Vegan variety

The last days of my life as a temporary vegan

February 15, 2008

Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a three-part review of the new vegan cookbook Veganomicon. The first installment is available here; the second, here.

This is the home stretch of my two-week experiment in eating from Veganomicon, and hey, this vegan life really isn’t so bad. We’re eating well, and we’re satisfied. The only craving I had, again while driving, was for bacon. I don’t eat bacon, so it’s a puzzling moment.

Over the weekend (a busy, crazy one), we live on the cassoulet with the delicious biscuits. Since I thought about using greens and yams in it, I braise some up with garlic, and dump it in our bowls along with the cassoulet. It brings much more vibrant flavor to the dish. I’d recommend it to anyone cooking the recipe (either that way or replacing the carrots and peas).

Kale salad with Caesar dressing.

Monday: Time to cook again! I make the basic cornbread, using half blue cornmeal. This recipe uses the same curdled-soy-milk-and-baking-powder method as the muffins I made last week. It’s pretty good, moist and tender, but a bit too sweet. It’s not as good as the cornbread we love from How to Bake, by Nicholas Malgieri. Brad thinks it tastes like pancakes, without enough pronounced corn flavor. The only real shortcoming of the recipe is the instruction to use a cast-iron skillet, but with no clue as to what size (I use a 12-inch).

We have on hand some lacinato kale, which I think might be good with the Caesar salad dressing (made from silken tofu). Since I don’t use the capers in the dressing because of the high sodium content, I amp up the garlic and mustard. I like the dressing and think it would be good on cooked vegetables, too, sort of an aïoli. The salad’s great.

Tangerine tofu.

To round out the meal, I make the Tangerine Baked Tofu (with rum!). I use oranges instead, and way more cumin. In general, I find that in eating a low-sodium diet, the lack of salt is overcome by the liberal use of aromatics — spices, herbs, garlic, pepper, citrus (zest especially) — with way more than the recipe recommends. The balance is tricky: you don’t want too much, but at least double usually works for me. So, with much more cumin than called for, this is a delicious dish that I would gladly cook again.

The next night, Brad asks if we have any more “spice sticks.” The recipe glitch (it seems there always is one) is that it calls for pressed tofu, and I see no instructions anywhere in the book for how to press tofu. Maybe I didn’t look hard enough. I have to fake it, which I hope worked well enough.

Tuesday: Do-over time. I think I screwed up the chickpea-cutlet recipe before, so I re-make it, this time with the right amount of liquid. The dough feels more springy and bakes up with more body, more like a good potato latke. Although I think it’s better than the first time, Brad likes the original (screwed-up) way better, because he likes the crunchy edges more than the doughy center.

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian ad

Wednesday: The Night of the Terrifying Tempeh. I’m in late from work and hungry, and it’s Brad’s juggling night, so I smear some tomato paste right from the can onto two chickpea cutlets and sprinkle them with garlic pepper and Italian seasoning. I shake the jar too hard and get herbs all over the counter. Mom was right; rushing isn’t good. After a minute in the microwave, the cutlets are ready and satisfying enough, confirming for me that they would be good baked with a good tomato sauce. (Note to Veganomicon authors: The microwave is not an evil instrument, OK?)

Then the scary thing happens. I get a packet of tempeh out of the refrigerator and notice that it’s a day past its sell-by date. Well, one day overdue isn’t so bad, I think. I follow one of the tempeh recipes, which asks you to simmer it in water for 10 minutes. The kitchen fills with an unbearably funky smell. I taste a bit of the tempeh, and it’s acrid, dirty-sockish, and super-funky, really not at all edible. It’s a hard decision (Is it my palate? Am I stereotyping tempeh? Will it kill us if it’s rotten?), but it’s so bad I throw it away. That night I tell Brad about it and he urges me to give it another chance, because he once ate a great tempeh sandwich in Eugene.

Thursday: Give Tempeh a Chance Day. I buy a fresh package, of a different brand, on my way home. The recipe for Hot Sauce Glazed Tempeh looks like it could work, and we love spicy food, so that’ll be tonight’s dish. During the simmering, the tempeh gives off only nice, foodish smells, nothing funky. I decide that the marinade should be a sauce, too, and dump it all in the pan (I’m using the pan-frying method). It reduces beautifully, and I mound the sauce on the tempeh triangles on the plate.

Much to my surprise, this is really yummy. Hot, for sure, but a lot like good barbecue in a mouth-satisfying, warming way. It’s not pork ribs, which I love, but it’s damn good, and chewy. Brad loves it, too, and we both think we should add this to our repertoire of things we cook and eat happily. Tempeh: redeemed!

Friday: The closing-night party to celebrate the end of the road for this project. I wanted to try the leftover Caesar Salad dressing on broccoli, but at the last minute decide to cook the sliced broccoli right in the dressing (which has olive oil in it). Another last-minute inspiration: Reading the New York Times while the broccoli cooks, I see an article by the wonderful Mark Bittman about how he’s a convert to dried tomatoes. Hmm, that taste could work with the dish, I think, so I soak a handful of snipped sun-dried tomatoes in water for a couple of minutes, then dump it all into the cooking broccoli and dressing. The combination is perfect.

For heft I make the Curried Tofu, which without the soy sauce isn’t so great. But the technique of baking and broiling the extra-firm tofu gives it a nice, tough texture.

They loved Smlove Pie.

To end the meal festively I make the Smlove Pie that one of the commenters to this blog recommended. The filling — silken tofu mixed with melted chocolate and liqueur (Grand Marnier, in this case) — is scrumptious. I would use the filling by itself as a dense mousse. I use some pretty great chocolate I have on hand with very high cocoa content, and the taste is amazing. But the crumb crust, with just oil and soy milk as binder, doesn’t hold together at all; maybe it would work with melted soy margarine? We have our neighbors over, one of whom is vegan, to celebrate, and we all love the pie and debate about movies till late.

So what do I think, after these two weeks of eating from Veganomicon? You can definitely eat well as a vegan, with good-tasting foods of a wider variety than I had thought possible. Although their cookbook has some flaws and needed better editing, Moskowitz and Romero have many bold, innovative ideas. For me, the baked goods are the best in the book. The next dinner party I have for vegans will be way more interesting. I will resume life as an omnivore, but I’m happy to have some new foods to cook and enjoy (hello, tempeh!).

I recommend this book for anyone wanting to discover a bigger and tastier universe of vegan foods.

There are 3 comments on this item
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1. by Isa on Feb 19, 2008 at 11:19 PM PST

Thank you, Nadine! I enjoyed reading about your experience. I would be happy to talk to you about some of the “what were they thinking” moments!

2. by anonymous on Mar 11, 2008 at 6:38 AM PDT

Nadine, I really like your fairness and humor - something cooks have to come to anyway, after dumping whole spice cannisters into stew or bouncing biscuits off the floor! Well done - informative and entertaining.

I am really iffy on tempeh myself but have come to love tofu. It’s worthwhile learning about pressing it, by the way, and there are any number of ways to do so. I tend to do one of two things:

1. Drain then freeze the tofu. Before you need it, take it out and let it thaw (if you’re in a hurry, microwave works here just as you would use it for frozen meat). Slice it in eighths, or however you want it, squeeze it by hand to get the water out. It is still a bit delicate but can take more pressure than unfrozen tofu. Freezing makes the texture more chewy, but more spongy.

2. Drain the tofu straight from its container, slice into eighths or whatever. Using a cutting board or the back of a cookie sheet, lay out a linen or cotton towel (flat weave) and lay the tofu atop that. Wrap the tofu, then put another baking sheet on top of that, and then a heavy weight (I use my 14” cast iron skillet). Let it compress and drain for ... at least 1/2 hour, preferably longer. Followed by pan frying or broiling, this method gives the smoothest & densest texture, and is my preference.


3. by veganpilotmarty on Dec 31, 2011 at 12:31 PM PST

If you’re going to use tofu and drain it I highly recommend No more falling dishes or books since I got one.
Marty from Marty’s Flying Vegan Review

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