This month we review two cookbooks that have caused quite a stir in vegetarian kitchens.
The Garden of Vegan
By Tanya Barnard and Sarah Kramer
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2003
The authors' first book, How It All Vegan published in 1999, was an introduction to the exceptional pair and their creative approach to vegan cooking. Their second book reassures fans they still find pleasure in the kitchen inventing ever more vegan delights.
The introduction gives both Tanya and Sarah an opportunity to present their views on their relationship to food. About being vegan, Sarah, a cat lover, says, "How can I not be? I can't love one animal and eat another. That seems stupid to me. Every single action we do and decision we make affects the world around us." Tanya expresses concern that our fast-paced existence destroys our connection to food. She says, "When I think about food, I think about pleasure. I think about soul-nourishing satisfaction. I find that I eat really slowly so I can taste every morsel and contemplate why it's so pleasurable."
Newcomers to the vegan lifestyle have many questions about what's vegan and what's not, how to cope with a non-vegetarian world, and whether a vegan diet is healthy. In their Frequently Asked Questions the authors more than adequately cover this array of concerns.
Whoops! is an excellent section of kitchen hints that offers 27 valuable suggestions. Number 10, for example, suggests, "If a soup is too salty, add a chopped potato or two. The potatoes will absorb some of the saltiness."
Every cook is bound to experience an occasional cut or burn from kitchen adventures with sharp knives and hot ovens. The thoughtful authors provide an excellent, concise First Aid section that covers all types of cuts and burns.
Cookbook authors can learn a valuable lesson on simplicity in recipe writing from this pair. Anyone can become a successful cook by following the recipes written in a clear, simple, straightforward manner. The book demonstrates that good food does not have to be complicated.
Many of the recipes were submitted to the authors from friends and readers of their first cookbook. Each contributor receives credit, either in the recipe title or in comments preceding the recipe.
The recipes themselves cover every category from breakfast to dessert; however, some categories make this book stand apart from other cookbooks. For example, Lunchbox includes recipes for stuffed pita, sandwiches, wraps, and calzones. In the brief introduction to the Lunchbox section readers are encouraged to take a few extra minutes to prepare a wholesome lunch because, "Food is the fuel that keeps your body going. Without it, you're a weak pile of skin and bones with a growling stomach . . ."
Appies and Snacks features easy appetizers like Miller's Magnificent 5-Layer Dip and Sarah Kramer's Stuffed Mushrooms, while Snacks provides a truly healthy way to enjoy party munchies like Banana Chips, Spiced Nuts, and Cracker Janes Popcorn.
Odds and Sods perfectly names a collection of recipes that doesn't fit any usual category but contains invaluable preparations, including homemade condiments like Worchestershire Sauce and spice mixtures, relishes and chutneys, jams, and roasted garlic. Here the reader will find recipes for making Homemade Seitan, sun-dried tomatoes, and dry roasted nuts. Along with creating Powdered Sugar, the vegan home baker will find suggested egg substitutes.
For the authors, Desserts are an animal-friendly highlight of a vegan meal. When cookies seem to be the perfect treat, the home chef can select from a mountain of recipes that includes Mum's Sugar Cookies, Rachel's Louisville Cookies, Cranberry Almond Cookies, and Banana Walnut Bars. More desserts include cakes and icings, pies and pie crusts, donuts, brownies, puddings, mousses, fruit desserts, and a host of ice cream recipes that complete the treats for the sweets lovers.
Cool ideas for entertaining include suggestions like an adult Slumber Party complete with a list of suggested "trashy movies," games, music, and treats. The Parties chapter features other themes like a Dress-up Picture-Taking Party, Stitch and Bitch Party complete with craft suggestions, Clothing Swap Party, Dinner Party, Cocktail Party, Tiki Barbecue Party, and a Pampering Party with a long list of ideas for guests to pamper themselves.
The Ingredients Glossary explains items that new cooks and those new to the vegan scene will find helpful. New and even experienced vegans continue to encounter ingredients on packaged products that may be derived from animals. The invaluable Appendix contains an A to Z listing of chemical additives used in food processing along with their animal or vegetable origins. The authors have even included a metric conversion chart before the Index.
Funky photos of Tanya and Sarah in a variety of vintage apparel appear throughout the book along with some appealing line drawings to provide a touch of graphic "relief." Noticeably missing in the book is a nutritional analysis for each recipe.
The Garden of Vegan succeeds as a cookbook because the authors convey the information in an engaging style. The book reflects a hip outlook and homey approach to cooking with expressions like a "add a tich of maple syrup," "throw in the whole shebang," and "don't let that freak you out." Because the authors have created easy recipes designed for busy lifestyles, newcomers to the vegan table may even be drawn into the kitchen to discover they can have as much fun chopping and stirring as Sarah and Tanya.
Entertaining for a Veggie Planet
Houghton Mifflin, 2003
Didi, who is the chef/owner of Veggie Planet in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has mastered the art of vegetarian entertaining with ease. Her philosophy of less is more demonstrates that it really isn't necessary to frazzle the nerves with difficult food preparations or worry about the house not being spotless. Being relaxed with guests, having a well-stocked pantry, preparing tasty, fun and uncomplicated foods, and rolling with the punches when the unexpected guest pops in are the wise words of the master of vegetarian entertaining.
As mundane as popcorn may seem, Didi raises this prosaic snack to new heights in the section on Nibbles and Drinks by turning her readers on to the old-fashioned method of making popcorn on top of the stove. A few variations in seasoning, such as Honey or Maple, Asian Style, or Exotic offer an easy party snack that may even have guests begging for the recipe.
The book is loaded with side bars, large and small, that cover a host of ideas from clean-up tips and the history of edamame to storing Welsh Rabbit and what inspires the author into new creations. Didi shares so much of herself with her multitude of innovations, tips, and tricks, that readers may feel they have actually gained the password into her brain. Many invaluable suggestions appear in shaded boxes throughout the book as well.
What do women eat when they get together for a little gossip? Didi reveals that they prefer to graze and suggests 22 knock-out, easy-to-make recipes from which the hostess can choose the final two or three. Stand-out dishes like Extra-Smoky Baba Gannouj with eggplant cooked directly over a flame to create the pungent smoky flavor or Hip Dip, a departure from the traditional guacamole with edamame in place of avocado, are just some of Didi's delectable innovations.
While a good portion of the author's recipes are vegetarian and heavy on the dairy products, substituting tofu or soy cheese, soy cream cheese, and soy yogurt can easily veganize the majority of offerings. Didi favors the exotic spices of Malaysia, Vietnam, and India, and has a flair for blending them with American favorites that result in dishes that practically jump off the plate with originality and tantalizing flavors.
Some cooks consider soup as a first course. Didi, however, considers soup "the main event," and offers 14 fabulous soup recipes. One is a variation on the classic pea soup she names Chilled Curried Pea Soup. Other tasty kettles include Cambodian Tomato Soup, Mulligatawny Soup, and Sweet Potato Soup with Chipotle and Sage.
Didi's reigns with truly refreshing ideas for approaching that fried by Friday night syndrome yet wanting to invite a friend for a video and munchies. The section Rent-a-Video Burgers, Pizzas, Sandwiches, and Snacks offers several easy-fix meals with a near empty fridge like Spaghetti with Olive Oil, Portobellos, and Parmesan and other "couch potato food" like Shiitake Risotto with Edamame, or Black Bean Soup in a Hurry.
Nice Over Rice is packed with ideas for cooking up luscious dishes to serve over rice, couscous, or quinoa. Didi always cooks up a double quantity of grain to have on hand for those spontaneous moments when friends drop in. She's no stranger to noodles, whether they are Thai, Chinese, Italian, or Japanese soba noodles. These, too, receive her boundless supply of imaginative seasonings.
Suggestions for entertaining friends to a "preferred Thanksgiving" or Grilling Without Animals on Independence Day seem to fly out of the author's creative kitchen without end. Super Bowl Sunday, The Olympics, and Kentucky Derby Day provide more opportunities to gather with friends over dishes like Crispy Rice Cakes on Spinach with Viet Red Pepper Sauce or Root Stew with Millet Cakes.
Didi is enthusiastic about brunches and offers seven reasons to have guests over for brunch. Brunches are less work than dinner parties; they provide a pleasant change; expectations are lower; they are cost saving; they provide an opportunity to show off hidden baking skills; brunch doesn't last all day; and lastly, it's convenient for both the host and the guests.
While the majority of Didi's mouth-watering desserts are vegetarian, she does feature a Vegan Chocolate Cake that sounds positively irresistible. For the last course of the meal, the sweet indulgence, the author suggests that you "Simplify your dessert course with wine." Instead of fussing with coffee and tea, splurge on a bottle of sweet dessert wine: whites to go with sweets that feature berries, apricots, peaches, nectarines, and tropical fruits and a port to compliment the chocolate treats.
The author's intimate, almost one-on-one style that weaves through the book carries through to the last feature, a glossary, called A Friendly Guide to Unfamiliar Ingredients. Each entry, explained in detail, gives the reader a full introduction to each of the ingredients described. The book concludes with an excellent index.
Some vegans may take offense at the occasional use of fish sauce and honey, and some readers may be missing the nutritional analyses; but these are very minor items in an outstanding cookbook that imparts so many fabulous food ideas for entertaining.
Entertaining for a Veggie Planet overflows with 453 pages of innovative recipes, creative touches, party hints, and a plethora of ideas for entertaining with complete confidence and comfort. The book is a must for every household, vegetarian or not. And, while you're at the bookstore, check out Didi's first book, Vegetarian Planet.
Reviewed September 2003