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

  • 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)

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

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

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

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

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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  • October 22, 2009
    3:33 pm

    Sounds wonderful!!!!!Sharon McConnell Worster

  • October 22, 2009
    4:31 pm

    Ooh. Those crisp flavors. Just so amazing … so fresh, so beautiful. The most delicious soup ever.Love these pictures and love that you're sharing this one. Amazing …

  • October 22, 2009
    5:32 pm

    Thanks for the recommendation I cannot wait to get the book, I have been looking for a good Vegan cookbook for a while and will DEFINITELY join you on that challenge Jewels!! Good Luck – I look forward to hearing your progress with a less meaty diet and seeing what recipes you come up with yourself!B x

  • October 22, 2009
    5:33 pm

    How about we choose a weekend evening and I will help you cook through them. I'm sure Kirsten would love to help out! Let me know!

  • October 22, 2009
    5:43 pm

    "could you send some over for me?"Lorraine Rebbenack

  • October 22, 2009
    6:24 pm

    Yes! Consuming at least one meal per week that substitutes meatless foods for meat is a start that's healthy for both our bodies and our environment. A vegan who drives an SUV is more environmentally-friendly than a meat-eater who rides a bicycle! "Go green" = "Go meatless"!

  • October 22, 2009
    8:34 pm

    "Yay" for the meatless meals. I have been vegetarian for about eight years and wonderful cook books like this one have made my dining and recipe life great. If you ever need a food taste tester…

  • October 22, 2009
    11:11 pm

    I just picked up this book and I am in for some recipe testing!

  • October 22, 2009
    11:41 pm

    As Guinea pig No.1 i can testify that this was indeed a delicious soup! the vegan cashew 'cream' gives it a really creamy taste without being too heavy – and honestly when it tastes this good there really is no need for dairy products… am hoping I get to "test" some more of these yummy recipes and hopefully get myself on a health tip with more vegan food!!xo Jesse

  • October 23, 2009
    2:00 am

    This recipe looks delish! Can't wait to try the challenge, I basically eat this way but would love to master some recipes so I could cook it myself. Thanks for inspiring me Jewels!!!!

  • October 23, 2009
    2:24 am

    I've been vegetarian for years and have just recently been contemplating going vegan, or at least semi-vegan. I'm on board for whatever you dish out.

  • October 23, 2009
    2:34 am

    I probably wasn't clear enough about what exactly the Conscious Cook Challenge is all about. It started with two questions:1). Could I give up meat and possibly all animal products?2). How difficult is it to learn the basic techniques of a plant based diet for a non-classically trained novice in vegan cuisine?It will probably evolve as we go along, but why not all try it together… sharing our successes and examining how to improve on the less successful attempts. Then trying our new found skills out on family and friends to see how well it goes down with them. For instance, last night an unsuspecting dinner guest of mine was convinced the soup had tons of cream in it. He loved the soup, but once I told him it was vegan, he admitted he probably would not have tried it in the first place had he known. I think we need to add a question…3). Can we master these recipes well enough to convince others to want to explore a vegan diet just as Tal's food enticed me?Let's have some fun together! We might just feel a little healthier, and as SAJ mentioned, be helping the environment at the same time.

  • October 23, 2009
    4:04 am

    Julie Anne,I never believed that I could give up all animal products until I started working for Match. The issue I couldn't get around was that the protein sources that I had to use when trying to avoid animal products were either loaded with fillers, tasted bad or didn't allow me to cook how I wanted to cook. Once I started working for (and then trying) Match (a non-animal match for animal meat), I realized that vegetable protein can mimic meat to the point where it IS meat, just from a healthier source. I really don't feel the desire for a juicy steak from a steakhouse now that I can make one at home out of non-animal meat, thus giving me health benefits AND saving the environment.I'm not a chef (but I'm lucky enough to work with one), and I honestly think that reducing meat consumption is something even the most die-hard animal meat eater can do. I commend you for the Conscious Cook Challenge; I plan to follow along and will do my best to have Match send you some raw products to try.

  • October 23, 2009
    5:22 am

    You're on Susan! Thank you for giving me even more inspiration with your story, and I look forward to trying Match!

  • October 23, 2009
    4:56 pm

    If you can find Match, go for it. It is an awesome meat replacer. I drive 4 hours to get it.I also really like tofu, but it took several disastrous attempts at making it before I got the hang of it. So hang in there, I bet your veggie cuisine will rock.

  • October 23, 2009
    5:34 pm

    I can't wait to try the MATCH products, and the gardein recipes in Tal's book look divine too… has anyone tried gardein before?

  • October 23, 2009
    9:10 pm

    I woke up wishing I could open my refrigerator and find this divine soup. So wonderful …

  • October 23, 2009
    9:24 pm

    I am your Guinea Pig forever!May I please have one more waffle?

  • October 23, 2009
    9:57 pm

    Dearest darling Jewels,B E Y O N D !incredible,delectable,divine,….too many superlatives.You are a Goddess.Such a gracious hostess.Can you believe I ate everything in sight and didn't stop talking for a second all night.I love and adore you.Can we all go see September Issue together?Biggest kiss,DB

  • October 24, 2009
    4:40 pm

    i can go meatless anytime you want! Susan Michals

  • October 24, 2009
    4:41 pm

    brilliant, I haven't eaten meat for years xxxxJose Fonseca

  • October 24, 2009
    11:59 pm

    Hi Julie Anne,My husband has always said that by the time he get's to 45yrs of age he will gradually cut back on meat. Eventually, he would like to erase it from his diet. Like myself, we are both meat lovers and yes, like yourself, I too am very much a meat and potato gal.I have noticed that as he is getting closer to 45 (he's almost 43), he certainly is cutting down on his meat intake. Tal's book sounds awesome and if I am able to get my hands on one I shall certainly try the recipes. No doubt my hubby is all for it. Looking forward to interesting cooking ahead and good luck with the challenges.Aussie MumP.S Wonderful blog by the way and such an interesting soup recipe.

  • October 25, 2009
    12:05 am

    Thank you all of you for your support, and here's to exploring vegan cooking together!

  • November 24, 2009
    1:18 am

    I have never enjoyed being a guinea pig quite as much as I did the night of your Concious Cook Challenge dinner party- I was one of the chosen few to get an invitation, and cannot remember a more delightful, delicious evening.The company was as yummy as the food was, and I was proud to be anointed President of the clean plate club!Thanks for opening my eyes to a whole new way of eating…btw-i still don't believe that cheesecake was vegan…that's how i justified another piece and why ryan literally got out of his car to come back for seconds!I could give up all animal products if you would cook like this for me!Here's to you Jewels…YOU are the rock star! Keep those yummy recipes coming- gonna try the brussels sprouts for Thanksgiving!xoxoTammi from Miami

  • November 26, 2009
    7:42 pm

    Wonderful idea! Thanks for challenging more people to follow Tal's lead in the kitchen. I've been a vegan for 23 years and finally, the cuisine is on par with the finest food on any fancy meat eating menu.I recommend two other books for those who are dabbling in vegan cooking: Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows by Melanie Joy, Ph.D.and Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.All my best to you,Patti B.