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“The Conscious Cook”

March 1, 2010

By Pat Tanner

Tal Ronnen is a chef who started out, as he writes in his cookbook “The Conscious Cook” (William Morrow 2009), loving “steak, hollandaise sauce, and rich wine reductions.” In his teens he turned to vegetarianism and eventually to veganism, all the while refusing to give up beautiful, flavorful, rich, and filling foods. He has become renowned for his sophisticated, fine-dining vegan cuisine.

I put the cookbook’s recipes to the test first with his Caesar salad. It’s hard to imagine a good one without eggs, anchovies, and Parmesan, isn’t it? Ronnen manages to capture the flavors and textures masterfully. His recipe introduced me to Veganaise, a surprisingly good vegan mayo. I also prepared a main dish of cornmeal-crusted tempeh with smoked tomato sauce, green chile relish, black bean puree, and braised kale. Also delicious.

Although the recipes deliver excellent results, the book itself is flawed. The index is practically useless, and instructions can at times be sloppy. The tempeh recipe, for example, instructs the cook to reserve the broth (which is superb) that the tempeh braises in. Yet it never says what to do with it. Another recipe is for Asian Tacos with Kinpira. Kinpira is never defined. (According to Wikipedia, it’s sauteed root vegetables).

These shortcomings are frustrating because this could have been the first vegan cookbook to make an impact in the vegan-hostile world – as you’ll discover if you give the following recipe a twirl. Note: the brackets are mine.

[Vegan] Caesar Salad with Focaccia Croutons

1/4 loaf plain focaccia, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

3 cloves garlic

1 tablespoon capers, drained

1 cup vegan mayonnaise (such as Veganaise)

1 tablespoon white [or yellow] miso paste

2 tablespoons nutritional yeast flakes

1/2 tablespoon light agave nectar

1 cup olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 small heads romaine lettuce, shredded

Caperberries [optional]

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread the focaccia cubes on a baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes, or until lightly toasted.

2. In a food processor, mince the garlic and capers. Add the mayonnaise, miso paste, nutritional yeast, agave nectar, and 1/2 cup water and pulse to combine. With the motor running, slowly add the oil in a thin stream. Continue to blend until emulsified, about 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

3. Place the lettuce and croutons in a large bowl. Drizzle the dressing over the top and toss well to coat. Garnish with caperberries and serve immediately. Makes 4 servings [with plenty of dressing left over].

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