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CAM00365Despite setting my ideal target of 2 posts per week it is getting trying keeping up with blogging especially these updates about the vegan culinary course since I tend to have so much to say about them! Looks like I’ll have to work out a regular routine as there’s been quite a lot of things going on that I’d love to blog about such as my RAW workplace lunches.

Anyway, this session was all about using the soy products – tofu and tempeh in re-creating standard Western dishes like meatballs, scrambled eggs as well as creamy salad dressings. Apart from the use of these unconventional replacements in normally meat containing items, Chef also introduced a fairly atypical ingredient probably only health foodies or vegan/vegetarians would know of in adding an extra savory note to our tofu scramble (which I will elaborate on later) – Nutritional yeast!

I felt this lesson was important in general to the concept of vegan cooking as these recipes make use of healthful ingredients rather than unhealthy processed soy, gluten products and MSG which vegetarian establishments have tended to overabuse in imitating the taste and texture of meat products.

What we’ve learnt really proves that there IS such a thing as healthy, tasty, vegan food that doesn’t deprive one of the pleasures of eating, but instead works to nourish our bodies rather than the commonly held notion that good-tasting food is necessarily high-fat, high-sugar and health-compromising.

Vegan Tempeh Meatballs Pasta
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We began the lesson by first marinating our tempeh. This is an incredibly good-for-you food that is high in protein and iron. Since tempeh is fermented, this minimises the normally high amounts of anti-nutrients contained in unfermented soy (such as tofu, soymilk and cooked soybeans) making it more digestible and health-promoting.

The tempeh is cut into chunks and steeped in an Asian-esque marinate consisting of soy sauce, garlic, ginger, brown rice vinegar and sugar.CAM00297CAM00300

Next, the tempeh is cooked by first frying in a pan. Then, the juices from the marinate are added in which really makes sure all that flavor is absolutely soaked up by the tempeh as it continues to stew away. Once cooked through and cooled, the tempeh is crumbled into a big mixing bowl.

wpid-CAM00340.jpgMeanwhile in a clean pan, some standard chopped vegetables such as onion, celery and carrot are sauteed before adding to the crumbled cooked tempeh to give more flavor and cooked brown rice is added to bind everything together.image

In short, these tempeh meatballs can be considered as such: tempeh acts as a high-protein plant-based substitution for the meat while the brown rice is a nutritious form of starch which allows the tempeh and sauteed veg to hold their shape.

I have to say that shaping these meatballs wasn’t easy and definitely takes some practice. I have actually made my own tempeh meatballs before which consisted solely of tempeh and some miscellaneous veg without a binding agent, which made them rather delicate though managing to hold together with the help of some liquid (and a very gentle hand!). However, the brown rice, due to its naturally courser texture makes it somewhat less sticky than white rice, so requires more effort to properly mash up in order for the meatballs to properly hold their shape.

So the gloves were really essential for squishing and mashing the contents together in order for us to shape the mixture into smooth balls rather than grainy lumpy ones on the verge of falling apart. Definitely a test to separate the experienced meatball makers from the noobs!

Some of the meatballs disintegrated during browning as they weren’t sufficiently squished, oops! Make sure you squish the living daylights out of your tempeh-brown rice meatballs!

imageWhile the shaped tempeh balls were browned, Chef made the marinara sauce for the ‘meatballs’ and pasta. Chef’s rendition is an interesting, flavorsome take on the simple marinara as she added balsamic vinegar giving it a deeper, richer flavor plus a hint of sweetness.imageTo serve, plate a small portion of cooked pasta, place three browned tempeh balls over and pour on some of the marinara. Garnish with fresh basil. This was such a filling dish I had trouble stuffing it all in towards the end. In fact, I didn’t even need the starchy pasta since the meatballs already had both protein and carbs!image

Making this tempeh meatball marinara was certainly a lot of work for one dish due to the different components but we all agreed might be the thing to appeal to the meat-obsessed. The marinated tempeh was definitely meaty in taste and texture wile the brown rice added a hearty and satisfying touch. Served together with the really tasty marinara and voluminous pasta, there could really be nothing better to fill the stomachs of those who erroneously conceive of vegetarian/vegan cuisine as mere veggies.

All in all, I don’t know if I could go through the hassle of making this on an ordinary night, but I’m placing it on my list for satisfying party food for conventional diet friends or for a special dinner menu for a pretty darn special someone.

Tofu Pesto Bruschetta with Cherry Tomatos
imageThe Tofu Pesto was one of my favorites in this lesson which I can’t seem to stop singing praises about. Let me organise a short list for your easy ‘perusal’:

  • Fuss-free and easy to make – just bung everything into a blender!
  • Tofu provides a creamy mouthfeel that is mild, low-fat, homey and pleasing to the palate
  • Basil adds a much needed oomph and also covers any discernible tofu-ey taste yet the amount in this recipe is fairly conservative enough to appeal to picky eaters.
  • No garlic or onion used! So very very apt for Jains and staunch Buddhist vegetarians, not to mention prevents stinky breath and does away with the need for more peeling and chopping. Win-win-win!
  • Easily doubles up as a breakfast spread or a snack dip for corn ships, grissini, raw crackers or whatever your choice is for dippers. Lends easily to pretty much any occasion since this is so light and gentle on the stomach!

Here’s what making this awesomely super-duper delicious dip entails. Bung spinach, basil, firm tofu, your choice of walnuts/cashews/pine nuts and some lemon juice and EVOO into a blender. Blitz away until smooth!imageSince pine nuts are a whopping $7/100g (expensive due to a worldwide shortage apparently), we used a more wallet-friendly combination of walnuts and cashews. Cashews provide a more creamy taste while walnuts tend to have more character in terms of taste. One can also choose to use 100% basil for a stronger pesto-like flavor. But store-bought basil can be quite hefty in price so substituting with spinach will supplement greens while also making this more kid-friendly and those who don’t take to herby flavors. imageCAM00310A sprinkle of black pepper to finish and voila! Chef’s serving suggestion was to spread this on a slice of good quality store bought bread, which was a beautiful yellow pumpkin loaf from Cedele, topped off with some briefly grilled cherry tomatos and more basil plus a sprinkling of black pepper. Wow! Talk about rustic pleasures!image

I notice that my tastebuds are progressively becoming more refined (or should I say unrefined?) as I find myself no longer drawn to fluffy refined flour breads nor pastas or noodles. Instead I look forward to spreading this all over my nutty raw breads and dipping my earthy raw crackers generously into.

This is worth keeping a garden of basil for, trust me 😉

Basic Tofu Scramble
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I must confess that I had my doubts about any sort of tofu scramble. Tofu scramble is kind of like the right of passage recipe into virgin vegan-hood (next to tempeh bacon!) which every and any self-respecting vegan tries to cook at some point in his/her life no matter how disastrous the outcome might actually be and even regardless of whether he/she actually liked scrambled egg to begin with!

So needless to say, I’d already made some attempts in my early vegan days which fell into the not so successful, not worth repeating end of the spectrum. The recipes I’d turned to for making tofu scramble then hadn’t impressed me with their reliance on curry and spicy seasonings while some had elaborate lists of ingredients which proved too finicky for my likes. The ultimate put off for me then was that the tofu always seemed to turn out invariably as an uninteresting sauteed tofu rather than a scramble.

Well I’m glad to to say Chef has helped banished my doubts again once I tasted this tofu scramble. Enter indispensable tofu scramble ingredient number one: Nutritional yeast flakes!CAM00303image

Nutritional yeast (or nooch, as affectionately termed by the vegan community) is kind of like a nutritional supplement with high amounts of amino acids (next time someone asks me where I get my protein from I’m gunna shove a cupful of nooch into his/her mouth), but more importantly and commonly is used for its distinctive nutty and ‘cheesy’ taste that adds a savory accent to normally cheese-containing dishes.

Also commonly sold fortified with an assortment of B vitamins especially the elusive B-12, this can be considered one convenient way for vegans/vegetarians to ensure they keep up with daily nutrient intakes.

One thing to note, as I’ve noted from past experience and some searching over the net is that there are TWO versions of nooch: the flakes and the powder. PLEASE BUY THE FLAKES INSTEAD OF THE POWDER. Since the powdered form results in a more concentrated flavor (powderising results in more particles in the same volume), the slight cheesy flavor actually becomes almost overpoweringly yeasty and tastes more reminiscent of… gasp, Marmite!

So if you don’t want your scramble tasting of yeast, definitely get the flakes as the amount is easier to control.

Making Chef’s tofu scramble went as follows:

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Saute onion and garlic in a pan. Then crumble in very firm tofu (tau kwa) into the pan followed by turmeric (for yellow color), nooch and a few other simple seasonings. Toss around until cooked to your desired brownness and texture and season finally with salt and black pepper. If liked, also saute up some vegetables such as cherry tomatoes and fresh mushrooms (or even spinach, bell peppers and herbs like basil or parsley) for a more substantial and nutritious breakfast scramble.

Tofu scrambled with nooch this way was seriously almost irresistible and I can now better understand how some people’s pets can’t seem to have enough when nooch is sprinkled over their kibbles! Maybe I should experiment on some of the picky eaters in my house…image

Tofu scramble is still tofu however, and never will be a complete replacement for eggs but, hey, who says I wanna eat eggs anyway?! Plus nooch has just ramped by the deliciousness and nutritiousness of breakfast scrambles so why not? This was definitely a dead easy, nutritious start to any day.

Tofu and Tahini Dressing + Sesame-Tofu Dressing

I’m lumping these two dressings together due to their similarity in texture and appearance. The use of silken tofu in the right proportion yields a smooth and creamy texture with a mild taste that is a much better replacement for mayo. While tofu is an actual food, the white anemic-looking store-bought mayo isn’t — hardly containing any real eggs, it is more often a concoction of refined sugar, sodium, and lots of oil for that while emulsified appearance.

I much preferred the taste of the Tofu and Tahini dressing to the Sesame-Tofu one, as I took to flavors of tahini and miso which tasted more suitable, imo, in a creamy sauce. The Sesame-Tofu dressing was more of an Asian twist containing sesame oil, brown rice vinegar, mirin and some miso.

Again, this was a matter of letting the mixie do 80% of the work. And what results is a loose creamy dressing that drips and/or dollops into your bowl. Greedily dip veggie crudites in or mix into cabbage for a truly healthy coleslaw. The tahini one was pretty much full of flavor and a few sticks of generously coated cucumber sticks with a sprinkling of black pepper were more than enough for me.

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Sorry for the anti-climactical pic. I will do this dressing more justice when I take more pics of it the next time I make it!

All in all, I can’t believe that was our last lesson at Onaka. That place has really grown on me! Many thanks to Chef R for imparting her knowledge of vegan Thai, Japanese and Korean cuisine and some know-how of running a vegetarian business. The next lesson will be about something I’ve been dabbling and experimenting in recently… Raw vegan cuisine!

Do stay tune for dishes such as tomato pasta made of zucchini, vegan popiah and raw vegan tuna pate! Yum 🙂

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