I spend a lot of time reading cookbooks. Kind of a ridiculous amount of time. If they catch my interest, I read them cover-to-cover, like novels. I learn a huge amount that way – even from books I never cook a recipe from – though I often can’t remember what book I saw something in.
It has long been my intent to bring cookbook reviews to Unfussy Epicure, but in order to do that I wanted to cook a couple things from each book, and have photos and all, and that just wasn’t happening. (Though I did review Heidi Swanson’s Super Natural Every Day in this post for Brown and Wild Rice Casserole.) So I decided it was time to just share my impressions of the books going through my hands.
Since Arne and I are planning to increase 2012’s Vegetarian Week to Vegetarian Every-Other-Week in 2013, I’ve been particularly interested in vegetarian and vegan cookbooks lately. In October I have borrowed three from the library: Vegan Cooking for Carnivores, by Roberto Martin; Veganomicon, by Moskowitz and Romero; and Amanda Cohen’s Dirt Candy.
As a part-time vegetarian, I was especially interested in Martin’s book, subtitled “Over 125 Recipes So Tasty You Won’t Miss the Meat.” There are tons of recipes out there that I believe fit this description, some of which appear on this blog: soups like Thai Tomato, stews like Ghanaian Peanut and Kenyan Kidney Beans in Coconut Milk; comforting nursery food like Tofu and Vegetables in Peanut-Miso Velvet and spicy eye-openers like Indian Sour Chickpeas.
What I expected from the cookbook was recipes like that – interesting and flavorful dishes where one wouldn’t miss the meat because meat was never part of their DNA. So when I flipped through the book, I was disappointed to find lots of recipes like “Tofu Benedict with Chipotle Cream.” The dish, a tofu patty on a round of wheat bread with a vegan mayonnaise sauce, has basically nothing in common with Eggs Benedict (its obvious touchstone) except its form – something on a bready thing with a sauce. It’s like selling steamed ginger catfish over rice as a substitute for Buffalo wings and fries. Steamed ginger catfish is wonderful, but it’s not going to fulfill a craving for wings. Eggs Benedict is all about eggs, with a sauce of more eggs plus butter. If this book is meant to introduce carnivores to vegan food that allows them to not “miss the meat,” why include recipes that frankly beg to be compared to their meat versions?
Having just given up on that book, I may not have given Veganomicon a fair shake. Though I’m a part-time vegetarian, I am mostly an omnivore, and it seems to me that this cookbook isn’t interested in speaking to anyone who hadn’t yet fully converted to a vegan diet. Statements insisting that non-vegans who come to your house for dinner “will be vegan someday,” and a recipe for “Messy Rice” expressing utter disgust at the original dirty rice – a dish I happen to love – made me feel like I wasn’t invited to this party until my thinking was completely in line with my hosts’. On the other hand, a few of the recipes did sound interesting, such as Samosa Stuffed Baked Potatoes. Maybe someday I’ll check it out again… but probably not.
And finally, I get to the cookbook I was most excited about when I picked up my holds from the library: Dirt Candy, a vegetable cookbook in the form of a graphic novel. How cool is that?
Totally. That’s how cool it is. As much memoir as cookbook, it left me more sure than I’ve ever been that though food may be my calling, opening a restaurant is NOT. The book follows Amanda Cohen’s dramatic journey as a chef through several circles of hell, and though she insists she loves the job, it certainly isn’t for me. This book sure is, though. Early on it gives stats for Amanda and her staff – catnip for a gamer geek like me. It features talking cows, pandas, and monkeys, as well as robots, dragons, and samurai.
Even better, it has an attitude toward vegetarian food that I love. The focus isn’t on avoiding and “replacing” meat; it’s on doing really amazing, delicious things with vegetables. One of my favorite sections discusses the often self-punishing health-food origins of vegetarian cuisine in America – and chefs’ disdain for vegetables in favor of “sexier” meat – and contrasts them with the deep, varied, and delicious vegetarian traditions of China and South India.
And the recipes are exciting, though few (if any) of them would qualify as “unfussy.” This is, after all, chef cooking, not home cooking. Full treatments include several components; for instance, Pea Soup with Spring Pea Flan and Pickled Potatoes. Cohen does a good job of delineating what the various elements are (and cross-referencing their page numbers), though, and you don’t have to do them all. I am interested in the Spring Pea Flan mentioned above, and really excited about the Roasted Carrot Buns, and perhaps the Carrot Halvah, but likely not the Carrot and Cucumber Salad and Carrot Hoisin Sauce designed to accompany them.
Obviously, the recipes are not graced with photos, but with drawings. This doesn’t bother me, since I don’t care if my cookbooks have pictures at all. Recipes that are not vegan to start with often have vegan substitutions.
All of that aside, Dirt Candy does what a cookbook really needs to do, first and foremost: It makes me hungry. I am desperate to try this food! I’ll be making those carrot buns soon, but until then I’ll be dreaming of my next trip to New York City, and of scoring a table at Cohen’s 18-seat restaurant.