A Recipe Hack: Experiments with Making the Familiar Plant-Based
It is disingenuous to say that those keeping a plant-based diet and lifestyle will always feel catered to completely when dining out or on the go. Most restaurants have vegetarian options, but the addition of dairy or eggs, depending on how the item is prepared, can eliminate entirely the possibility of ordering a plant-based version of the dish.
Why is it so difficult to avoid dairy?
Here is a scenario. You just need a quick bite to eat or you are reading a restaurant menu, and there is an abundance of vegetarian options to choose from. But, why do all these great potentially plant-based options have to be smothered in cheese?
Situations like these can be frustrating because you have made the commitment to eat better for the planet and for yourself. But why so much cheese? The reason that it gets sneaked onto most vegetarian foods is likely because there is so much of it, and it is inexpensive to add to recipes as a result. Also, we naturally gravitate to the most calorically dense foods within the environment.
Why not make Plant-Based the default?
I decided to experiment with a common vegetarian option for sale at Amazon Go stores in Seattle, WA.
The Sweet Potato and Avocado Wrap is what you would expect. It consists of a flour tortilla, black beans, sweet potato and avocado tossed in a tangy mole sauce. There is also a layer of cream cheese used as a spread. This layer is meant to protect the tortilla from becoming soggy while the sandwich rests in its packaging.
I expect that these items are made in bulk and formulated to have a shelf life of 2-3 days. The application of the cream cheese layer makes sense from a technical perspective in keeping the product salable as well as providing richness in mouthfeel and flavor.
What are the alternatives?
Yes, there are already commercially available cream cheeses made from nuts such as Kite Hill brand, which are indistinguishable from cream cheese spreads made from milk. So why not just use the alternative instead of dairy? There could be any number of reasons, but difficult is not one.
To prove my point, I purchased the sandwich wrap and analyzed the key components from the ingredients list on the food label.
Flour Tortilla. Sweet Potatoes. Black Beans. Mole Sauce. Pickled Jalapeños. Cream Cheese.
Great. Now what?
I made a quick plan for how to create my plant-based version of the sandwich. Seasoning and roasting sweet potatoes, opening a can of black beans, and running to the grocery store for a pack of tortillas are easy enough. But what about the pickled jalapeño peppers, the mole sauce, and the cheese?
Quick Pickled Peppers
For the peppers, I made a pickling liquid by simmering a mixture of vinegars that I had on hand, plus a bit of agave syrup to sweeten, and some salt. Then I poured the pickling liquid over sliced jalapeños and set them aside.
While I could have purchased dry chiles to make a more traditional mole, I noticed that Amazon’s version isn’t exactly traditional either. I was also surprised to find bananas listed as an ingredient. This signaled to me that the intention is to have some sweet with the heat. In which case, I felt that the remains of canned chipotle chiles in the refrigerator could be used instead, along with onion, frozen ripe bananas, tomato paste, and cocoa powder. I ended up with a pureed sauce that when tweaked with a squeeze of lime likely resembles Amazon’s.
But what about the cheese?
This is a bit of a process. In fact, making cream cheese from nuts is a 3-4 day process starting with nuts, then nut milk, yogurt, and finally cheese.
I make nut milk regularly, and for this experiment, I used my standard process.
Making yogurt, however, is not a regular task, but for this project I used a combination of canned coconut milk and my homemade nut milk. I heated the mixture, slurried it using tapioca starch, and then cooled to 110º F before pitching the contents of 2 probiotic gel-caps to inoculate the mixture.
I stored the milk in my oven with the light on for 10 hours prior to cooling again to 41º F and refrigerating.
This method works in terms of creating something that is creamy and fermented. However, it is not thick like commercial yogurts, which, while great for the present application, may not be desirable if one is trying to replicate something they are used to having.
It is possible to curdle nut milk (especially almond milk) via heat and acid, and perhaps by choosing a method that does this instead will result in a thicker yogurt. I may try this in the future instead and avoid using coconut milk altogether. In addition to the aforementioned degree of viscosity, the strong coconut flavor dominates in my yogurt. However, this was not the case with the resulting nut cheese.
I researched two cream cheese recipes (Piatt, 2017; Schinner, 2012) to understand the next steps. Both call for soaking cashews overnight. I did this when I prepared my nut milk. The reason this is done is the difference between cashew butter and cashew milk or cheese. Soaking prevents the oils within the nuts from separating as they do when nuts are processed to make nut butters.
Puree and Ferment
I pureed the soaked cashews along with the cultured yogurt as well as a bit of nutritional yeast, salt, and a squeeze of lemon. I then stored my cheese mixture at room temperature in a glass container and covered with cheese cloth for 24 hours.
And the Results Please?
Yep, cream cheese made from nuts can absolutely stand-in for the dairy version. But what’s the point to all of this? The Amazon Go sandwich is sold in a convenience store. It is supposed to be convenient and something to grab on the go. I certainly don’t expect anyone curious about making changes towards a plant-based diet to suddenly jump, all-in and start making their own non-dairy substitute cheeses on Day 1. In many ways, this speaks to my point.
When the moment arises that someone is seeking a quick meal option, there isn’t time to rely on days worth of prepared items to make a fancy sandwich. The goal is to get fed quickly.
Large companies that sell food (including Amazon) could make it easier for all of us to do better by the planet and ourselves by making these types of menu options plant-based entirely by default.
Surely with its economies of scale, Amazon is able to procure commercially made nut cheeses or implement the appropriate food safety systems within their own kitchens to make their own.
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Piatt, J. (2017). This cheese is nuts!: delicious vegan cheese at home. New York, NY: Avery.
Schinner, M. (2012). Artisan vegan cheese. Summertown, TN: Book Publishing Company.
Williams, K. (2015, April 18). Yes, You Can Make Great Non-Dairy Yogurt at Home. Retrieved from https://www.kqed.org/bayareabites/95173/yes-you-can-make-great-non-dairy-yogurt-at-home[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]