⇒ Author Linda Long visits the Triangle March 8-11, 2008
My first friend who was a vegan spent 20 minutes each morning assembling parcels of acceptable food. She'd finally venture out, a stranger in a strange land, carting around nutrients like a peasant on a Siberian train. Stashed in her car, shoved in a pocket: Here was all the sustenance she'd need for the day—minus meat, fish, dairy, eggs and anything derived thereof.
My second friend who was a vegan followed a regimen that permitted only strict daily measurements, like those you'd feed a sickly deer: one tablespoon flaxseed; one cup lentils; one cup brown rice; two small handfuls nuts; two teaspoons oil; and three cups vegetables—one starchy, two not.
I tried veganism too, for three weeks. The vegan life seemed to me ascetic, exhausting and self-flagellating; it required a level of deliberation and consciousness that appeared incompatible with urgent hunger. I could not sustain such a way of life because it would not sustain me.
Linda Long has proved my assumptions wrong. A food writer and stylist in New York, Long lives the good life, culinarily speaking. She goes on frequent photo shoots, travels extensively and dines out expensively. She is a woman who calls Jean-Georges "Jean-Georges."
Long is immersed in the food industry, but for more than three decades, she has eaten only vegan, patching together menu items to make a full meal, or going to raw or vegan specialty restaurants. Two years ago, she started wondering: What would happen if master chefs at mainstream, starred restaurants, who typically rely on artisanal cheeses, European butter, meat fats and eggs to enrich their recipes, were asked to make three-course gourmet vegan menus?
For her new cookbook, Great Chefs Cook Vegan, Long [read our interview] traveled across the United States visiting 25 marquee chefs (including Jason Cunningham, of Durham's Washington Duke Inn, and Phil Evans, formerly of Cary's Herons) for their best recipes, boldly shorn of all animal products. It's the stuck-on-a-desert-island equivalent of cooking: How to make a crème brulee (or risotto, or silky creamy soup) without the very ingredients that typically define the dish?
Great Chefs Cook Vegan may be labeled a cookbook, but it can double as eye candy for your table. Long takes luminous photos of each finished dish, with excellent step-by-step chef's notes on how to plate each item, which is key to making your course appear as gourmet as it tastes.
The book reveals a breadth of ingredients, reaching across the globe for vegan substitutes, like using agar-agar (derived from seaweed) rather than gelatin (derived from skin and bones) to thicken panna cotta, or pureeing almond milk with coconut meat to replace heavy cream in gelato. Most of the substitutions will be obvious to the committed vegan, but newcomers may need to do occasional research.
Superstar chefs like Daniel Boulud, John Besh and Dan Barber can't always be mindful of home cooks' realities; naturally, some of the recipes are unapologetically, if elegantly, complex. Many recipes have multiple parts that get assembled just before serving, each requiring its own pot, pan, knife and timing. Ingredients can be elusive, such as the white beet sugar that stumped two Whole Foods managers; expensive, such as the $29 shaved truffle to top a risotto; or labor-intensive, such as the three-hour, 12-item vegetable stock which itself was only the first ingredient for soup.
Does it taste good? Do the recipes translate in real life? Is it possible to use this book for a formal, all-vegan dinner? We investigated all that and more. Here's what America's top chefs would prepare, if they were you.
A few weeks ago, one unusually balmy February night, the Independent invited over a group of tasters and conducted a single-blind observational study of six recipes from Great Chefs Cook Vegan.
The 12 tasters were selected from across the Triangle and across the eating spectrum: former vegans, current vegetarians, omnivores and a couple hell-yeah-I-eat-meats. Two had worked in gourmet restaurants; one is a baker. About half would be self-described "foodies"—and the rest would mock the word "foodie."
The Independent had deputized my midsize kitchen to serve as an official test site, and I cooked for three days straight. The entire meal was vegan, down to the Earth Balance buttery spread, and no one knew it except for the cook (me), the host (my husband), the server and the photographer.
I am not a professional cook. I enjoy it, and experiment often for family and friends. I have a well-stocked kitchen, but I don't keep around specialty items like truffle oil or sucanat (though I will now). The intent was not to have each dish reproduced as if by Thomas Keller, but by a home cook with a general curiosity in gourmet cuisine, like most who would be reading this article or browsing this cookbook.
At the beginning of the meal, the tasters were given report cards to fill out as they ate. When the final plate of the final course had been served, we announced the truth: The meal had been entirely vegan—and for the carnivores, we explained exactly what that meant. The surprise was equal across the room; though most had noticed the dishes were meat-free, not one person thought the meal was free of butter, cheese, cream and eggs.
Our tasters were asked to rate each course from 1 to 5 on appearance, taste, wine pairing and overall impression, with five being the highest.
Grilled King Oyster Mushrooms and Avocado Carpaccio with Charred Jalapeño Oil
Overall score: 3.9
Comments: "Like the contrast in colors"; "Love the salty and thyme flavors"; "Good combination of the slightly sweet avocado and the saltiness of the mushrooms"; "I'd order this in a restaurant. And I want the recipe."
Cook's notes: Whole Foods didn't have the larger king oyster mushrooms; substituted a combination of portobello and regular oyster mushrooms. Jalapeño oil was not spicy enough; consider doubling the jalapeño or using a hotter pepper.
Butternut Squash Soup with Radish, Granny Smith Apple and Fragrant Herb Oil
Overall score: 4.1
Comments: "I was very surprised. So many soups use cream"; "Definitely want the recipe"; "Tasty and appealing—excellent"; "The soup was the definite winner."
Cook's notes: We did a quick taste test of Jason Cunningham's vegetable stock versus two grocery brands. It's no contest: The homemade stock is leagues better, with a complexity brought about by fennel, leeks, bay leaves, wine and thyme. It is worth the extra effort. Fragrant herb oil could have been more flavorful; perhaps cut the oil by a third to increase proportion of herbs.
Risotto with Cauliflower and Black Truffle Gremoulata
Overall score: 2.6
Comments: "The risotto was a little bland. The croutons/ breadcrumbs were good—wish that flavor was more prevalent in the risotto"; "Nothing really special"; "Needs cheese!"; "Not my favorite"; "Bland, relies heavily on the flavors of the top elements [the gremoulata] to provide flavor"; "Not a thrilling dish, very ordinary."
Cook's notes: Recipe allows substituting portobellos for truffle shavings in the gremoulata topping; since 12 servings would have required approximately $60 in truffles, we used portobellos with a good drizzle of truffle oil. Recipe relies on cauliflower puree to fill out the risotto in lieu of parmesan and butter: Going by the tasters' comments, this may be one instance in which a vegan dish is simply inferior to its vegetarian counterpart.
Soy Milk Panna Cotta with Crushed Blackberries and Vanilla Muscat Sauce
Overall score: 3.9
Comments: "Pretty, loved the berry display. Despite not setting up, still yummy and perfect combo"; "Tasted like dairy-based cream"; "Very nice dish. Big fan of fruit with dessert"; "Quite lovely, good taste but reminds me a lot of a soy yogurt that I used to eat and soured on"; "Creamy, wonderful"; "Not very sweet, which was nice."
Cook's notes: Be sure to find agar-agar powder for this recipe. It also comes in tiny flakes (that's what Whole Foods carries) which do not dissolve properly; with flakes, the panna cotta will not fully set, requiring it to be served in the ramekin rather than released into the sweet "soup" of vanilla Muscat.
Warm Venezuelan Chocolate Cake with Merlot-Infused Cherries, Bittersweet Chocolate Sauce and Chocolate-Coconut Gelato
Overall score: 4.4
Comments: "Pairing of flavors was excellent"; "Rich and delicious"; "Very good blend of flavor with the sour cherries"; "Flaky and delicious"; "This was fantastic."
Cook's notes: Made the gelato two days ahead, then completely forgot to serve it! Could not find Thai coconut, only Caribbean; successfully substituted Vita Coco coconut water paired with re-hydrated unsweetened organic coconut flakes. In the cake, cut the vinegar from 2 tablespoons to 1.5 tablespoons; it was too prominent in a first batch. Also, use a simple olive oil, not too fruity.
After two hours of eating, it was time for the Folger's Crystals moment. Once the full vegan truth was revealed, here's what the tasters had to say about the meal in general:
"I loved that the meal was not super heavy/ rich."
"Overall, I'm impressed by the food considering it's 100 percent vegan."
"Didn't miss the meat or dairy, quite satisfying."
"I recognized that the meal was vegetarian but never thought it was vegan. I did think that there could be more flavor (spices, seasonings) in general. I did not feel deceived or disappointed to learn it was vegan. I have eaten vegan meals before, and they were not as good as this food."
"I know vegan food can be great, but honestly I would have expected food this good to be vegetarian."
"Incredible ... but I miss the taste of murder."
Great Chefs Cook Vegan should put a big gold stamp on the cover: Not Just for Vegans Anymore. For an omnivore like me, cooking outside my comfort zone was invigorating. From only five recipes, I learned a wealth of information to apply to future meals, most of all that butter isn't always a holy grail. Can you make soup creamy by pureeing cooked vegetables in a blender? Definitely—and with only one tablespoon of oil. Can you make chocolate cake with vinegar, olive oil and brewed coffee? Shockingly, yes. Can you thinly slice an avocado, warm it between grilled mushrooms, and approximate the umami mouth-feel of raw-beef carpaccio? Well, almost.
Think of it like a chemistry experiment. Then go eat your research.