December 15, 2009 / 8:43 PM / 8 years ago

Chef Ronnen spreads the virtues of vegan cuisine

<p>Chef Tal Ronnen is pictured in this undated handout photo. Handout/Larry Goldstein/Reuters</p>

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Chef Tal Ronnen plays up the virtues of meatless, dairy-free eating and busts the misconception of vegan cuisine in his book, "The Conscious Cook."

The 34-year-old, who was born in Israel and grew in New York, said vegan dishes do not have to be bland. They can be delicious and satisfying when prepared properly.

Ronnen has cooked for celebrities including Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres.

This former meat-eater, who has been a vegan for a dozen years, recently spoke to Reuters about healthy eating and what distinguishes his vegan cooking from others:

Q: Define vegan cuisine.

A: "Vegan food or vegan diet basically means you can eat anything in the world except for animal products, and you are left with so much that adds all the beautiful color on the plate, and all the healthy vegetables and the grains, mushrooms and the dense-protein, meat alternatives. You are left with what traditional cultures eat."

Q: Why did you decide to become a vegan chef?

A: "I became a vegan chef out of the sheer frustration from eating at restaurants and not having great experiences. I was growing up with a family that loved food, and I wanted to learn how to cook. I had already become a vegetarian at a young age. I wanted to create dishes of my youth - rich, hearty dishes restaurants weren't doing."

Q: What sets your vegan cooking apart from others?

A: "The focus is to create textures and flavors that will satisfy meat-eaters as well as vegetarians. A lot of people are trying to eat healthier. Even if they are not vegetarian, eating vegetarian a couple of times a week can benefit their health. It certainly benefits the environment. A lot of the dishes in the book are created from French cooking techniques and by applying them to plant-based options."

Q: So you have to substitute eggs and dairy often required in classical French cooking?

A: "I've adapted what I learned with traditional meat-based sauces and dishes. What is wonderful is the challenge to convert them into healthier and more contemporary ways of eating. What I have been able to do is to look at textures, flavors and colors. A lot it is also extending the visual experience."

Q: Any tips to switch a vegetarian or vegan diet?

A: "Jumping into anything without really knowing how to do it properly is never a good idea. Easing into something like a vegetarian diet, doing it a few times a week certainly helps with that transition. A lot of the substitute foods that are available like soy yogurt and mayonnaise and butter replacements certainly help with the transition. It's definitely easier to do now than 10 to 15 years ago. The key is to do it at a pace that works for you."

Q: You've cooked for celebrities who have the means to stick to a vegan diet. Can a regular working family afford it?

A: "When you look at a grocery bill, the most expensive part is usually meat. Vegetables are never going to be as expensive as meat. Part of the responsibility is not just the companies that sell the food, it's up to consumers to make better food choices. The more that people demand better and organic food. The more economically viable it will be in the future."

RECIPE

Twice-baked fingerling potatoes with crisped dulse

(Makes 12 servings. Prep time: 45 minutes)

12 fingerling potatoes, cleaned and dried

2 teaspoons prepared horseradish

1 tablespoon vegan mayonnaise

2 tablespoons regular cashew cream

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon Earth Balance (a butter substitute)

Paprika

2 tablespoons minced fresh chives

crisped dulse (see below)

1 teaspoon canola oil

1 to 2 small pieces of dulse

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degree Fahrenheit. Place the potatoes on a baking sheet coated with spray oil and bake for 20 minutes, or until tender. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, stir together the horseradish, mayonnaise, cashew cream, and salt and pepper to taste.

2. Cut the cooked potatoes in half lengthwise. Being careful not to burn your fingers, scoop the pulp from each potato with a teaspoon, leaving a thin shell. Place the potato pulp in the bowl with the horseradish mixture and the Earth Balance. Mash together, then fill each potato half with the mixture, mounding slightly. Put the potato halves filling side up on the baking sheet.

3. Sprinkle the potatoes with paprika, return to the oven, and bake for 10 more minutes. Garnish with the chives and crisped Dulse.

NOTE: To make crisped dulse: Heat the oil in a small nonstick pan over medium heat. Add the dulse and cook, turning once or twice, until crisp, 1 to 2 minutes. Watch closely so that it doesn't burn. Remove the dulse to paper towels, let cool, then break into small pieces.

Reporting by Richard Leong; Editing by Eric Walsh

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