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Vegan for the Holidays

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Vegetarians in Paradise

Vegetarian Books

Each issue the VIP birds endeavor to soar to the highest literary peak to peck out the most unique, informative, and accomplished book that contributes to vegetarian enlightenment.

This month we review two unique vegan cookbooks. One reaches nirvana through attractive and tasty desserts while the other makes you realize how good vegan soul food can be.

Click here for a review of Vegan Soul Kitchen.

Sweet Utopia: Simply Stunning Vegan Desserts

By Sharon Valencik
Photos by Milan Valencik

Book Publishing Company, 2009
Paperback $19.95

A dazzling dessert greets the eyes the moment a reader draws Sweet Utopia off the bookshelf to browse. Talented author Sharon Valencik is the unabashed owner of gourmet genes passed on from her lineage of innovative chef matriarchs. Compellingly stunning, this dessert cookbook is a work of art on many levels.

Sharon's husband, Milan, displays his photography skills and food styling proficiency on nearly every page. Anyone daring to open this book, may be compelled to turn every page just to glimpse the tantalizing desserts so expertly created and photographed.

A dairy-free and egg-free cookbook not just for vegans, but also for those allergic to milk and egg products, it's heaven for anyone who appreciates irresistible desserts that are cholesterol-free. Sharon recognizes a growing awareness of the health and environmental "dangers of consuming animal products and saturated fats" and that vegan diets are becoming more accepted by the mainstream. She has made this book easy to use and self-instructional with consolidated notes in each chapter introduction.

Sweet Utopia Stocking the Kitchen is a listing of basic supplies and tools essential for preparing the recipes. Having a large capacity, good quality blender, a food processor, and a hand or stand mixer make it easy to achieve the smooth and creamy textures that make cheesecakes, mousses, and crèmes so irresistibly light. The book provides a complete list of ingredients to have on hand like flavoring extracts, fresh and frozen produce, nuts and nut butters, and pantry staples like flours, sweeteners, and fats.

Invaluable are the numerous tips for creating the desserts. To substitute butter, Sharon recommends Earth Balance, a spreadable, nonhydrogenated alternative, and offers alternate suggestions for melting chocolate. While many vegan dessert recipes require an egg replacer for binding the ingredients together, this volume turns to natural fruits, tofu, and flour to do the job. Soymilk is the author's choice in the recipes, but she offers a tip on making nutmilk as an alternative. Helpful are a few pages of substitutions for ingredients, metric measurement conversions, and an extensive listing of baking pan size equivalents.

Each recipe chapter begins with a brief introduction and focuses on a host of tips to help even a novice baker achieve success. Decadent Cakes is packed with mouthwatering treasures like Midnight Cake with Chocolate Frosting, a nut-free treat made with Dutch cocoa, coconut milk, and strong coffee. Anyone who fancies carrot cake will discover nirvana with the Jamaican inspired Carrot Cake Negril with its bits of pineapple, coconut, walnuts, candied ginger and dried orange peel all topped with an ultra creamy White Shumi Frosting.

Scrumptious Cookies is heaven for kids up to 99 with creations like Sesame Cookies that look like sesame seed covered donuts or plump Banana-Cranberry-Cashew Cookies attractively photographed with bits of brilliant red dried cranberries poking through the surface. Sitting pretty in the cookie jar are the Choco-Choco Sandwich Minis filled with a rich, thick, and creamy chocolate-chip based filling.

Cheesecake aficionados will find the Creamy Cheesecakes and Pies section their go-to spot for exceptional recipes like Green Tea Swirl Cheesecake along with a host of choices for cheesecake crust ideas. More tantalizing choices include Three-Layer Cheesecake Bars, Mocha-Marble Cheesecake, and Chocolate-Pecan Paradise Pie.

Velvety Mousses, Puddings, and Cremes takes the ordinary into the world of exceptional with desserts like Coconut Tapioca Pudding, Cappuccino Custard, or Whiskey Crème Bread Pudding topped with a dreamy Whiskey Crème Sauce.

The last chapter, Luscious Treats, places desserts into the realm of sinful indulgences. Holiday Pumpkin Trifle plunges headlong into the world of extreme desserts with five decadent layers: Pumpkin Cake, Pumpkin Crème, Pumpkin Custard, Cran-Razz Relish, and a Walnut Topping. It's a gorgeous head turner. Vegan tiramisu becomes a challenging simulation but not for this creative chef who offers a beautiful Coconut Tiramisu. Traditional holiday treats like Rum Balls and Nutty Fudge are featured along with a host of crepes and fruity fillings.

Sweet Utopia is an exceptional dessert extravaganza, with its collection of original offerings bound to please anyone who finds gratification at the dessert table. This husband and wife team have succeeded in bringing an impressive volume of not only innovative desserts to an eager vegan audience, but also a cookbook that reveals skillful photography and food styling to give each creation visual artistic appeal. With a single glance at almost any stunning page, the home baker is instantly propelled into a perfect sweet utopia.

Vegan Soul Kitchen:
Fresh, Healthy, and Creative African-American Cuisine

By Bryant Terry

Da Capo Press, 2009
Paperback $18.95

Vegan Soul Kitchen is author/chef Bryant Terry's vision of freestyle, creative cuisine that offers fresh updates rooted in familiar African American dishes. The incentive for the book began with a request from editor Lori Stein to contribute one recipe to Recipes from America's Small Farms: Fresh Ideas for the Season's Bounty, a book to bring awareness to the Community Supported Agriculture movement. Terry felt his recipe should have the "texture of autobiography." That dish, Citrus Collards with Raisins Redux, jumpstarted his journey to rework and remix a host of recipes "through the African diaspora."

Terry's desire is to leave a legacy of greener soul cuisine and steer people away from cheap, fast, convenient, and unhealthy processed foods that have resulted in a population suffering from hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease.

After the detailed description of kitchen tools, the author considers essential, he gets right to the heart of the book--the recipes. The Grub is a chapter that highlights the top six recipes he considers his favorites. The "seed" of the book is the Citrus Collards followed by intriguing dishes like Sweet Sweetback's Salad with Roasted Beet Vinaigrette as well as Uncle Don's Double Mustard Greens and Roasted Yam Soup. The titles alone prove as tempting as the recipes.

Watermelon became the inspiration for Terry's drive to put more eco-sustainable food prep techniques into practice. He offers six recipes that use every part of the fruit, including the rind. In preparing his soul food, he also uses vegetable trimmings to make stock, roasts squash seeds rather than discarding them, chops and cooks the spines of greens like collards, and candies citrus peels.

Vegan Soul Kitchen The book is packed with innovative beverages that highlight herbs like lavender and rosemary, delicious starters and snacks, and a number of unique salads. One that stands apart is Caramelized Grapefruit, Avocado, and Watercress Salad with Grapefruit Vinaigrette, that places two slices of caramelized grapefruit over a salad of arugula and avocado dressed with Grapefruit Vinaigrette.

Straight from the soul are Gumbo Z along with Succotash Soup with Garlicky Cornbread Croutons, and Tempeh, and a tempting Shiitake Mushroom, and Cornmeal Dumpling Stew. These recipes from the Soups, Stews, Pot Likker chapter are a mere sampling of the book's imaginative creations.

Putting whole grains and legumes on the table, this chef offers dishes with brown rice, grits, quinoa, and amaranth and even turns traditional Hoppin' John into the enhanced Creole Hoppin'-Jean. His version is punched up with fresh tomatoes and a host of Creole spices to infuse it with zestier flavors.

Would Southern cuisine be complete without cornbread or biscuits? Terry loads the breadbasket with delicious expectations like Johnny Blaze Cakes, Quinoa-Quinoa Cornbread, and Sweet Cornmeal-Coconut Butter Drop Biscuits. He creates homemade condiments like Hot Pepper Sauce and Fresh Plum Ketchup. Pickles to perk up a meal include Smoky Pickled Purple Okra and Rainbow Chow Chow.

Sweet Thangs draws the cookbook to a soulful close with ambrosial treats like Coconut-Pecan Pralines that Terry serves during the Mardi Gras celebration. Maple Yam-Ginger Pie is another Southern favorite, with an exceptional piecrust enriched with coconut butter.

Graphically well-designed, the book features sidebars layered over a black and white food photo of fresh peas and their pods. Each chapter introduction is tastefully accompanied with a soft-focus black and white photo, while the opposing page lists the chapter title and the recipes in that section. There are only a few full-page color photos, but each one is so skillfully photographed it makes one linger and almost sense the flavor.

Unique in a cookbook are soundtrack suggestions to enjoy while preparing each recipe. Book or film recommendations are found in a few of the recipes, while the headnotes frequently reveal engaging personal experiences or recollections.

Vegan Soul Kitchen not only reveals that Bryant Terry writes with flair, but the book also proves he cooks with flair and has the ability to propel novices and pros into the kitchen for a full-on soul-inspired cooking adventure. The recipes are well written, easy to follow, and feature fresh, whole natural foods prepared from scratch. Southern cuisine has never tasted this good!

Click here for past book reviews

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