Yesterday’s sun and cheery disposition persisted well into today, which was busy, but touched by beautiful weather. Yay! Double yay for the fact that I got to spend a little time in my kitchen—not as much as I would have liked, but just enough to keep me sane.
I often here the same thing from clients, friends, and acquaintances who are thinking about veganism: “I’d love to, but I don’t think I could ever give up cheese.” Cheese, it seems, inspires some pretty fierce devotion—a fact that’s hard for me to understand, since I never much liked the stuff. Even pizza—most beloved of beloved foods—was never a fave.
I did, though, have one fondness when it came to fromage, and that was for goat cheese. Odd, maybe, given that I’m sensitive to the more fragrant, soft varieties of cow’s cheese, but there you are. I liked to toss it in salads or with roast veggies, and while I can’t say I miss it, I can say that the challenge of finding a vegan simulacrum has been on my mind. Simultaneously, I’ve been meaning to try a fermented spin on nut “cheese”; I adore my nut cheeses, which I’ve written about here and here. And I’ve been curious to see how they would taste fermented.
So this weekend, I was on a dual mission: 1) make fermented vegan cheese, and 2) make it taste like the goat cheese of my memories. Let’s also throw in 3), which was to replicate the goat cheese dish I used to most enjoy: roast beets, spinach, and goat cheese salad with candied walnuts. A few hours later, mission was accomplished!
Fermenting: it sounds so intimidating. In fact, it’s an easy process: making kraut, kimchee, coconut yogurt, and fermented nut cheese is as simple as watching and waiting. You mix your ingredients (sometimes with the addition of probiotic powder), and leave them in a warm place for at least 6-12 hours (in the case of something like sauerkraut, you’ll have to leave them for at least three days). When the fermenting process is done, you’re left with a tangy food that’s loaded with healthy bacteria and is optimal for smooth digestion.
To make a fermented nut cheese—either the one I’m about to share, or any variety—you begin with one cup of raw nuts or seeds. Soak them in filtered water for at least six hours (this will do for seeds, cashews, and pine nuts) and up to twelve (better for almonds, Brazil nuts, macadamia nuts, walnuts, and pecans). If you’re soaking the nuts for more than six hours, stop once to drain, rinse, and replenish the nuts with fresh water.
The next step is simple: when the nuts have finished soaking, you place them into a food processor with 2 teaspoons unpasteurized miso and a few tablespoons of water. You can also add ½ teaspoon of probiotic powder; not necessary, but great for your belly. (You can simply break apart a few probiotic capsules, if you like, to get the powder.) Process the mix till it’s crumbly but still holds its shape: I aimed for my texture to resemble ricotta cheese.
Wash a mason jar with hot water and soap, and dry it thoroughly. Place the fermented nut cheese in the jar, making sure there’s enough room for the mix to expand a bit, which it will as it ferments. Cover the jar with cheesecloth or a nutmilk bag, and secure it, with a rubber band. Place the mix in a warm place—85-95 degrees is optimal—and leave it be for six hours or more. Twelve hours is an optimal fermentation time, but if you let it go much longer than that it may turn a bit sour.
For my raw, vegan “goat’s cheese,” I used a cup of macadamias, and I soaked them about thirteen hours (overnight and then some). I blended them with my miso, processed till smooth, and placed in a glass jar covered with a nut milk bag. The temperature in my apartment is wacky these days—it’s freezing one day here in NYC, stifling the next, so my heat is on and off—so in order to assure that the cheese would ferment properly, I placed the whole jar in my dehydrator overnight and set it at 90 degrees.
It emerged looking something like this:
The top of any fermented nut or seed cheese will be either a little yellow or a little gray. That’s OK – it’s a part of the fermentation process. If you’d like, you can scrape off this thin covering. Then, give it a taste; it ought to be tangy, soft, and a little salty. Yum!
The next part is fun: you season the nut cheese however you’d like. It’s easiest to do this by pulsing the mix in your food processor again, but it’s fine to do by hand, too. I recommend that you add some sea salt and lemon to any fermented cheese; even with the miso, it’ll most likely need it. In addition to giving it flavor, the salt and lemon combination will make it taste far more like actual cheese. I added ¼ tsp sea salt and a good dose of lemon to my mac cheese, but take note: you could add dill, oregano, sundried tomatoes, black pepper, or any combination of herbs and spices you’d like to make the cheese taste better and more authentic.
By the time I was done, I had a cup of tangy, salty “cheese” that was, honest to god, a dead ringer for goat’s cheese as I remember it. I was flabbergasted. And it looked pretty similar, too! Check it out:
Thrilled with my efforts, I brainstormed about my salad. I had roast beets on hand (I usually do) and salad greens. I also tend to keep a tub of traditional French vinaigrette in the fridge, which is what I wanted to dress this salad with; the recipe is below, but any lemony vinaigrette will do. The only remaining components were the candied walnuts I’d planned on. Keep in mind that, if you’re in a rush, you can definitely skip these, and use raw walnuts instead! They’ll simply add a nice touch to the salad.
It’s very easy to make a raw spin on candied nuts: you coat them with agave/raw honey, a touch of oil, salt, and cinnamon. Typically, you should dehydrate the coated nuts for at least 12-24 hours, but it’s also possible to take a little shortcut, as I did. With not a lot of time on my hands (a few hours), I did a quick spin on candied walnuts: I mixed a teaspoon of agave nectar with ½ tsp coconut oil and a dash of cinnamon. Into this I mixed 1 oz of walnuts, and stirred to coat. I popped them into the dehydrator for 6 hours, and they emerged still sticky, but delicious.
With these in hand, I was ready to make:
Vegan Roast Beet, Goat Cheese, and Spinach Salad with Candied Walnuts (serves 1)
For the salad:
3 cups baby spinach (or a spinach + mesclun mix)
1 medium or large roasted beet, chopped
3 tbsp raw, fermented vegan “goat cheese”
1 oz (or so) candied OR raw walnut pieces
For the dressing:
1 ½ tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon minced shallot (I don’t add this, but it’s very traditional)
1/4 teaspoon Salt
1/8 teaspoon Black pepper
1/4 cup Good olive oil
Whisk all ingredients till smooth and emulsified.
Assembling the salad is a cinch: simply toss the salad ingredients together, and whisk in enough vinaigrette to coat lightly. The resulting salad is as close to a beet and goat cheese salad as any vegan dish could be; I’d even wager that an amateur cheese fan might be fooled.
Or maybe not. Most cheese fans I know (hi bun!) tend to have discerning palates. So if you are a cheese lover, and you have to have the real deal, here are my tips
• Try goat’s cheese, which has little or no lactose, if you’re prone to bloating or touchy digestion
• If you like the taste of hard cheese, you might try raw cheddar style goat cheese, which is increasingly available in health stores
• If you’re going to eat regular, bovine cheeses, opt for a local, organic variety if you can.
But really, you should give this mac cheese a try. It’s a very pleasant surprise!
With that, the work week begins. Nighty!