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Chef Fri Jan 08 2010
After last year's foodie focus on serving and eating the whole hog, it would be nice if appetites turned to vegetarian and vegan fare this year. An article in The Chicago Tribune this week predicts nutrition trends for 2010, including a move away from meat. Local nutritionist Dawn Jackson Blatner backed up the forecast, saying concerns over health, the environment and the economy will prompt people to cut back on meat. Already, many are taking part in Meatless Mondays.
Another person touting the benefits of a meat-free diet is Chef Tal Ronnen, who recently released The Conscious Cook, a cookbook named one of the best cookbooks of 2009 by Epicurious.
(The book features photos taken at the vegetarian restaurant in Akron, Ohio, he co-owns with Chrissie Hynde.) Chef Tal was in Chicago this week, for a visit with Oprah, who hired him in 2008 to prepare vegan meals for a 21-day cleanse, and to give a demonstration to chefs-to-be at Le Cordon Bleu.
He opened by telling the future chefs that they should all know how to prepare a meal for vegetarian diners. He's found that in most restaurants, even in those owned by his own culinary idols, the vegetarian menu consists solely of side dishes. Not many chefs can put together a meal with a center-of-the-plate protein. And they should be able to: In L.A., where Chef Tal lives, he says, "every celebrity under the sun is a vegetarian."
For two hours, Chef Tal lead the group through the creation of hand-rolled tortellini with an artichoke-"ricotta" filling and saffron cream sauce; celery root soup with Granny Smith apples; and Gardein "chicken" scaloppini with shiitake-sake sauce. Chef Tal helped develop Gardein, a meat substitute he says has a texture similar to the whole-muscle fibers in meat. Two of the dishes included cashew milk in place of the cream. He makes the cashew milk by soaking raw cashews overnight. When the cashews are soft they're blended with water, and, if you're not working with a fancy, high-end blender, they're strained. The result is a vegan heavy cream, which is a better alternative than soy milk, because cashews have fat, and fat equals flavor. Chef Tal offered samples of each dish, but because the chefs in attendance were bigger, younger and quicker than I am, I only managed a taste of the soup. But it was enough to convince me to find myself a copy of The Conscious Cook. And to make a trip to Whole Foods for raw cashews.