Back in December, I took part in a photo/recipe contest from Gardein called Escape to LA. The prize was airfare for two to Los Angeles with two nights’ stay in a hotel and a cooking class with celebrity chef, Roberto Martin. I was so ecstatic when my entry was chosen as the grand prize winner! (You can see the winning recipe on the Gardein website.)
Late in February David and I flew to Los Angeles for our prize-winning trip. True to the contest’s name, Escape to LA, when we left a winter storm was bearing down where we live. There were 8 inches of snow pending that very afternoon. Thank goodness, after a short delay and some time de-icing the wings, we were off to warmer places.
When we arrived at our hotel by the Bay, we were met with a note in the room from our friends at Gardein detailing the itinerary for the next day. A few weeks prior they’d asked what I would like to learn to make from Chef Roberto, who will be opening a restaurant in Santa Monica later this spring. Roberto has made appearances on Ellen and wrote Vegan Cooking for Carnivores. I assumed we’d make one or two of the things I’d mentioned. Instead, the next day we were scheduled to make every single thing and more.
David and I would be at the Gardein tasting kitchen from 8:45 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. under the tutelage of Chef Roberto himself. I could hardly wait. They also told us that they’d be treating us to dinner at one of LA’s finest vegan eateries, Crossroads! It is a restaurant that I’ve been dying to try ever since it opened.
When we arrived at the Gardein tasting kitchen, Roberto was already getting started on breakfast burritos with Gardein Breakfast Patties, tofu, vegetables, and warmed tortillas.
After gathering for breakfast with the Gardein team, we started on the next course – Chick’n Fried Steak Bites with Country Gravy using the Gardein Beefless Tips. The recipe is in Roberto’s book, and it was one that called out to me right away.
The recipe involves dipping the tips in flour and blackening spice, then a cashew cream made with raw cashews and water, then back in the flour, patting it until it’s dry. Then the tips are fried, and the dried bits in the pan are used to make gravy.
The whole process is similar to a non-vegan dish that my mom made often when I was growing up, and it really took me back. Roberto said that when people are learning to veganize dishes, he encourages them to go with recipes that are familiar, but using non-animal proteins instead. That way the learning curve is much shorter to get back in the kitchen, making food you already know and love, but all vegan.
Next on the list were fishless tacos using Gardein Fishless Filets. The fishless filets are one of my favorite Gardein products, but I tend to just have them with a pile of baked fries, steamed broccoli, and of course, plenty of malt vinegar and lemon.
This was a totally different take on them with a roasted salsa that we made from scratch, raw cabbage, and cashew cream made with chipotles in adobo. He served them on warmed corn tortillas. They were outstanding.
Next, we moved on to another dish from Vegan Cooking for Carnivores, Chick’n and Mole Tamales. I’d specifically asked about making tamales, because it’s something I’d never done before. It seemed like the kind of thing that would be much easier learning from someone who had experience making them.
First, we made mole with dried ancho chilies roasted on the stove, sautéed onions and garlic, spices, almonds, and chopped chocolate.
Then we rehydrated cornhusks and stuffed them with masa, mole and Gardein Chick’n Scallopini. We wrapped all of them into cute parcels, until the whole batch was ready to be steamed. There weren’t enough tamales to completely fill the pot, and so Roberto inserted a bowl into the center to fill the excess space.
While we cooked, Roberto told us stories about his family, his cooking history, and being a chef for Ellen DeGeneres & Portia de Rossi. He had us laughing all day long. Roberto just exudes warmth and accessibility.
Finally, we made one of the most intriguing dishes from Vegan Cooking for Carnivores, Southern Fried Chick’n. He makes his fried chick’n in a way that I’ve never seen from anyone else. He wraps the Gardein Chick’n Scallopini in rice paper rolls like you would use in making a spring roll. It is then breaded and fried. It completely gives that “fried chicken” experience, with the wrappers standing in for “skin.”
The results blew me away. I told Roberto that I wished I had a time machine, so that I could go back to when I first went vegetarian and give it to myself. When I went vegetarian, there were a few non-vegan dishes that I had a hard time giving up, and one of them was fried chicken. This cruelty-free version was crazy good – with all of that crisp, chewy bite that I loved.
Roberto teased me that it would be a terrible use of technology to use a time machine for transporting a recipe instead of killing Hitler. Clearly Roberto hasn’t been watching Doctor Who or else he’d know about fixed points in the space/time continuum. 😉
Feeling like I couldn’t eat another bite, we were given a sneak peek into one of Gardein’s newest products, Crabless Cakes. They’re going to be available later this year, and we got to try them before they’re out in stores. The cakes have a wonderful light flakiness to them, and are a perfect size to be an appetizer or loaded up on a plate as a full meal.
Roberto then surprised us with signed copies of his book, which he not only autographed, but also left little notes throughout. He made note of the dishes we’d made that day, along with notations about which recipes we needed to make next.
It was truly a day I will never forget. I had high hopes and expectations, and Roberto and the crew from Gardein exceeded them every step of the way. A huge thank you to the folks at Gardein – Ashlyn, Marissa, Sara, & Roberto! You really outdid yourselves!
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