(the demo sampler plate--
counterclockwise from left: feta, coconut black pepper, walnut cheddar, nacho, fermented)
One of my Christmas gifts was a giftcard to a fabulous restaurant I'd long admired but hadn't been able to try, SunCafe Organics in Studio City. I used the credit not only to visit the restaurant, but to take a class there this weekend! Chef/Partner Ron Russell teaches vegan cooking classes with a different themed menu each Saturday morning. Yesterday, he demonstrated five different vegan "cheeses," including feta, a fermented cashew cheese, walnut cheddar, nacho cheese, and coconut black pepper. Our handout included a sixth recipe for a sundried tomato ricotta that we can experiment with at home.
Mise-en-place: the Chef's prep for the demo
While the class was a demonstration model, rather than hands-on, Chef Ron's recipes were easy to follow. The setting made it easy to see each step, and Chef did a great job of lecturing about his reasons for his preferences as well as his step-by-step instructions. The tasting at the end of the class was sublime. Each cheese has its own distinct personality which makes it easy to tell them apart both visually and by taste.
We spent a few minutes discussing general nutrition, with Chef highly recommending the ideas of Dr. Michael Greger of the website Nutrition Facts. We talked about high speed blenders, such as a Vitamix, versus a food processor, and the advantages to each.
As we got onto the cooking demo portion, Chef suggested soaking seeds at room temperature for at least six hours, and nuts for twelve hours, to remove the enzyme inhibitors which prevent germination until the warmth and moisture of spring. This affects the flavor and nutrient value of the food.
(discussing nutritional yeast)
Chef taught a bit about nutritional yeast, an ingredient in many of the recipes. Nutritional yeast is an inactive yeast grown on molasses and then harvested, washed, and dried. Because it’s inactive, it doesn’t froth or grow like baking yeast does so it has no leavening ability. It comes as a powder or a flake, and has a cheesy flavor. Brewer's yeast is a bitter tasting by-product of beer making. The distinct flavors of each mean that the the two cannot be used interchangeable.
(allowing us to smell the fermented cashew cheese)
Because our class was only an hour and a half, the cheeses were not dried or formed into a hard cheese in any way - they pretty much all had the same basic consistency much like a thick hummus. We discussed the process of using a food dehydrator or molds for a more dense cheese, but for restaurant purposes most of the recipes are used as a thick "spread" consistency in sandwiches, wraps, on flatbread, and such. For sauces used for pasta, etc., the consistency can easily be thinned with a bit more liquid.
(demonstrating the consistency of the finished walnut cheddar)
One of the more interesting recipes was a fermented cheese that utilizes kombucha as the liquid rather than water. Kombucha is a fermented probiotic tea that is naturally lightly carbonated, and Chef mentioned how this can affect the blending process. He stopped the blender an extra time or two, shaking the carafe to make sure all the air bubbles were coming to the surface and not impeding the blade surface coming into contact with the ingredients. Because this cheese does require time to ferment, our sample tasting batch had been made the night before.
(adding ingredients for the nacho cheese)
Of the five demonstrated recipes, the nacho cheese was the most heavily spiced. Interestingly, it is based on sunflower seeds. Chef pointed out that these are much more economical, at a couple of bucks a pound for organic, versus cashews, at six to seven dollars per pound for organic. And nutritionally the seed may have more value than a nut.
We discussed the value of various sugars, both whole and extracted. The high spice level of the nacho cheese calls for a bit of sweetness to balance out the flavor, hence the agave in the recipe.
(plating the nacho cheese)
The nacho cheese was served in a taco shell of romaine lettuce. The cheese spread onto the wide surface made a lovely presentation in the little leaf boat.
(the finished coconut black pepper cream cheese)
The last type of cheese demonstrated was probably the most unusual. This had coconut meat as a base, and was flavored with black pepper and thyme. The taste was just as mild as the others. Chef pointed out that other herbs, such as dill, chive, or sage, could easily be substituted in place of the thyme.
(the sampler plate)
While the finished cheeses were being plated for us to sample, health coach and raw chef Steve Factor took the stage and gave a general talk about eating healthfully in abundance to restore health and balance in the body. His joy and self confidence re-energized me for my coaching practice, and the timing couldn't have been better, as I just completed my tenth speech in Toastmasters, qualifying for my first Toastmasters award. It's time to begin formulating my own health presentations. I'm so happy to have a few more recipes in my arsenal.
All recipes by Ron Russell