This month we review two books that chronicle the vegan cooking odyssey of a punk devotee who has created recipes that cover the gamut from whole meals to cupcake desserts.
Vegan with a Vengeance
By Isa Chandra Moskowitz
Marlowe and Company, 2005
Like a diamond in the rough, author Isa Chandra Moskowitz displays her unpolished edges beginning with the introduction to Vegan with a Vengeance. Her down-to-earth, no-nonsense plain speak communicates she is not trying to impress anyone with high-minded language or flowery adjectives. Rather, Isa is a 30-something woman who grew up during the punk rock scene, frequently cooked at a vegan cafe, and realized she had a bent for cooking. Her sincere aspiration is to make "a great cook out of each and every vegan."
What she gained from the punk rock period is the "do-it-yourself" attitude that led the way to pursuing cooking with a creative freedom. While watching cooking shows after 911, she had an epiphany and was inspired to create her own vegan cooking TV program. The cookbook is the product that evolved from her Post Punk Kitchen cooking show on Brooklyn Community Access TV. The show was not filmed on an elaborate set, but in her own small New York apartment kitchen.
In the section on Tools and Kitchen Stuff, Isa employs a light touch while advising a practical approach to equipping the vegan kitchen with tools she considers essential and those that are not.
Like most of us, Isa is not perfect and admits her shortcoming when discussing The Post Punk Pantry that is actually "what her mythical well-stocked pantry would contain" if she always had all the listed ingredients on hand.
Isa's focus is clearly the recipes. Professional chefs study the culinary arts to learn cooking techniques, but the real talent comes from a sensitive palate and the ability to create foods with pleasing flavors. The same principles hold true for home chefs. This author really knows her seasonings.
The book is written in a very reader friendly casual style--you know early on that Isa is not rigid about her recipes. Rather she gives readers leeway to substitute favored ingredients for those in the recipe or to add additional veggies if they like. Many of the recipes contain creative variations, like the Asparagus and Sun-dried Tomato Frittata. In addition to the basic recipe, she includes a Broccoli and Olive, an Indian, and a Mushroom Frittata variation. One can hardly tire of the evolving basic dish.
One example of Isa's energy and creative spirit is the section Start Your Own Brunch Cafe. Out of frustration while going to brunch with friends and feeling deprived watching them eat egg-laden waffles and omelets while she poked at her oatmeal, she came up with the idea of creating her own Brunch Cafe. She tells readers how easy it is to prepare a brunch for a crowd by preparing Waffles the night before. A large batch of Scrambled Tofu cooked in the morning can be divided into two dishes: Breakfast Burritos and Tofu, Potatoes, and Tempeh. She adds a tray of Herb-Roasted Potatoes and a pot of coffee to complete the meal. Turning the brunch into a social happening for an extended day, she suggests adding music, board games, and cards.
Vegan with a Vengeance is graphically attractive and features a center grouping of four full-color photos of visually appealing foods, each with tasteful food styling. The author's creative approach to sidebars is to name them "Punk Points." Each of them contains excellent hints on how to handle a particular task like toasting hazelnuts, working with phyllo dough or freezing gnocchi. Even Fizzle, her cat, takes the stage with brief appearances at the edge of sidebars that offer informational tidbits.
In contrast to her punk lifestyle are her exceptional recipes, many which can clearly be considered gourmet. Uniquely delicious are entrée temptations like BBQ Pomegranate Tofu or Pumpkin Seed-Crusted Tofu with Baked Pumpkin and Cranberry Relish.
Her multitude of international dishes makes this a cookbook not just for everyday dining, but also one to turn to for special occasion meals with global gusto. Drawn from her Jewish roots are recipes like Matzoh Ball Soup and Knish Madness with three tasty variations on the knish theme.
Isa clearly demonstrates that food is the creative palette she employs to express her innovative skills. What makes Vegan with a Vengeance more than just another great cookbook, is that the recipes are interspersed with pages offering resources, organizational suggestions, and many poignant past experiences in the punk world like her travels to cook with the group Food Not Bombs. These pages are so compelling you may want to take the book to bed and just enjoy reading for the fun of it. And when you awake in the morning, haul out the waffle iron and bake up a batch of Ginger-Pear Waffles.
Vegan Cupcakes Take over the World
By Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero
Marlowe and Company, 2006
Who would have thought that a sweet treat as unassuming as cupcakes could set the vegan world aflame? Blame it on one little cookbook and the kitchen antics of two inventive vegan women who created "75 dairy-free recipes for cupakes that rule." Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero are the culprits who created the frenzy by turning simple cupcakes into elegant, ultra-decadent, and irresistible little cakes with dazzling eye appeal.
In the arena of cupcakes, Betty Crocker has been upstaged. This innovative New York team of bakers has given dessert lovers Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World, a book that offers complete courses from Cupcake Baking 101 to Advanced Cupcake Baking 401. Covered in the first section are details on recommended flours, sweeteners, oils and shortenings, liquids, starches, and flavorings.
Their suggestions on recommended baking equipment are a clear indicator that numerous experiments were undertaken to achieve the success they are able to pass on to their readers. Details are key as described in their Seven Rules for Righteous Cupcakes, Troubleshooting, and the extensive information on decorating.
The authors suggest perfecting the Golden Vanilla Cupcakes and the Basic Chocolate Cupcakes they enhance with a host of extravagant toppings and frostings found in the last segment of the book. Both have enough variations to keep the cupcake exploration forever fascinating. Also provided are gluten-free versions of these two basics.
Their vegan versions of classic cupcakes include Carrot, Gingerbread, Peanut Butter, Maple, S'mores, Banana Split, and Chocolate and Vanilla Marble. Reaching for the stratosphere are approximately 21 decadent creations they refer to as "fancy."
Just perusing the table of contents may evoke the urge to head for the kitchen and start baking. On the list of totally compelling cupcakes are Tiramisu, Cappuccino Filled with Espresso Creme, and Rum Raisin with Rum Glaze and Rummy Buttercream. Enhancers to the basic or classic treats are an army of Frostin's and Fillin's like Peanut Buttercream, Coconut Pecan Fudge, and Super Natural Agave Icing.
Readers don't have to wonder what these ultra-rich goodies look like. The little book, approximately 7 x 7 inches, is filled with numerous stunning color photos with elegant food styling. Though this cupcake compendium is a "little book," it stands apart with appealing graphic design throughout. Anti-establishment to the end, Isa and Terry have placed their Acknowledgements at the end rather than the traditional beginning pages.
Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World has irresistible appeal that goes beyond the vegan realm. Anyone who enjoys baking and indulging in sugary delights, whether everyday or occasionally, will find this volume a welcome bookshelf addition. For families with young children, this cupcake cookbook is a must and will, in time, wear buttercream smudges like a badge of honor.
Reviewed September 2007