Christmas came early this year. On December 20th I found out that I was the grand prize winner for the Gardein Escape to LA contest. The winnings included airfare for two to Los Angeles with two nights’ stay in a hotel, a year’s supply of Gardein, and a cooking class with celebrity chef, Roberto Martin. Good luck beating that, Santa. Old Saint Nick didn’t stand a chance.
True to the contest’s name, when my husband and I left at the end of February for sunny skies and sandy beaches, a winter storm was bearing down in Iowa, where we live. There were 8 inches of snow pending that very afternoon, and if our plane didn’t go out on time, there was a chance we would be severely delayed if we made it at all. Thank goodness, after a short delay and some time de-icing the wings, we were off to warmer places. Good riddance, wind chills! Hello, palm trees!
When we arrived at our hotel by the Bay, we were met with a note in the room from our friends at Gardein detailing the itinerary for the next day. A few weeks prior they’d asked what I would like to learn to make from Chef Roberto. I’d given some ideas, assuming that we’d make one or two things. Instead, the next day we were scheduled to make every single thing I’d mentioned and more. We’d be at the Gardein tasting kitchen from 8:45 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. under the tutelage of Chef Roberto himself. I could hardly wait.
The next morning we woke up to sun shining on the Bay, as people ran and paddle boarded just outside. Who needs a winter coat? Pinch me. I couldn’t believe my good luck.
When Ashlyn from Gardein picked us up, she said that when they were deciding what kind of experience they’d give the contest winner, they had looked at my blog. After seeing that both my husband and I had lived in Los Angeles for over a decade, they decided against a typical sights of LA-tour. (Although, I wouldn’t have minded! LA is one of my very favorite cities in the world. There’s good reason that I lived there for 13 years!) Instead, they gave us a true foodie experience with hours of cooking lessons, and a very generous gift card for dinner at one of LA’s finest vegan eateries, Crossroads.
At the Gardein tasting kitchen, we were given a tour, met more of the wonderful staff – Sara and Marissa, and Chef Roberto himself. Roberto was already getting started on breakfast burritos with Gardein Breakfast Patties, tofu, vegetables, and warmed tortillas. David and I put on our aprons and started the day.
Roberto showed us how he rolled the perfect burrito with plenty of filling and no scramble escaping through the folds. Like me, he uses black salt (kala namak) for an eggy flavor to tofu, and it’s one of my most-used and beloved seasonings in the kitchen.
After gathering for breakfast with the Gardein team, we started on the next course – Chick’n Fried Steak Bites with Country Gravy using the Gardein Beefless Tips. The recipe is in Roberto’s first book, Vegan Cooking for Carnivores, and it was one that called out to me right away. Roberto dips the tips in flour and blackening spice, then a cashew cream made with raw cashews and water, then back in the flour, patting it until it’s dry. Then he fries it, and once the tips are finished, uses the dried bits in the pan to make gravy.
The whole process is similar to a non-vegan dish that my mom made often when I was growing up, and it really took me back. Roberto said that when people are learning to veganize dishes, he encourages them to go with recipes that are familiar, but using non-animal proteins instead. That way the learning curve is much shorter to get back in the kitchen, making food you already know and love, but all vegan.
After snacking on the Chick’n Fried Steak Bites and gravy, next on the list were fish tacos using Gardein Fishless Filets. The fishless filets are one of my favorite Gardein products, but I tend to just have them with a pile of baked fries, steamed broccoli, and of course, plenty of malt vinegar and lemon. This was a totally different take on them with a roasted salsa that we made from scratch, raw cabbage, and cashew cream made with chipotles in adobo. He served them on warmed corn tortillas. They were outstanding.
Next, we moved on to another dish from Vegan Cooking for Carnivores, Chick’n and Mole Tamales. I’d never made tamales, but it was something I’d always wanted to learn. However, it seemed like the kind of thing that would be much easier learning from someone who had experience making them.
First, we made mole with dried ancho chilies roasted on the stove, sautéed onions and garlic, spices, almonds, and chopped chocolate. Then we hydrated corn husks and stuffed them with masa, mole and Gardein Chick’n Scallopini. We wrapped all of them into cute parcels, until the whole batch was ready to be steamed.
While we cooked, Roberto told us stories about his family, his cooking history, and being a chef for Ellen & Portia. He had us laughing all day long. Roberto just exudes warmth and accessibility. I’m sure it’s not easy to cook all day, teach, and entertain as well, but he put us at ease and made the hours fly by. Ashlyn, Marissa, and Sara from Gardein took breaks from their other work to come down and hang out with us, rolling a tamale, or taking pictures for their social media. It felt like the most fun Thanksgiving Day ever, all of us gathering around the kitchen, chatting and laughing.
While we waited for the tamales to finish, we made one of the most intriguing dishes from Vegan Cooking for Carnivores, Southern Fried Chick’n. Showing real ingenuity, Roberto’s recipe involves wrapping the Gardein Chick’n Scallopini in rice paper rolls before breading and frying. I have never heard of anyone else doing it, and it completely gives that “fried chicken” experience, with spring roll wrappers standing in for “skin.”
We then dried the chick’n in flour and spices, dipped it in cashew cream, and put it back in the flour before frying. The results blew me away. Before I went vegan, I was a big fan of fried chicken, and this cruelty-version took me there all over again. Just amazing.
Feeling like I couldn’t eat another bite, we were given a sneak peek into one of Gardein’s newest products, Crabless Cakes. They’re going to be available later this year, and we got to try them before they’re out in stores. The cakes have a wonderful light flakiness to them, and are a perfect size to be an appetizer or loaded up on a plate as a full meal. It was exciting to get a taste of what is yet to come for Gardein. They seem to have no shortage of innovative ideas.
Roberto then surprised us with signed copies of his book, which he not only autographed, but also left little notes throughout. He made note of the dishes we’d made that day, along with notations about which recipes we needed to make next.
Before we left, we took a group photo. It was truly a day I will never forget. I had high hopes and expectations, and Roberto and the crew from Gardein exceeded them every step of the way. It wasn’t just a fun trip to a warmer place, it was also a beautiful day with some generous and lovely souls.
Santa was right to throw up his hands. There was no way he could have topped that.