Ask Adrian

We love how you write about food and we love how you share your special recipes. You obviously have good taste. But how about us vegans? How about throwing some ideas our way?

I can see how you might feel starved for recipes and information. We are no longer a meat-and-potatoes society, but we are so eclectic that it's hard for those adhering to strict food guidelines not to feel left out.

For a bit of history: The term "vegetarian" came into common use with the formation of the Vegetarian Society in England, circa 1847, although the practice of meatless eating dates further back, be it for religious, ethical and/or economic reasons. By 1944 some vegetarians were calling for stricter guidelines related to the ethics of consuming dairy products. Donald Watson, a non-dairy -eating vegetarian, gathered six others who shared his philosophy, and they decided to call themselves "vegans" to set themselves apart from their milk-chugging brothers and sisters – and a subculture was born.

I got to thinking more about totally animal-free diets when I invited some friends over for dinner recently, only to find out that they were vegan. I was forced to eschew my usual butter-and-cream cookery (sometimes lard-laden, too) and remembered a hippie aunt who made a mean cashew loaf. But I wanted something more chic and reflective of my tastes, so I decided to create my own recipes.

When cooking a vegan meal, here are three things I found useful to keep in mind.

1) Understand "umami," the word that represents, quite simply, the fifth flavor, as in sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. It's the grounding essence that meat often lends to a flavor profile, but mushrooms, nuts and beans can also evoke umami.

2) No fakin' it. I can't tell you how many times I've been out to eat with a veggie friend who jams something in my face and says, "Taste this! It's just like meat!" Sorry, but soy protein isolate, texturized gluten and liquid smoke taste nothing like meat. You're better off aiming to make something that tastes good, rather than something that tastes like meat.

3) Invest in coconut oil. Margarine is terrible. It's one of the most highly processed and industrialized foods out there and a reason that I hardly ever eat vegan baked goods. Not to mention it tastes bad. I have found coconut oil to be a far superior butter substitute.

Mushroom Consommé With Truffled Mousse
(Adapted from Aquavit cookbook)

For the mousse:

  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil
  • 1 minced shallot
  • 1 pound minced fresh wild mushrooms
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • truffle oil to taste

For the broth:

  • 6 cups water
  • 1 1/2 cups Sauvignon Blanc
  • 2 cups dried shiitake mushrooms
  • 1 cup other dry mixed mushrooms
  • (morels, porcini and cèpes work great)
  • 2 sheets kombu (seaweed; available at health-food or Asian markets)
  • 4 garlic cloves, lightly crushed
  • 2 shallots, finely chopped
  • 4 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 3/4 cup ruby port
  • 2 tablespoons Earl Grey tea leaves
  • salt and pepper to taste

You will need at least six small molds; I use No. 60 plain barquettes (purchased at Williams-Sonoma) because I like the leaf shape, but you can go with whatever suits you. If you don't have anything to mold the mousse in, just roll the mixture into small spherical shapes before refrigerating. It will look just as pretty. Lightly oil molds so that the mousse doesn't stick.

To make the mousse, simply heat the oil in a medium saucepan and add the shallot and mixed mushrooms. The mushrooms will release a lot of water. Add salt and pepper to taste and keep stirring until the water evaporates and the mushrooms are dry and sticky enough to clump together. Remove from heat and spoon into oiled molds. Refrigerate until serving. (The truffle oil will be added before serving.)

Meanwhile, heat the water, white wine, mushrooms, kombu, garlic, shallots and thyme in a medium saucepan. Let it simmer for about 20 minutes until it becomes fragrant. Add the port and tea leaves and let simmer an additional five minutes (no more, or the tea will release too much tannin). Strain through a fine mesh strainer, reserving the liquid (you can compost the solids). Return the liquid to the saucepan and season with salt and pepper to taste.

When serving, unmold each mousse into the middle of a bowl and lightly drizzle with truffle oil. For an artistic presentation, garnish each with a thyme sprig. Pour the broth over the mousse directly at the table so each guest gets a waft of mushroom aroma and can watch the mousse drift apart in the bowls of hot liquid.

Pistachio Chutney on Saffron Risotto Cakes
(Inspired by a recipe in Moro: The Cookbook)

For the risotto cakes:

  • 5 cups water
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 onion, chopped very fine
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 cups Arborio rice
  • 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
  • salt and pepper to taste

For the chutney:

  • 2 1/2 cups shelled pistachios
  • 3 small garlic cloves, minced
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 4 teaspoons orange blossom water (available at Indian spice markets)
  • 3/4 cup chopped parsley
  • 2 tablespoons chopped mint
  • salt and pepper to taste

Make the risotto at least three hours ahead of serving so it has time to set.

Heat five cups of water and leave it at a gentle simmer. In a separate saucepan, heat the olive oil. Add the onion and garlic and stir until translucent. Add the rice and stir to coat thoroughly with the oil. Add the saffron threads, and stir a few more times, so they're well distributed. Add a ladle of simmering water and keep stirring. Stir. Stir. Stir. When the water starts to absorb and the bottom of the pan dries out, add another ladle of water and stir. You will continue this method until the rice is cooked and the starch has released, about 20 minutes. When it has reached a desired consistency, pour the risotto into a 9-by-11-inch brownie pan lined with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until cool.

Meanwhile, pulse the pistachios in a food processor until roughly chopped. Remove to a bowl and stir in remaining ingredients. If it's too dry, add a couple of tablespoons of water to loosen. Let the flavors infuse for at least 30 minutes.

When ready to serve, remove the risotto from the refrigerator and cut into rounds with a cookie cutter or rim of a glass. Heat in a 350-degree oven for seven minutes.

Spoon the pistachio chutney over the top and serve.

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