"Ewwwww!" groaned the students. "Vegan cuisine? CHEF! Why can't we eat real food?" begged my Culinary II students.
"Vegan cuisine IS real food," I replied. "It's just as real as a Chinese beef with broccoli or a strawberry cream cheese pie."
"I'd rather have the beef with broccoli," grumbled Edgar (not the student's real name).
"I'd rather have the strawberry cream cheese pie," sighed Maria (also not this student's real name).
"Well surprise-surprise," I announced with a smile, "Over the next two weeks, we will be producing a Chinese beef with broccoli AND a strawberry cream cheese pie."
The students cheered.
I savored the moment before dropping the metaphorical ax. "We'll just be making vegan friendly versions of these popular comfort foods." Such are the simple pleasures of a chef instructor.
The students groaned.
To be fair, I didn't blame the kids. After all, there was a time many years ago when the thought of vegan cuisine would have conjured up images of styrofoam-like rice cakes and wobbly looking tofu turkeys. One of my favorite episodes of Everyone Loves Raymond was episode 10 of the third season, "No Fat." In this episode, a suddenly health conscious Marie replaced the family's traditional Thanksgiving Dinner with a heart healthy meal which included a tofu turkey. The jiggling "bird" had been brushed with an appetizing mixture of Worcestershire sauce sauce and beet juice.
My appreciation of vegan cuisine abruptly changed after a friend, who was a lacto-ovo vegetarian, gave me a call. Her doctor had just told her that she had to reduce the amount of her cholesterol in her diet. She had been eating too many fatty cheeses and the doctor had recommended that she adopt a plant based diet with no dairy products or eggs.
"I have to go VEGAN," cried my friend over the phone. "I'll STARVE! I can't afford all those vegan friendly meals at the Whole Foods Market. Could you help me? I need quick and easy recipes that I can make at home!"
I promised to send Laurie some recipes.
Although I initially thought of some Asian foods like a miso soup with cubes of extra firm tofu, I found my thinking of soap. For years, one of my hobbies has been the production of soaps using lye, glycerine, goats milk, and other products. Given my occupation and my interest in all things culinary, I didn't make bars of soap using decorative molds, I made soaps that looked and smelled like real food.
Pictured below is a soap that I hand crafted using a lye based soap that I brushed with glycerine to give it a shiny "fatty" appearance. This t-bone steak soap was scented with bacon.
Yep, you heard me ... BACON. In some respects, soap and candle fragrances are just like vegan cuisine. Just as vegan foods are more than bean curd and sprouts, modern fragrances have evolved beyond lilac, honey suckle, and Old Bay.
If you visit an on-line supplier like Nature's Garden, not only will you find a bacon fragrance but you will also find baked bread, pickles, cinnamon rolls, and fruit salad. Nature's Garden used to carry chipotle salsa and pizza but these products were discontinued. It's a good thing I stocked up with several 16 oz. bottles.
Pictured below is a hamburger soap complete with a removable top bun (baked bread fragrance) and a slice of cheese. The "pickle" smells like a pickle. The ketchup, mustard, and lettuce all had a lettuce fragrance. Since there isn't a hamburger fragrance that's currently on the market, the all beef "patty" smelled of bacon.
I am told that my soaps are quite realistic. In point of fact, a few years ago, I gave an Italian-American friend a hand crafted "hoagie" soap that looked and smelled like a real hoagie. Layered between two thick slices of Italian bread were tomatoes, lettuce, cheese, that were nestled with ham, salami, cheese, and pepperoni.
Jim was so thrilled that he put the hoagie soap on a plate and stuck it in the guest bathroom.
One day he came home to find his housekeeper waiting for him on the front porch. "You are such a sad and disgusting man!" growled the housekeeper as she put her hands on her hips and glared up at her employer. "How could you leave a sandwich in the bathroom? Why would you even make a sandwich and not eat it?"
"Oh geez," said Jim. "What did you do?"
The housekeeper reached up and clouted him on the side of his head. "You silly man! What did you think I did? The sandwich was stale, so I threw it away!"
Jim made the poor housekeeper go dumpster diving to retrieve the hoagie soap. (Sigh)
In thinking about my soaps, it occurred to me ... why couldn't I make a vegan friendly meal that looked and smelled like a traditional comfort food? I started playing around with textured vegetable protein and found that TVP "meatballs" became soggy when added to a Marinara sauce. After some careful experimentation I came up with the idea for making TVP jerky.
When partially ground and mixed with TVP, I found that these meatballs could be paired with a Marinara sauce without falling apart. Not only did the jerky help give the meatball enough structure to withstand being mixed with a sauce but the contrasting textures helped simulate the "crunch" of real meat!
I called Laurie with the good news.
"Do you call that 'easy'?" demanded my friend. "I don't want to make TVP jerky and I don't have a food processor. I need some recipes that are QUICK, EASY, and CHEAP."
If I hadn't been sweet on Laurie I might have abandoned this project but in my quest for QUICK, EASY, and CHEAP, I came across some dehydrated strips of bean curd that were being sold through Amazon.
I bought a package of Butler brand soy curls and began to play with it.
I found that when the bean curds were re-hydrated in a flavorful liquid, not only did they absorb the flavor of that liquid but they also developed a texture that was reminiscent of stewed meat. Pictured above are some strips of a vegan Tandoori chicken that I made using soy curls that I simmered in a vegan chicken broth.
Pictured below is a Thai chicken satay that I served with a vegan friendly peanut sauce.
I called Laurie and told her about the soy curls. She was thrilled. I sent her my recipes and over the next two years, I provided her with many vegan foods. Over time, I created original recipes for chicken with dumplings, crispy bacon (using rice flour mixed with imitation bacon bits), Cornish pasties, ham, fish, and even cream cheese pie.
Laurie was most appreciative. She also dumped me after having met someone else while I was busy pottering about in the kitchen. (Sigh)
No matter. After two years of being on a total vegetarian diet (since it didn't make sense to make vegan food for Laurie while making non-vegan food for myself), I had enough recipes to publish. I wound up self-publishing 6 vegan e-cookbooks through Amazon under the series title, "The Unintentional Vegan."
Who could have guessed that a few years later, I'd be using these recipes with my culinary students?
The beef with broccoli was made by simmering soy curls in a vegan beef broth that was seasoned with star anise, garlic, and ginger. Instead of oyster sauce, we used Healthy Boy brand mushroom soy sauce. Pictured below is a student produced product.
The students had mixed feelings about the beef with broccoli. "It's not bad," admitted Edgar after taking his first bite. "I'd rather have the real thing but this isn't bad." Edgar ate his entire portion as did 12 out of 15 students.
Having made a vegan Beef with Broccoli we turned our attention to the production of a vegan cream cheese pie.
"You PROMISED us STRAWBERRIES!" insisted Maria.
"Did I?" I raised an eyebrow.
"Okay ... strawberry cream cheese pie it is!"
The class cheered.
I held up a finger ... "But this will be a vegan friendly version."
The students groaned until Maria brightly said, "But at least the strawberries will be real!"
To make this pie, the students first produced a baked pie crust. They boiled raw cashews, drained them, and ground them in a food processor with soy milk, vanilla extract, organic sugar, nutritional yeast, a package of Crystal Light, and agar-agar which is a natural plant based gelatin.
The resulting mixture was poured into a food storage container and refrigerated overnight. In the morning after removing the gelled cashew mixture, the students looked at it.
"That doesn't look like cream cheese," observed Maria.
"Patience grasshopper," I intoned.
The kids gave me a blank look. I sighed. One of the problems with getting older is that the younger generations don't catch on to what used to be popular TV shows. In this case my quote came from a 1970's TV show called "Kung Fu." David Carradine played the role of Kwai Change Caine, a half-American, half Chinese character who had been trained as a Shaolin monk and who was now wandering through the American Southwest using his martial arts to protect the weak and helpless.
The cashew mixture was run through a food processor before being used to fill the pie crust.
"What about the whipped cream?" asked Edgar. "Shouldn't there be whipped cream?"
"We can't use whipped cream," said Maria. "Whipped cream isn't vegan. Where are the strawberries?"
"Patience grasshopper," I intoned.
The students gave me blank looks. "You're really weird," observed Edgar.
"Shut up!" snapped Maria. "Don't insult chef or we might not get any strawberries!"
The vegan friendly whipped cream was made using silky tofu, almond milk, vanilla, organic sugar, and more agar-agar. As with the cream cheese, the resulting mixture was poured into a food storage container and refrigerated overnight. On the following day, we ran it through a food processor and then spread the contents on top of the vegan cream cheese.
The strawberries were cleaned,sliced in half, and placed on top of the pie. Pictured below are some student portions. The filling should have had a more red coloring but one of the students accidentally dropped a bottle of red food coloring which is why there is now a stain on part of the floor. Since I don't get out much and am easily amused, I told my freshmen that the red stain was from a student who had "annoyed me." Heh-heh.
"What do you think of the vegan cream cheese pie?" I asked my culinary students.
There was no reply. All fifteen students had their heads down as they enjoyed their portions.