09/06/2010 10:58 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Meatless Monday: The Vegan Kickstart

Maybe you want to go vegan to reduce your carbon footprint. Or because you need to reduce your cholesterol. You do it out of a moral choice or because you've decided these past weeks of salmonella and E.coli outbreaks and food recalls mean steak and eggs are off the menu -- forever. You have a definitive ah-ha moment, or it's been on your mind for a while. Whatever the reason, there comes a point where you feel, as Rainer Marie Rilke wrote, "You must change your life." The question is, how do you do it? Welcome to the 21-day vegan kickstart, it starts today and it's free.

The kickstart, from the folks at Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, comes complete with meatless recipes, meal plans, an iPhone app, cooking demos, tips from experts like Dean Ornish and PCRM's own Dr. Neal Barnard, motivation from skinny bitch Rory Freedman and vegan queen Alicia Silverstone.

The basic info comes from Barnard, who's been plant-based for a quarter century and preaching the gospel of veganism almost as long. What is new is the way the kickstart packages everything into tasty plant-based morsels. PCRM first trotted out the program a year ago with modest expectations. "It just became huge," says Susan Levin, PCRM's director of nutrition education.

I can see why. I was the lone vegan. I went gave up meat when I was 13, pretty much in a vacuum in meatcentric Miami. Over time, I said no to dairy and eggs as well. I didn't need a 12-step program, but I could have used a little guidance. Okay, more than a little. Levin went plant-based because factory farming fritzed her out. Like me, she felt ready to give up meat. She just didn't know how.

"I grew up on a horrible diet. There's so much food I'd never opened my mind to," says Levin. She's since made up for it and provides much of the website's nutrition information. "My diet is twenty times as varied as it was when I ate meat and dairy and eggs." Amen, sister. Not only do we eat better, we feel better.

The kickstart provides in three weeks what it took Levin and me years to figure out. There's tips for breezing through potentially awkward social scenarios like dinner with the boss or your meat-eating buds. And there's what Levin calls "the pretty great surprise" about what eating meatless really means -- and it's not about deprivation.

"The misconception that you're giving up food blossoms into this introduction to other foods. Look at all the produce at the farmers market, you should be eating all of it. Not in your repertoire? Try it. All these grains, great varieties of rice, quinoa, millet, barley, grains as old as the hills, try all those. And beans --they're the best protein source ever," says Levin, clearly on a roll.

In addition to recipes for great eats, the kickstart provides another kind of nourishment. The online community forum gives plant-based pros -- anyone who's already made the change to meatlessness -- a chance to share wisdom and experience with those sorely in need of it. Every day, people report on their progress and guide each other. "I see a lot of group support and input," says Levin. "The participants are almost like surrogate family."

It's a big family. Upwards of 20,000 people have registered for the kickstart, and there's room for you, too. It makes changing your life a lot easier. And means the end of the lone vegan.

Hoisin Mushrooms With Bok Choy

So, without meat and eggs, what's for dinner? This quick and sexy Asian dish, full of funghi, because it's also National Mushroom Month. Serve over brown rice or Asian noodles.

1 pound bok choy, chopped
3/4 pound shiitakes or other mushrooms, sliced
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon canola or peanut oil
2 tablespoons soy sauce, divided use
1 pound firm tofu, cut into cubes
2 tablespoons hoisin*
2 tablespoons sesame oil*
2 tablespoons sherry
dash red pepper flakes, if desired

Heat peanut or canola oil in a wok or large skillet over medium-high heat. Add chopped ginger and garlic and saute for 3 minutes. Add sliced mushrooms and 1 tablespon of the soy sauce. Stir until mushroom just soften, 1 to 2 minutes.

Reduce heat to medium and cover, letting mushrooms cook for 5 minutes.

Remove lid, add chopped bok choy to wok or skillet, stirring gently, about 5 to 7 minutes.

In a small bowl, mix together remaining tablespoon of soy sauce, the hoisin, sesame oil and sherry.

Add the soy-hoisin mixture and the tofu cubes to the mushrooms and bok choy. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until bok choy is tender and the tofu is heated through.

*available in Asian markets, natural food stores and most grocery stores

Serves 4 to 6.