The couple currently live in Cornwall and when she was approached by publishers to do a book she confesses to not believing it and thinking that it was a joke. While she says that Instagram and social media have certainly played a role in her popularity, she tries not to overthink what she posts.

"It's not overly agenda-led - oh, I've put this up and I'll get so many likes and more people will follow me. I try to be a little bit more open and honest on Instagram and that really is what I eat; that really is what I'm interested in; that really is what I'm doing on a particular day," she says.

"All of it is truthful, none of it is staged. I think that people respond to that. I think that there is so much on Instagram that is kind of a lie, in a way.

"It's very aspirational and people spend a lot of their time constructing a shot because they know that they portray a certain lifestyle that people want to aspire to. So I try to maybe downplay that aspect a little bit and just have fun with it."

One major distinction between Carlin's recipes and some of the other popular cookbooks out there, such as those by the Hemsley sisters or Ella Woodward, is that she's not espousing 'clean eating'. "Even though I obviously did clean up my diet in the sense that I removed animal products from it, it wasn't a case of demonising flour and sugar but reducing it. I don't eat them in abundance and I don't eat them on a daily basis but I don't see anything wrong with having a bit of sugar if it's in a baked good every now and again."

Her roll call of food writer heroes isn't necessarily one of vegans or vegetarians but instead feature Nigel Slater ("His approach is so layered and complex-flavoured even though some of his recipes might only have a handful of ingredients,"); Yotam Ottolenghi ("He's not coming at it from a vegetarian angle but he wants to make vegetables exciting,") and Nigella Lawson ("It's about breaking things down and making them really accessible and easy to follow.")

She's often asked questions not only about food but also beauty and how she veganised her wardrobe (she was PETA's Most Stylish Vegan 2015) and has incorporated some of these elements into The New Vegan. Having worked in the fashion department of The Financial Times and at high-end London boutique, Matches, she is passionate about great design.

"I love the very practical, utilitarian, very clean look. I don't know if I love fashion in the sense that I don't like the fast fashion kind of phase that we're currently in," she says.

Carlin thinks that people possibly aren't aware of how prevalent animal testing is in the beauty industry. "I know if you went out onto the street and you showed people two looks, one that was tested on animals and another that wasn't, what would they choose? I doubt anyone would choose the one that was tested on animals because no one wants to partake in that," she says. "I think that it's something that is getting better. We're going to see huge strides being made in the beauty industry."

Her advice, first and foremost for wannabe vegans, is to not to seek to be a shining beacon of vegan perfectionism.

"Everybody will be different so comparing yourself to someone else is a total no-no. I love social media but I also feel like a lot of people who fall into that trap where they end up comparing themselves to others and I think that there's an element of veganism where it can be quite critical," she says.

"I would say try and ignore that and do what feels comfortable for you and don't feel bad if you slip up. You don't need to berate yourself over a piece of cheese.

"Some people will flow through it quite easily and other people will have a lot of stumbling blocks and that's fine because it is a journey and it is a process."

Tortilla soup

Tortilla Soup

Not too spicy, and with a breadth of flavour, I often opt for something like this to see me through a tough week.

Serves 4

You will need

Olive oil, for frying, plus 1 tbsp for the tortilla

1 red onion, finely chopped

½ fennel bulb, finely chopped

1 celery stick, finely chopped

3 garlic cloves, sliced

1 red pepper, deseeded and finely chopped

1 small courgette, finely chopped

1 red chilli, deseeded and sliced

1 heaped tsp smoked paprika

½ tsp ground cumin

Pinch of cayenne pepper

400g can plum tomatoes

150g sweetcorn kernels

200g canned kidney beans, drained and rinsed

1 tbsp tomato purée

1 large flour tortilla

1 ripe avocado, peeled, stoned and diced

Fresh coriander leaves and lime juice, to serve

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


1. Heat a little oil in a large saucepan.

Add the red onion, fennel and celery to the pan. Season, cover and sweat gently until they begin to soften before adding the garlic. Sauté for a further 5 minutes until fragrant.

2. Add the red pepper, courgette and chilli. Season, cover and sweat gently until soft.

3. Sprinkle in the spices, season, cover and let them infuse for a few minutes before tipping in the plum tomatoes. Simmer for about 5 minutes to soften before breaking up the tomatoes with the back of a spoon.

Season generously and add 1.5 litres water.

Add the sweetcorn, kidney beans and tomato purée and bring to a very gentle simmer for about 20 minutes - be sure not to let the soup boil.

4. While the soup is warming, preheat the oven to 200°C/gas mark 6. Cut the tortilla into small strips, toss in 1 tablespoon oil, lay out on a baking tray and bake for 10-12 minutes until golden, turning once.

5. Divide the soup between four bowls and adorn each with the crunchy tortilla strips, some diced avocado, a smattering of coriander and some fresh lime juice.

Black Bean Taquitos with an Enchilada Sauce

Black Bean Taquitos with an Enchilada Sauce

Serves 2-4

You will need

1 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for brushing

1 onion, finely chopped

¼ fennel bulb, finely chopped

1 garlic clove

400g canned black beans, drained and rinsed

1 tsp ground cumin

1 rosemary sprig, finely chopped

½ vegetable stock cube

30ml soya cream (or other plant cream)

Juice of ½ lime, plus extra to serve

4 x wholewheat tortillas

Salt and freshly ground black


Sliced avocado and chopped fresh coriander, to serve

For the enchilada sauce:

1 tbsp olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped

1 tsp smoked paprika

¼ tsp cayenne pepper

½ tbsp maple syrup

400g can plum tomatoes

Juice of ½ lime


1. Heat the oil in a saucepan. Add the onion, season and sweat gently until translucent. Add the fennel. Cook until it begins to soften.

2. Add the garlic. Once fragrant, add the beans to the pan. Sprinkle over the cumin and rosemary, season and sauté for about 5 minutes.

3. Cover with water, add the stock cube and simmer for about 10 minutes until the liquid reduces significantly. Add the soya cream, stir to combine and cook for 1-2 minutes. Spritz over the lime juice, roughly mash, check for seasoning and set aside until needed.

4. For the enchilada sauce, heat the oil in a heavy-based saucepan. Add the onion to the pan, season and cook until translucent. Add the garlic, chilli, smoked paprika, cayenne and a splash of maple syrup and sauté for several minutes. Cook gently until fragrant before adding the tomatoes. Season and crush the tomatoes using the back of a spoon before simmering for 20 minutes.

5. Transfer to a food processor and blitz until smooth. Return to the pan, add the lime juice, check for seasoning and warm through.

6. Divide the black bean mixture between the tortillas and roll each into a tight cigar shape. Brush each taquito lightly with oil. Heat a large frying pan and toast each taquito all over until crispy and golden brown. Serve immediately with the enchilada sauce. Garnish with sliced avocado and coriander.

The New Vegan by Áine Carlin is published by Kyle Books at €23.70.

Photography by Nassima Rothacker

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