Use familiar flavors and textures to create vegan dishes

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"A lot of people think that a vegan meal is going to be a white, bland, squishy piece of tofu," says chef Tal Ronnen of the Los Angeles restaurant Crossroads. He is author of a book by the same name.

Joe Yonan: In your introduction, you write something that really interested me. "As a lover of food," you say, "I realized it wasn't the animal products I actually longed for, but the texture, the flavor, the hardiness, and the satisfaction." I was so glad to hear you talk about satisfaction. One of the common misconceptions about plant-based food, at least among meat eaters, is that you leave the meal still hungry. How do you deal with that?

Tal Ronnen
Tal Ronnen (Photo: Lisa Romerein)

Tal Ronnen: A lot of people feel like they're not going to be satiated -- they're not going to be happy after eating a vegan meal. Part of that is a lot of years of bland vegan cooking.

I think it's really important when you're creating vegan dishes -- like we do at the restaurant or for the book -- that they be familiar flavors or familiar textures. A lot of people think that a vegan meal is going to be a white, bland, squishy piece of tofu. We don't even use tofu in the book. We don't use it at the restaurant. Creating dishes that have familiar flavors, a familiar feel and look are great ways to get people to try eating more plant-based foods. It's more approachable; it's less dogmatic; it's less scary. That's the focus of the new book.

JY: I think one of the things that keeps some people from embracing veganism is cheese. Cheese seems to be the big bugaboo for a lot of vegan cooks. You've been involved with making a vegan cheese, which I have to say from personal experience has really raised the bar. These are the Kite Hill brand cheeses. Can you tell us how you got into it and what makes Kite Hill different?

TR: First of all, thanks for trying it. What's different about it is it's made how cheese has always been made. Cheese has always been made from different milks, whether it was cow's milk, sheep's milk or goat's milk.

We use almond milk. We culture that almond milk like you would milk coming from animals. We press it. We age it. That's why you're getting that experience of cheese. For the most part, before most cheese alternatives were highly processed oil suspended in starch or soy.

We just have an amazing team that came together to create the cheeses -- a Stanford biochemist, a cheesemaker from Boston, a cheesemaker from France. We have a really great team that is putting out great products.

We have yogurts hitting Whole Foods this month. It's a cultured almond yogurt. It has been really fun to be a part of that.

JY: What are some of your favorite ways to get some of that satisfaction, those textures and umami flavors that you talked about?

TR: We stick to really great cooking techniques. We do a lot of smoking, a lot of grilling.

We do a smoked carrot lox. We take an heirloom carrot, smoke it over hickory, and then roast it until it's very tender and shave it thin. It looks like a piece of Nova lox. We put that on our bagel during our brunch with the Kite Hill almond cream cheese.

We launched an all-vegan seafood tower. People just went wild for it. Instead of lobster, we had lobster mushrooms from Oregon. We did our take on clams casino where Scot Jones, our executive chef, smoked shallots, which gave the perception of bacon in the stuffing that you would have in clams casino. Our Rockefeller is a shiitake mushroom that has been poached in olive oil. The calamari is made out of hearts of palm that are sustainably grown.

We're always trying new things. We're always trying to create food that you would never expect to have in a plant-based diet. Therefore you really don't miss it.

JY: Do you envision a time when vegan might become completely mainstream?

TR: Absolutely. A project I've been working on for a long time now in Las Vegas at the Wynn properties is a really telling sign of how mainstream this is becoming. I've worked with all the chefs at the Wynn and Encore to create menus that are completely plant-based. You could go to the steakhouse, you can go to the Italian restaurant and you get a regular menu. Then you also get the menu that I've created with the chefs there that is completely plant-based.The program is over four years old and it's doing great. People travel to the property just for the menus.

From This Episode: 
The Jemima Code
January 8th, 2016

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