In October I wrote about the book launch party for The Conscious Cook, and how a few of my fellow party attendees asked me to prepare a vegan dinner party for them. Panic set in. I’d never cooked anything vegan, the recipes in the book looked quite complicated, and the dinner guests would be people that the author himself had cooked for! When you have a classically trained, internationally celebrated chef like Tal Ronnen preparing the food it is practically guaranteed to be exquisite, but what happens when a non-classically trained novice to the cuisine tries her hand at it? That was how The Conscious Cook Challenge was born. In the following weeks I started working my way through the recipes in the book, learning his techniques, and sharing the scrumptious meals with my delighted “guinea pig” friends.
Yes, even a self-taught cook can master these sumptuous recipes. They do require stocking a few staples you may not already have, a search for ingredients spanning more than just one store or farmers market when you don’t have access to a restaurant supply company, and some extra forethought and prep time in the kitchen, but the tantalizing recipes are well worth the effort.
Julie Anne Rhodes with Chef Tal Ronnen
At great risk of sounding like the president of his west coast fan club, I did have to pinch myself yesterday when I was invited to sit amongst the staff and students of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts watching, learning, and even cooking (well making tortellini) with Tal himself. Now, I’ve grown up surrounded by luminaries of the fashion, sports, art, and music worlds… even royalty… but yesterday was one of only two occasions I actually felt completely awe-struck (the other was when Andy Warhol invited Carly Simon to my 25th birthday party). I probably blushed as I re-introduced myself to him. You see… this man reignited my passion for cooking and changed my entire approach to eating. I admire him greatly for making it his mission to educate other chefs on how to offer infinitely more desirable vegan or vegetarian choices on their menus, and hope I can help translate some of this for the home cook to master too.
Chef Tal Ronnen at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts
Let me start by reiterating that I am still an omnivore, and I promise more animal based recipes for all of you who also still want to eat poultry, meat, and seafood. However let me challenge YOU to try replacing just one or two meals a week with animal free or at least vegetarian ones as Tal Ronnen did for me with his book The Conscious Cook. You will be doing yourself and the environment a great favor. Replacing just a couple meals a week is enough to begin reversing the damaging effects of diseases like diabetes, some cancers, and heart disease that our current western based diet promotes (read Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, or watch Food Inc. for more insight about the effects of our food industry on our health and the environment).
What made The Conscious Cook a life-changer for me is that Tal’s approach is much more similar to how I’m already accustomed to eating. Gone are the plates filled with boring brown rice, steamed vegetables, hummus, and sprouts for anyone wanting a vegetarian meal. They’ve been replaced with hearty meals centered around a protein.
Tal pointed out in his lecture yesterday (citing Michael Pollan’s work) that ours is one of the few cultures that doesn’t put the onus of that protein focus on plant based proteins. In India they use lentils, South America quinoa (an ancient grain high in protein), in Mexico black beans play a major role in diet, Indonesia uses tempeh (a form or fermented soy beans), and throughout most of the Far East tofu (curd from soy milk) is considered the mainstay of protein in their diets. Poultry, meat, and seafood may play a role as well, but more as an accent to the meal rather than the main attraction. When you look at the rates of diabetes, cancer, and heart disease in those areas of the world… it makes a strong argument for integrating more plant based proteins into our diet. Having said that, I also believe in balance over extreme measures. There are studies that show too much soy for people that are not of Asian decent (whose bodies have adapted to digesting soy over generations) might cause problems too, so I strongly believe moderation and diversity is key in our quest for a healthier diet.
Learning side by side with Chef Tal Ronnen
I want to continue The Conscious Cook Challenge periodically over the next few months to share my experiences from yesterday, and to explore and delve deeper into all the options available to us today. I hope to inspire discussions both here and on the ‘Jewels from The Roving Stove’ facebook page on what we are learning along the way and share our favorite vegetarian and vegan recipes… that means YOUR recipes too! Just as Tal spends enormous time and effort teaching restaurant chefs and the future chefs of tomorrow to incorporate some vegetarian and vegan meals into their menus… I want us home cooks to explore all the possibilities for our own repertoires, and how we might adapt some of our existing recipes to a plant based approach… for at least one or two meals a week. One of you lucky participants might even win a signed copy of The Conscious Cook!