Chef Angel Ramos cooks vegan, organic food at his New York City restaurant, infusing it with the flavors of his native Mexico. (Photos/Courtesy 10 Speed Press (From the “Candle 79 Cookbook))

Chef Spotlight: Angel Ramos on making vegan food with Mexican soul

Vitals: At 16 years old, Chef Angel Ramos moved with his family from Puebla, Mexico to New York City. He says he always loved food – to this day, he considers his mother’s mole the best he’s ever had – and decided shortly thereafter he would one day become a chef. Completely self-taught, Ramos is the executive chef at Candle 79 in New York City, a vegan organic restaurant where he brings a Mexican sensibility to modern, local and completely vegetarian fare.

Experience: While still a high school student, Ramos worked as a bus boy in restaurants near his Brooklyn neighborhood, eventually working his way up to chef. He’s worked at Candle 79 for the last 16 years (his entire career!) and has been executive chef of its Upper East Side location for eight years. Organic, vegan food is anything but boring under Ramos’ direction, as the 37-year-old prides himself on infusing vegan fare with exciting Mexican flavors and ingredients (think moles, cilantro and tequila) and uses only the freshest of local ingredients.

Why he’s passionate about cooking vegan food: “I’ve spent my entire career as a chef working with this cuisine and it seems very natural to me to treat proteins like tofu and seitan like meat. That being said, it’s still a challenge because the execution of vegan cuisine relies on each and every ingredient being perfect. And of course, going vegan is healthy and I like to feel that I help make people’s lives better through the food I prepare.”

On his earliest food memory: “My mom would always prepare chocolate mole from scratch and watching her stand over the stove for hours and hours while the pot of mole simmered is a great memory. It even inspired me to do a dark mole dish with seitan, which is one of my favorite dishes on the menu.”

On the secret to preparing tofu so it tastes delicious (really!): “The real secret is that you have to treat proteins like tofu, seitan and tempeh just like meat. The issue is that those proteins don’t have flavor, so you have to infuse it with a marinade to make sure it’s packed with lots of dimension. If you use tempeh, boil it for at least 10 minutes to remove the bitterness. Then you can use it just like you would tofu, cutting into your desired thickness and shape. After you cut it, you’ll want to marinate it for a few hours in a marinade of fresh herbs, garlic, plenty of salt and pepper and lemon juice. Then treat it just like meat: grill it, sauté or broil it. I can promise you that you and your guests won’t think twice about digging in!”

On the importance of cooking with seasonal ingredients:  “One of the reasons why many people don’t love vegan or vegetarian food is because they don’t realize how delicious produce can really be. An apple purchased from the market in the springtime is nothing like the way it tastes during the fall, when it’s in season and fresh from the orchard. The same is true for nearly every type of fruit and vegetable, so it’s important to pay attention to the season. Try to cook and eat just what’s in season – it’s life-changing.”

On the five ingredients he can’t live without: “I rely heavily on basic ingredients to dress the food I prepare. Garlic, onions, fresh herbs, vegetable stock to thicken sauces or soups, and wine or tequila to add extra flavor to braised dishes or beans.”

On his go-to comfort food: “I go crazy for my mother’s tortillas, which she still makes by hand. I eat them with rice, beans and cheese – simple but delicious every time.”

Below is Ramos’ recipe for black bean-chipotle burgers, a dish that’s simple to make but one that satisfies meat burger cravings while appealing to strict vegetarians.

Black bean burgers taste anything but boring thanks to the addition of smoky chipotle and the heft of brown rice.

Black bean burgers taste anything but boring thanks to the addition of smoky chipotle and the heft of brown rice. (Photo/Courtesy 10 Speed Press (From the “Candle 79 Cookbook))

Black Bean–Chipotle Burgers

From the “Candle 79 Cookbook” (10 Speed Press)

11⁄2 cups dried black beans, rinsed and picked over

1-inch piece of kombu

2 cups chopped yellow onions

1 teaspoon chipotle chile powder

3 bay leaves

2 teaspoons salt

Pinch of freshly ground pepper

11⁄2 cups brown rice

3 cups water

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed

1 cup raw pumpkin seeds

1 tablespoon smoked paprika

6 to 8 burger rolls

1 red onion, thinly sliced (optional)

Avocado slices, for serving (optional)

Makes 6 to 8 burgers

Put the beans in a saucepan or bowl and add cold water to cover by about 2 inches. Cover and soak for at least 6 hours or overnight in the refrigerator. Drain and rinse.

Put the beans, kombu, onions, chipotle powder, bay leaves, 1 teaspoon of the salt, and the pepper in a large saucepan. Add water to cover by 3 inches and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat, cover, and simmer until the beans are tender, about 11⁄2 to 2 hours. Most of the liquid should be absorbed by the beans, but add a bit more water if they seem too dry. Drain the beans, reserving the cooking liquid. Discard the kombu and bay leaves.

Meanwhile, put the rice and a pinch of salt in a saucepan and add the water. Bring to a boil, then decrease the heat, stir once, cover, and simmer until all of the water is absorbed and the rice is tender, 35 to 40 minutes. Remove from the heat and let stand, covered, for 10 minutes.

Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan over medium-high 
heat. Add the pumpkin seeds, paprika, and the remaining 
1 teaspoon of salt and season with pepper. Cook the pumpkin seeds, stirring and shaking the pan, until they are lightly toasted, 3 to 5 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Combine the rice, beans, and pumpkin seeds in a large bowl. Transfer half of the mixture to a food processor fitted with the metal blade and process until smooth, adding the reserved cooking liquid from the beans as needed to keep the mixture moist enough to stick together. Return the mixture to the bowl, mix everything together, and form patties about 31⁄2 inches in diameter and 1 inch thick.

To bake the burgers, preheat the oven to 350°F. Brush a baking sheet with olive oil and put the burgers on it. Brush the burgers with oil and bake until browned, 20 to 30 minutes, turning the burgers halfway through cooking. To pan-fry the burgers, coat a sauté pan with olive oil and heat the pan over medium heat. Add the burgers and cook for about 
4 minutes per side.

To grill the onion slices, lightly brush with olive oil and sauté them in a sauté pan over medium-high heat, 2 minutes per side.

Serve the burgers on toasted burger rolls with the onion slices and avocado slices, if desired.

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