Book Review

No meat? No problem

Vegan cookbooks court novice chefs

By
March 9, 2007

No one, I believe, becomes a vegan for the food. It’s not that vegans don’t eat well, but that most vegetarians don’t have the willpower to give up everything animal.

If you’re a meat eater, you probably think it sounds challenging enough to say goodbye to your rotisserie chicken and spicy tuna rolls. But imagine you’ve already committed to a life without steak dinners or bacon breakfasts. Now, try to imagine a life without cheese pizza.

For many vegetarians, cheese is the deal-breaker. It doesn’t matter how many times we tell ourselves that cow’s milk is for baby cows, or that the cheddar on our macaroni was once inside of a cow. We just can’t stop eating it.

My year as a vegan was undone by a Greek salad. The friend who had ordered it got tired of me staring at the cubes of feta on her plate. “Just eat it,” she said, and pushed her plate toward me. And I did.

Vegans are stronger. Vegans eat roasted-vegetable pizza, wear vinyl shoes, and check the ingredient lists on cosmetics for carmine (a red pigment made from crushed beetles). Living this way, say committed vegans, is not so difficult. And they’re writing heaps of cookbooks to show us how.

Any major bookstore now has at least one shelf dedicated to vegan cookbooks. At the university bookstore near my home, I counted 32 books explaining how to live sans animal products, including an Idiot’s Guide to Vegan Living. I found ethnic cookbooks, dessert cookbooks, raw-food cookbooks, cookbooks for students (or the impatient), cookbooks for vegans cooking with their children, and a cookbook co-written by the pop musician Moby featuring recipes from Teany, his Greenwich Village tea shop.

Perhaps the most useful are the vegan-lifestyle cookbooks, like Sarah Kramer’s La Dolce Vegan! Kramer says she wants to make veganism “fun, accessible, tasty, and effortless.” She has recipes for every meal of the day, instructions for mixing up your own earth-friendly cleaning products, and ideas for craft projects. (Turn your old toothbrush into a bracelet! Make a sewing dummy out of duct tape!) Her recipes are simple — most take just 30 minutes — and you won’t have to restock your entire pantry, since no recipe requires anything more exotic than soy milk or nutritional yeast.

Few restaurants cater to vegans, who must learn to fend for themselves. Some vegans are better at this than others; I have one friend whose vegan diet consists mainly of cold cereal and frozen faux-meat patties. Kramer encourages us to avoid this route. Instead — perhaps knowing that many people learning to cook vegan food are really learning to cook for the first time — she gives plenty of basic cooking tips, such as thorough instructions for the cook boiling her first pot of rice (no stirring!) or baking her first cake (don’t stick a wet spoon in your baking powder!).

Pre-packaged vegan food can be expensive, a problem Kramer addresses in the chapter “Faux Fare” by offering recipes for vegan staples. Seitan, a meat substitute made from vital wheat gluten, can be boiled in broth to taste something like fish, chicken, turkey, ham, or beef. Tofu “whipped cream” introduces the intrepid vegan chef to agar agar, a gelatin made from red algae. Vegan marshmallows may be more of a challenge, but they’re also strangely satisfying; making your own marshmallows is kind of like making your own paper, or knitting your own socks.

Cupcakes go vegan.

My only problem with Kramer’s cookbook is that it has no pictures, or rather, no pictures of the recipes. Instead, the book is full of pictures of Kramer, snuggling with her dog, getting tattooed, swimming, riding her scooter, posing like a pin-up girl, hangin’ with her friends, and generally suggesting, “We’re vegan, and look how much fun we’re having!” Kramer’s photos might inspire me to wear more dark lipstick, but pictures of food would be more likely to inspire me to cook.

For a more satisfying visual feast, check out Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World (co-written with Terry Hope Romero). Here we have glossy cupcakes, piped towers of vegan buttercream frosting, fresh berries, and twinkling sugar sprinkles. Some of these cupcakes are very fancy, with marzipan flowers or cream filling, but don’t be intimidated. This book is perfect for the novice baker, with exhaustive explanations of ingredients, tools, and techniques, and a troubleshooting section for sunken cupcakes and curdled frosting.

Vegan baking requires some ingenuity. Eggs and butter do a lot for baked goods. They contribute to a cake’s volume, moisture, flavor, texture and color. How do you subvert the age-old laws of food chemistry? Simple: Baking soda and vinegar make the cake rise, and margarine or canola oil keep it moist. You might miss the taste of butter, but with all the sugar in a cupcake, you’ll never taste the soy.

The luscious-looking frosting is more problematic. Whether or not you enjoy this confection depends on your ability to take a big bite of sweetened vegetable shortening and think, “Mmmm! That tastes good!” I don’t mind a smear of this frosting on my cupcake, but a bite on its own is not appealing. Even high-quality non-hydrogenated shortening leaves a slippery coating on the inside of my mouth and reminds me of cheap grocery-store cakes at childhood birthday parties.

For picky types like me, Moskowitz and Romero concocted a number of frosting recipes that don’t require shortening. These include tofu chocolate mousse, vegan cream-cheese frosting, and other toppings thickened with agar agar and arrowroot. The blueberry mousse recipe is more challenging and time-consuming than the fluffy buttercream, but the flavor is worth the trouble.

But what about the cheese? Even with my faux ham and cupcakes, will I ever stop craving grilled cheese sandwiches? Kramer addresses this question in a list of common complaints she has heard from former vegans. “I miss cheese” and “I miss macaroni and cheese” are given separate entries, which leads me to believe that I’m not the only one with a cheese problem. Kramer admits that no cheese substitute is going to taste like the stuff from the dairy, but she reminds us that we’re doing this for the cows. If you’re willing to suffer a little, the cows won’t have to.

Seattle writer Zena Chew, a former vegan, now keeps a panini grill under her desk at work so she can have a grilled cheese sandwich whenever she likes.

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1. by jbm on Mar 9, 2007 at 3:55 PM PST

Thanks for this; I seldom see reviews of any vegan cookbooks outside of specifically vegan sites. I agree with you about Sarah Kramer’s books; I bought How it All Vegan!, but I never cook from it; there’s something a bit offputting and uncookbook-ish about it, I’m not quite sure why.
I would have liked to see you compare her book to Moskowitz’s first cookbook, Vegan with a Vengeance instead. I’m a little uneasy with the vegan obsession with sweets; I like some good dark chocolate now and then, but most of the time I’m happy with fresh fruit. I’m not really interested in cupcakes. I realize this puts me in an even bigger minority than being vegan.
But in any case, thanks again.

2. by anonymous on Mar 10, 2007 at 2:00 PM PST

another excellent vegan cookbook is actually a zine called “Please don’t feed the bears” by Brad Misanthropic - a compilation can be found here: http://www.microcosmpublishing.com/catalog/books/1785/. the recipes are easy and delish! my housemates love them. and just as another point of view on “Vegan cupcakes take over the world”, i think the chocolate buttercream frosting is some of the best frosting EVER! and my friends who have tried it (none of them are vegans) say it is like eating fudge - they love it! thanks!

3. by anonymous on Mar 21, 2007 at 9:43 AM PDT

I highly recommend the Real Food Daily coookbook by Ann Gentry. You will DIE over the vegan mac & cheese -- I’m telling you, it really tastes like cheese. And it’s healthy -- sure, there are desserts but they are sweetened with healthier stuff. And if you want lovely photos of food, you’ve got ‘em.’

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