In one afternoon — in just a few minutes, really — Isa Chandra Moskowitz undid my kitchen misconceptions.
Moskowitz, a celebrated vegan chef and cookbook author, showed me it was silly to be afraid of cashew cream. She took away my worries about baking with coconut oil. She wiped away my misunderstanding of cast iron skillets.
With Moskowitz, cooking — even vegan cooking — isn't scary or strange. It's second nature.
A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., who now calls Omaha home, Moskowitz cooks with easy grace. She chats while she chops and explains each move she makes in the kitchen without hesitation. She kindly answers even the silliest of questions.
Reading her just-released eighth cookbook, "Isa Does It," is a bit like cooking with Moskowitz. Her funny, laid-back personality shines through in the text, and the recipes are the kind of simple, quick weeknight meals everyone needs. This batch of recipes also happens to be vegan — free of any animal and dairy products. And from what I've sampled, they're delicious.
"I wanted each recipe in this book to be a mini-cooking lesson. You get a cooking tip and maybe also a life lesson," she said, smiling.
Moskowitz invited The World-Herald into her home kitchen, to walk us through two of the recipes in her book, to share cooking tips and to talk about how Omaha's becoming more and more welcoming to vegans.
Before we started cooking, Isa placed a steaming cup of coffee spiked with soy creamer in my hand and started moving around the kitchen that she remodeled and designed herself. She pulled "Isa Does It" up on her iPad and scrolled to the first recipe we'd make that day, Tofu Stroganoff.
"I wanted this book to be classic comfort food, but easier," she said.
Moskowitz, 40, moved to Omaha in 2010, after she met her boyfriend, Omahan John McDevitt, on a vegan cruise. McDevitt runs veganomaha.com.
Moskowitz became vegan as a teenager in the 1990s. She created an online cooking show called "The Post Punk Kitchen" in 2003 with her writing partner, Terry Hope Romero. Two years later, in 2005, she wrote her first cookbook.
Since then, she's become one of the most popular self-trained vegan cookbook writers in the country. Between Facebook and Twitter, she has almost 100,000 followers and her popular vegan blog is at www.theppk.com.
In tandem with the release of "Isa Does It," she's back to making cooking videos. "Make it Vegan" is a series of YouTube spots she made with Zero Point Zero, Anthony Bourdain's production company. The segments will slowly roll out over the next few weeks. Kelley Deal, of the Breeders, performs the theme song to the short, funny videos that feature recipes from the new book.
For "Isa Does It," Moskowitz revamped many of the recipes she'd written over the years for her other books and her blog, The Post Punk Kitchen. She started with long lists of ingredients and whittled away until the steps were as simple as possible while the flavors of the recipe remained intact.
We began cooking by preparing cashew cream, a vegan staple. It's the cousin of creamy nut butters and acts in place of half-and-half or heavy cream in lots of Moskowitz' recipes, including the stroganoff we'd make that day.
Home cooks can plan ahead and soak a cup of cashews in water in advance, or do the last-minute version like we did: Boil the nuts in water for 15 minutes. Drain the now-soft and plump cashews, dump them in a blender along with some vegetable broth and whir them until they're no longer grainy.
While the blender buzzed, Moskowitz sliced tofu into small triangles with a big knife, a technique she dives into in her book in a section called "vegan butchery." She cooks the tofu, to my surprise, in a heavy cast iron pan she's preheated. It conducts heat better, she says, and the tofu ends with an impressive, golden crust and a tender chew. It looks like the tofu I order in restaurants but can never seem to recreate at home. Now I know.
Moskowitz said she thinks there are many reasons fewer and fewer people — vegan or otherwise — cook at home. One is cooking shows.
"When you watch cooking shows and read cookbooks, you feel this pressure to do things the 'right' way," Moskowitz said. "With this book, I give people permission to do it the wrong way."
Moskowitz uses dried herbs, condensed vegetable stock paste and inexpensive white wine in the stroganoff.
Because she hates doing dishes, she made sure many of the recipes use just one bowl or one skillet.
"It's not true that cooking is intimidating or impossible," she said. "You can be more forgiving, and it's not like your food is going to fail."
The rest of the dish comes together quickly. Moskowitz removes the tofu from the pan, and in the same pan, sautees onions, mushrooms, garlic and herbs, adds wine and tomato paste and then pours in her smooth nut cream. As it cooks, the cashew cream thickens and she folds in the cooked tofu. She then serves the dish over pasta she's cooked in another pan while the vegetables and cream simmered.
The stroganoff has all the homey warmth of the classic version. The mushrooms and wine bring depth, and the soft-crisp tofu gets gently glazed by the flavorful, herby sauce. I'd welcome this dish any crisp fall evening.
Next, Isa whips together what she calls her "signature cookie." She folds chopped savory rosemary into a simple batter of coconut oil, ground flaxseed — the stand-in for egg — almond milk, vanilla and sugar. She folds in flour and chips and pops them into a counter top oven.
"I think taste buds are the best vehicle for change," Moskowitz said. "If you can get people who don't eat vegan to try it and see how yummy it can be, that's how you change things."
She's seen a lot of things change since she moved here three years ago. More restaurants are serving vegan dishes. The Meatless Monday trend is officially in Omaha, at Benson Brewery, where Moskowitz herself guest starred for a month while the kitchen served her recipes.
Jessica Joyce, who co-owns Block 16, said Moskowitz taught her how to make seitan, a vegan meat alternative, from scratch.
"I was intimidated by vegan cooking because there are a lot of ingredients and products out there, and we take it seriously and want to do it right," Joyce said. "Isa makes it seem so effortless. She is excited about the food she is doing and wants everyone to reap that reward, diners and chefs."
After Joyce and co-chef and owner Paul Urban learned to make seitan, a light went on. They realized how many of the dishes they loved could be retooled to be vegan — and that Omaha had a demand for it.
"It was kind of like the first day we had one vegan customer, the next day we had two and then all of a sudden we had 80," Joyce said. "It has blown up."
Joyce said Moskowitz is at the heart of the changes.
"In the last two years, I have seen a lot of new vegan customers and more people who are willing to try vegan food," she said. "Its almost like if you are not vegan, you are weird."
As Moskowitz pulled out the first tray of small cookies in her kitchen, the familiar scent of baked chocolate chips melded with the more exotic, fragrant rosemary. Moskowitz has served these cookies at many vegan Omaha events, and she'll make them later this year for a book tour around the country.
They are, in a way, a metaphor for what she does.
"Vegan cookies are scary enough, and people get really scared when there's rosemary in there," she said, laughing. "But I'm not going to dumb it down. If it tastes good, that's what counts."
The cookies are, indeed, fantastic. Soft and just slightly chewy, both comforting and unusual.
"I think Omaha is ready," Moskowitz said, as she prepared a second tray of cookies and popped them into her oven. "It's about taking the unfamiliar and making it familiar."
* * * * * Isa Does It: The Recipes
Stroganoff — just the mere mention of it makes you feel warm and cozy. I had been using the same vegan stroganoff recipe for about 20 years and felt it was time for an update!
This version is full of creamy and heavenly mushroom ?avor, with hints of white wine and thyme. Lightly sautéed strips of tofu make it even more ?lling and delicious. I love how fusilli catches the sauce in its curves, but wide noodles like fettuccine or rombi are good choices, too.
• 8 ounces fusilli
• ľ cup cashews, soaked for at least 2 hours • 1˝ cups vegetable or mushroom broth
For the tofu:
• 14 ounces extra firm tofu, sliced into thin strips
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• Pinch of salt
For the sauce:
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• 1 medium yellow onion, quartered and thinly sliced
• ˝ teaspoon salt, plus a pinch
• 4 cloves garlic, minced
• 8 ounces cremini mushrooms, thinly sliced
• 1 teaspoon dried thyme
• ˝ cup dry white wine
• 2 tablespoons tomato paste
• Several pinches of freshly ground black pepper
• Chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, for garnish (optional)
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for the pasta. When it's boiling, cook the pasta according to the package directions. Drain and set aside.
Drain the cashews and add them to a blender along with the vegetable broth. Blend until very smooth, with only a slight graininess. This could take anywhere from 1 to 5 minutes depending on the strength of your machine. Scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula now and again to make sure you get everything.
Prepare the tofu: Preheat a large, heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat and add the oil. Sauté the tofu along with the salt for 5 minutes or so, until it's just slightly browned. Set the tofu on a plate covered with aluminum foil as you prepare the sauce.
Prepare the sauce: In the same pan in which you cooked the tofu, still on medium heat, add the oil and sauté the onion in the oil along with a pinch of salt for about 5 minutes, until translucent. Add the minced garlic and sauté for 30 seconds or so. Now add the mushrooms and thyme and cook until the mushrooms are lightly browned, about 5 more minutes. Add the wine, tomato paste, remaining ˝ teaspoon salt, and pepper, stir, and turn the heat up to high. Let the wine reduce by about half. This should take 5 minutes or so. Turn the heat back down to medium.
Pour in the cashew mixture. Stir until well combined and let thicken for about 5 minutes. Taste for seasoning. Add the tofu and toss to coat, carefully, so as not to break the tofu. Serve over the pasta, and garnish with fresh parsley, if you like.
Notes: To get the strips of tofu for this recipe, slice tofu in half through the equator, like a clam. Then slice each half into Ľ-inch thick strips. You should end up with slices that are about 3 inches long by 1 inch wide.
* * *
Rosemary Chocolate Chip Cookies
There is something otherworldly about the rosemary-chocolate combination, and it makes these my favorite cookies in the world. These are buttery, golden, sublime and just slightly exotic.
Makes 24 cookies
• ˝ cup refined coconut oil, softened
• 2 tablespoons loosely packed chopped fresh rosemary
• 1/3 cup light brown sugar
• Ľ cup granulated sugar
• Ľ cup almond milk (or your favorite non-dairy milk)
• 1 tablespoon ground flaxseed (golden preferred)
• 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
• 11/3 cups all purpose flour
• ˝ teaspoon salt
• ˝ teaspoon baking soda
• ˝ cup semisweet chocolate chips
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease two large baking sheets.
In a large bowl, use a fork to beat together the coconut oil and rosemary until relatively smooth. Add both sugars and beat for about 1 minute.
Add the milk and ground ?axseed and beat once again, for 30 seconds or so. Mix in the vanilla. Add about half of the flour, as well as the salt and baking soda, and mix well. Add the remainder of the flour, along with the chocolate chips, and mix well until it looks like, well, cookie dough.
Scoop rounded spoonfuls of dough (about 2 tablespoons per cookie) onto the baking sheets about 2 inches apart. Flatten gently with your hands. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until the bottoms are golden brown.
Let cool on the sheets for 3 minutes or so, then transfer to cooling racks to let cool the rest of the way.
Notes: I simply use a fork to mix most of the cookie recipes in this book. True, it takes a little more elbow grease and time to beat the oils and sugars adequately, but for me it's somehow worth it not to have to break out the handheld mixer. If you don't see the logic in this (because there really isn't any), then feel free to use your handheld mixer!
I also use a cookie disher, which is a small ice cream scoop. But for years I relied on nothing but a tablespoon and my eyeballs to make sure my cookies were the same size, so you can do that, too.
Make sure that your coconut oil is at room temperature. It shouldn't be clear and melted, just somewhat creamy without any large lumps.