New Territory

For the first time in what seems like eons, I am up and drinking coffee in the morning. It is currently 0700, but I’ve been up for at least an hour. My shift today starts at noon, so I did myself the favor of taking a sleeping pill early and getting rest that coincides with my circadian rhythm. I slept deeply, without dreaming, and as a result, I am not in as much pain as I am when I stumble into bed at 0300 and hope for the best. I actually made a whole pot of coffee yesterday and drank one cup hot, then turned off the heat so I could drink the rest this morning over ice. It is delicious, even black. I do love coffee with cream, but I’ve been so busy I haven’t been to the grocery store in two weeks.

They feed me at work, so it hasn’t been a problem… but I do miss all the delicious plant-based cooking I’ve been doing lately. One cannot live on pub food alone. It’s time to go to Whole Foods and restock… cheaper now that I get a discount for being an Amazon Prime member.

Regular grocery stores don’t generally have all the things I’m looking for, like rich vegan cheese and the veggie dogs that have sustained me for the better part of four years. My favorite toppings are vegan cream cheese and Sriracha. More than eating vegan is my excitement at learning to work with vegan alternatives, and making traditional recipes my own with vegan substitutions. It takes work, but that’s what makes it an exciting part of cooking. I’ve already learned how to create the perfect marinades for meat and seafood, the secret to the perfect bechamel, Hollandaise, etc. (the funny part being no matter how perfect I make Hollandaise, I still don’t like it). Basically, the foundations of French cooking are no longer a mystery. Excitement is stretching my mind in new ways, like mushroom paté and olive oil-based (or cauliflower) crusts for pizza (among other things). Pasta with nutritional yeast and Alfredo sauce made with cashews (plant-based bechamel with nutritional yeast rather than parmesan). Coffee creamer made with coconut fiber milk (Almond is too watery for me). “Pudding” made with coconut milk, Splenda, and chia seeds…. anything that gets me away from the things I’ve already mastered.

For instance, I would like to learn how to make vegan mayonnaise at home, because I could make regular mayonnaise with my eyes closed. For those not in the know, here’s the recipe:

Take three egg yolks and a tablespoon of vinegar and beat them with a whisk or put it in the blender (cheating). What you’re looking for is the acid turning the beaten egg yolks white, which in French cooking is called the sabayon stage. Slowly add oil (slowly)… too much at one time will make the sauce break. Switch out the oil for butter and that’s Hollandaise, as long as you use lemon juice for the acid. From here, when your mayonnaise is complete, it’s ready for sandwiches. Add ingredients like ketchup and pickles and you have Thousand Island dressing. Basically, the foundation for all cream salad dressings is the homemade mayonnaise I just described. White vinegar makes mayonnaise taste more like Miracle Whip,™ for all my American Southerners out there. Using olive oil makes your mayonnaise lower in saturated fat. It tastes a little different, but in a good way.

Because I don’t like Hollandaise, I’m much more fond of Bearnaise, which means sautéing shallots and tarragon in a bit of salt, oil and white wine to add to the Hollandaise you’ve already created. The reason I just can’t with Hollandaise is too many brunch shifts washing an egg pan with lemon dish soap, which smells frighteningly similar in a vomit-inducing kind of way. Plus, as Anthony Bourdain once said, any cook’s fall from grace will still land you a brunch gig, so Hollandaise is the smell of failure. That being said, a cook who can make mayonnaise and Hollandaise by hand with a whisk is no slouch in the kitchen. I can even tell when it’s perfect without tasting it. The secret is treating the mother sauce like driving a stick-shift car, using the analogy of egg yolks as the clutch and oil as the accelerator. Too much oil, add an egg yolk. Too much egg yolk, add some oil.

Touch and go, touch and go.

After a while, you won’t need this analogy. You can just tell by looking what it takes to be successful. The same touch-and-go can also be extrapolated to bechamel, the foundation of both Alfredo and macaroni and cheese. You start with a roux, which is adding flour to fat and stirring until incorporated, then adding milk or cream and letting the heat rise until it reaches the “coat a spoon” stage. Then, take it off the heat and add your cheese. It beats the hell out of store-bought.

Rarely do I create marinades for beef. I just use a dry rub of salt, pepper, and garlic powder. If the meat is not marbled with fat, I add olive oil. If it is, the fat in the meat is enough to let it confit, French for “cooks in its own fat.” The advantage to using a marinade with vinegar is that if you are using a tough cut of meat, the vinegar will break down the proteins so it turns out tender. I suggest red wine vinegar or lemon juice for this… lime if you’re making fajitas.

Actually, with fajitas, I start with a fresh lime margarita marinade, tequila and all. Then I add chili powder, cumin, paprika, and a tiny bit of cayenne pepper.

For vegans, you can marinade hard pack tofu and grill it, but tofu takes twice as long in the marinade as meat protein. In either case, it helps to have a Food Saver to get all the air out. Meat, especially, will marinade in half the time (still better to leave it overnight). ZipLoc bags will do in a pinch, just make sure to let all the air out of those, too.

And speaking of Food Savers, they’re wonderful for cheeses, because air is their natural enemy. Same for guacamole, although you can stave off the brown by putting cling film directly on top of it rather than just sealing the container.

Another great tip I’ve learned is that acid neutralizes salt, so if you’ve over-salted something, squeeze a lemon on top (if it will enhance the recipe, like a white clam sauce). A great salsa will do the same thing, as well as adding heat for those who like that sort of thing. I take an acid reducer, partially to neutralize tomatoes, alcohol, and coffee, but mostly so I can add enough heat to unstop my nose without burning off my culito (little ass, in Spanish). Habanero and any kind of fruit salsa is my favorite. Peaches or pineapples are a great place to start. You can also add fat with a bit of diced avocado, another way to stave off gastrointestinal distress.

Peppers are rated by heat using what’s called the Scoville scale, and Scoville units refer to the amount of sugar water it takes to kill the burn. Therefore, fruit salsas are the best way to support enormous amounts of heat, and why fruit sodas are popular in regions where the food is incredibly spicy. Cream sauces with lots of heat work as well, because the more the fat, the more the sauce can handle large amounts of cayenne, red pepper flakes, etc…. Probably why red pepper flakes are so popular on pizza (just get extra cheese- an invaluable tip from me to you).

So, as you can see, I know what I’m talking about when it comes to what I’ve already learned. Becoming vegan (at least at home, where no one has to accommodate me) is the next step in boldly going where I’ve never been before. It’s the new territory in which lots of chefs/cooks are afraid to venture. My excitement exceeds my trepidation, because if you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always got.

I’m just trying to stave off boredom in my own kitchen, and so far, it’s working out nicely. However, this post is not about vegan evangelism, just my own journey. If it speaks to you as well, all the better. You don’t have to change your whole life to enjoy a plant-based meal once in a while. You’ll probably enjoy it for what it is- a break from the monotony of cooking the same things ad nauseam.

I would say that I’m only trying to strain my brain, but my smartass chef friends would say I needed a chinois for that. They’re just so funny…. and unlike me, generally predictable…. exactly the rut in which I’m trying to escape.

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