A big issue I see with vegetarianism and veganism is that people try to simulate meats and dairy foods and so forth with plant material, which would have the same measure of success as trying to get slabs of beef to naturally taste like orange, without oranges, only meat and meat by products.
A lot of "vegetarian" or "vegan" copies of foods tend to fall way way short of the mark. I opened a can of vegan tuna and actually double checked that I hadn't opened the cat's special prescription cat food by mistake. TVP only simulates beef if you've spiced it to the point where it could be pigeon and you wouldn't notice. A lot of soy-based hot dogs and burgers are simply vile.
But some vegan copies of things are actually BETTER than the genuine article. Cashew ice cream is, to my palate, actually a hell of a lot tastier than "real" ice cream. Decadent mouthfeel, rich flavor, and it's also devoid of animal and trans fat. A win, win, win.
Now let's get onto the topic of cheese.
Cheese is one of those things that gets complex flavors in the mix from the way it's made. Culture and aging can make cheese taste like anything from a mild mozzarella to a pungent Cammenbert to a nutty tasting rinded cheese and so forth. Bland strips of soy don't melt like cheese, don't have the mouthfeel of cheese, and are usually made with nutritional yeast which has a taste "similar" to cheese, in the same way that carob has a "similar" taste to chocolate.
But to a vegan, it's a no-go. Animal products are shunned because of the cruelty involved in harvesting the milk, let alone rennet, which is found in the stomachs of ruminant animals.
But somewhere along the line some inventive genius decided to pair rejuvelac, a tart, tangy substance made by soaking sprouting grains in water, with raw cashew puree. You can supposedly find rejuvelac in health food stores, but I'm no longer in the Bay Area, so I took measures in my own hands, and added brown rice and quinoa to water, and let nature take its course. You cover the grains with water in a jar that has a cheesecloth cover, replacing the water and rinsing the grain until there are small "tails" on the grains, indicating that sprouting is taking place. Then you rinse the grains one final time, fill the jar with fresh water, replace the cheesecloth cover and leave 1 to 4 days. What comes out of it is a tart, slightly lemony, earthy flavored cloudy substance with a sediment that is full of enzymes and beneficial bacteria, a non-alcoholic fermentation. Some drink it as a digestive aid, but here, it's paired with pureed raw cashews. You can use any of a number of grains, all of which give a different end result in terms of flavor. I chose brown rice, and it turns out it makes the rankest, sharpest scent. Which, intriguingly, reminded me of the expensive end of the cheese fridge at the local Whole Foods.
The "cashew cheese" is made by soaking raw cashews in water for 3-8 hours, and then pureeing them in a blender. When I say pureeing, I mean in a Vitamix blender or a Nutribullet - you are NOT getting a smooth creamy product from your drug store $10 blender. You add just enough rejuvelac to make it a smooth, rich, creamy base, and then you park it somewhere for anywhere from 8 to 72 hours, depending on how "sharp" you want the cheese to taste. The bacteria and enzymes will work their magic, flavoring and fermenting the puree and causing it to become, well, cheese.
At that point, the possibilities are endless. Some add brown miso, some add nutritional yeast, some add guar gum and xanthan gum and drop it into boiling brine, making a mozzarella. You can get everything from a faux chevre to an aged Emmentaler.
But here's the neat part. Actual cheese clubs with no interest in veganism will find these cheeses and source them out, simply because they are absolutely delicious. Some of them even melt like cheddar or mozzarella does. Cheese isn't one of those things where you want all the product to be like another product. There are thousands of cheeses, from a Stilton to a Danish Blue, and the addition of more cheese from a different base is all the more welcomed for the novelty.
So right now I have a thickening puree of raw cashews quietly bubbling on the top of my refrigerator. I'll use some tomorrow, some on Sunday, and some Monday to produce a range of cheeses, which I will then age, and attempt to eat.
An intriguing project.