Vegan chef teaches flavorful Thai cooking techniques

Durango Mountain Institute sponsors presentation by wellness author Tess Challis

Vegan and author Tess Challis packs her spring rolls with a variety of fresh and healthy vegetables and tofu. Challis taught a Thai cooking class Saturday at the Durango Mountain Institute. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Karen Brucoli Anesi

Vegan and author Tess Challis packs her spring rolls with a variety of fresh and healthy vegetables and tofu. Challis taught a Thai cooking class Saturday at the Durango Mountain Institute.

Pagosa Springs’ vegan practitioner and author Tess Challis shared tofu secrets Saturday at a Thai cooking class sponsored by the Durango Mountain Institute at Durango Mountain Resort. If the participants were tofu-shy when they walked in the door of DMR’s former community center, that changed when the vegan cooking instructor dazzled the class with a fast and tasty, nearly raw Pad Thai, followed by spring rolls bursting with seasoned, grilled tofu and crunchy, raw veggies.

“I’m big on plenty of flavor,” Challis said as she generously seasoned pressed tofu sticks with Tamari, toasted sesame oil, onion and garlic granules before browning them in a cast-iron skillet. The class watched the veteran vegan chef deftly julienne common vegetables to prep for both dishes. She offered suggestions as to where to purchase kitchen utensils and organic or minimally processed ingredients.

Class members bantered back and forth about the benefits of raw or lightly cooked super-foods, the difference between soy sauce and Tamari, and the immune-boosting qualities of garlic. An informal exchange of kitchen chatter covered topics ranging from the nutritional value of dried vs. fresh shiitake mushrooms to the best way to extract juice from limes.

“Most mushrooms are pretty awesome when it comes to medicinal benefits,” Challis said, while offering names of quick-frozen brands that taste as good as or better than fresh. Challis looked for and seized on teachable moments to testify to the benefit of detoxifying opportunities in raw, fresh ingredients.

While measuring ingredients for Pad Thai, Challis told stories of clients who replaced diets of animal and processed foods with organic offerings. Increased energy, an appreciation for the taste and textures of food and all-around well-being were mentioned time after time.

Challis said she converted to healthful cooking and eating in gradual stages, telling her personal story of obesity, acne and bouts of recurrent strep throat. Now the cooking class instructor, who has been teaching for 15 years, has adopted a lifestyle of moderation and an entirely whole-foods and plant-based diet. Anticipating curiosity-based objections from the class, Challis tossed Pad Thai noodles while debunking popular nutritional beliefs.

She rattled off the calcium content in selected leafy-green vegetables, while demonstrating the time-saving benefit of a good garlic press. Throughout her demonstration, she talked of the pitfalls of the unexamined, typical American diet and its tendency to encourage excess protein consumption. Before sprinkling chopped organic peanuts on the Pad Thai, she read a cautionary account of common American agricultural practices that leave peanuts altered by leftover pesticides applied to cotton crops grown in the same soil during alternating seasons.

Frequently mentioned were Challis’s two books, Radiant Health, Inner Wealth and The Two Week Wellness Solution: The Fast Track to Permanent Weight Loss and Vitality, self-published toolkits for wellness. Both books contain hundreds of recipes, easy-to-read tips to incorporate balance in busy lives and a healthy dose of philosophy told through the accounts of lives changed by conscious eating.

The class sipped a selection of wines from Durango Mountain Resort’s wine list while enjoying dishes of Pad Thai.

Longtime Durango resident and international commercial pilot Joan Rhoades later sang the praises of the texture of the well-seasoned noodles.

“I’ve never done the noodles quite right ... I eat them all over the world and these were fresh and good,” Rhoades said.

Rhoades added that friends in the class were anticipating a food party in the future, where they’d practice the spring roll technique they had learned in the class.

The neatly rolled packages were packed with fresh cilantro, basil, mint, tofu and a handful of crunchy, julienned vegetables placed on a diagonal diamond of dampened rice paper sheets. Challis demonstrated the technique, and then groups of three each made their own spring rolls.

Challis provided recipes for foods prepared in the class, including one for a peanut-based, ginger and garlic dipping sauce.