I’m going to start by saying that I’m not a vegan, nor do I play one on TV. I’m an omnivore. I just happen to be an omnivore who is rather fond of vegetables. And of cooking for people (had you noticed?). And who has vegetarian in-laws and vegan friends, some of whom come to visit from overseas which means that one must suddenly learn how to cook not just one or two vegan meals, but enough vegan food to get through several weeks of breakfasts, lunches, dinners, birthday cakes and Shakespeare feasts…
Anyway, anticipating the prospect of living vegan for a fortnight with a certain amount of trepidation, I started looking for likely cookbooks, and actually found some very good ones. I just couldn’t bring myself to cook from them if I didn’t have to. (I’m still not convinced that tofu is something one wants to eat unless one has no alternative, and this despite having cooked several perfectly nice tofu meals in which the tofu was readily visible.) Then one day I googled ‘vegan baking’, and discovered a book called Vegan Cupcakes Take Over The World.
It will probably surprise none of you that I bought this cookbook without so much as reading a review or looking at a recipe. Any cookbook with a title like that needed to be encouraged. Fortunately for me, it turned out to be an excellent and extremely useful cookbook, as well as being very funny (I especially like the schtick about rum and raisin cupcakes, and vegan pirates and vegan pirate parrots). I’ve got a lot of use out of that cookbook.
Several batches of cupcakes later, it occurred to me that I should perhaps learn some non-cupcake vegan recipes, so I googled Isa Chandra Moskowitz and discovered that she had written several other cookbooks, the most comprehensive of which looked to be Veganomicon.
To my mind, vegan cookbooks tend to fall into one of two categories. The first is books like Vegan Italiano, which are delightful for vegans an omnivores alike, because the author has scoured Italy for authentic recipes that just happen to be vegan – no mock-cheeses or egg substitutes here, just good peasant recipes, often traditional ones for Lent, or just traditional ones from areas where meat, dairy and eggs are unaffordable except on very special occasions. I actually really love this sort of book (not least because my father’s family comes from a part of Italy which is, shall we say, a very good source of vegan recipes), and these sort of recipes are ones I’ll use when I’m cooking without any particular dietary restrictions in mind.
Veganomicon falls into the second category. While it certainly contains traditional recipes that happen to be vegan, the authors of Veganomicon are out to convert meat eaters by showing them that for every dish containing animal products, there’s an even better one that’s vegan. To do this, they use nuts, soy, TVP, coconut milk and non-dairy margarine to make moussaka, quiche, cornbread, ice-cream, baked goods, cheesy pasta bakes, and casseroles. And they do this very well. This is not ‘see, lots of people eat vegan food sometimes’ cooking, it’s ‘I bet you didn’t know you could make that vegan!’ cooking. Whether or not conversion is your goal, this is the sort of food you’d cook for your meat-loving friends, because without being ‘mock meat’, this food does give the impression of being food that contains animal products, even though you know it doesn’t. And all that soy tends to mean it is on the hearty side.
Being the sort of person I am, I have gravitated towards the sweet end of the book – the raspberry soy ice-cream from Thursday came from here, as did the inspiration for the vegan and gluten-free brownies and the lemon and coconut Bundt cake worn by Cross-Dressing Eurovision Ken. There are also some wonderful rosewater, cardamom and pistachio cookies which have been a hit at work, and I’ve made the banana cake and low-fat chocolate cake, as well as their almond and quinoa muffins, just because I could. I actually really like vegan baking – I’m not sure if it actually is lighter than standard baking, but to me it feels lighter and less rich. Also, if my milk is past its use-by date, or I’m out of butter or eggs, the chances are I have some soy milk or coconut milk stashed away in my pantry along with some cooking oil, so I can still bake. Knowing that I always have ingredients on hand to make a cake or biscuits is always pleasing.
For those of you who are slightly less obsessed with baking sweet things than me, fear not! There’s plenty more to love about this book. For one thing, it contains a lot of vegan ‘basics’ – how to make a vegan ‘cheesy’ sauce, tofu ‘ricotta’ and almond parmesan, for example, as well as a variety of sauces from gravies to pesto and a couple of mole sauces (which both look wonderful, but which I haven’t tried due to difficulties in getting the ingredients… though now I’ve found Casa Iberica this may change). For another, there’s a whole section at the start of the book on how to prepare various vegetables, grains, and legumes, which is sufficiently detailed for beginning cooks, as well as being highly amusing – these women know how to write entertainingly, which is always going to endear a cookbook to me.
My favourite feature, however, is the little key at the beginning of each recipe that tells you at a glance whether it is gluten free, low fat or soy free, and whether it can be cooked in under 45 minutes or with ingredients from your local supermarket. This is very, very useful, if you’re cooking for guests with allergies or if you’re in a hurry, even allowing for the fact that your local supermarket might need to be in the USA if you want to find some of the Mexican ingredients. There are sections on brunch, salads and dressings, toasted sandwiches, mix and match dinners (choose one vegetable dish, one grain dish and one bean or tofu/seitan dish), casseroles, one-pot dishes, and pasta, noodles and risottos. Oh, and there’s a collection of menus at the back, planned along different themes or occasions and for different numbers of people, which makes me happy. I do love menus in cookbooks. While I haven’t used any of these ones in full, they are handy as examples of nicely balanced vegan meals, especially for an occasional-only vegan cook like myself.
As for savoury recipes, well, I’ve made the lentil and tarragon soup so many times now that I just about have it by heart – if you’ve never been that keen on lentils, but would like to change that, I recommend this recipe very highly. It certainly changed my mind on the subject. I can also highly recommend the broccoli and potato soup with herbs. And the asparagus and lemongrass risotto is a really lovely thing to cook when the asparagus season is half over and you’re looking for some different flavours to pair it with – it’s delicate and slightly spicy and the stock is just heavenly. The spinach kugel and the sweet potato and pear tzimmes were gorgeous, too, and surprisingly comfort foody for a meal totally lacking in melted cheese…
Moskewitz and Romero are completely up-front about their agenda: they think everyone ought to be vegan, and the best way to achieve this goal is to make vegan food taste so good that nobody misses the animal products. And they do a very good job – they are extremely talented at injecting flavour into food, and they have a good mix of traditional tastes and more innovative flavour combinations.
I have to say that their strategy is certainly working a little bit on me. I do love my vegan cakes and biscuits, and reading through this book is reminding me of savoury recipes I want to try, too. I hear their vegan moussaka is excellent, and it’s just the right season to try their kale and potato tamales and their mole sauce…
There are one or two recipes that miss the mark for me – a few too many breadcrumbs in one pasta bake, and no matter how good your tofu and cashew ricotta is, I don’t think you’re ever going to sell it to someone who has no problem with dairy and lives a block away from a really good Italian deli – but honestly, this is one useful book, even if you don’t have vegan houseguests (paging Canadian Cate… we miss you, come back soon!). With so many egg and dairy allergies and intolerances around, it’s actually really useful to have a collection of recipes that you know contain neither, especially when the gluten-free recipes are marked too. Another reason to bake vegan (vegan, not vegans. Don’t think I didn’t hear you sniggering.).
Well, and then there’s the fact that it tastes good.
I completely recommend this book.
(And yes, I know that I love every cookbook I review here. But why would I bother reviewing a cookbook I didn’t like?)