Heather Bell and Jenny Engel take food very seriously. In fact, they have devoted their lives to it. The sisters and founders of vegan cooking company Spork Foods (sporkfoods.com), have penned a vegan cookbook, Spork-Fed, lead vegan cooking classes around the country, and recently launched Spork Foods West, a series of cooking workshops in Santa Monica.
Their recipes, from jerk coleslaw with plantain strips, to chilled creamy red and yellow gazpacho, and “amazing” caesar salad with homemade croutons, have gained notoriety from universities including UCLA (some of Spork’s recipes are featured on the menu at on-campus restaurant, Covell), and at the Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills. At the property’s Cabana Restaurant, two Spork gluten-free and vegan menu items, red bean veggie sliders and battered avocado tacos, are part of the hotel’s wellness offerings (think vegan nail polish, SpaRitual, used at the salon; and a healthy lunch menu at Culina, the on-site eatery).
We caught up with the Los Angeles natives and acclaimed chefs for time-saving tips on vegan cooking, must-have kitchen tools and gadgets, and even a recipe to make at home.
How did you first get started?
Jenny: When we were in college, we decided to be vegan when we learned about what an impact the meat and dairy industry had on the environment. Fifteen years ago there weren’t many great prepared food options like there are today. It forced us to get into the kitchen and create vegan dishes that had the same incredible flavors and textures that we were used to. We loved this process, and soon realized we wanted to empower others to take the environment, their health, and the [saving of animals’ lives] into their own hands.
Your food is very elegant (and delicious!) Is the presentation intentional?
Heather: We put love into our dishes, from the very beginning when we pick out our ingredients, to while we are chopping and stirring, to when we plate. We sincerely believe that thinking good thoughts about those we cook for directly translates to better tasting food. As the saying goes, ‘you first eat with your eyes,’ so we definitely make an effort to present our dishes in a colorful and creative way.
The collaboration with Four Seasons, Los Angeles at Beverly Hills?
Jenny: The hotel was looking to include more vegan and gluten-free menu items, based on guest preferences, and hired us to create the menu items as they wanted vegan culinary experts with a celebrity following.
VEGAN PREP AND TIME-SAVING TIPS
Preparing any dishes, starting with a base of natural ingredients, whether vegan or not, can take a little time and effort. But when you’re eating more vegan dishes and replacing meat, for example, you’re saving a ton of time in the kitchen, according to Jenny. “Tofu or tempeh only take about five to 10 minutes to marinate, and absorb a ton of flavor, so you don’t have to worry about much time there.”
Stock your pantry.
Have a variety of spices, vinegars, oils and condiments ready to make cooking easier. If you’re well stocked, you’re already halfway there.
Learn how to cook and use your knives properly.
If you get a few fundamental skills from a cooking class, then you have a great base of knowledge of cutting techniques (and how to plan a menu), so that you’re not just staring at your recipes and wondering what to do next. In our classes, we teach people tricks like efficient ways to plan meals, and how to chop an onion. These little bits of insider info give you a leg up.
Eat lots of vegetables.
Most vegetables can be eaten raw, so there’s a huge cooking time saver. And, if you chop your vegetables on the smaller side, you save time whether steaming or roasting them.
Go-to items for the at-home chef
Sharp, high-quality chef’s knife It’s worth the investment to get one great knife that you’ll use everyday. Having the best tools in the kitchen make you less intimidated and more prepared to take on breakfast, lunch or dinner.
High-powered blender, like a Vitamix They are not just blenders, they’re secret kitchen weapons. If you’re looking to replace heavy cream and just blend some cashews with water, you can create a cholesterol-free cream in about 10 seconds.
TofuXPress. This is a little device to make pressing your tofu easy as can be, and it’s the most efficient and wonderful tool. It’s not like all we eat is tofu, but if we do, the TofuXPress is put to good use.
Baja Battered Avocado Tacos
Yields 8 tacos
½ cup gluten free all-purpose flour blend
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon cayenne powder
½ teaspoon dried minced onion
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ cup, plus 2 tablespoons almond milk or soymilk
2 teaspoons neutral tasting oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 large Hass avocado
3 tablespoons high-heat oil, for cooking (refined coconut preferred)
8 organic corn tortillas
1 ½ cups finely shredded green or purple cabbage, (1/4 head cabbage)
1 tomato, diced
Lime Crema Topping:
1 tablespoon lime juice, plus zest of ½ lime
1/3 cup original soy yogurt *don’t get un-sweetened
1/3 cup reduced fat vegan mayonnaise (Veganaise)
Dash sea salt and finely ground black pepper
In a large bowl, add gluten-free flour, baking powder, sea salt, garlic powder, chili powder, minced onion, cumin, almond or soymilk, 2 teaspoons oil, and lemon juice. Whisk until uniform. Set aside.
Pre-heat a small sauté pan over medium-high heat and add 3 tablespoons oil.
Slice avocado in half, and divide into 8 segments total. Dip sliced avocado into batter. Add battered avocado to pan and cook for about 3 minutes per side, until golden.
Meanwhile in a mixing bowl, combine lime juice, zest, yogurt, mayonnaise, sea salt and pepper in a bowl and set aside.
Heat tortillas on a warm skillet until pliable. Fill with 1 piece battered avocado and garnish with shredded cabbage, diced tomatoes, and lime crema. Serve immediately. © Spork Foods, 2012