19 Nov 2010
The Conscious Cook: Vegan Chef Tal Ronnen
by Robyn Jasko
Chef Tal Ronnen, a vegan chef and author of The Conscious Cook, is helping people be more open-minded about plant-powered diets, one fantastic vegan dish at a time. He has worked at the top vegan restaurants in the United States, including Sublime in Fort Lauderdale, Madeleine Bistro in Los Angeles, and Candle 79 in New York City. He also is one of our heros! Chef Tal recently took time out of his busy schedule (he's cooked for Oprah, Ellen Degeneres, and most recently, the Dalai Lama) to share his recipes and insights into vegan cooking with Grow Indie.
Chef Tal: You know I was really frustrated with the lack of good vegan options when I was eating out at restaurants. I came from a family of foodies and my mom and my dad introduced us to foods from every culture growing up---we had chopsticks in our hands from an early age.
When I became vegetarian and then later vegan I was very frustrated with eating out, because when you eat out at a restaurant, often, the vegetarian entrée---even in a nice restaurant---was an afterthought. It was usually side dishes that were put together to look like an entree. But they never had a protein component which I think is essential, I think a lot of people are turned off by eating vegetarian because of what's offered at restaurants, and they never feel like they've had a proper meal because there isn't a protein component. Most American chefs don't know how to work with a plant-based protein, so it's usually just vegetables and starch on the plate.
And for me, that was the inspiration to go and learn how to cook professionally. And certainly, after culinary school, having that niche that was focused on healthy and vegetarian went a long way because everyone else was going the other way. So it was nice to get known for cooking healthy foods.
And, did you have a lot of resistance at first?
Chef Tal: No. I think the timing was good and certainly when i made my move to the West Coast so many people out there were already eating that way. They're a lot more open to it----I think Los Angeles on its own has 30 vegetarian restaurants.
What's your advice for people who are trying to go vegan but don't know where to start?
Chef Tal: I think that ethnic foods are a great way to go because so many ethnic restaurants, thai restaurants, indian restaurants, chinese restaurants, already do such a great job with vegan food. And in Asian cultures, they don't drink dairy---they can't even digest dairy---so you don't have to worry about milk or butter in anything.
Another really good way is to use transitional foods. Instead of using milk in your cereal, try almond milk or soy milk, and just lean into it slowly, one by one. Gardein is obviously is a great way if you want to give up chicken or beef. There's just great alternatives out there. And people always comment that fake meats or vegan products are processed but everything is processed to a certain extent. You know, in order to get cheese from milk it goes through a process. And that's the same with a lot of these other products, like soy yogurt and things like that. The way I look at it is, it's a great transitional food and when you compare it to its counterpart like processed meat or processed cheese, it's still much healthier.
Do you have a garden that you grow some of your ingredients in?
Chef Tal: I live in downtown LA so I don't have room for a garden, but I do frequent the Santa Monica farmers' market, and the one in Hollywood when I'm in town. I love going to the farmers' market, it's great.
What's the one ingredient that you couldn't live without?
Chef Tal: Oh man, it changes seasonally for sure. Though, I do look forward to good corn and tomatoes in late August. You can look in the book to see some stock pantry items, but really the ingredients change based on the season.
You helped develop Gardein, a vegan blend of plant proteins, grains and vegetables, that’s a great replacement for meat, high in protein and low fat. When you check out the ingredients in Gardein, you know what everything is, it's not like there's some chemical you can't understand...it’s mostly from whole foods and plant-based sources, which is pretty awesome.
Chef Tal: Yeah, look at some of the other guys out there making meat substitutes and you can't even pronounce some of the ingredients, they are like a book. The core ingredients for Gardein are five core proteins. It's also the only one that's a complete protein, because we have quinoa which has all the essential amino acids.
Do you have a favorite cook book?
Chef Tal: Not really, you know I enjoy a lot of The Cook’s Book by Charlie Trotter, but personally I don't have a huge cook book collection.
Do you have a favorite microbrew beer or wine that you like to drink?
Chef Tal: I'm not a big beer or wine drinker. I do drink scotch though. When I can afford it, Johnny Walker Blue.
Do you have a favorite type of music you like to listen to while you're cooking?
Chef Tal: Opera.
Are you serious?
Chef Tal: Yep!
What kind of opera? Italian, German...?
Chef Tal: Never in English, that's for sure. Usually, Puccini.
Throughout your years of cooking, I know you've worked with many different people, do you have a favorite story or a most memorable character that you've cooked for?
Chef Tal: I love cooking with my friend Dave Anderson at Madeleine Bistro in Los Angeles. He's definitely someone who's really influenced me. My friend Angelo who passed away last year showed me everything that I know about Italian cooking---The book's dedicated to him. And my friend Chad who taught me a lot about raw foods and raw preparation is working on a wellness program for Whole Foods.
Why do you think vegan food is better?
Chef Tal: I don't know that I would say it's better, or worse, or any of that. I don't like to judge people on what they eat but I think the benefits are huge, because obviously we talked about the environmental benefits, the health benefits, adhering to a vegan diet you're not consuming any extra cholesterol other than what your body produces. So definitely health benefits, environmental benefits, and eating with a clear conscience, to me is a huge benefit.
I know that you like to choose a lot of seasonal, local food. Why do you think that's important for people to consider when they're purchasing ingredients?
Chef Tal: It tastes better. In New York growing up we had any produce, any time of year. I remember eating strawberries in the middle of winter and they never tasted as good as the ones that came in the summer and they were probably being grown in Chile or somewhere, on a different hemisphere, and it never made sense to me for food to be flown halfway across the world when you can just look forward to eating it when it's in season, when it tastes really good.
Chef Tal's Cashew Cream
This stuff is pretty amazing---soaked cashews are the magic ingredient that makes it easy to live without dairy. Cashew cream is a vegan-chef staple that stands in for dairy in a variety of ways. In the raw-food world, where it originated, it’s used in lots of desserts. When you cook with it, though, it can be used for so much more—from cheese filling in ravioli to substituting heavy cream in soups.
- 2 cups whole raw cashews (not pieces, which are often dry), rinsed very well under cold water
Put the cashews in a bowl and add cold water to cover them. Cover the bowl and refrigerate overnight.
Drain the cashews and rinse under cold water. Place them in a blender with enough fresh cold water to cover them by 1 inch. Blend on high for several minutes until very smooth. (If you’re not using a professional high-speed blender such as a Vita-Mix, which creates an ultra-smooth cream, strain the cashew cream through a fine-mesh sieve.)
Makes about 2 1/4 cups thick cream or 3 1/2 cups regular cream. It can be stored 2 to 3 days in the refrigerator and can be frozen for up to 6 months.
Cream of Asparagus Soup
This recipe is versatile: If you can't find nice asparagus, use broccoli instead.
- Sea salt
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 large bunch asparagus
- 2 quarts of faux chicken or vegetable broth
- 2 stalks celery, chopped
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 cup thick Cashew Cream, plus more for garnish
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 cups fresh baby spinach
Place a large stockpot over medium heat. Sprinkle the bottom with a pinch of salt and heat for 1 minute. Add the oil and heat for 30 seconds, being careful not to let it smoke. This will create a nonstick effect.
Add the asparagus, celery, and onion and sauté for 6 to 10 minutes, until the celery is just soft. Add the stock and bay leaf, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the Cashew Cream and simmer for an additional 10 minutes. Remove and discard the bay leaf. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Working in batches, pour the soup into a blender, cover the lid with a towel (the hot liquid tends to erupt), and blend on high. Add the spinach to the last batch and continue blending until smooth. Pour the soup into a large bowl and stir to incorporate the spinach batch. Ladle into bowls. Garnish each bowl with microgreens and drops of Cashew Cream.
Makes 6 servings
Gardein “Chicken” Scaloppini with Shiitake Sake Sauce, Braised Pea Shoots, and Crispy Udon Noodle Cakes
Scaloppini refers, of course, to a thin cut of meat, which here is gardein!", a vegan substitute that’s a great transitional food for meat-eaters.
The udon noodle cakes and pea shoots are another Asian touch, but the overall complexity and lushness of the dish give it a French feel.
For the udon noodle cakes:
- 4 (7-ounce single-serving) packs precooked udon noodles
- Sea salt
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Freshly ground black pepper
For the pea shoots:
- Pinch of sea salt
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- ¼ cup faux chicken stock
- 2 cups packed pea shoots
- 1 cup dry sake
- ½ cup faux chicken stock
- ½ cup Earth Balance
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh chives
For the chicken:
- 4 gardein™ chick'n scallopini or 8 gardein™ chick'n filets
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- ½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 pound shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and cut into ¼-inch slices
1. Make the udon noodle cakes: Preheat the oven to 200°F. Remove the plastic from each pack of noodles, keeping the noodles tightly packed. Using a 3-inch round cutter or ring mold, cut one round of noodles from each pack.
2. Place a large sauté pan over high heat. Sprinkle the bottom with a pinch of salt and heat for 1 minute. Add the oil and heat for 30 seconds, being careful not to let it smoke. This will create a nonstick effect.
3. Add the noodle cakes and fry until browned and crisp on both sides, seasoning with salt and pepper as they cook, about 3 minutes per side. Remove to a paper towel–lined baking sheet and put in the oven to keep warm.
4. Make the chicken: Flatten the gardein™ filets with your hand to ½ inch thick, then cut each one into 3 pieces. Season the pieces with salt and pepper, then dredge in the flour.
5. Wipe out the pan you used for the noodle cakes and add 2 tablespoons of the oil. Heat over medium heat, then add the chicken pieces and cook until browned, about 3 minutes on each side. Remove to a plate and set aside.
6. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil, heat over medium heat, then add the mushrooms and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring often, until softened. Deglaze the pan with the sake and cook until reduced by half, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the stock and cook for 2 more minutes.
7. Remove from the heat and whisk in the Earth Balance 1 tablespoon at a time, whisking constantly so that the sauce doesn’t separate. Return the gardein™ to the pan and toss to coat it with the sauce. Cover to keep warm while you make the pea shoots.
8.Make the pea shoots: Place a medium sauté pan over medium heat. Sprinkle the bottom with a pinch of salt and heat for 1 minute. Add the oil and heat for 30 seconds, being careful not to let it smoke.
9. Add the garlic and sauté for 30 seconds. Add the stock and pea shoots and sauté for 3 to 5 minutes, until wilted. Drain the excess liquid.
10. Place a noodle cake in the center of each plate. Top each cake with a spoonful of pea shoots, then top the pea shoots with 3 pieces of the gardein™. Spoon a little of the sake and mushroom sauce over the gardein™ and drizzle it around the inside of the plate. Garnish with microgreens and serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings