Jim and I arrived early to Penn State’s Pollock Dining Commons on World Vegan Day to attend a special event. Penn State Food Services executive chef, Mark Kowalski, lead a cooking lesson for the Penn State Vegetarian Club and the Vegetarian Advisory Board. He cooked and served samples of some the vegan items that are available for Penn State students, faculty and staff to eat in the dining commons.
I feel that the cooking demo was top-notch. Chef Mark gave great tips on four different recipes and went into great detail demonstrating most of three of them. He was informative to students on how Quinoa is a whole protein, shared the safety tip about not having the lid secured when using a blender for hot contents and sharing advice on making sure to stir tahini completely before using it in any recipe so the oil gets blended in properly to the sesame solids.
Chef Mark’s talk and demo was smooth and went off without a hitch. He and co-host, Dr. Michele Newhard of the Vegetarian Advisory Board, fielded many questions and imparted information about the function of Penn State’s dining commons and their interest and concern about accommodating vegan diners. This includes at least 8 branch campuses.
Dr. Newhard made it clear that a vegan can eat healthfully and well at many of Penn State’s dining commons but you have to be aware and work a bit to find the foods that are available. She pointed out that while Edamame and seasoned Tofu should be available everyday on the dining commons’ salad bars, the specific employees setting out the food that day might be trying to push a food item that they have in abundance and the vegan items might be not put out. She encouraged people to ask for any items that seemed to be missing. Same went for seeking out exactly where the soy milk is stored.
Chef Mark and Dr. Newhard also encouraged suggestions and took quite a few from the dozen or so students who attended the event. There were some great ideas thrown out and they were eager to hear them all. She reminded everyone to keep in mind that menu items have to be translated into things that can be served en mass and delicate recipes would not be able to make the cut.
One thing of interest Dr. Newhard shared was how the Vegetarian Advisory Board had been suggesting the addition of soy cheese for years but the final nutritional decision on what should be added to dining commons’ menus saw that it was an ingredient that contained too much fat and was unhealthy. Times change and it seems that vegan cheeses are finally being considered.
As Chef Mark cooked, he passed around a cycle of the dining commons’ menus with every vegan choice highlighted. He explained a cycle consists of 3 weeks in which they are sensitive to not overly repeating recipes during that time. He gave to example of serving turkey (bad choice for this crowd) and said that they would strive to only serve it once during the cycle. It seems that one out of every 4 entrées is vegetarian, most of those vegan and a vegan soup is available every day.
When the cooking demo was over, each of the four recipes that had been shown was set out to be sampled. All were warm, well presented and quite good. We tried Quinoa and Vegetables, Red Chili Thai Tofu, Roasted Brussles Sprouts and Roasted Cauliflower with Lemon Tahini Sauce. Granted, the amounts that were made for the audience were much smaller than would need to be prepared for any one of the dining commons and Chef Mark recognized that quality control was always going to be a bit of an issue. The one thing he and Dr. Newhard seemed to have their finger on was making sure that ingredients going into vegan recipes were all vegan and that no cross contamination was occurring.
If you are a Penn State student and care about vegan and vegetarian dining on campus, you have a voice and many seem ready to listen and implement your ideas (see contact links at the bottom). Penn State Vegetarian Club president, Lisa Hines, was also present. She had a big influence on getting the information about the event out to students, was well spoken and very approachable. Contact her to be put on the club’s list serve