Personal chef Julie Anne Rhodes explores cooking within a plant-based diet

I came down with a severe case of the giggles when I watched Top Chef this week. Natalie Portman was a guest judge. She started off saying she was an adventurous eater and would eat just about any cuisine (a creative chef’s dream),” but” …wait for it… “I’m vegetarian” she added with a wry smile. I cracked up as I watched each of the chef’s faces drop, because I’ve felt exactly the same in many client consultations in the past. It amused me to see these, obviously talented chefs, mumbling their dissatisfaction over her vegetarian restriction under their breath as they clearly struggled outside of their comfort zones. That would have been me too- until I found The Conscious Cook, and started The Conscious Cook Challenge.

As the pretty offerings began to arrive at the judges table, Gail Simmons commented that the food did not look as substantial as a main course should. The chefs had great difficulty preparing a meal that was not centered around meat, and most failed at presenting any protein at all. Indeed, Natalie Portman complained she was often presented with dinners in restaurants that resembled a plate full of side orders rather than an entree.

The Conscious Chef Challenge started in quite a similar way… while gleefully devouring each delectable bite of The Conscious Cook food at the book launch party a few weeks ago, I was asked by a fellow party goer to do a vegan dinner party for 12. She excitedly invited our hosts in the next breath! Panic set in just as it had for the chef’s on Top Chef. With my signed copy of the book clutched firmly in my arms, I decided to explore the possibility of giving up animal proteins and products for at least one meal a week, and see what happens when a non-classically trained cook tries her hand at Tal and his friend’s exquisite recipes? I simply bought myself some time to master the techniques, then invited all of you to join me in the learning process… sharing our successes and examining how to improve on our less successful attempts.

Chef Scot Jones (right) with Chef Tal and Chrissie Hynde

It seems that the Top Chef (and my initial) reaction is a common one. Canton, Ohio Chef Scot Jones is quoted in the book, “If you’d have asked me five years ago or even three years ago about cooking vegan, I’d have looked at you the way everyone looked at me- like I was crazy.” After trying his Gardein “Chicken” Piccata recipe this week I am now a completely open-minded convert whose not had a single bite of animal protein for several days, and I am not missing it one iota! I am finding this entire experience so inspiring that I have already started writing vegan recipes of my own to be served at that dinner party I promised my fellow party guest this coming January!

Gardein “Chicken” Piccata


Servings: 6

  • 6 (4 ounce) Gardein breasts, pressed thin and sliced on the bias
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 8 tablespoons Earth Balance
  • 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup vegan chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1/4 cup capers, rinsed and drained
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon shallot, minced
  • pinch of sugar, if needed
  • 1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley

1). Season Gardein breasts with salt and pepper. Dredge in flour and shake off excess. In a large saute pan over medium-high heat, melt 3 tablespoons of the Earth Balance with 3 tablespoons of the oil. When they start to sizzle, add 3 breasts and cook for 3 minutes, until browned on the bottom; flip and cook for another 3 minutes to brown the other side. Remove the breasts to a plate. Melt 2 more tablespoons of the Earth Balance with 2 more tablespoons of the oil, heat until they sizzle, and cook the remaining 3 breasts in the same fashion. Remove breasts to a plate.

2). Reduce the heat under the pan to medium-low and add the lemon juice, stock, wine, capers, garlic, and shallot. Bring to boil, scraping up the browned bits from the pan for extra flavor. Check the seasoning and add more salt and pepper if needed. If the sauce is bitter add the sugar.

3). Return the breasts to the pan and simmer 3 to 5 minutes, until they are heated through and the sauce has thickened. Remove the breasts to a serving platter and add the remaining 3 tablespoons of Earth Balance to the sauce. Whisk vigorously. Pour the sauce over the breasts and garnish with the parsley. Serve immediately.

Serving Suggestions: In the book they suggest serving this with sauteed spinach or braised escarole, but I already had some steamed spinach and whole wheat linguine ready.


My notes: I did not seem to need nearly as much flour as called for in the recipe (1 cup was plenty). I didn’t have shallots on hand, so I added an extra clove of minced garlic for flavor. I always use Italian parsley when called for in a recipe.
In fact, I enjoyed this recipe so much that I’m too stingy to share it with anyone quite yet. I am freezing the extra portions to see how well it works from a personal chef point of view. I’ll keep you posted as to how well the flavor holds, once I’ve defrosted, and heated the remaining portions next time. Click on “comments” below, and let me know how you are getting on with the challenge? What recipes have you tried? Do you need help with any of it? Are your friends and family enjoying the recipes too?
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