Vegan Goes Mainstream

Chefs share tips for creating items made without animal products.

Pamela Parseghian, Contributing Food Writer

Curry tofu and vegetable quinoa from Memorial Sloan-

One way to understand diners’ needs is to put yourself in their shoes or, better yet, on their diet. Chef Jeff Schack, with Morrison Healthcare Food Services at Norwalk (Conn.) Hospital, did just that.

Schack followed a vegan diet for a month, during which time he learned how to correctly portion plates for customers cutting out all meat and animal products, something Schack had trouble with before going on the diet. Before his body adjusted to the diet change, Schack would pile up extra-large portions of the vegan meals before he felt satisfied.

“Once you get your body used to the change from [no] animal fat, you realize that you don’t have to overdo the plate,” he says. Becoming a vegan gave Schack an awareness of and empathy for vegans’ challenges. After a rough start of missing meat, Schack determined that four ounces of plant protein and two ounces of starch at each meal satisfied his hunger.

“Your body recognizes it is enough food,” Schack adds. “I realized I can give [patients] the right items [to feel full], like portobello mushrooms with some amaranth, and I know they are not going to be hungry.”

Schack serves numerous vegan dishes at Norwalk Hospital, such as stir-fried tofu with mushrooms and vegetables seasoned with cilantro, cumin, ginger, garlic and jalapeño. For a grilled tofu dish, the chef marinates the soybean curd in soy sauce and grills it until charred. He serves the grilled tofu with soba noodles and a very light cherry tomato sauce with zucchini, onions and roasted garlic.

For a Southern dish, Schack prepares hoppin’ John with black-eyed peas, vegetable stock and couscous or rice. The dish is seasoned with peppers, thyme and chipotle to add a little spice.

“I don’t use any of that phony meat made out of tofu,” Schack adds. “I prefer to create my own seitan from wheat gluten and vegetable stock. Seitan is basically a dough that is simmered in vegetable broth. It can be flavored with ginger, garlic, nori or almost anything else.”

Housemade seitan replaces meat in dishes like sloppy Joes.

For a vegan dessert, Schack cooks high-protein adzuki beans, a sweet red variety used extensively in Japanese cooking, in coconut milk until they form a paste that is similar in texture to cream of wheat. A similar rendition works well for breakfast with a dash of cinnamon on top.

Schack learned how to prepare the sweet bean dish from a patient’s mom who was making it and bringing it to the hospital. With a little research Schack found a local produce distributor who sells the beans.

Social Issues: Michael Lemon, vice president of culinary innovations for Chartwells, says two decades ago he was faced with developing more vegan items to feed a then-growing population of dieters. These days Lemon is still updating offerings for diners who don’t eat meat.

“We were talking about how important it was to feed vegans and vegetarians 20 years ago,” Lemon says. “What we’re focusing on now is all food needs to be modernized, sustainable, fresh and local.

“When I say local, I want to be sure customers are familiar with where food is from,” Lemon adds. “Young vegans are vocal that food is grown right and handled right. They want to be sure that the people growing items are [being treated] right.”

In Chicago at a charter school, The Academy for Global Citizenship, Founder and Executive Director Sarah Elizabeth Ippel also places an importance on sourcing what she deems are appropriate ingredients and offering a number of vegan meals.

“We serve vegan dishes to lower our carbon footprint,” Ippel says. “We are also committed to exposing our students to a variety of whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables.”

Among the vegan foods the charter school offers are vegan black bean burgers with a side of kale crisps that are oven roasted and finished with sesame seeds and a tempeh black bean chili that includes kidney beans, orange bell peppers and cumin. For breakfast, the students can start off their day with quinoa cooked like oatmeal that’s augmented with dried cherries, raisins and pecans.

Proactive planning: At Gwinnett Medical Center in Lawrenceville, Ga., Jim Behnke, director of nutrition services, started offering vegan dishes before he received requests to do so because he foresaw the need. Behnke says that since their debut a few years ago, the vegan dishes have been popular and haven’t needed promoting.

“We don’t have people clamoring at our door because we [already offer vegan offerings],” Behnke says. “We took the step proactively.”

Behnke sells about 75 vegan portions on a typical weekday at his 400-bed hospital. He says demand has increased since he started the vegan program a few years ago, when he’d typically sell only a handful of the dishes. One of the most popular vegan entrées at Gwinnett is a grilled tofu kebab, according to Executive Chef Clarence Whitfield.

Chef Pedro Alfaro of Bon Appétit, who oversees a corporation’s dining facilities in Burbank, East Los Angeles and Glendale, Calif., recently developed a vegan pizza. For the dish Alfaro spreads a fava bean purée similar to hummus over pizza dough. He then tops the spread with roasted thinly sliced gold and red beets, which he says resemble pepperoni. Finally, the pizza is seasoned with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, tarragon, parsley and basil.

The beet pizza “has an earthy flavor,” Alfaro says. “It’s different, healthy and very popular.”

While Alfaro is not seeing an increase in vegan diners, he says the biggest trend among his clients is requests for healthful cooking in general. He says most customers view vegan dishes as being healthy.  

LivingWell Grows

Portland hospital’s plant-based menu cultivates following.

The recently opened LivingWell Bistro, in the 302-bed Adventist Medical Center in Portland, Ore., serves only plant-based dishes, says Ashleigh Pedersen, food service manager for the hospital restaurant.

“We believe a plant-based diet can lead to optimal health,” Pedersen says. Apparently the facility’s neighbors agree. Pedersen says between 20% and 30% of the restaurant’s patrons come to the hospital specifically to dine at LivingWell.

Dishes from the bistro are also available to patients, who are offered meat, depending on doctors’ and nutritionists’ recommendations.

“We really wanted the bistro to be a restaurant where we show people that they could eat more healthy, lose weight and lower cholesterol,” says the hospital’s director of hospitality, Lyndee Lawrence.

Offering options: “The casual dining atmosphere, vibrant healthy food choices and a wide selection of menu options provides a place where people can eat well and be well,” says Bo Rinaldi, a restaurateur who collaborated on the LivingWell Bistro project. “We are offering an exciting new dining option where the food is freshly made utilizing authentic flavors and style.”

The project includes catering options from the plant-based menu, cooking classes and a retail operation that sells shelf-stable ingredients and cookbooks. LivingWell’s guests are encouraged to cook the same dishes at home.

“We want people to feel excited to eat and find flavors they can relate to or take home and try to recreate,” Pedersen says. The best-selling item on the lunch and dinner menu is Living-
Well Pizza, which is made with naan bread dough topped with fresh basil, black olives and a vegan cheese that is tapioca-based.

At breakfast, LivingWell’s most popular dish is tofu scramble. Firm tofu that has been puréed until it forms the texture of baby peas is used as an egg substitute. The tofu is mixed with a touch of turmeric to give it a yellow egglike hue and then lightly sautéed in coconut oil with cooked onions and shredded zucchini. Just before the tofu is plated, fresh spinach, diced plum tomatoes, halved cherry tomatoes and a chiffonade of basil leaves are added.

For those seeking meatlike dishes, there is a barbecue tofu wrap in a whole-wheat tortilla with caramelized onions, shredded romaine lettuce and a housemade pine nut cheese.

LivingWell also menus a hot-selling “Live Pasta” in which nothing is intended to be heated over 130°F, Pedersen says. For the veggie dish, long strands of spiral-cut yellow squash and zucchini are tossed with fresh tomatoes, scallions, minced garlic and a basil chiffonade. The veggies are served over a bed of spinach with lemon juice and an olive oil vinaigrette. Raw pine nuts top the faux pasta.

Vegetable Gumbo

When Princeton University Chef Robert Harbison hosted alumnus Valerie Erwin of Geechee Girl Rice Café, in Philadelphia, as a visiting chef, he noticed some of Erwin’s recipes were vegan. Those dishes fit in well at the university, but Harbison admitted that a number of the recipes required reworking for large-scale production. Harbison talks about the development process.

“The team of chefs here make a continual effort to develop ‘clean’ recipes, meaning when it does not affect the quality, we try to make items without the use of animal products.

None of Geechee Girl’s recipes were difficult [to make], but they were challenging in a different way. Valerie puts a lot of passion into cooking and that is hard to translate in a written recipe. She was so intuitive and symbiotic with her ingredients. She did not just grab ingredients and toss them into the pan. Her timing was very deliberate and methodical.

I have a hard time conveying that to our staff partially because our volume is so much larger, but also [because] Valerie smelled, poked and felt the differences in tension her rice had against the bottom of the pan and she stirred it before the liquids went in. How do you put that in a recipe?

The rice was one of those dishes I made several times and I didn’t get it right until we spoke. She uses some of her ‘rice-whisperer’ skills to explain how to take the time to let the rice dry after it is rinsed. I thought, big deal. [To solve the problem of overly] moist rice I will add less liquid. I forgot to respect the method and the ingredients. The dry rice acted differently in the pan when I sautéed it [after following chef Valerie’s directions]. The end result was just like hers.”

Vegetable Gumbo

25 servings

2 qt. diced onions
2 cups corn oil
1 qt. diced celery
3 cups diced
green peppers
3 cups diced red peppers
1⁄4 cup diced garlic
1 tbsp. minced
jalapeño pepper
1⁄4 cup dry thyme
2 bay leaves
3 qt. vegetable stock
1 #10 can diced tomatoes in juice,
half puréed
3 lb. frozen sliced okra
3 tbsp. salt
1 tbsp. pepper
11⁄2 cups flour

Carolina Gold Rice
Yield: About 61⁄2 cups (25 servings)
2 cups Carolina gold rice
11⁄2 tsp. corn oil
1 qt. warm water
2 tsp. salt 

  1. Sauté onions in half of corn oil until a bit tender. Add celery; sauté for 5 minutes. Add peppers and sauté for 5 minutes.
  2. Add garlic, jalapeño, thyme and bay leaves. Stir in stock, tomatoes, okra and salt. Simmer for 25 minutes. Add pepper.
  3. Prepare roux. Cook flour and remaining oil together over medium heat, whisking often until roux is a bit darker than peanut butter.
  4. Add roux to gumbo; simmer for 10 minutes. Taste and correct seasoning.
  5. To serve: Add 1 oz. small dice yellow and green squash and 1 oz. blanched corn kernels to each 10-oz. serving. Top each bowl with ¼ cup Carolina Gold Rice (recipe follows).

For Carolina Gold Rice:

  1. Cover rice with very hot, but not boiling, water. Soak for 5 minutes, then drain rice and discard water.
  2. Let rice drain for at least 15 minutes so it’s mostly dry.
  3. In saucepan, sauté rice in oil.
  4. Add water and salt. Bring to a boil. Simmer until liquid evaporates, about 20 minutes. 

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