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Feature Thu Jun 11 2009
Linda Long wanted to convince some of the best chefs to contribute to a vegan cookbook. If top professionals in the culinary world would endorse vegan cooking, it would be hard to argue against vegan food as legitimate cuisine. Twenty-five of the highest awarded chefs signed on, each contributing a three or four course vegan meal. The book includes chefs Charlie Trotter, Daniel Boulud, and Thomas Keller, each many time winners of the James Beard Award, the so-called Oscar of the culinary industry. Long photographed the book, Great Chefs Cook Vegan, inside the chefs' kitchens.
Long and I chatted over breakfast when she came to Chicago. She told me how she decided to do the book and how she engaged the chefs. Of course, we talked about food. One of my favorite recipes in the book is Charlie Trotter's mignardises, or "bite-sized desserts that follow a meal at high-end restaurants." This particular recipe yields what are essentially extremely rich and smooth chocolate truffles, which you can very simply make at home. Combine five ingredients in a food processor: 1 cup raw cashew butter (I used roasted), 1 cup maple syrup, 1 cup cocoa powder, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla seeds (I used vanilla extract), and 1 tablespoon nama shoyu (a raw soy sauce... I used conventional soy sauce).
Long: "It barely has time to go around the blender before it clumps up and gets really like a chocolate truffle. Then your mind goes crazy. You can take little half teaspoons and roll it in a ball and then roll it in sesame seeds. Or you can push a piece of dried cranberry down on top of it and make a flat piece... or a nut on top of it."
After blending until smooth, spread out the chocolate in a thin layer on a sheet pan or container, cover, and refrigerate for four hours. Then scrape the chocolate into balls with a melon baller. Or, as I did, pick a bit up with your fingers and roll it between your palms. The recipe suggests coating the mignardises in coconut, sesame seeds, crushed pumpkin seeds, cayenne pepper or chopped dried fruit. The mignardises are great for dinner parties. Arrive at a guest's home with a little box of them and a bottle of wine. When I tried these truffles in my kitchen with friends, we rolled them in various coatings: salted chopped pistachios, salted chopped sunflower seeds, salted cocoa power, and salted black sesame seeds. Salt was big for me. I'd been thinking of the wonderful lure that it adds to chocolate.
It wasn't as if mignardises had been planned to be in the book from the start. When Long started shooting the book, she didn't know what she'd get for vegan desserts.
Long: "The first five [chefs] were giving me sorbets and fruit for dessert. And I suddenly thought, oh my goodness, I'm going to have twenty-five recipes of desserts full of sorbets and fruits. Not that there's anything wrong with that. ... but I kept thinking... I wonder when I met get something other than that."
And of course, Long got various desserts. Besides the mignardises, the book includes warm Venezuelan chocolate cake with merlot-infused cherries and chocolate gelato, crisp chocolate with sautéed bananas and fresh figs and brandied cherries, a chocolate cake with chocolate truffle molten center, and many more. The savory recipes are brilliant, too.
Where did the book idea come from in the first place? Long had been dinning out at very nice restaurants, asking for vegan food, and was talking to one of the chefs.
Long: "I would challenge them... Thomas Keller suggested I give a three-day notice [to many restaurants] because they shop every day and if they know in advance, I'll probably get a better meal. So I started to do that, and I couldn't believe the food I was getting. And I said [to another chef] one day, I don't think anyone knows this food is being made. This is phenomenal. I think I should do a book."
I wanted to get an idea of how the chefs would recommend a novice cook approach vegan food. I sat down with Matthias Merges, the corporate executive chef and service director at Charlie Trotters, who's named in the book alongside Charlie Trotter.
Merges: "Look in your refrigerator. ...Realize that the things that would be dairy and fats that you currently use, and find substitutions that would give you the same mouth feel or textures that you're accustom to - like cheeses or butter, and you use olive oils and tofu. And then you learn those products and how to manipulate them, like pressing tofu at home to make it more firm and then grating it... It's all through experimentation. And it's all through the love of cooking."
I think that's so true. People often tell me that they're surprised at how good vegan treats can taste when they're done properly. Some are amazed that you can make an incredible (vegan) cookie without butter. I think it easy to forget that butter isn't the only fat available to us. That's where non-dairy butter, oils and vegetable shortenings come in. Cookies need fat; it just doesn't have to be from an animal.
If you want ideas for what to make vegan, it's often fun to look at traditional, non-vegan recipes.
Long, a longtime vegan: "I think I have a thousand cookbooks. ... Of course a lot of them are not vegan. I just am inspired and can translate dishes that I like into a vegan one."