As a nationally ranked tennis player, I’m constantly working out. Most of the time seven days a week. I guess you could say I’m addicted to exercise. However, I detest going to the gym. Yup. Hate it! I prefer my mountain bike to a stationary bike, a run on a trail to a run on the treadmill, and my home weights for a gym.
So, some karmic force must have been at work, when I found myself in the gym one day last fall. I was multi-tasking…riding the stationary bike and reading the food section of the local paper. And there I saw it. The Food Network was having an open casting call in San Francisco for a new show called “America’s Greatest Home Cook.” Interested applicants were supposed to send in a recipe of their signature dish, along with a photograph. If they liked the applicant’s recipe, the applicant would be invited to the casting call (which was only a couple of days away)!
Well it took me all of 2 seconds to decide. After all, this would put me on the path I wanted to go on. I was retiring from a 25 year career in law enforcement the following month, and as a 15 year vegan I couldn’t wait to retire! My goal for after retirement was to promote veganism as much as possible by being an example in my sport, and in my cooking. I had a cookbook project already in my head, which was one of my goals for after I retired.
So, I went home and made one of my signature dishes, Peruvian Seco—a super delicious seitan stew with potatoes, which is cooked in a cilantro broth. I photographed it and sent it in, along with the recipe. The next day I received an email inviting me to the casting call. I was asked to bring a savory dish that highlighted my abilities, a completed application (which was ALMOST as long as a law enforcement background packet), a picture of my dish and the recipe. Just looking at the application made me think twice. In the application packet I had to include numerous other recipes, as well as photographs. I don’t know too many people who take pictures of their food on a regular basis…so that meant I had to make all of the dishes and photograph them…all in TWO days. But I thought of all of the piggies, cows, chickens and other animals suffering on factory farms, and knew that I had to do it for them. So, work I did…with every free moment that I had.
Applicants were told that their first challenge was to figure out how to keep their dish hot or cold, because there would be no tools to do so at the casting call site. Applicants were also supposed to bring their own utensils for plating. Hmmmmm. This was going to be difficult, since I was a ninety minute drive to San Francisco.
The day of the casting call arrived. They said to dress to impress, but be yourself. So I wore a pair of jeans and my favorite shirt that said VEGAN in big letters, and blue and pink tennis shoes. I decided to make the Peruvian Seco for the casting call, since they already had the picture and recipe for it. Seco is traditionally cooked until dry, but I make mine really saucy. Since Seco is served over rice, the rice just absorbs all of the delicious broth. I also top my Seco with homemade Vegan Garlic Aioli. So I made some of that, too.
So I placed my hot Seco in a large thermos, my hot rice in a covered glass container and my Vegan Garlic Aioli in a glass jar. I wrapped the glass container containing the rice in a towel, and I wrapped the glass jar containing the Vegan Garlic Aioli with an ice pack. Then I wrapped the thermos, the glass container and the glass jar with leftover foil vapor barrier, which we had used to insulate our sub-floor. (You never know when those leftovers from home projects will come in handy!)
When I got to the casting call, I checked in and was given a test. Yes, a test!! Most of the test was fairly basic, asking questions on cooking terms and ingredients. However, I think one question in particular, was what put me through to the next round. The question was “How do you store live mussels?” Well, as any good vegan would do, I responded with “BY PUTTING THEM BACK IN THE OCEAN!”
After the test, I was asked to plate my dish. Then the official taster came over. I lucked out. She was from Bolivia and she had a lot of Peruvian friends AND she knew what Seco was. She kept telling me how delicious my dish was…but I didn’t know if that’s what they said to everybody. Then came the casting producer. He was a really nice guy. We talked for probably 20 to 30 minutes and he asked me many questions about veganism. (I didn’t know at the time, but the winner(s) of the contest teamed up with a Food Network star and competed against other Food Network stars and other winner(s). The casting producer asked me if I felt I was at a disadvantage by being vegan. I said “no.” I told him that veganism wasn’t restrictive at all, and that it actually opened up so many possibilities in the cooking world. He asked me what I would do if I won and made it on the show, and had to cook meat. I said that I wouldn’t do it! He looked me straight in the face and said “RIGHT ON, I like that.” (Maybe I did have a chance at this thing after all).
When I was getting ready to leave, my law enforcement ears picked up. I heard the casting people thank several people for coming…without saying anything else. When I was ready to leave, they thanked me for coming…then they said that someone would be in touch regarding the next steps. Interesting!!!! I left not really knowing what to expect. About an hour later on the way home, I received a phone call from the assistant casting producer, asking me if I would come to the Fairmont Hotel the following day for an on-camera interview. Hmmmmmmmmmmm. Well of course!!!!
The next day I drove to the Fairmont Hotel for the on-camera interview, and I wore my second favorite vegan shirt. (Yes, with the dog hair…which is a condiment at my house). If you have never talked ONLY to a camera before, it’s really a strange thing. You feel like you are talking to yourself and no one is listening (and that wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened to me…especially in law enforcement). All in all I felt it went really well, since the casting producer was laughing quite a bit during my interview. Prior to leaving, the producer told me that my next assignment was to do a home video. The video submission guidelines had an extensive list of things we were supposed to cover, in addition to cooking. And they really didn’t want the applicants reading from a script. So that meant I had to try and do it all from memory. Sheesh. I was in trouble, as we had no pause button on our camera!
After several false starts, I think I captured everything that was needed in the video, including my recipe and demo of vegan Lomito Saltado…which I renamed No Meat-O Saltado. (No Meat-O Saltado is an amazing Peruvian stir-fry of onions, tomatoes, seitan and French fries, topped with a super creamy cilantro sauce). I submitted the video to the casting producer. Shortly thereafter, I was asked to submit many photos of myself, my dishes, my friends and family, etc…in order to paint a picture of who I was, so they could pitch me (and the other applicants) to the network. After that, it was just a waiting game.
About two months later, I received an email from the casting company. The email said “We got a bit of an update. Unfortunately, at this point, it looks like we aren’t going to be able to move forward with you in our casting. I am super bummed! We all think you are great, but in the end it is not all up to us. If anything changes we will be sure to let you know. Thank you so much for your time, effort and enthusiasm! I really appreciated it!” Oh well, Hollywood wasn’t ready for me yet, anyway! In any event, the casting people couldn’t have been nicer and it was a great experience.
I’m actually really happy that things worked out the way that they did. It enabled me to get started early on my vegan Peruvian cookbook called Peruvegan, which was just recently published. My next goal is to make the United States National Senior Team (more on that at some point in future posts). And for now, if you want to laugh a little, make sure and watch my video which I submitted to the Food Network. Let’s hope that someday there will ONLY be vegan cooking shows on television, because EVERYONE will be vegan.
NO MEAT-O SALTADO (LOMITO SALTADO) WITH CREAMY CILANTRO SAUCE
1 ½ cups seitan strips
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
2 teaspoons cumin
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
½ cup cilantro, minced
Dash of salt and pepper
5-6 medium yellow skinned potatoes, cut into fries
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
½ teaspoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, sliced into crescents
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 ½ tablespoons of vegetable bouillon base
3 cups water
2 tomatoes, chopped
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Combine seitan, paprika, cumin, red pepper flakes, garlic, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, cilantro, salt and pepper in a glass bowl. Allow to marinate at least one hour.
While the seitan is marinating, make the French fries. Slice potatoes into fries.Place on a parchment lined baking sheet. Add olive oil, paprika and garlic powder and mix. Bake for approximately 20 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and set aside.
In a large fry pan over medium heat, cook the marinated seitan and onion in the olive oil. Cook until the onions turn translucent. Add vinegar and stir fry for an additional minute. Add bouillon base, water and tomatoes. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for approximately 5 minutes, until the base has dissolved. Add fries and mix thoroughly until heated through. Remove from heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve saltado over rice, topped with Creamy Cilantro Sauce.
CREAMY CILANTRO SAUCE
¾ cup of Vegan Garlic Aioli
½ bunch of fresh cilantro, lower stems removed
Unsweetened soy milk or almond milk
Place Vegan Garlic Aioli, cilantro and just enough soy milk (to make a medium sauce) into a blender and blend.
Makes approximately ¾ cup.
VEGAN GARLIC AIOLI
¼ cup soy milk
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2/3 cup canola oil
¾ teaspoon apple cider vinegar
½ to 1 teaspoon of salt (to taste)
Place soy milk and garlic in a blender. Use the lowest speed possible. If you have a “stir” setting, that works great. Blend soy milk and garlic. With the blender running, add the canola oil one tablespoon at a time, pouring it in as slowly as possible. Keep the blender running, until you have incorporated all of the oil and the mixture is the consistency of mayonnaise. Add cider vinegar and salt and blend.
Makes approximately ¾ cup.