Cooking it up, Native-style

27 Sep

Last Sunday morning, I attended a cooking demo by Chef Tanya, the brains and personality behind Native Foods Café. The boy and I hit up the Culver City location of this legendary vegan foods mecca days after our arrival in Los Angeles. There I had possibly the best vegan meal of my life. I was dying to share it with you, but iPhoto recently ate 300 of my pictures, those included. It was a sad moment. Actually, the great photo munching was on my birthday, which was September 10 (in fact, it is every year!). I was already reluctant to turn 27, but that little fiasco didn’t help. Anyway, I had the Twister Wrap: Salad greens, fresh avocado and cucumber salsa, creamy chipotle sauce and your choice of crispy, blackened or grilled Native Chicken in an organic whole wheat wrap. I went with the blackened option of the “chicken,” which is actually “made from free range soy, wheat and pea protein.” I am so sad not to have pictures to share because it was unbelievable. From the authenticity of the blackened “chicken” to the creamy avocado to the delectably spicy sauce, I was transported. Since it was the special of the day, I also got sweet potato fries, which were tasty, but the wrap was out of this world. The boy ordered the Portobello and Sausage Burger: Juicy grilled portobellos, our homemade Native Sausage Seitan, caramelized onions, salsa pomodoro, sweet roasted garlic, creamy pumpkin seed pesto and mayo. He went crazy over it, too. Seriously, if you live near this amazing place, get thee there! I can’t wait to go back.

After a meal such as that one, when I received an email about the upcoming cooking demonstration in Culver, I knew I had to register. I showed up pretty much right at 9:30, the starting time, which was not the smartest idea. However, I’d been really sick the day before and almost bailed the morning of. I’m so glad I didn’t. Arriving at the start time meant I was at the back of the line to enter the restaurant, which in turn meant that I got the equivalent of the middle seat on an airplane. The chairs were packed in very tight, leaving me with no elbow room at all. In that vegan restaurant, I was the closest thing to a sardine. Note to self: arrive early next time.

Chef Tanya came out after we were all seated to start things off:

While she told us about herself and her background with meat-free living, the staff passed around little cups of housemade chai:

It was so good! I was surprised that it was soy-based since typically soy milk has a distinctive flavor to me – I was guessing almond milk. This was a warmy, spicy, perfect little hit first thing in the morning. (Let’s remember that I’m on the West Coast now – 9:30 is practically dawn out here, or so folks would have you believe.) While we sipped, Tanya explained that she grew up in a meat-eating household, but one that emphasized fine dining, fresh ingredients, and whole foods. As she grew into a teenager, animal rights became a passion, and eventually she gave up meat. One year in college, she rented a room from a woman who prepared fresh seitan (which she pronounces say-TAHN – I still like acting as thought it’s the dark lord) and tempeh. This opened her eyes to the possibilities of preparing healthy, earth-conscious meals in the style of the elegant veal and pork dishes served at expensive restaurants. Thus, in 1994, she started Native Foods. There are now 10 locations with several more in the works. One thing I found very interesting is that apparently 80% of the restaurant’s clientele are neither vegetarian nor vegan. That number surprised me at first, but remembering the boy’s reaction to his burger, I can certainly see why.

Then it was time to do a little cooking. Our first course was a creamy mushroom soup that featured shallots, leaks, dried porcini and fresh Portobello mushrooms, white wine, Vegenaise, and a few other flavors:

It was really, really tasty. I’ve gotten used to less fat in my diet, so this tasted oilier than I generally prefer. However, I’d still like to try it sometime replacing the Vegenaise with pureed cashews and reducing the olive oil. Tanya used this dish as an excuse to tell us all to keep a steady stock of leeks and shallots in our homes. She even demonstrated a great way to clean leeks thoroughly. Simply slice the ends in long strips without totally removing them and rinse. They should look like a fan:

Clever, huh? Those things can be a beast to clean.

The next course was a two-fer: sautéed beet greens and a raw beet salad. First the greens:

Scrumptious! I am not a huge Swiss chard or sautéed spinach fan, as it turns out, so I was excited to learn that I do love beet greens. They are earthy and strike the perfect balance between being too tender (like spinach) and too substantial (chard). Plus, the caramelized onions were delectable.

Then we got to try the raw beet salad:

I already love raw beets and only don’t eat them at home because I no longer have a food processor to do the grating. I may give it a whirl after this dish, though. The dressing she made was a combination of orange juice, lemon juice, olive oil, and fresh herbs featuring mint as the star. Mint and beets are a match made in heaven, and one I never would have considered before. The combination was just WOW.

The staff then passed Native Foods’s signature beverage, the lavender lemonade:

This stuff is seriously moan-inducing. It is hands-down the best lemonade I’ve ever had. It has a perfect balance of sweetness and tartness, which is so important. I’m not generally a big lemonade fan because most folks over-sweeten it. I like a little kick. If I didn’t, why would I be drinking something that is 1/3 lemon juice?! The lavender is divine. I must make my own version of this stuff.

The next dish was less of a demonstration than an explanation, especially since it had three ingredients – cauliflower, olive oil and salt. Basically the staff passed it around while Tanya explained why roasting cauliflower transforms it into such a delicious, warm, nutty dish (it’s the natural sugars). Here it is:

Yum! I am a huge roasted cauliflower fan, so I wasn’t surprised to go crazy over this, but it was perfectly placed in the demo. In fact, it inspired me to grab some for this week. I think it’ll be a great complement to the Asian noodle dish I’m planning.

While Tanya talked about the final dish of the demonstration, we all got to try the watermelon agua fresca:

Slurp. Good golly, this was tasty. It was pureed watermelon and mint. So good. I can say from personal experience that straight-up blended watermelon is excellent, too.

And yes, the final dish itself was a September Morning Apple Cobbler:

I’ve said on this blog many times that I don’t tend to love (or even like, really) cooked fruit. I have a few notable exceptions, and they are pretty much all in cobbler/crumble form (see my favorite ever, the Summertime Cobbler). This, too, was excellent. She used Granny Smith apples, which lent a little bite to the temper the sweetness, but it was far from a tart dish. Add in a healthy dose of cinnamon and vanilla, and it was love.

If you live in Southern California – or now Chicago! – please check out Native Foods Café at least for the dining experience. If you’re interested in the cooking demos, I highly recommend them, too. It was totally free and tons of fun. I was impressed both by the turnout and by the diversity of the attendees. Ages ranged from teens to retirement age, with tons of people in each age group. I will definitely check out one of these again.

If you’re interested in receiving a copy of any of the recipes (mushroom soup, sautéed beet greens, raw beet salad, roasted cauliflower, or apple cobbler), just leave a comment with your email address and which one(s) you want. I’ll be glad to send it/them along!

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2 Responses to “Cooking it up, Native-style”

  1. Jessica Loebs September 28, 2011 at 9:14 am #

    Can I have all those recipes? ;0) Actually I have a huge cauliflower from my CSA in the fridge and I would love to know how to roast it to perfection, so please pass that along!

    jessica loebs gmail com

    • Brigid September 29, 2011 at 12:22 pm #

      Certainly! I will send you a FB message tonight with them.

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