John Schlimm, Cheesy Vegan
John Schlimm is the award-winning author of 15 books on cooking/entertaining, history, how-to, and fiction. He holds a master’s degree from Harvard University and travels the country speaking about cooking and entertaining. He lives in Pennsylvania.
Caryn Hartglass: Hello everybody, I’m Caryn Hartglass and you’re listening to It’s All About Food. It’s the middle of October – October 15, 2013. Lovely, lovely fall day – sunny. It doesn’t even feel like fall here in New York City; it’s actually been pretty moderate, lovely weather. My favorite time of year, how about you? And there are some really fun foods to eat around this time; we’re getting into some of those heartier, heavier things. I’ve been playing around a lot of beets. You can’t beet them, right? I get a delivery of produce with a particular business I subscribe to from time to time and they bring organic vegetables every week. We’re getting a lot of beets. I don’t know, I guess some people can eat beets all the time, but I kind of have to be in the mood for them. Sometimes I throw a chunk into my green juice, or just steam them up and have them ready to slice in salad. I was a little adventurous and made a borscht soup last week – I’ve made them from time to time over the years, but this was a slightly different variation and it was surprisingly wonderful. I added a little barley miso to it because I had read that some borscht soups have beef stock in them, so I like to go to miso, especially the darker ones, when I want that heavier, meatier texture or flavor. And this was an incredible mix. I am constantly surprised about the mixing of different flavors and foods, things you never think would go together and then you put them together and they’re either good or they’re not good, but when they’re good, they’re really good. I haven’t posted that recipe, but I will get to it sometime soon. Alright, let’s get on with the show, shall we? So we were just talking about some really serious stuff with Hope Bohanec’s book, The Ultimate Betrayal, and I commend her for putting all that information together, so useful. I appreciate people trying to do the best that they possibly can in their lives, especially when it comes to food. I think if you’re going to put the effort to look for food like organic milk or organic eggs because you think the animals are going to be treated better and the food is going to be better quality, can’t you go that extra step and not choose them at all, and go for the plant options instead? This book gives you all the reasons why you should, because even though we want to believe those animals are treated better, they have a pretty miserable life. And there’s no reason not to eat a plant-based diet, as we’re going to find out in a moment, because there are so many fabulous alternatives. One of the things people say when you mention that they should give up dairy is that thing called cheese. There are cheese addictions, and we’ve got some wonderful news for you. So I’m going to bring on my next guest, John Schlimm; he’s got a new book out called Cheesy Vegan. He is the award-winning author of fifteen books on cooking/entertaining, activism, history, how-to, and fiction. He holds a Master’s degree from Harvard University and travels the country speaking about cooking and entertaining. He lives in Pennsylvania. Welcome back to It’s All About Food, John!
John Schlimm: Hey, Caryn! It’s so exciting to be back with you and all of your great listeners!
Caryn Hartglass: So what have you been doing? You’ve been talking to a lot of people. You were just talking to Marilu Henner, is that correct?
John Schlimm: Yes! How lucky am I, I get to talk to you and Marilu Henner on her show earlier today – all in one day!
Caryn Hartglass: All in one day.
John Schlimm: And I’m doing Victoria Moran tomorrow. So three of my favorite ladies in one week. I’m the luckiest guy in the world, really am!
Caryn Hartglass: Well, I hope the last program went well and that you’ve got more energy left to talk more about your Cheesy Vegan recipes.
John Schlimm: Absolutely! It’s always so fun talking to you. And I really appreciated the last thing you did. For me, it’s all about the animals; delicious food is a given, you’re always going to find that in my cookbooks or else I wouldn’t be writing them. But I really write them, on some level, so that those animals out there know we’re thinking of them and that they’re not alone. So I appreciate hearing interviews and hearing about books like that.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m like you, where I want to think about the fun things, the joyful things and the delicious food that’s out there, but I can’t forget why this all started and why I really do it. It’s a hard thing to think about. I find that when I do kind of open my soul to the reality of what’s going on, I find that I can’t take much of it in, frankly.
John Schlimm: I’m out there on the lecture circuit, I do a lot of the Vegfests, but I do not do a lot of cooking demos. They’ve even stopped asking me to do them, because I get up there and talk about the whole concept of embracing compassion, whether it’s through tasty activism, eating delicious plant-based food, and yes it can be delicious, and yes, it can be fun, but at the end of the day, it’s really about letting these beautiful animals know that we’re right there with them and we’re trying to make a difference in the world for them. It’s always a thrill to get to talk about them. I was giving a keynote at Poplar Springs Animal Sanctuary last week, and just to be able to jump into the pigpen with those pigs and give them a big hug was such a thrill for me.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, I’ve been looking at your schedule and I know you’ve been talking in a variety of places, but what’s exciting is that there are so many events. Some of them are large, and some of them are small, but there are Veg Festivals popping up all over the place.
John Schlimm: It’s great! It’s really great, and what I love about it is that is speaks to the heart of grassroots efforts, which is what we are all about. So I’m always thrilled whether it’s a small event or a large, established event. I’m always thrilled and so honored to be invited to speak. At the beginning of the summer, I spoke at the very first Rehoboth Beach Vegfest. It was very exciting to speak at the dawn of what is going to be for years to come a great Vegfest there. And I just MC’d DC Vegfest. And those people, you know, they’ve been around a while, they kind of created the blueprint for how you do a Vegfest. It’s just so great. Such a great mixture of positive energy and compassion.
Caryn Hartglass: Now I’m assuming that there are more younger people at these festivals.
John Schlimm: No; it runs the gamut, and that’s what’s so exciting to see. I think either there is this stereotype out there, especially among non-vegans or vegetarians, they seem to have this image of the granola-eating hippie – not that there’s anything wrong with that; I know a few granola-eating hippies and I love them to no end -
Caryn Hartglass: It’s an amazing image that has persisted. I don’t know why.
John Schlimm: But that’s not the case anymore. You go to these Vegfests and you meet every age group, every socioeconomic…. it just goes right across the demographics, and it’s so great to see. And with the Cheesy Vegan, I am starting to hear stories from a lot of parents out there that the kids are starting to get in on the recipes, because they are so simple, kids can actually get in the kitchen and do this with their parents, and have fun. So they’re learning about quality time, they’re learning about good healthy food, and that just send me right over the moon. I love that.
Caryn Hartglass: We’re going to get to your book in a moment, but there’s a number of different vegan cheeses that exist on our planet today, and I’ve got them in three categories. One is the kind that we see more and more in health food stores and some regular supermarkets – there are different varieties, but for the most part, I give the companies that are making those cheeses a lot of credit, but I don’t care for any of them. It’s just a personal thing, and for some people that are transitioning and really find it hard to live without cheese, some of them have really helped them. It’s just something about having a fatty plop of something that gets soft on whatever they’re eating that feeds the addiction or is comforting or whatever it is. Then, there are the kinds you can make at home, and we’re going to get more into that, because they’re easy, and they’re fun, and just fabulous on so many levels. But then there’s this game-changing thing going on which we haven’t seen yet. But there’s people out there working in laboratories who are working on taking these nut milk bases and adding cultures to them and making cheese like cow cheese and sheep cheese and goat cheese, and they’re making them now out of nut milks. This is very exciting; it’s fascinating, and I’m curious to see where that going to go. It’s kind of hard to do that at home, but I talked to Miyoko Schinner when her book came out and I’ve done some of it at home, but it’s very, very time-consuming. Have you tried any of those?
John Schlimm: I did, as you can imagine, a lot of research – extensive research – when I was writing this book. Some of the vegan cheese recipes out there, and you can find tons on the internet, you practically need a chemistry degree.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, I have one.
John Schlimm: Those things go right over my head! I would need you to come over and I should have called you up, because I’m trying to figure out some of these recipes – I can’t even pronounce these words, let alone figure out what I’m making. Like, that is fine for the people in the labs who are hopefully creating some really delicious cheese that we’re going to enjoy in the years to come. But for my cookbook, I wanted to bring vegan cheese home to Main Street for all of us to enjoy, in really simple, easy recipes that even kids can make. And so that was the priority for me in this book – I’ll leave the chemistry up to all you chemists. We certainly need chemists in the world.
Caryn Hartglass: For food that’s mass produced, there’s certainly a lot of chemical engineering going on, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing, but it’s definitely out there. One of the scary things I found about making these things about home, I found, like when making a yogurt with a probiotic culture, you leave it out on the counter and in a warm environment, and you can do this for days, and the stuff is growing – but I’m thinking, is it clean enough? Am I doing the right thing? I didn’t have the test equipment to see if I was growing anything that I shouldn’t have. So there are a lot of things that go wrong, and there are a lot of things that go wrong in the cheese business. There are a lot of things that they have to check for, and sometimes cheeses get out and dairy products get out that have a lot of dangerous things in them. And now we have a government shutdown, so no one is inspecting….
John Schlimm: I think that complicated recipes that are out there for vegan cheese or some other vegan dishes – it gives all the work the rest of us are trying to do a really bad name. Because I think it has, from the beginning, because people think vegan food, plant-based food is weird and mysterious, that at the end of the day, it’s tasteless and blah. i think non-vegans and vegetarians still think that we eat something akin to hummus smeared on cardboard using these weird ingredients you can only find in health food stores or on Mars or something. From the very beginning with my first book, The Tipsy Vegan, and then Grilling Vegan Style and now the Cheesy Vegan, I’ve been determined to smash through those silly and ridiculous stereotypes and create recipes that I like to call small-town friendly. I live in a small town, and I want my friends and neighbors here to be able to go to our supermarkets and occasionally, the liquor store, of course, and find pretty much all the ingredients they are going to need. And if there are a few ingredients that may be new to some of the readers, I give them either homemade versions of those or easy, online, door-to-door sources where they can find them. But those are very rare, few and far between. I think it’s very important to introduce readers, whether it’s in a small town or anywhere, to a few new ingredients. We all need that. But the days of complicated recipes need to be behind us, as far as I’m concerned.
Caryn Hartglass: The thing people love about cheese is, as I mentioned before, the salt and the fat. There are so many things that are so unhealthy about cheese – cholesterol and unsaturated fats and a whole host of things that are in dairy and other animals, milk products that we shouldn’t be consuming. Even the animals of their own species aren’t consuming that milk as adults. And there’s a lot of cruelty involved, and there’s environmental degradation. Your cheeses are practically guilt-free. They’re made with primarily whole ingredients that have great nutrition, and you’re also getting the salt and the fat, but it’s all good food. So let’s jump into that. Now there is one mysterious ingredient, which we need to talk about a bit. And that’s the ingredient agar. Let’s talk about agar. And why people say agar agar sometimes.
John Schlimm: I don’t know why people feel the need to say it other than it’s such a bizarre word and maybe sometimes maybe because it’s fun to pronounce it twice. Agar agar. It sounds actually like a Halloween word – maybe the new costume this year should be Agar Agar.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s what I’m going to do for Halloween now.
John Schlimm: Right? It’s going to be the hottest costume. Let’s do it and let’s see how we interpret that into a costume. But at its most basic, it’s a powder, or it comes in flake form as well. It’s a vegan gelatin. As we all know, the gelatin we have known for decades is not vegan for a lot of reasons that we probably don’t even want to get into, but I think if people did a lot of research, they would get into what’s really in there.
Caryn Hartglass: Cartilage. Bone cartilage from animals.
John Schlimm: Leave it to the chemist to…I mean, it’s just absolutely disgusting when you think about it. And there are a lot of ingredients like that, like refined sugar, which has animal bone char in it, and most people don’t realize that. So you just have to be so aware. But the agar agar – I’m really thinking of costumes now -
Caryn Hartglass: You know what I’m thinking of? You mentioned powder and flakes, but I bought the long strands of agar from our Chinatown stores. I don’t know if you’ve seen that – they’re long and hard and almost noodle-y – but I’m thinking, what a great costume. Kind of like a weird person wearing all these white, long strands.
John Schlimm: I want to see photos of you this Halloween. I will be expecting a tweet on Halloween from you. And again, agar is one of those new ingredients that I have introduced. I think a lot of long-time vegans and vegetarians will have heard of it, but it is going to be new to some readers. It’s basically used as a binding ingredient to hold a lot of the other ingredients together in the cheeses. It has no flavor in and of itself, but I think once you get used to working with it, the readers will use it in more than just the vegan cheese recipes. You’re going to start seeing a lot of other recipes where you can use it as well.
Caryn Hartglass: And it can be tricky to use. You really need to get the right amount, the right liquid-to-agar amount. And sometimes if people are using flakes and the recipe calls for a powder, and they’re not using a weight scale, they might not get the right amount.
John Schlimm: That’s right. So I tried to make sure that I was very specific when it’s best used – the powder in some of these cheese recipes, flakes, or either or, and that’s laid out with exact measurements. And you know, vegan chemistry, making cheese, the recipes are easy, but just like in baking, it’s chemistry. Cooking is chemistry, and in some cases, you really do have to be pretty precise in the way you follow the recipes. I think with vegan cheese, it’s like that. You want to stick as close as you can to the actual cheese recipes. Now when you get into the 100+ food recipes in the rest of the book where you can use cheese, you know, you have a little more freedom with some of the spices and herbs and some of the other ingredients – if you want to add a little more of this, a little less of that. You have that freedom. But when it comes to specific things like making the cheese, or again, in baking, you want to make sure you stick pretty close to the recipe. I’ve heard from people around the world, actually, because I just did this great thing on Google Plus called Vegan Mainstream Cookbook club. I was their featured author last week, and people around the world said, “We don’t have this certain food where we live. What could we use in some of these recipes where it calls for it?” I said, basically, the easiest thing would be some roasted bell peppers. Roasted red bell peppers are basically the same and they’re delicious, so they used it, and they found that it worked pretty well. And then there was one woman who was allergic to cashews, which appear in some of the cheese recipes. Now, she’s not allergic to nuts, only cashews cause an issue. So she substituted a combination of macadamia nuts and pine nuts.
Caryn Hartglass: Delicious.
John Schlimm: I know, I can’t wait to try that! I wish I had thought of that; that sounds incredible! Of course, macadamia nuts can be a little pricey, and we like to keep the recipes to a price point where they’re accessible to everybody. But it just goes to show how creative people are out there, especially the home cooks; they just keep getting better and better, and I love it.
Caryn Hartglass: All right, so just give us a basic idea on how it works. I know there’s a lot of different recipes, but what do people need to know on how to make these things? So before they go out and buy your book, they are forewarned or prepared for what it takes.
John Schlimm: I can only speak for my recipes. Otherwise, go get a chemistry degree before you look at some of these other recipes; I can’t vouch for them. But I can simplify my cheese recipes down to four words: mix, blend, set, eat.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh! I like the last part!
John Schlimm: Well that’s everyone’s favorite, right? Mine too. You’re going to find that these recipes do not have a lot of ingredients, and basically, you’re mixing some of them, you’re blending some of them, and you’re letting them set for, depending on the cheese, maybe one hour to overnight, and I specify that so you know if you’re going to have to start a day ahead. And then you just eat them, and it’s really that simple. People don’t believe me until they read the book and say, “It really is that simple.” And it couldn’t be any other way with me, because I want anyone, from the first time home cook to the top chefs out there to be able to pick up this book and just run with it. Because it’s about having fun. Like with my other books, this is meant to be a party in a book. Check reality on page one, then just come along with me and let’s have fun!
Caryn Hartglass: So your cheeses, some of them have cashews in them as the fat base; sometimes you use tofu….I notice you have this mozzarella recipe, which I love, which is made from oatmeal and tahini and vanilla agar.
John Schlimm: Yes! Agar isn’t used in every recipe. Someone who might be a little freaked out by that don’t have to feel like they’re going to have to get acquainted with Agar Agar so soon; they’re going to be able to try some of the other ingredient combinations and come up with some really great results.
Caryn Hartglass: Now where did you get the recipe inspirations? I know that my first vegan cheese recipe I got from Real Food Daily with agar. And I’ve been making variations on that ever since. Did you have any inspirations, or did you just start from scratch?
John Schlimm: As I mentioned earlier, I did research extensively on all the different recipes that are out there, to the point that I was literally dreaming vegan cheese. So how can we take – let’s look at all the cheddars – how have all these cheddar cheeses been done, and how have dairy cheddar cheeses been done? I researched a lot about how dairy cheeses are created, and how we can take those components altogether and really simplify it down to the easiest cheese; all the standards are in here. I work with a really great test kitchen team that I’ve assembled. You mentioned that I’ve done fifteen books. About 10 of those have been cookbooks; I wrote cookbooks even before I was vegan. So over the course of my career, I have really gathered a great team around me, which is really important to have, and really to get those down to the core ingredients, which would be easy for everyone to understand and create.
Caryn Hartglass: So we’ve got the cheeses, and you have a lot of different variations of them; some are harder, some are softer and spicier and “wine-ier”…
John Schlimm: You can never take The Tipsy Vegan away from me…once a Tipsy Vegan, always.
Caryn Hartglass: And there’s smoked and there’s…it’s like what we do with all out vegan recipes. It’s all about the flavorings that make our food delicious, that make all our foods delicious. I add some smoky flavoring or some horseradish…there are just so many flavors that go so wonderfully with fat.
John Schlimm: Isn’t that true? Funny how that works
Caryn Hartglass: And then you come up with all the comfort recipes afterwards – what people can do with these cheeses.
John Schlimm: There’s an entire chapter dedicated just to mac-and-cheese; there’s even an entire chapter dedicated to cheesecake. But of course, that was a no-brainer, those two demanded their own chapters. But then you’ll find everything from breakfast to brunch, soups and salads, right on to supper. Everything is covered. I really want this cookbook to be something that people can use on a daily basis if they so choose. And one of the parts of the book that I’m hearing the most about is the extensive pairing chart I have put on the back. And again, it’s the Tipsy Vegan coming through, but I took each of the homemade cheeses, and really by association, the rest of the dishes throughout the book, and I paired them with suggested red and white wines, beer, classic cocktails, and really other spirits. So, you can take cheddar, for example, and pair it with a chardonnay or a merlot or a gin martini. I outline that for people who really want to – because today, the hottest way to entertain is to do a tasting, with either beer or wine and whatever food, and I get to do that quite a bit. I wanted to put that in the book so that people can do that and go off on their own tangent in a million directions. I even put where people can do a “vegan cheese of the month club” with their friends; I outline an entire year of suggestions for what you could make in January, February, March…for example, I’ll make the cheese this month and have you all over, the next month you’ll make it and have us all over. Fun! Fun, fun, fun.
Caryn Hartglass: This is not about deprivation.
John Schlimm: No! This is about fun and indulgence. But at the end of the day, you can feel good about eating food that is good for you, while at the same time sending a message of compassion out there to all of our animal friends. All of the dedications in each of my three vegan cookbooks are the same: “To all the animals – so you know that you have not passed this way unloved.” That’s so important for me, because there’s not a day that goes by, I know for me and for you, that our hearts don’t break for those animals. And that’s one what I can do that
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, so some things I learned from this book…I did not know what nooch was.
John Schlimm: The street name for nutritional yeast!
Caryn Hartglass: How did I not know that? What street is that on?
John Schlimm: The beginning of theCheesy Vegan and in all of my vegan cookbooks, I do a very detailed vegan pantry section talking about all the ingredients used throughout the book, such as nutritional yeast, because again, that’s one of those ingredients someone new to the plant-based lifestyle could discover. They could easily go to my pantry section and find out what that is. Agar Agar, that actually leads off the pantry section.
Caryn Hartglass: What I was surprised to find out – I love nutritional yeast, and I’m not sure if I’m going to get into the swing of things and call it nooch, but I’ll do my best – I get five pounds of nutritional yeast at bulkfoods.com. And I store a lot of it, but i like to have it on hand, and it’s so much more economical to buy it in the big volumes than in the little 4 or 8 ounce bottles in the store. And I didn’t know that bulkfoods.com has agar, so I’m going to have to check that out. I learned that from your book too.
John Schlimm: It’s fantastic, right? And for any of you listeners who aren’t familiar with nutritional yeast – I have a hard time saying nooch as well; I’m always afraid I’m going to mispronounce it and it’s going to come out strange – nutritional yeast is really fantastic. Obviously, I use it in the cheeses and some of the dishes, and it’s really great to sprinkle on a salad. It shouldn’t be confused with any other kind of yeast, but it has a really great, earthy, cheesy taste. You can just sprinkle it on food and it adds a cheesy kick very quickly.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, a couple of other recipes I must mention now. I’m a big fan of tempeh reubens, and you have a beautiful reuben recipe with your real vegan swiss cheese.
John Schlimm: Yes, and that was a no-brainer, because I have always loved reuben sandwiches, and of course, it was something that I had to let go. Which was fine, but then I thought, I don’t want to let go of it anymore. I want a reuben sandwich that we can all enjoy. This is a sandwich, with the tempeh and the swiss, that your more carnivorous pals out there are going to love. And that’s the thing about my recipes – these are recipes written for everyone to enjoy. in the beginning, I had some people come to me, and these was a discussion: “How are you going to spell cheese?” And I was like, “What do you mean?” And they were like, “Maybe you should put a ‘z’ at the end, or a ‘ze.’ And I was like, that is not how you spell cheese.” That just makes it look like you are trying to get away with something. I’m not trying to get away with anything. I am creating cheese. This is cheddar, this is swiss, this is mozzarella – they’re all cheese. Just because they don’t happen to have dairy, that does not mean they’re not cheese. I just did an interview with an NPR station in Wisconsin, which as you know is right in the heart of dairy country. It was fantastic! I got such a great response form that. In the dairy world, we all know what cheddar tastes like. There are a lot of different brands of dairy cheddar, and some of those brands of dairy cheddar taste a lot better than the others. So just consider this as John Schlimm’s brand of cheddar. It’s just another brand of cheddar that is being put out there. You don’t have to specify it as plant-based or vegan; I think people feel they need to make excuses to their friends when they come over, but the fact is that this is delicious food, and everyone is going to enjoy it.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. That’s language for you. I was thinking as a feminist – when we have to qualify, normally, you go to a doctor, but if she’s a doctor, you say, “I’m going to a woman doctor.” And you always have to kind of add these adjectives to kind of apologize or explain something that isn’t considered normal. And with do it with cheese, and even butter, you know how some people say “vegan butter.” Sometimes you want to say that, or at least in a restaurant where you want to know the food is vegan, you want something that clarifies that, but there have been lots of arguments from companies that make milk about soy companies calling their product soy “milk”. But dairy people thought that they owned the word “milk.” Which is ridiculous, because we have mother’s milk, human milk. We have coconut milk. There are a lot of different milks out there.
John Schlimm: Like, have you asked a cow their opinion? I think they would be okay with us calling almond milk and rice milk and soy milk “milk.” I think they would be perfectly fine with that.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, so we only have minute left, and I didn’t want to end without mentioning your Fried Olives Stuffed with Smoky Cheese Hummus. This is a crazy rich, decadent dish.
John Schlimm: You know the great thing about that dish? I am currently working with a local university here, the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, and this semester, three classes in their hospitality program are incorporating theCheesy Vegan cookbook into their curriculum. It’s just so exciting! And none of these students are vegan or vegetarian, so they’re learning about it. They’re throwing a big tasting at the end, and that’s one of the dishes that they’re serving at the tasting. I just think it’s so cool, that theCheesy Vegan is becoming a part of the college curriculum; it’s just one more step forward. So that dish is delicious; even the smoky hummus on its own is fantastic, but you stuff it in some olives, fry them up, and yum yum.
Caryn Hartglass: Especially during holiday party time. John, thank you for joining me! It’s always a pleasure. And thank you for creating all these lovely and delicious vegan recipes for us to enjoy – compassionate and cruelty-free and all that gooey, good stuff.
John Schlimm: You are most welcome, it is always a pleasure. And I will be watching for that Agar Agar costume!
Caryn Hartglass: Alright, I will get working on that.
John Schlimm: And if not, maybe one of the listeners out there will do it!
Caryn Hartglass: Okay!
John Schlimm: I really want to see that.
Caryn Hartglass: Great. Well, people can check out your website, johnschlimm.com. Okay, thanks for joining me, John! I’m Caryn Hartglass, and we’ve come to the end of this show! Visit me at responsibleeatingandliving.com. Let’s say it all together – have a delicious week! Bye-bye.
Transcribed by Sarah Brown, 12/10/2013