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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  • November 1, 2009
    5:06 pm

    Where do you buy gardein and what is it? I tried to find it in Whole Foods. Also, my favorite vegan cookbook is "The Voluptuous Vegan". The paella recipe is a huge hit with clients. A client has got this book for me to make meals so I love hearing your reviews. Thanks Julie Anne.Hillary Short

  • November 1, 2009
    5:16 pm

    This looks so good, I am always looking for great veggie meal ideas and gardein is something I want to try. What does gardein taste like? Where would I find it? Are there desert recipes using gardein?Meagan Mullen

  • November 1, 2009
    5:17 pm

    Hi hillary:I had a really hard time finding it. I tried Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and Erwon without luck. I thought they would've been most likely, but I'm sure if people start asking for it they will order it. Gelsons had some in their deli section, but it was already in sauce which I felt had a slightly chemical after taste (similar to bottled pasta sauce). Finally I got the ONLY package of "lightly seasoned" Gardein in the freezer section at Ralphs.It worked perfectly in the recipe. I have a feeling it will be more readily available as the cookbook stays on the bestseller list. This recipe is insanely good!Jewels xothe ingredient list reads: water, soy protein, vital wheat gluten, ancient grains (quinoa, amaranth, millet, and kamut), natural flavors (from plant sources), potato starch, expeller pressed canola oil and/or safflower oil, pea protein, modified vegetable gum, carrot fiber, organic beet root fiber, organic evaporated cane juice, yeast extract, sea salt. Rub: spices, red bell pepper flakes. Contains soy and wheat.

  • November 1, 2009
    5:21 pm

    Don't forget – I'm guinea pig #1!!!!! xxxx'sSammy Philips

  • November 1, 2009
    5:23 pm

    Yum yum I can't wait to taste your creations !!!!!Dana Sesson

  • November 1, 2009
    5:24 pm

    AWESOME!! and the contentedness builds and builds. Something changes like youre on a higher energy field. yum. hope I get to enjoy your creations one day. xoLibra Max

  • November 1, 2009
    5:26 pm

    So tell me…how does the Chicken Gardein Piccata really compare??Jean Taska Leatherman

  • November 1, 2009
    5:28 pm

    I found out I'm allergic to 27 (!) different foods I've been eating…one of them being canola oil. It's been challenging in that I have to eat all fruit, veggies, chicken, fish, turkey, etc which is a good thing — but the biggest challenge is to find these foods NOT cooked in canola oil! I have an allergy to canola oil and must only do coconut or olive oil. It is so refreshing to find a veggie cooked with olive and not canola. I couldn't figure out why I was getting so sick everytime I ate at Whole Foods hot bar and it turns out they make most of thier food w/ canola. So, Julie Anne, think about using olive oil in some of your dishes for people like me! Pretty please! Thanks! :-)Linda Lyon

  • November 1, 2009
    5:32 pm

    Jean… I'll be writing a blog entry on the meat substitutes, and other new or unusual ingredients called for in The Conscious Cook soon. Linda… I'm afraid you will have to skip Gardein as it does contain canola oil (or safflower oil… they don't say which for sure). I use olive oil to cook with all of the time! It has a little more flavor than canola oil, but I don't see why you couldn't just substitute in any recipe for meat or vegetables. I use canola in my muffin and pancake recipes because I don't want the olive flavor there so much, but it would be fine in everything else.Jewels xo

  • November 1, 2009
    5:34 pm


  • November 1, 2009
    11:36 pm

    This looks fantastic. I'll have to try this.Joye Peters

  • November 2, 2009
    12:50 am

    Gosh, this looks so good! I have been seeing so much about this cookbook (and it's philosophy), and am so glad you are inspired, too! I have been having a hard time finding Gardein in the Philadelphia area, but plan a trip to a local health food store tomorrow. I am on a mission! I tried the celery root soup, and nearly passed out from deliciousness! It also FEELS so good that there is no dairy or animal protein… not because I am against omnivorous cuisine (I AM an omnivore), but it seems to be SO much easier on your digestive tract. Thanks for opening our eyes with this challenge. I can't wait to see what you come up with next. Very best of luck with your vegan dinner party adventure!xo,Jennifer

  • November 2, 2009
    1:18 am

    Hey Jennifer… I think the thick cashew cream tastes BETTER than the cream in soups. It certainly agrees more with my tummy, and I love the rich, silky texture. Guilt free too! I just made the asparagus soup, and can't slurp it down fast enough… yummy!!!Go on Gardein's website, and click on the shopping trolley to find out where it is carried near you. Also, ask for it at your local grocery stores, and they will be more likely to stock it too.Jewels xo

  • November 2, 2009
    3:43 am

    I know!!!! The cashew cream DOES taste so much better than regular cream! It's like a culinary EPIPHANY! I am now wondering what other recipes can benefit from the cashew cream… so yum.Thanks so much for the link and info… your blog is lovely!xo,Jennifer

  • November 3, 2009
    10:28 pm

    Hi Julie Anne,What a pity that Gardein products are unavailable in Australia. No one here has heard of it. I have an aunt living in Indiana, so it seems on my next trip to the US, I will have to buy some products and try them out. Sounds so good and looks delicious though. Aussie Mum

  • November 3, 2009
    11:13 pm

    Wow, am I pleased you did decide to give up one of those portions for me to try! Jewels, that was, without a doubt, one of the most delicious vegan meals I have ever tasted, it was the perfect combination of being extremely tasty, satisfying and yet light. This is EXACTLY the kind of meal I wish they would serve in restaurants – I sympathize with Natalie Portman, us veggie's often get neglected when eating out and fail to realize that we too would like something delectable and well thought out, rather than a pile of side orders!I will definitely be making this for my next dinner party – hard to believe it was vegan, absolutely DELICIOUS… thank you Jewels!B(a very satisfied Guinea pig No.1)

  • November 4, 2009
    4:04 pm

    Hi Jewels, We are on the same path…again! No meat and exploring vegan cooking for the last 2 months. Even my meat & dairy lovin' cowboy-husband doesn't miss them. A miracle!Love your fabulous blog. xoxoMichele Knecht

  • January 10, 2010
    3:20 am

    Received this cookbook for Christmas. Tried out the twice-baked potato appetizers and they were superlative. Instead of garnishing with pieces of toasted dulse, I ground them up and sprinkled them on as flakes. Extremely easy and the horseradish added a very unique (but not overpowering) flavor. I used the cashew cream in a carrot & ginger soup recipe and it worked out very well. I will certainly be experimenting with that a lot more.Also tried a variation on the quinoa rolls. Didn't have time to prep the portabella so I used avocado and zuchini instead. I use quinoa a lot anyway so I usually have some around. This time I used a combination of regular and brown quinoa to make it a little more visually striking. Quick and easy, but looked great on the plate. This may be added to the weekly dinner rotation.