Julie Anne & Tatjana Rhodes photographed in their London kitchen for Hello Magazine
I have mentioned before that I am a die-hard omnivore. Tatjana has been leaning more and more towards becoming a fully-fledged vegetarian like her father… as indeed many of my clients and friends have, but I still find it hard to get excited about a meal that is not centered around a delectable piece of animal, fish, or fowl protein.

I received an email from my dear friend Jimmy Demers last week saying “Monday night you are mine.” Now life around Jimmy is always a divine adventure, but I had no idea where we were going, who we would meet, or that the night just might change me forever… at least change my eating habits and force me to rethink my approach to food. You see, we went to a party given by Kathy and Tom Freston, who happen to be a couple of the most gracious hosts I’ve ever met, for the slightly shy but immensely talented Chef Tal Ronnen and the launch of his new book, The Conscious Cook.

Tal making my mouth water

The cover says “Delicious Meatless recipes that will CHANGE the WAY you EAT,” and just flipping through the magnificently photographed vegan cookbook had me salivating on the spot. Nothing prepared this staunch midwestern “meat and potatoes” girl for what happened next… someone popped an appetizer in my mouth, the flavor exploded, firing up every taste bud, and making them dancing with glee.

Drop-dead gorgeous hostess Kathy Freston with Tal

“Could I give up meat and possibly all animal products?” raced through my mind with me actually seriously considering it. Each mouth full of food seemed to confirm that eating a plant based diet does not have to mean a life sentence of bland hippie food. In fact, this was some of the best food I’ve ever tasted. This was vegan food elevated to the level of haute cuisine!

“They didn’t build Rome in a day,” and I do still have carnivorous clients to cook for, so I am not promising I will give up animal products completely, but I am willing to start incorporating more of Tal’s approach into my diet, and explore where that leads me.

Marianne, Ador, Samantha, Libra, Jimmy, Tammi, Julie Anne, and Ryan
The after-party party at the Sunset Towers

A few of my fellow party attendees asked me to prepare a vegan dinner party for them. When you have a classically trained, internationally celebrated chef like Tal preparing the food it is practically guaranteed to be scrumpdilicious, but what happens when a non-classically trained novice to the cuisine tries her hand at it? I suggested that I invite them to myhouse as guinea pigs before letting them hire me to cook for their friends. That got me thinking…

Julie Anne Rhodes

Why not start a “Conscious Cook Challenge?” Over the next few months I plan to start working my way through some of the recipes in the book, hopefully mastering the technique well enough to write a few of my own vegan recipes. I will keep a video diary, and share bits of it here periodically. Would any of you like to join me on this challenge? Click on “comment” below to sign up and share your thoughts. Let’s see if The Conscious Cook really can change the way we eat!

Celery Root Soup with Granny Smith Apples


My first attempt may not look as good as Chef Tal’s, but the tang of the tart apples against the earthiness of the full bodied soup was super satisfying on one of our first chilly evenings of the year. The store bought vegetable broth that I opted for added a little too much color (it had some turmeric in it), and I think my celery root must have been larger than the “medium size” called for in the recipe since the soup came out a little thicker than expected. I’m sure adding more broth would have rectified that problem, but I was too hungry to wait.

Servings: 6

Ingredients:
  • sea salt
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 medium celery roots, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 quarts faux chicken or vegetable stock (try Better Than Bouillon brand)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 cup thick cashew cream (recipe follows)
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 Granny Smith apple, unpeeled, very finely chopped
  • Chive Oil (recipe follows)
Directions:

1). Place a large stockpot over medium heat. Sprinkle the bottom with a pinch of salt and heat for 1 minute. Add the oil and heat for 30 seconds, being careful not to let it smoke. This will create a nonstick effect.

2). Add the celery root, celery, and onion and saute for 6 to 10 minutes, stirring often, until soft but not brown. Add the stock and bay leaf, bring to boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the cashew cream and simmer for an additional 10 minutes.

3). Working in batches, pour the soup into a blender, cover the lid with a towel (the hot liquid tends to erupt), and blend on high. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Ladle into bowls. Place a spoonful of the diced apple in the center of each serving, drizzle with the Chive Oil around the apple, and serve.

Regular and Thick Cashew Cream

Servings: Makes about 2 1/4 cup thick cashew cream or 3 1/2 cups regular cashew cream

Ingredients:
  • 2 cups whole raw cashews (not pieces, which are often dry), rinsed very well under cold water.
Directions:

1). Put cashews in a bowl and add cold water to cover them. Cover the bowl and refrigerate overnight.

2). Drain the cashews and rinse under cold water. Place in a blender with enough cold water to cover them by 1 inch. Blend on high for several minutes until very smooth. (If you’re not using a professional high-speed blender such as Vita-Mix, which creates an ultra-smooth cream, strain the cashew cream through a fine-mesh sieve).

3). To make thick cashew cream, which some of the recipes in this book call for, simply reduce the amount of water in the blender, so that the water just covers the cashews.

Chive Oil

Servings: 1/2 cup

Ingredients:
  • 1 small bunch chives
  • 1/2 cup canola oil
  • Pinch of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Directions:

Blanch the chives for 30 seconds in boiling water, then drain and chill in an ice bath. Drain, wrap the chives in a towel, and squeeze the moisture out. Place in a blender with the remaining ingredients and blend for 2 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Put the chive oil in a plastic squeeze bottle with a small opening or use a spoon for drizzling it on the soup.
Special thanks to Melcher Media and Harper Collins
and to
Kathy and Tom Freston for having me to their beautiful home!
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