Written by Sarah Hassler, Sous Chef of Veraisons Restaurant
Veraisons kitchen staff is passionate about feeding their customers, even the ones with dietary restrictions. Over the last year we have seen a definite increase in the number of customers with special food needs. As such, we have set out to educate ourselves, our front of house team, and when asked, our customers in how to make our food suit those needs and still taste amazing.
When I first started working with dietary needs, I struggled to understand why my ideas were not working on the plate. Vegan cooking for me, as a beginner, was an exercise in omission. Rather than focusing on ingredients that play together beautifully and the science behind why, I was stuck on all of the items I couldn’t use. No butter? No eggs? How in the world is this banana bread going to come together and stay moist?!?
One of my chef-instructors at the CIA, Chef Thomas Kief once told our class that “In order to survive in the restaurant business these days, there is absolutely no excuse not to be well-read.” At the time I was surrounded by culinary students, books, websites, an entire campus dedicated to food, so those words did not mean much. Upon graduation however, I found it difficult to keep my finger on the pulse as I was no longer immersed in the food world. Enter my old love of books – just like Reading Rainbow says – you can go anywhere.
Most of the books I found at the time focused on certain brand name product substitutions; things like vegan sour cream, vegan cream cheese, and so on. I never took to this theory, as I did not like buying in a product that had been processed elsewhere to serve to someone who might be eating vegan for health reasons. I wanted to cook and bake for everyone the same way we always have at Glenora, from farm to plate, raw product to finished, and with care at each phase. Oh, and just to add to the challenge, I wanted to keep all of my vegan items gluten-free, just in case I had a customer with multiple needs.
I would love to write next that one day I found a book and in it the answers I had been searching for; quest complete. In truth, it took a year to really come together for me. A year of reading endless blogs, books, articles; of chatting up other chefs on the same path; and a year of trial and error until it clicked.
Today, I am proud to tell you that when you see vegan cheese, such as brie on our menu, we made that from start to finish. We sprouted the quinoa, fermented the rejuvelac, soaked the cashews, fermented the mixture, set it with coconut oil and agar, cooked it to temperature, and finished it with a rub down of salt. Start to finish, this cheese takes about seven days to create. The same patience, time, and yes…even a little love go for any of our menu items.
Rather than give you the gruesome details of my vegan-education, I have summed up my three biggest “A-Ha!” moments in hopes that it will help other cooks and bakers out there.
1. Think PHYSICS, and then defy them. For example, when you see a recipe that calls for yogurt, you may not think of a block of silken tofu, but bring a blender to the mix and it’s a perfect stand-in. Another example, the best replacement I have found for dairy in a caramel sauce is pureed bananas. The properties of the banana in this usage act very similarly to heavy cream, though that thought might not occur when you hold a banana and a quart of cream side-by-side.
2. Think CHEMISTRY, but not the scary kind. Coconut oil is solid at room temperature, due to the high level of saturated fat. When you need to give body to a dish, where another cook might add butter, use coconut oil. Vegan cheesecake would not have the proper texture or body without coconut oil.
Another example, baking soda (NaCO2) is a base. When bases react with heat, browning in the form of the Malliard reaction occurs. Think about the exterior of a soft pretzel, that delicious brown crust forms because of a base reacting with heat. So, when you wish to caramelize a cauliflower steak, seasoning the exterior with a touch of baking soda will give you color and flavor that can’t be beat by butter!
3. Think BALANCE: This rule applies to all composed plates, vegan or not. On every plate you should find a balance of textures, from crisp to soft, chewy to crunchy. Also, and most importantly in my book, in order for the dish to be truly satisfying it must have a balance of sweetness and acidity, umami-richness and savory “funk”, saltiness, spice, and a touch of bitterness. This is truly a Chinese way of thinking, to come full circle with flavor always and it is vital in vegan preparation of food.
Since books played a huge part, here are a few that helped shape my way of thinking:
“On Food & Cooking” by Harold McGee
“Artisan Vegan Cheese” by Miyoko Schinne
“The Secretes of Baking” by Sherry Yard
“Isa Does It” and “Veganomicon” by Isa Chandra Moskowitz
“Ideas in Food” by Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot
As customers and trends change, as we discover more about the food we put into our bellies and the seeds we sow, chefs must change as well. I suppose it is a great comfort to know that growth does not stop at our kitchen door…