Gluten-free, Vegetarian, Vegan: Chefs Says Yes to No-No’s

Chefs, Cooking, Recipes, Restaurants By Jan 17, 2012

No gluten, please. No meat, no dairy, no salt. No onions, no garlic …  No kidding.

More than ever before, restaurant guests make special menu requests. They want dishes that are gluten-free or vegetarian or vegan, or meals without specific ingredients.

With so many dietary restrictions, it would be understandable for servers and kitchen staff to be in a tailspin. But I’ve seen some very creative solutions both in the front of the house and at the stoves.

Rethinking menus

Deb Schneider, executive chef-partner of Sol Cocina Restaurant in Newport Beach (shown above), has simplified special order requests by offering snazzy laminated menus that spell out the dishes that are vegan, vegetarian and wheat-free. The list is lengthy and diverse, with dishes ranging from Strawberry Serrano Guacamole to Corn Poblano Soup to Rajas Tacos.

“Real Mexican food is heavily vegetable-based – vegetables, corn, and beans are at the heart of what real Mexican food truly is,” Schneider said, referring to her menu’s vegetarian and vegan dishes. “And as for gluten-free, only one dessert and one entree uses flour tortillas.

“We make everything from scratch so if you don’t want onions in your salsa, for example, we make it the way you want it.”

And it somehow seems counter-intuitive, but meat-free diners can end up costing the restaurant more money. They aren’t necessarily cutting costs by subbing vegetables for meat.

“You know from shopping that you can buy chicken on sale for around one dollar per pound, but you pay way more than that for avocados and tomatoes. Asparagus and mushrooms can be five or six dollars per pound …”

Pascal Olhats, chef-owner of Tradition by Pascal and Brasserie Pascal (both in Newport Beach), places the letters “GF” next to every item on his menus that is free of gluten.

“It’s interesting that fifty percent of my dishes are gluten free,” Olhats said, citing his technique for thickening by reduction (boiling to reduce volume) rather than using flour.

“All of my soups are gluten-free and vegetarian and vegan; some of my salads aren’t vegan because they have cheese, but they are vegetarian and gluten-free.

Special requests come up so frequently at Studio at Montage Laguna Beach, that Executive Chef Craig Strong recently developed a new menu to accommodate them.

“The menu is a vegetarian tasting menu,” Strong explained. “That is how it is titled, but every dish on it can be adapted to be vegan and gluten free, if they aren’t already that way. These are dishes that are more than just steamed vegetables, which is what a lot of vegetarians and vegans are offered. ”

One example is a twist on the flavor-packed forbidden rice dish that appears on the “regular” menu showcasing prawns. The earthy black rice has a rich nuttiness and is teamed with bok choy and a Thai sauce spiked with green curry, fresh lime juice and cilantro.

Strong doesn’t dummy down the vibrant flavors by eliminating the shellfish. Instead he perks up the rice and bok choy with the addition of an organic carrot ribbon salad paired with no-nonsense ginger confit.

Gluten-free desserts are a challenge, but Strong more than passes the test with his roasted pineapple with coconut tapioca pearls and pina colada ice cream. The tiny tapioca spheres are the size of pin heads and are cooked to toothsome tenderness in coconut milk and a little sugar.

Staff Training

A big part of meeting guests’ special menu needs is staff training. Zov Karamardian, executive chef-owner of Zov’s Bistro and Bakery, Tustin (as well as Zov’s Cafes in Irvine and Newport Coast, and two new venues at John Wayne Airport), requires her staff to take and pass a written ingredient test before they work with guests.

“Each server knows the ingredients in every dish,” said Zov, “so if a guest says that they are allergic to something, the server knows the dishes that have that ingredient. As for vegetarian dishes, that’s easy because about 50 percent of our dishes are vegetarian. Our menu has always been that way because vegetables are very important in the  Eastern Mediterranean diet. And many of our dishes are vegan and gluten-free: eggplant tagine, golden lentil soup, hummus, baba ghanooj (shown below).”

At Sapphire Laguna in Laguna Beach, Executive Chef-Owner Azmin Ghahreman says that his staff follows a rigorous protocol with special requests. The kitchen is notified electronically when a guest states that they have a food allergy, and the server goes to the kitchen, faces the chef and discusses the specifics to double check. Then the specifics of the order are reconfirmed when the order is picked up by the server.

Ghahreman offers a delectable vegetarian tasting menu at the restaurant, but also meets the needs of children by offering food service to five schools through his Sapphire at School program that he started in 2008. He says his goal is to offer menu items that might be new to the children using quality ingredients and preparation. The program serves over 2000 meals a day.

This strawberry-spiked guacamole was created for guests at Sol Cocina who could not eat onion or cilantro. Onions add of crunchiness and flavor to the mix, but you really don’t miss them here. The balance of creaminess, crunch, heat and sweetness disguises the fact that there are no tomatoes or onions.

This would make a great Super Bowl 2012 treat.

Sol’s Strawberry Serrano Guacamole
Yield: 4 servings
2 ripe Hass avocados
Juice of one lime (or to taste)
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt (or to taste)
1/4 cup strawberries, hulled and diced (4 medium)
1/4 cup cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced
2 tablespoons candied or toasted walnuts or other nuts, coarsely chopped
1 small Serrano chili, minced, with seeds, see cook’s notes
For serving: corn tostadas or corn tortilla chips
Optional garnish: cilantro sprigs
Garnish: lime wedges
Cook’s notes: Use caution when working with fresh chilies. Upon completion, wash work surface thoroughly and do not touch face or eyes. A tostada is a whole fried-crisp corn tortilla.
1. Cut the avocado in half, remove the pit and scoop out the flesh into a small bowl. Add the lime juice and salt, and mash roughly with a fork. Spoon into serving dish and place strawberries, cucumber, walnuts and Serrano chiles in neat rows along the top.
2. Present the guacamole with a tostada stuck upright in the guacamole, garnished with a sprig of cilantro and a lime wedge; squeeze the lime over and mix it all together before diving in. Accompany with tostadas or tortilla chips.
Nutrition information (per serving): 90 calories, 70 percent of calories from fat, 7.3 g fat, 3.8 g saturated fat, 2 mg cholesterol, 4 g carbohydrates, 1.2 g protein, 240 mg sodium, 2.5 g fiber
Source: Deb Schneider, executive chef-partner Sol Cocina, Newport Beach

This vegetarian and gluten-free taco, made with roasted poblano chiles (rajas) and epazote (or Mexican oregano) is smoky, rich and delicious. Leave out the cheese for a vegan treat.

Sol’s Rajas, Mushroom and Grilled Corn Taco with Epazote
Yield: makes 6 generous tacos
3 fresh poblano chilies, see cook’s notes
1 tablespoon vegetable oil, divided use
1 ear of corn, shucked, kernels removed from cob
8 medium-sized fresh shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and sliced
1 cup oyster mushrooms, sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
6 fresh epazote leaves or 1/2 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano, see cook’s notes
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste
For serving: 6 large corn tortillas
1/2 cup (about 3 ounces) queso fresco (omit for vegan version)
Roasted Tomato Salsa, recipe included
Cook’s notes: Poblano chiles have dark, forest green flesh and skin; they are sometimes labeled “pasilla.” Their shape is somewhat like a bell pepper, rather than a thin shape that tapers toward the tip. Supermarkets with large produce sections often stock poblano chilies.  Epazote is a fresh herb that is sold in the produce sections of many Latin American markets. Dried Mexican oregano is sold in the Latin American specialty sections of many supermarkets; it can substitute for the epazote.
1. Char the poblano chilies by placing them directly in the flame of a gas burner, turning often with long-handled tongs until evenly blistered and blackened. Wrap in paper towels until cooled, then rub off the blackened skin. Remove stem and all seeds and cut into 1-inch pieces.
2. Heat half of the oil a large, heavy sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the corn kernels and cook, stirring, until lightly browned. Add the mushrooms and garlic; cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms soften. Stir in the diced poblano chiles, epazote, salt and pepper; cook 1 minute. Keep warm.
3. Heat a heavy griddle or frying pan (not nonstick). Work with as many tortillas as will fit without overlapping. Use remaining oil to brush one side of each tortilla. Set oiled-side down in pan; crumble 1 tablespoon of cheese over each tortilla. Top with about 1/3 cup of filling. When tortillas are nicely toasted and golden on the bottom, top each with a spoonful of Roasted Tomato Salsa.
Nutrition information (per serving, with cheese): 170 calories, 47 percent of calories from fat, 9 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 20 mg cholesterol, 15 g carbohydrates, 6 g protein, 280 mg sodium, 2.3 g fiber
Source: Deb Schneider, executive chef-partner Sol Cocina, Newport Beach

This is a terrific all-purpose salsa. If you like, substitute 1 or 2 canned chipotle chilies for the Serrano chili for a smoky flavor.
Roasted Tomato Salsa
Yield: about 1 1/2 cups
4 Roma tomatoes
1 garlic clove, unpeeled
1 large fresh Serrano chili, whole
1/4 small white onion, peeled and diced
1/4 bunch cilantro, chopped
1 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
1. Line a heavy frying pan (preferably cast iron, not nonstick) with a piece of foil and set over medium-high heat. Roast the tomatoes, Serrano chili and garlic until blackened and soft. Peel the garlic and stem the chili. Place in a blender or food processor along with the tomatoes, onion, cilantro and salt. Pulse until smooth. Taste and add more salt if necessary.
Nutrition information (per tablespoon): 40 calories, 2.5 percent of calories from fat, 1.5 g fat, 0.5 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 6.4g carbohydrates, 1.2 g protein, 201 mg sodium, 0.5 g fiber
Source: Deb Schneider, executive chef-partner Sol Cocina, Newport Beach

No Comments

Leave a comment