If the first thing that comes to mind when it comes to the idea of consuming plant-based meals and beverages is bland food, as Chef Carla Hall puts it, it’s time for you to get out of your head. Instead, the chef, TV personality and author says get into the flavorful options available and put the right seasonings in your cabinet.
The culinary queen helped this writer to expand their mind when it comes to baking without the usual suspects of dairy and processed sugars. On an ordinary Thursday afternoon, Hall entered my kitchen, virtually of course, to help me and a few other journalists learn how to make plant-based banana nut oatmeal muffins. The standout ingredients used in the process were Califia Farms’ selection of plant-based beverages, specifically the toasted coconut almond milk and the vanilla oatmilk creamer. After following her lead, I ended up with a mouthwatering tray of sweets that got their flavor from bananas, agave and toasted nuts and didn’t bother my belly (I’m lactose intolerant).
The experience opened my mind up to the possibilities when it comes to integrating plant-based meals into a diet that still makes room for meat, milk and more. After our baking session, we talked with Hall about the best way to go the plant-based route, from crafting sweets to even making soul food, and how not get tripped up by labels, focusing instead on what tastes good — plain and simple.
ESSENCE: As someone who eats healthy and cooks a lot of vegetarian, vegan-inspired meals, what do you like about using Califia Farms dairy-free beverages as an ingredient in your concoctions?
Chef Carla Hall: Well, one, I love that they have a variety of products. And two, as a chef, when I look at a dairy option and a dairy-free option — because I’m not vegan either — just to broaden my choices, I think of the amount of fat that’s in a product, the consistency that’s in a product. That’s what makes it translate for me. If I’m doing my biscuits, something that my mother and my sister, that we love that I always do but my sister can’t do dairy, to make that swap for them where they can still have something that’s delicious, I’m going to use the coconut milk. The viscosity is so good and it’s a really great swap for buttermilk. And I’m going to use a vegan butter. So it’s always about maintaining that flavor. I like Califia because there’s no aftertaste. I love telling people, you can make a one for one swap because of the texture. You don’t have to do anything else. There are no gums and all of those other things in there. So that’s really it for me because all I’m always about flavor.
For some people, you hear ‘We’re going to make vegan banana muffins,’ and the assumption is it’s going to lack flavor. So how can we ensure that for desserts, we have flavor if we go the plant-based route? What kind of ingredients can we integrate?
Well, I think the one thing about using Califia and any dairy-free product is you don’t have to call it vegan. It’s just good. Right? I mean, you don’t have to call it out. And I think that when you have the buy in from the person who is making it, if they focus on it being vegan versus focusing on it being good, then you’re going down the wrong path. I think you just focus on it being good. And whatever spices you use, whatever things that you generally use, because meat without salt is not good, right? So you can’t expect to have the product on its own be everything that you want it to be without other assistance. However, when I use the creamers and the addition of the vanilla and the texture of it, I really don’t need anything else, especially when I use it to pour on.
And when I think about our community, I think that if we can get out of our heads about the idea of vegan, and it not having flavor, then it’s a much better transition. My mother doesn’t do dairy, but there is some part of her that’s kind of stuck and like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t want it.’ She loves vegetables, but she’s caught up on the word. If I gave her something, is it good or not? I don’t have to tell you it’s vegan. Is it good or not?
If you’re a meat lover, what are some kind of veggies that you can kind of turn to that are still hearty that could kind of provide that kick that a lot of meat lovers flock to?
Mushrooms. So mushrooms are great. Extra firm tofu. I happen to love the protein-based meat substitutes, because they’re great. When you mix in your onions and garlic and tomatoes for something like a tomato sauce or something like a meatloaf, you don’t taste the difference, right? And the textures are about the same. I think the one thing about tofu that people are afraid of, they’re like, ‘Oh, it doesn’t have any flavor.’ Well, you have to do something to it. With the tofu, drain it. You can try to get most of the water out and then you have to marinate it. But then that’s also where you have the control. You have the control to season it exactly the way that you want it seasoned. And I think it’s giving people the power. So I always say salt compliments, and too much salt is an insult. But once you get something that is processed, you have given your power away to that company who already put the salt in it. Do you want to have the power to do your own food? Do you want to know what’s going into your body? So by getting something like mushrooms, you can marinate it in balsamic vinegar and oil and some garlic, some thyme. Just have them ready, pull them out. And then, boom.
And I know you are a soul food lover. You have the book that you did, Carla Hall’s Soul Food. What is your favorite plant-based soul food concoction that people can also find a way to put a twist on?
So something that is natural. My grains are naturally vegan. My grains have been vegan for years. Even at my restaurant my grains were vegan. And I use smoked paprika instead of ham or turkey or smoked chicken. So they’ve always been and it’s really light. Another thing that I make that is naturally plant-based is black eyed peas. When you do Hoppin’ John. So I do a black eyed pea salad that is still using black eyed peas with a hot sauce vinaigrette with cucumbers and tomatoes. It’s super simple and it’s just naturally vegan and delicious with ingredients that we know that are already in soul food. So one of the things that I try to do, that I tried to do with Carla Hall’s Soul Food, was look at the celebration dishes and look at the everyday dishes. Because I think as Black people, we think of our soul food in the lens of our celebration dishes. But our ancestors did not eat that way. When you think about all of the grains, millet, sorghum, fonio. All those grains, they were naturally plant-based dishes. Creamed corn. You could add one of the Califia creamers. But all you have to do is cut off half the corn, take the back of your knife and scrape the corn milk and then it’s naturally creamy. And then you’re going to put that thyme in there. So that’s how I want people to think about our food.