Afro-Vegan Cover

Afro-Vegan: Bridging Traditions

Vegan cuisine lacks tradition.

There are examples of veganism or extreme vegetarianism going back to as far as ancient Greece and India, but most cases represent isolated individuals, not a lineage. There are few rare examples of near vegan cuisine being culturally sustained–Shojin Ryori and multiple Indian foodways for instance–but those are exceptions in the gastronomic world. Instead, veganism is more often associated with eschewing what came before, a deliberate turning away from a culture that shares different values.

As a result, most vegan cookbooks are instructional. The average reader is statistically probably unfamiliar with vegan cookery and in fact may have never had to prepare their own meals before, coming from a culture where meat-laden dishes can be delivered or picked up from a drive-thru. It is risky for a vegan cookbook to dive deeply rather than pan broadly, to presume even basic kitchen skills. This means we are treated less often to rich and uncompromising works like the beautiful and omnivorous Burma: Rivers of Flavor or Gran Cocina Latina.

Bryant Terry has always resisted these trends in modern veganism, seeking to ground his food in history, even an omnivorous history. Starting with Vegan Soul Kitchen, he has linked his recipes to family stories, century old traditions, and modern cinema and music. In his latest work, Afro-Vegan he goes further than ever. He maintains the habit of suggesting other cultural works like songs to tie into each recipe, and of “remixing” classic recipes with new twists, such as combining Southern skillet cornbread with North African dukkah. Unlike his past books, however, he goes further in emphasizing the linkages between what he cooks, traditional African American foodways, and the cuisines of Africa.

The book organization shows his emphasis on African and New World ingredients. “Okra, Black-eyed Peas, and Watermelon” get lumped together in one chapter, while “Grits, Grains, and Couscous” share another. Every recipe showcases some element of African cuisine but no recipe seems explicitly foreign. Terry reworks every ingredient or technique until it fits our modern expectations. Okra is grilled to make a spicy finger food, African black eyed pea fritters appear in a more traditional form and as softer patties for sliders. A whole chapter is devoted to cocktails, demonstrating that this is not intended to be a manual to recreate some kind of authentic African experience, but rather to incorporate tiny bits of tradition into modern life.

Terry does not talk down to his audience or spend much time explaining what’s needed in a pantry or how to deep fry. Because of this, he doesn’t need to water down his vision. Every dish works in concert, delivering a pitch perfect demonstration of Terry’s style. Sometimes this requires uncompromising instructions. Making Slow-braised Mustard Greens–which I would usually toss into one pot and call it a day–requires one pot and two pans, but the result is the creamiest mustard greens I’ve ever had. Za’atar Roasted Red Potatoes included more steps than I would expect from roasted potatoes–including taking the potatoes out halfway through to re-season, then laying each piece back on the baking sheet “cut side up”–but my boyfriend declared them, “the best anything. Ever.” The specifications may seem particular, but in each case Terry reassures that this is worth it. When describing how to meticulously remove the skin from every black-eyed pea used in Crunchy Bean and Okra Fritters, he suggests inviting guests to help. Even in the preparation, he manages to work in ways to make vegan food more about community building than dividing, furthering the book’s message.

Bryant Terry’s Afro-Vegan is one of the few vegan cookbooks I own that both explores a cuisine deeply while elevating it to new heights. It’s one that I’ll grab when I need inspiration for something new and exciting, as well as the one I’ll dog ear and bring to Louisiana on family visits. Hopefully other chefs will be inspired as well, and we can further the cause of integrating veganism into our communities and family histories.

Cover of Soup's On

Soup’s On!

Soup’s On by the 30-Minute Vegan–a.k.a. Mark Reinfeld–is pretty much what’s described on the tin: a variety of soup recipes all designed to be completed under thirty minutes. Soups are known for being fairly simple to make and for gaining flavor through time; here the simplicity is preserved and time saved by listing the flavor developing steps as “optional”.

The first chapter, “The Art of Soup Creation”, concerns how to make a soup, the kind of basic cooking instruction that beginning home cooks need and I wish more cookbooks provided. The usually cited foundational techniques for building flavor are skimmed over, however. Instead the focus is on using recipes as a template, explaining how to take a soup recipe, break it down into its requisite parts, then rebuild it with different ingredients. The book ends with another instructional chapter on soup finishing techniques, including recipes for garnishes like Vegan Crème FraÎche and Candied Pepitas as well as a few sides including ‘Cosmic Cornbread’ and Herbed Bread Sticks. Intervening chapters are organized by type of soup, such as “Creamy Blended Soups” and “Soups and Stews with Grains, Legumes, and Pasta”.

In addition to the recipe chapters, the book contains multiple appendices of varying usefulness. There are seasonal growing charts, but which climate zone they apply to is unknown, and the relevance of gardening in a book that implies 5 minutes can’t be spared to brown an onion is unclear. Another appendix contains a call to action against GMOs (the book is full of unsubstantiated health claims that seem out of place). More useful is a chart showing recommended soaking times of nuts and another chart showing measurement equivalencies for different natural sweeteners, allowing you to easily substitute agave nectar or brown rice syrup for sugar in any recipe. This is the kind of information that allows beginners to feel more confident in a kitchen, which seem appropriate to a book like this.

Less instructional are the recipes themselves. Everything I tried tasted delicious, especially a cauliflower soup that tasted like a velvety vegan cheese sauce. Producing that deliciousness, however, required me to make many judgement calls. Each recipe lists a few optional ingredients and cooking methods. In some cases the ‘optional’ method felt vital to me so I went with it, and I can’t be sure what the result would be for a novice following the bare bones version of each recipe. The recipe for Indian Chutney Stew with Tamarind, for instance, begins with pouring vegetable stock in a pot and then tossing in a slew of raw vegetables to boil. The main ingredient, tamarind paste, was to be one to three tablespoons. For such a pungent ingredient and the main flavor component of the dish, I would have appreciated a more specific suggestion. Meanwhile, adding a sweetener to balance the sourness of the tamarind was listed as optional. I found the soup almost inedible without this ‘optional’ ingredient. By following the ‘variations’ that involved sautéing the vegetables first, as well as adding some agave nectar, I ended with a delicious soup. The result was fantastic, but the recipe as written would not be something that I would recommend.

The target of this book appears to be inexperienced home cooks, but such cooks would be better served by learning more traditional ways of building flavor rather than how to throw things in a pot and boil them according to a recipe. If you are looking for some quick but tasty soup suggestions, I would recommend this book only in exchange for a promise to always take the 5 extra minutes to follow the optional instructions.

Cover of The Joy of Vegan Baking

VeganMofo: The Joy of Vegan Baking

For the month of September, this blog will be devoted to VeganMofo. Tune in while I provide short reviews of some of my favorite, and least favorite, vegan cookbooks.

The Joy of Vegan Baking seeks to demonstrate that being vegan is not “limiting” by presenting veganized versions of many “familiar favorites”. There are chocolate chip cookies, cornbread, rolls, cobblers and just about any other standard baked good that you can think of. All of the recipes are presented in the kind and encouraging words of Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, better known for her inspirational “Food for Thought” podcast. Unfortunately, most of the recipes are lackluster. Anyone with a basic knowledge of how to use egg replacer or flaxseeds in baking–easily learned from the Internet–could then employ those tricks on their own in typical recipes. In a world full of cooking blogs and websites like food.com, I’m not really convinced that even new vegans need a cookbook to teach them to make chocolate chip cookies.

Cover of book Viva Vegan

VeganMofo: Viva Vegan!

For the month of September, this blog will be devoted to VeganMofo. Tune in while I provide short reviews of some of my favorite, and least favorite, vegan cookbooks.

Viva Vegan! is Terry Hope Romero’s attempt to teach vegans that there’s more to Latin vegan cooking than swapping out the cheese on your enchiladas with Daiya. It does succeed at introducing a variety of yummy Latin foods that readers may not have experienced before, such as llapingachos, an Ecuadorean dish that combines potatoes and peanut sauce, and–a favorite in my house–arepas. Veganizing these dishes is a more difficult task in a cuisine that relies so heavily on meat for flavoring. Rather than just swapping out meat for seitan, Romero offers creative suggestions for fillings in empanadas and arepas, and yes, great preparation ideas for seitan.

The dessert chapter is definitely the most valuable part of the book. I made a Cafe con Leche flan and didn’t have to spend a week experimenting with the amount of agar to use. For the savory dishes, I will probably keep Presilla’s Gran Cocina Latin by my side and veganize them myself. For the sweets, however, I’ll be glad to turn to Viva Vegan! every time and let Romero do the work for me.

Cover of the book "The Asian Vegan Kitchen"

VeganMofo: The Asian Vegan Kitchen

For the month of September, this blog will be devoted to VeganMofo. Tune in while I provide short reviews of some of my favorite, and least favorite, vegan cookbooks. 

Quick one today since my cat wants snuggles and I’m not one to deny her.

Today’s book is The Asian Vegan Kitchen by Hema Parekh. Parekh gives a sampling of recipes from around Asia. She covers better known cuisines like Indian and Chinese, but also devotes chapters to underappreciated areas like Malaysia and Burma. The recipes are all accessible to home cooks, with surprisingly few ingredients that couldn’t be found in an ordinary grocery store. In some cases, this accessibility means toning down the authenticity, but in this case I appreciate it. Books that focus on presenting a truly authentic view of a country like Burma: Rivers of Flavor or Pok Pok are often ‘special occasion’ books, for those weekends where you want to spend all day in the grocery store and all evening tinkering away in the kitchen. The Asian Vegan Kitchen is truly a weeknight, home cooking kind of book, with many of the recipes coming from her own weeknight repertoire.

This book is an especially interesting specimen of vegan cookbook because she does not harp on the fact that she is veganizing often very fishy meals. Some swaparoos are obvious, like the teriyaki tofu steak. In other cases, she just picks naturally vegan or “all but the fish sauce” dishes, like the delicious Japanese Braised Onions and Potatoes. In this sense, the book is very much like The Mediterranean Vegan Kitchen.

Not every cookbook needs to be full color or elaborate. Some just need to be useful, and this book definitely falls into that category.

Veganomicon Cover

VeganMofo: Veganomicon

For the month of September, this blog will be devoted to VeganMofo. Tune in while I provide short reviews of some of my favorite, and least favorite, vegan cookbooks.

Earlier this month, I described how Vegan with a Vengeance is the book I always recommend to new vegans. Veganomicon tends to be the book that everyone else recommends. It seems like a good candidate. It attempts to be a comprehensive work, with guides to all of the basics–steaming vegetables, cooking beans, cooking rice. The chapters cover tempeh and tofu, desserts and breakfast, soups and sandwiches. When Moskowitz and Romero wrote it, they intentionally designed it to be the source you turn to in times of vegan need.

I never recommend it because it just never became that source for me. I never found recipes in it, like the tempeh and white bean patty in Vegan with a Vengeance, that I turned to repeatedly. I tried! I really did! I wanted this book to be the last cookbook that I ever bought. Here’s an abbreviated list of the recipes I’ve tried;

Acorn squash, pear, and adzuki soup — I liked it, even if it was a bit sweet. Two different boyfriends vetoed it, though, so I only made it twice.

Pumpkin ziti with sage breadcrumbs — too sweet and underseasoned

Lemony roasted potatoes — Good, but they are basically just potatoes with lemon juice. I put it on the menu at my co-op and they never disappeared from the buffet as fast as normal roasted potatoes

Chickpea cutlets — The banner recipe of this book. Again, I had this on the co-op menu and it was not wanted back. it just didn’t have the same level of flavor as any decently made vegetable-based dish.

Cauliflower and mushroom potpie — Underseasoned! This is a theme with this book!

Leek and bean cassoulet — I made this one a few times because of an abundance of leeks from my CSA, but it is watery and underseasoned. Extremely comforting though, if you can eliminate most of the water.

For the most part, I just found them to be, as you can see above, underseasoned and occasionally, trying too hard. They attempted to represent a wide swath of traditional American cookery, especially comfort foods. Unfortunately, many of those comfort foods were comforting because of the large amounts of fat and sodium contributed by cheese and animal fat. Swapping out animal ingredients for vegan substitutes one for one is not usually as tasty a tactic as building delicious vegan meals with vegetables in mind from the start.

Thus, my copy of Veganomicon sank into disuse. I still feel guilt about it though. Aren’t I supposed to like it? There’s 250+ recipes–maybe the problems are localized to the 20 or so that I’ve tried? I could try again, but it’s hard when there are so many other cookbooks to try–like the one I will present tomorrow.

VeganMofo: The Veganopolis Cookbook

For the month of September, this blog will be devoted to VeganMofo. Tune in while I provide short reviews of some of my favorite, and least favorite, vegan cookbooks.

In downtown Portland, before the vegan strip mall was even conceived, was Veganopolis. Veganopolis was a cafeteria-style vegan restaurant. You would walk down a buffet line and fill your plate then weigh it and pay per pound at the end. Despite the casual setting, the food had twinges of haute cuisine, while still being, always, comfort food. The chefs, David Stowell and George Black, came from the finer dining scene, supposedly even catering for the Gores before Al became vice president. To pay $5 for a plate of their enchiladas or bread pudding was a treat.

I often tried to make the delicious meals that I had at Veganopolis at home, with varying success. I attempted them from memory, asking questions now and then as I ordered my food. Eventually, the restaurant closed and David and George moved back to Chicago. Their closing was bittersweet for me because they left with a promise, that a cookbook would be published soon. I waited for two years, occasionally checking Amazon to see if it existed yet. After a while, I stopped checking, then on my birthday I was surprised with a copy of the newly published cookbook for my birthday. The Veganopolis Cookbook, finally!

I was thrilled to see that many of favorite Veganopolis recipes were inside. Finally, I would have the secret of the almond pate and their mac and cheese, the vegan mac and cheese that I use as a standard for others. As I started cooking, however, my enthusiasm was tempered. Some of the recipes, like a Cream of Broccoli Soup, were bland. Others, like my dear almond pate, turned out to be complete disasters, probably because I didn’t have the “masticating juicer” that they suggest using. It seems clear that many of the recipes were the restaurant dishes I had been craving, but just poorly converted for a home cook.

Maybe I am just a poor home cook. Maybe I haven’t tried the right recipes. More likely my attempts just don’t match the meals of my memories which are made brighter by nostalgia.

Cover of The Artful Vegan

VeganMofo: The Artful Vegan

For the month of September, this blog will be devoted to VeganMofo. Tune in while I provide short reviews of some of my favorite, and least favorite, vegan cookbooks.

The Artful Vegan is exactly the kind of cookbook that home cooks complain about. The recipes require multiple premade components, 20+ ingredients, unusually sourced items, and a massive time commitment. It’s definitely designed to be a looker, not a cooker.

It’s also one of the vegan cookbooks that I use the most.

At first, it was because of necessity. I was a new vegan an my omnivorous friends, lured by the lush photography, gave it to me as a gift. I wasn’t yet hooked into the vegan food blog network like I later would be, so this daunting restaurant-focused guide was all that I had.

From this cookbook, I learned to make vegan sloppy joes. Unlike the mix-with-ketchup recipe you find on the back of a TVP packet, The Artful Vegan version combines 12 ingredients in just the sauce. Another 12 are involved in cooking the tempeh and the suggested serving includes homemade focaccia. I may have used all of the ingredients the first time, but I didn’t make the bread. Overtime I pared down the recipe, stripping out one or two ingredients each iteration, until I had a recipe that was quick and easy but also made a way classier sloppy joe than you can imagine. That’s right–a classy sloppy joe. The Artful Vegan‘s got that.

I learned to do this with several of the recipes in the AV. The Miso-Broiled Japanese Eggplant over Noodle Cakes didn’t need the walnut-miso sauce or wasabi cream to be fantastic, I learned, but it did need something crunchy like the noodle cakes to balance out the texture. Thanks to the AV, I was soon cooking seemingly intensive, gourmet meals cheaply and easily.

Now, roughly 10 years later, I don’t consult the AV anymore. Although I have many of its photos memorized, like the iconic mushroom parcel perched atop creamy polenta with a grilled pear sinking in beside it, I rarely flip its pages. I have already took the lesson that I needed from it–that not all fancy cookbooks are wrong for home cooks, that the only thing keeping cheap food from being quality food is determination–or, in my case–naive experimentation.

Cover of Isa Does It

VeganMofo: Isa Does It

For the month of September, this blog will be devoted to VeganMofo. Tune in while I provide short reviews of some of my favorite, and least favorite, vegan cookbooks. 

Today I have something a little bit different from my other VeganMofo entries: a preview of Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s Isa Does Itwhich will be released next month.

The newest book to come from the Isa Chandra Moskowitz vegan empire is Isa Does It, designed to teach how to make quick weeknight meals. The descent into producing a Rachael Ray-make-things-easier book was inevitable; even Jacques Pepin has two volumes of Fast Food My Way and his name doesn’t even work in a silly pun. As you may glean from my tone, I greeted this new book with skepticism.  As Tamar Adler says,  teaching how to cook quickly does little more than make cooking seem more difficult than it actually is. It’s hard to make an egg take more than 5 minutes to cook, or in this case, a tofu scramble. And in most cases, the recipes here are not significantly quicker than the already quick recipes in Moskowitz’s other works. Her works tend to be very beginner and home cook friendly already, so why should you buy this one if you own one or several of her previous works?

You should buy it because despite the “quick and easy” ploy, this book is a solid cookbook with great recipes. I have enough books by Moskowitz and her partner in crime Terry Hope Romero to fill a small bookshelf, and this may be my favorite.

The quality of this book is amazing. This is the kind of book that will convince meat eaters that vegans aren’t missing out on anything in life. Every page is glossy and colorful, and the photos from Vanessa Rees are perfectly styled and shot. This looks like a $50 book, not an $18 book. It’s published by Little Brown for heaven’s sake. Right now on my nightstand I have Pynchon’s Vineland proudly displaying “Little Brown” along the spine. Guys, we finally have a vegan cookbook being treated as well as a Pynchon!

What really matters, though, is the recipes, and these are great. Moskowitz and Romero always have one or two recipes that change the way vegans cook, and it looks like this may also include a few. The  Roasted Butternut Squash Alfredo  has already charmed the vegan Internet, and definitely charmed me and my meat eating boyfriend when we tried it. Soaked cashews and roasted squash form a creamy, sauce which doesn’t replicate alfredo. Instead it’s more strongly flavored, making it–in my opinion–tastier, but harder to pair with other ingredients. Trust me, I put it to the test. I still have some left from a big batch I made earlier this week and have been using as a dip for everything from broccoli to buffalo popcorn tofu. It’s not perfect; my first try was a bit too lemony, so I added more squash and in the future I will probably also reduce the amount of wine used. It’s still going to go into my usual dinner rotation; since that’s the goal of the recipes in this book, I would say it’s a success.

The best part about the butternut squash sauce? It’s not made with oil. The fat in the sauce is coming almost entirely from cashews and white wine. I was initially disappointed to see that this book doesn’t have nutritional facts like Appetite for Reduction, but most of the recipes are reasonably low in fat anyway. It’s just not being advertised this time around.

I know I sound gushy, but I am sincerely excited about this book. I bought Vegan with a Vengeance when it was first published and still cook some of the recipes from heart eight years later. Since then my tastes have changed, however. There was a period of time when I fell off the Moskowitz bandwagon. Cookies? Cupcakes? Not my cup of tea. And Veganomicon was too bland overall for my taste. Appetite for Reduction brought me back into the fold, being one of the few cookbooks that don’t encourage indulging but also don’t resort to “diet” food. It looks like the trend is continuing with this book, so thanks to Little Brown for bringing this into the world. Maybe I can let the name slide after all.

VeganMofo: Vegan Soul Kitchen

For the month of September, this blog will be devoted to VeganMofo. Tune in while I provide short reviews of some of my favorite, and least favorite, vegan cookbooks.

A few recipes and other reviews to whet your appetite:

Bryant Terry as a guest on The Splendid Table discussing his book

Citrus Collards with Raisins, Redux: Terry considers this the keystone recipe of his book, the one that best exemplifies what he calls Afro-Diasporic cuisine.

Holy Cow! tests the Black-eyed Pea Fritters and Sweet Potato Puree with Coconut Milk

Vegetate has beautiful photos of Chocolate-Orange Pudding, BBQ Tempeh, and more

Your Vegan Mom raves about the book and tries out the Johnny Blaze Cakes

Vegan Noodle has tried a ton of the recipes, with photos