Friday, December 2, 2016

New Book Review: Vegan 101

Fair disclosure: I received a review copy of this book, and am bumping the review out ahead of some other reviews to help publicize a new book as fast as possible.


Title: Vegan 101

Author: Heather Bell & Jenny Engel

Date: 2016

Publisher: Sonoma

ISBN: 978-1-943451-36-4

Length: 198 pages plus 16 pages of indices, including a one-page Gluten-Free Recipes Index

Illustrations: color photos

Quote: “[C]hefs have come to us…and confessed that they actually eat mostly veg at home.”

Since I'm known for sometimes brutally honest reviews, here's the brutal truth: If you're not buying it as a textbook for the authors' "Spork" vegan-cooking class, Vegan 101 is not the cookbook I'd recommend for the "101" level of vegan cooking. That's not at all a bad thing. The audience for this book is serious foodies, including professional chefs as well as Hollywood trendsetters, who already know a lot about cooking and want to add vegan masterpieces to their repertoire. If that category includes you, you will love Vegan 101, but you're on what I'd call the "201" level.

This book begins with some introductions to vegan foods, the vegan life, and vegan celebrities. The first chapter explains the differences between tofu (fermented soybean pulp), seitan (wheat gluten), and tempeh (fermented whole soybeans). The authors recommend a few favorite prepackaged “meat analogues” and nut/grain “milks” as well as vegan foods that substitute well for meats. (“Long, thin strips of seasoned carrot make an excellent pig-free bacon,” we learn; maitake mushrooms “lend a chicken-like texture,”  cooked lentils can be “a dead ringer for ground beef in Bolognese sauce or Sloppy Joes,” and steamed tempeh with mayonnaise and chopped onion is “a tuna salad facsimile.”) 

I have to deduct a few points from this introductory chapter for formatting. Magazine-style, single-paragraph-block formatting isn't pretty, and when three distinct threads of introductory material--celebrity testimonials, nutrition information, and discussion of specific vegan food products--are mashed up in side-by-side columns, the distraction level is high enough to make one paragraph positively confusing:

“One long-standing vegan baker’s hack is to add a couple tablespoons of flax meal to the dry ingredients of any baking recipe. (In this book, you’ll notice that many of our recipes call to follow this method.) Another option is to  combine these two ingredients and let the mixture sit for 10 minutes. The result of this kitchen chemistry exercise is a clear, viscous liquid…”

Which two ingredients? Flaxseed meal and water? Flaxseed meal and the prepackaged Vegan Egg (seaweed-based) product discussed two pages back, before a list of food sources of key nutrients was plopped into the middle of the discussion of egg substitutes? 

Fortunately the recipes are presented in a nice, orderly, one-at-a-time format. 

How to describe the recipes? Well, this is California cuisine—what else could one expect from Sonoma Press?—so it’s hardly surprising that the authors assume you have access to all kinds of California-style health food store specialties, not necessarily available at every neighborhood Shop’n’Save. “The key to a delicious tofu scramble is lots of goodies,” including “vegan butter,” brown rice syrup, miso paste, “vegan breakfast sausage patties,” and “vegan smoked Gouda” as well as fresh lemon, chives, and basil. The French toast recipe is designed around prepackaged “vegan sourdough bread.” The muffins call for “vegan butter” (ordinary olive, corn, or canola oil, or even margarine, would also be vegan), “evaporated cane sugar,” and “vegan sour cream.”

Further along, the authors explain how to make your own vegan substitutes for some trendy foods. Their vegan ricotta recipe is made with cashews, tofu, lemon, sugar, salt, and nutmeg, in a blender. Their vegan sausages are a vegetable loaf, which is delicious if you have fresh ingredients, featuring mushrooms, nuts, onion, and garlic. Their hollandaise sauce is also based on cashews. However, this cookbook does not reliably explain how to make each of the vegan “analogues” for every trendy food listed. In some recipes the authors tell you how to make “tofu feta” (chopped firm tofu with miso paste and seasonings) and in others they just tell you to buy “vegan cheddar.” Can you find it? They don't know. They seem to have chosen which meat and cheese analogues to teach you to make, and which to tell you to buy (and good lu-uck!), based on space in the book and probably which of their own recipes for these things have been most successful.

Recipes are organized into breakfast dishes, salads, soups and stews,  “handhelds” (sandwiches and other ways to wrap up veg in breads), main dishes (including bean-bread fritters), and desserts. A recipe for seasoning chopped nuts and mushrooms to make a vegan “chorizo” may be new and unique to this book, and is worth adding to your collection. Then there’s Cappuccino Chocolate Bark, a relatively simple chocolate candy, and a “caramel” made with ground dates…

I’m not surprised that this collection of tasty and trendy recipes wins raves from the Bright Young Things in Hollywood. As noted above, if I were hosting a “cooking school” like the ones Grandma Bonnie Peters hosts, I would not assign Vegan 101 as the “101” level cookbook. That would be Vicki Griffin’s Guilt-Free Gourmet. The “102” level would be the McDougall cookbooks. Vegan 101 is, however, an exciting “201” level cookbook. I'm glad I have it; before I'll sell my copy in real life I just have to try that chorizo recipe.

And of course, as the authors mention…you don’t have to commit to the vegan lifestyle to learn to cook vegan food. If you want to feed a multitude, a cool, trendy thing to do is offer a choice of meat-based and vegan dishes. Observe how, in some cases, the vegan dishes are devoured first. McDougall vegan specialties are, in my experience, likely to make the meat eaters (and wheat eaters) complain if you didn't make enough for them too, no matter how many meat, wheat, and cheese dishes you've set forth...I'm guessing that some of these "Spork" vegan recipes will have similar effects.