Once upon a time, Julie Piatt loved cow's-milk cheese as much as the next person. Maybe more. But that was before she realized the health, environmental, and ethical ramifications of consuming dairy.
Fast-forward to 2017, and she and her husband Rich Roll are celebrity vegans, widely regarded as experts in all things plant-based. Piatt hosts a podcast, takes people on Italian retreats, sings, cooks for eager audiences, and writes, among other pursuits. These days, one of her culinary specialties is homemade vegan cheese.
Her latest book, This Cheese Is Nuts: Delicious Vegan Cheese at Home, will debut in Miami at the Sacred Space next week, so New Times spoke with Piatt for the skinny on all things nondairy.
New Times: When you went vegan, did you find it difficult to give up dairy?
Julie Piatt: Totally. In college, I lived in Paris and traveled in Europe, and the cheese is exquisite; it’s something that’s really amazing. And I’m the kind of person who I don’t want tea without a creamy milk; I’d just rather not have it. So it was a big thing that was missing.
My first book, The Plantpower Way, had a pretty basic cheese section in there, and the cheese I did make transformed the way we were eating cheese in our kitchen. I have five kids who still live with me, and we wouldn’t even get done plating the nachos and they were gone. It was just delicious, and our bodies were really liking the taste. I also did a latte section trying to give people alternatives to having coffee. I have a cacao latte made with cashews that’s so rich and creamy; I start my mornings to this day with that drink. My 9-year-old and i make it.
I knew when I finished that book that there was a lot of opportunity that hadn’t been explored. I wasn’t happy with the store-bought cheeses. They were expensive and gross and really gooey. I’d rather just leave it off. So I went down this rabbit hole and started to experiment.
How does your recipe development process work?
I was never going to be a chef, and I did not know that I was going to become a cookbook author. But I always loved family and home and had a knack for it. Cooking for 50 people was not that traumatizing for me. So I just started experimenting, and I did have some fails. I tried to do a hemp cheese that I thought would be delicious, and it just tasted disgusting. But I tried to approach everything as creative inspiration. I try to remain open to new possibilities.
I didn’t go to culinary school, and I think my lack of training works in my favor because it allows me the openness or naiveté of thinking that I can do it or imagining how it might be. In my cheeses, you find some unique ingredients like fresh coconut meat or the fact that i was able to make delicious creamy cheese out of white beans. So I’m more like a creative artist, and i just kind of go with what inspires me.
I did do some research and try to find out what companies were using. I got a really important technique from the Non Dairy Evolution Cookbook by the Gentle Chef. I listed that in the book because it’s one technique I use, but I don’t use the same ingredients. And we can thank Cafe Gratitude for teaching us all about Irish moss. And Ann Gentry from Real Food Daily, I tasted her warm cashew cheese. So there was some minimal research and a lot of trial and error.
What are some of your favorite cheeses featured in the book?
It's important to note, too, that not every cheese in the book requires a dehydrator or aging process. There are many you can make and enjoy within ten minutes. One really fun recipe is a burrata that I make with almonds. You blend them up with some coconut milk in the Vitamix, and the aging ingredient is apple cider vinegar. You put the mixture in cheesecloth and make a beautiful bundle. I tie it over the fireplace mantle and let it age for one to two days. Then you put it in a bowl of coconut milk for three to five days. You take it out, open up the little bundle, and you can cut slices of cheese and drizzle another coconut milk over it and top that with olive oil and balsamic and sea salt and black pepper. It's so delicious.
There's also a blue cheese that I make, and a lot of people are like, 'Does it taste like blue cheese?' And I'm like, 'Thankfully not! Have you eaten blue cheese recently? It tastes like a dirty tennis shoe.' The blue in this cheese comes from spirulina. You add a little garlic powder and age it with acidophilus. It's divine! A delicious cheese.
What would you say to hard-core dairy addicts who might be skeptical about vegan cheese?
I mean, I would just say that dairy is making us sick. We all know that, and anybody who's reading it knows that. I met someone in their 20s who said she had surgery on her sinuses and nothing changed, but she stopped eating dairy and was fine. There are more and more health issues that are arising. We're obese as a nation, and we have a lot of health evidence to make the shift. If anybody wants more information on that, read The Cheese Trap by Dr. Neal Barnard. He goes into the brain chemistry of the addictive quality of cheese and what makes you crave it.
Also, most people don't understand that dairy takes a tremendous amount of resources to produce. It takes 1,000 gallons of water to produce one gallon of milk. This whole idea of "I want my bacon," "I want my milk," "I want my cheese" — we don't have the luxury to be so self-oriented anymore. The subject should be changed to "we" instead of "I." Eating plant-based cheese is sustainable, kind, and compassionate.
The dairy industry is brutalizing animals. This isn't animals in the pasture, grazing peacefully with a milkmaid. We are not separate from these conditions; if you are eating that and participating in it, it is going into your body. This is the next evolution of cheese; it's cheese 2.0. We need to move to the next thing.
I say cheese is a condiment to your already rich and abundant plant-based lifestyle; it's a topping to your beans and rice and fresh steamed vegetables. I'm not advocating that people get the book and eat cheese at every meal. But the digestibility of these nuts (because they're soaked and you're adding a probiotic to them) is remarkable. No breakouts, no digestive issues, no stomachaches from this. Everything must be taken in balance with a diet of many varieties of fruits and vegetables; that's why nature created that beautiful array of foods.
I also included a nut-free section using garbanzo beans, white beans, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds. There are some very delicious options in that section. Plus, there are all these companion recipes for you to use your amazing cheese. I covered everything. Crème brûlée was my go-to, and I'm so over-the-moon proud of this recipe; it's absolutely, off-the-hook delicious — better than anything dairy.
I'm also doing cheesecakes for my dinner for our book launch in Miami. We're going to be making this beautiful classic cheesecake, and we’re going to garnish it with flowers. We're also making the potato lasagna from this book, as well noodles made with thinly sliced potatoes and roasted tomato sauce on it and homemade almond pesto cashew ricotta on the inside. And I'll have a whole cheese board with blue and smoky cheddar and
It's a wonderful creative opportunity. I worked really hard to provide a comprehensive book. The recipes are very simple. You do have to read the technique, but once you get a feel for it, this will give you a foundation to just fly and just start creating all kinds of amazing things. The beauty here is that you will never miss cheese again. If you buy this book, you will never go, 'Oh, I wish I had it.' You have it all at your fingertips.
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You're also hosting an upcoming dinner in Miami. Can you share details?
We're doing our event with the Sacred Space. We love Miami; we have been so welcomed by the community of Miami, and Miami is doing so many amazing things in the space of wellness. On the urging of Marco Borges from 21 Days Nutrition and Veronica and Diego from Love Life Wellness Center and Alison from Seed Food & Wine, they urged us to come down and do an event. This is the first time I'm doing a public event, aside from a retreat, that is all my food. Every single recipe is from my book. There'll be a lot of cheese, and it's an Italian theme — really hearty, family-style food.
[My husband] Rich and I are going to record a live podcast and get into a discussion on these topics and answer questions. It'll give us a moment to celebrate and put some great energy behind everything Miami is trying to create in the space of wellness. Miami is very important in that mission, and we will continue to travel and come down and collaborate and be a part of those events.
I also want to mention that I have a book signing Saturday at 1 p.m., so if someone is not able to attend the dinner, come and see me at the book signing. I'll have cheese samples for you there!
The This Cheese Is Nuts book launch party and live podcast
6:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 14, at the Sacred Space Miami, 105 NE 24th St., Miami. Tickets cost $112 per person and are available online. Julie Piatt will also appear at 1 p.m. Saturday, June 17, at Books & Books Coral Gables. Copies of the book cost $25 each.