What happens when you throw a dinner party for friends, and you find out that two of the six of you are vegan? Well, first you throw an Anthony Bourdain-like tizzy, then you find acceptance, and then you reach for a copy of Charlie Trotter’s Raw cookbook.
Raw was one of those food-porn books that sat on my bookshelf for ages, after I read the inspired recipes and soaked up the surprisingly salivating photos. And then I decided that I couldn’t be bothered to make things like rejuvelac (fermented wheat or rye berries), source micro herbs or buy a dehydrator.
I finally gave the book a whirl when I tried out for the inaugural season of Masterchef, having to meet the criteria of bringing a cold dish to the trials. I took inspiration from a recipe for bleeding hard radish ravioli with a vibrant yellow tomato sauce. I couldn’t find bleeding heart radishes, nor yellow tomatoes, so I experimented, trialing white turnips and beetroot. The main gist was to slice the raw vegetables paper-thin on a mandoline, carve them into perfect rounds with a pastry cutter and then soften the rounds with lemon juice so you could use them as “ravioli” skins.
The turnips won out, but I wasn’t overly excited about making vegan cheese from cashews, so I opted for soft goat’s chevre, mixed it with fresh herbs and then put it atop the most beautiful tomatoes I could find at Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Markets. The dish was a stunner, and sent me straight to the third and final round in Melbourne, upon which I imploded using a Thomas Keller recipe for butter-poached lobster over a beetroot reduction. But that’s a story for another day…
Fast forward to the vegan dinner, and I decided to repeat the feat, but this time was going to need to go whole hog (not the most appropriate phrase for a vegan meal, but what the hell) and make the cashew cheese filling. I still couldn’t be bothered creating rejuvelac, so I scoured the web for other cashew cheese recipes and found another good recipe that simply called for lemon juice, water and herbs. I’d share it with you, but I can’t remember the link, but trust me – do a Google search and you’ll eventually find one.
There were no white turnips at any of my local greengrocers, so again I went seasonal and used a long white radish, whose ever-slight hint of spiciness was a nice addition. Thankfully it was a huge radish, as it took me a while to get the hang of shaving paper-thin discs – the first half of the slices were either too thick, and therefore too firm, or would slice off halfway through. I kept the best 25 percent of my slices, then discarded the rest of the butchered shavings. I rubbed the remaining slices with olive oil, lemon juice and a pinch of salt, and let them tenderise while I chopped the tomatoes to use as an uncooked sauce. Vine-ripened tomatoes were crucial – for all of our talk about our country having amazing produce, it’s still hard to get decent tomatoes here in Australia – and chives and a teaspoon of sherry vinegar further enhanced their ripeness.
As a starter, I also turned to another of Trotter’s Raw recipes, this time a watermelon salad, made more savoury with the use of olive oil, fresh-ground pepper, coriander and snowpea sprouts (my substitution for Trotter’s used of micro greens). The recipe also called for longans, so I substituted the more easily sourced rambutans, and also grated some extra turnip over the salad in lieu of fresh horseradish, which seems to only be available in Sydney in winter. Finally, extra watermelon was blitzed in the blender to create a watermelon foam, one of the few times I’ve actually liked the use of foam of late, especially as I’m mindful of the overindulgence of foam in many a fine restaurant these days.
The result was a fantastic meal – not just for the appreciative vegans, but also for the rest of us. I’d had a similar experience when reviewing Pure Food & Wine in New York City some years ago for a travel feature in Delicious magazine. It was one of the first raw restaurants to come to Manhattan, and it was one of my favourite meals during that culinary crawl of the city, which is saying a lot. I can’t say that I’d like to eat raw food all the time, but when I do, I walk away feeling brilliant – satisfied, but still energetic. In other words, there’s no food coma when I eat raw, and sometimes that’s a nice way to end a meal. At least until I cook that next meal of slow-cooked veal shanks.