Rare is the vegan who bemoans the closing of an old-school Jewish deli with its mile-high pastrami sandwiches. But then again Tal Ronnen, vegan chef to the stars, is a rarity to begin with. While many vegans and vegan groups seem to vie for your heart and soul, Ronnen has not forgotten about your stomach.
As a kid, he was an avid steak-eater with two vegetarian sisters. "I used to make fun of both my sisters," he recalls. "It's ironic. Now I'm leading that lifestyle."
Not just leading it, he's the chef who cooked for Oprah's famed 21-day vegan cleanse and did the fab food for Ellen deGeneres and Portia de Rossi's wedding. These folks aren't going to put up with sprouts and slop. Neither will Ronnen. As he writes in his vegan cookbook The Conscious Cook, "There are no sprouts in this book, or in my refrigerator." The book has been named one of the top 10 cookbooks of the year by Epicurious, along with meaty tomes likes Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc and Marcus Samuelsson's New American Table.
A graduate of the Natural Gourmet Institute, Ronnen believes fat equals flavor. His recipes are informed by all the food textures and flavors he's ever loved, including steak, seafood, cream and cheese. "Learning traditional French techniques -- the five mother sauces, the stocks -- put me on a path to creating food that was appealing to nonvegetarians and vegetarians alike," says Ronnen. "I'm not afraid to use really good healthy fats and creamy textures without dairy and meaty textures without meat."
The punnishly named Artichoke and Oyster Mushroom Rockefeller is a case in point. Ronnen takes oyster mushrooms, their chewy texture much like the mollusk, and dusts them with nori (seaweed) to "give them a taste of the ocean." He sautes them, settles them in artichoke leaves -- "they kind of look like a clam shell" -- along with spinach and breadcrumbs and broils the whole thing until bubbly. "You have the experience of the Rockefeller but even better with the bite of artichoke leaf," he says. "That recipe was fun. The greatest thing about what I've been doing is the challenge."
Not into challenge? The Conscious Cook also has easy soups, salads and sandwich recipes, too. "For me, it's creating food I missed eating as a meat-eater and foods that are familiar, not telling America to go soak lentils overnight and cook grain from scratch. I talk a lot about transitional food."
Ronnen is a big proponent of Gardein, the first plant-based protein you can cook with. It does taste and feel like the real deal -- shockingly so to some vegans. That's okay, he's not after trying to convince the true believers.
"I know, you think, why should you want to create something that looks like meat if you don't eat it? I grew up eating meat," he explains. "I am used to the texture and flavor of meat. If I could have that without the negative health and environmental impact, that's a win-win."
Ronnen, who divides his time between Los Angeles and Vancouver, has cheffed at vegan restaurants including Candle 79 in New York and Ft. Lauderdale's Sublime. He returned to Ft. Lauderdale last week as Sublime's visiting celeb chef and to teach a vegan cooking course at Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School, but his ties to South Florida go back to his childhood.
"I used to visit my grandfather in South Florida as a kid. I remember how much I enjoyed the citrus. And delis like the Rascal House," he says, brightening. "Is it still around?"
When informed otherwise, his face falls. "Oh, man."
Ronnen's take on a plant-based pastrami on rye recipe is probably in the works even now.
Mediterranean Chickpea Wrap
from Tal Ronnen's The Conscious Cook
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 carrot, peeled and finely diced
1 onion, finely diced
1 banana pepper, seeded and finely diced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
⅛ teaspoon ground cayenne, or more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, with liquid
1 white potato, peeled and finely diced
5 whole oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, coarsely chopped
4 pieces vegan naan bread or tortillas, heated or toasted
Place a large sauté pan over medium heat. Sprinkle the bottom with a pinch of salt and heat for 1 minute. Add the oil and heat for 1 minute, being careful not to let it smoke. This will create a nonstick effect.
Add the carrot, onion, banana pepper, and garlic to the pan and sauté, stirring frequently, for 5 to 7 minutes, until the vegetables are just beginning to soften. Add the cumin, red pepper, cayenne, and black pepper to taste and sauté for 1 minute.
Add the chickpeas and their liquid and 1½ cups water. Bring to a boil. Add the potato and sun-dried tomatoes and simmer for 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are soft. Serve wrapped in the naan bread or tortillas.
Makes 4 sandwiches
Prep time: 45 minutes