Thursday, August 23, 2012

Vicki's Vegan Kitchen: Eating with Sanity, Compassion and Taste

Vicki Chelf is an experienced natural foods cooking instructor, an accomplished artist, and an internationally recognized food writer. She has also served as head chef at a top natural foods restaurant. Vicki is the author of six cookbooks, including The Arrowhead Mills Cookbook and Cooking for Life. She will be at Culinarium in Toronto on Sunday, August 26 2012, and it's a breakfast that is worth waking up for! Vicki will be demonstrating 3 different vegan breakfast menus that will even get non-vegans on board. See how you can plan a satisfying menu using locally available produce and products that can be incorporated into your diet, whether you want to be vegan or simply add more plant-based foods to your diet. Vicki will also be cooking at Culinarium on Wedneday, August 29 2012 and Thursday, August 30 2012. For more information, or to RSVP for any of the events, please call 647-430-7004 or email

Vicki will be appearing at the Apple Tree Market in June Rowlands Park, Toronto on Tuesday, August 28.

Below is my review of her latest book,  Vicki's Vegan Kitchen: Eating with Sanity, Compassion and Taste.
Vicki's Vegan Kitchen: Eating with Sanity, Compassion and Taste
Author: Vicki Chelf
Publisher: Square One (2011)

Veganism is nowhere near the foreign, strange and somewhat scary lifestyle that was associated with the hippies and Asian communities a few years ago. Rather, this manner of eating only plant-based foods (eschewing meat, fish, eggs, dairy and honey) and depending on the circumstances, avoiding any material produced with animal input (i.e. wearing leather or wool, using beeswax in cosmetics or candles) is more mainstream than ever - and a big business. It's also one of the great equalizing diets. No matter what continent, religion, age or economic level, celebrity or commoner, bacon-loving omnivore or staunch herbivore, a flavourful meal of rice, beans and fresh veggies is sure to satisfy. Keeping all the taste, without the cholesterol and (for some) guilt of animal products, is a passion of Vicki Chelf's which she shares in her cookbook Vicki's Vegan Kitchen: Eating with Sanity, Compassion and Taste.

Just like the recent "gluten free" boom, specialty markets and companies are churning out all sorts of products that are "suitable" for a vegan diet. But, just like the gluten free way of eating, the pure methods and ingredients behind vegan fare are simple, wholesome and unprocessed - not to mention cheaper and more convenient than the specialty foods companies will have you believe. In Vegan Kitchen, readers will find recipes that are packed with nutrition, but for the most part are simple and accessible for even the fledgling cook.

Health and wellness are first and foremost in Vegan Kitchen. The first chapter is dedicated to the nitty-gritty nutrition basics of a healthy vegan diet, which though informative I admittedly found a tad boring and have a feeling most people buying this book as a cookbook will skip. Stocking the Pantry (p. 9) is a bit more useful for new vegan (or veg-curious) cooks, though her sections on organic choices and Foods to Avoid (p. 26) are a bit too much of a "sermon" for my tastes - as a nutritionist, I would much rather people eat wholesome foods at all than fuss and worry about whether it's certified organic, and many of her "bad" foods are either impossible to avoid in the modern diet or have never been proven as being "bad for you" (case in point: canola oil, which contains the highest amount of omega-3 ALA amongst cooking fats and is lower in saturated fat than olive oil, making it a better choice for vegans who would otherwise struggle with ALA intake from food). I would have appreciated a note on the importance of moderation, regardless of the food, as opposed to a guilt trip on the choices available to the harried vegan cook. In between recipes, Chelf includes incredibly useful tip sections for vegetables (p. 220), grains (p. 230), pizza (p. 203), pastry (p. 115), salad (p. 152) and sandwich (p. 139) ideas, as well as primers on the protein staples of beans (p. 252-254), tofu (p. 266) and seitan (p. 244-246).

Many of the recipes utilize "basic" items or condiments that are included in other sections of the book, minimizing waste and the likelihood of finding half-empty, mouldy jars of leftovers in the back of the fridge six months down the line. I especially liked the myriad of uses for the Basic Whole Wheat Bread Dough (p. 104), which is transformed into things like Sesame-Cloverleaf Rolls and Cinnamon Pecan Sticky Rolls (both p. 105). The Create-a-Pasta Dish! (p. 196-197) inset is also a great resource for cooks on the run who need a quick fix for dinner and have prepared one or more of the delicious-looking Sauces and [or] Condiments (p. 169) on the weekend. Though most of these keep well in the fridge (Chelf often specifies just how long they're good for), busy lives take note - while putting together the final dish is a snap, the individual elements require advance planning and preparation time!

Banana-Walnut Muffins (p. 111)
I whipped up a batch of the remarkably simple, whole wheat Potato Pie Crust (p. 115) in the amount of time it took to bake the Banana-Walnut Muffins (p. 111) for the Apple Pie (p. 278), although next time I will use a tablespoon or two less oil in the crust than called for as my hands and countertop were glistening by the end. The dough recipe also makes far more than needed for the "9-inch single crust" states, I made both a 10" and a 6" single crust with the amounts given (not that it's necessarily a bad thing). The pie was far too sweet and sticky, the half-cup of brown rice syrup overpowering the naturally sweet fruit, though some who are used to common bakery fare may find this unobtrusive. The muffins were delicious and a breeze to put together in the food processor, though stuck fiercely to the liners I used due to the fact that there is no added oil in the recipe. I also used half the amount of agave for the less sweet maple syrup to avoid having to bake away such a delicious but precious resource in my household. The main problem I had with the muffin recipe was that it was devoid of any seasoning at all - even salt. I can appreciate the attention to sodium levels in a health-conscious cookbook, but in order to bring out the taste of the other delicious ingredients a small amount is necessary. I also added a pinch of cinnamon and nutmeg to make the resulting muffins more like a "normal" recipe, and the batch made 6 more standard muffins than the yield stated. I also tried to make the Sun-Dried Tomato Dressing (p. 151), which looked amazing (albeit a tad oily for our family's preference), but my fairly strong blender refused to puree the tomatoes into anything resembling "smooth" and even with simply mixing the recipe with diced tomato pieces it was very sweet and needed both a stronger acid than balsamic vinegar and more seasoning. Chelf's quest for health in Vegan Kitchen is also occasionally at the expense of taste and texture,  especially in her use of whole wheat pastry flour to thicken sauces instead of cornstarch or plain all-purpose results in a gritty texture and a greyish tint that children will probably refuse to touch and even adults will have issues with.

Potato Pie Crust (p. 115)
However, you will have to find the recipes in the book themselves to make any of them - the script used in the titles is incredibly difficult to read, and the orientation of the writing changes from recipe to recipe. Many recipes, likely delicious and approachable, will be missed by a good portion of readers because of this. It is also a very soy-heavy book, which some people looking for more "pure" vegan fare using produce, beans and whole grains may find off putting. Beginning vegan or "healthy" cooks may also be scared off by the fact that many of the recipes in Vegan Kitchen are more "crunchy granola" than mainstream fare (Shiitake and Arame Saute (p. 217) or Lentil-Carrot Loaf (p. 255) for example), and call for puzzling, expensive or hard to find ingredients (like brown rice soba (p. 200), dulse or kudzu). I noticed a few errors in this book as well, continuity-wise - although the guide for bean cookery states adzuki beans need no soaking, some recipes explicitly state otherwise for no reason.

This is not to say that Vicki's Vegan Kitchen isn't a valuable resource in some respects. For those willing to dedicate the time and energy to learning and separating the great ideas from the overzealous, and who will open their minds and palates to new tastes, textures and cooking methods, it is a wealth of information. However, for the brand-new vegan cooks, or those who are hoping for a source of fare that is easily assimilated into an omnivore family, there are better guides available.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Learning to Bake Allergen-Free

Learning to Bake Allergen-Free: A Crash Course for Busy Parents on Baking without Wheat, Gluten, Dairy, Eggs, Soy or Nuts
Publisher: The Experiment (2012)

I'm no stranger when it comes to food allergies - I'm not only a nutritionist concentrating in special dietary needs like celiac and allergies, but I'm also someone who has problems eating everyday foods (not the least being dairy, eggs, and nuts). For me, and most of the people I speak with, finding safe food can become a chore that isn't always a tasty one. The most significant challenges are generally when finding or making baked goods without gluten - that don't taste like cardboard. Colette Martin, the author of the website Learning to Eat Allergy Free tackles baking "without" in her cookbook: Learning to Bake Allergen-Free: A Crash Course for Busy Parents on Baking without Wheat, Gluten, Dairy, Eggs, Soy or Nuts.

Unlike many other books dedicated to allergy-safe cooking, Allergen-Free is more concerned with embracing what everyone can eat, not what a single member of a family or group can't. The recipes are all wheat, gluten, dairy, egg, soy and nut free, and most of them are vegan (some items like Cranberry-Orange Scones (p. 118) and Cinnamon-Raisin Whole-Grain Muffins (p.95) contain honey). Substitutions for the allergies covered are inserted as seamlessly as possible in the recipes themselves, and with the exception of the blatantly obvious swaps for dairy, unless you knew what the ingredients were for you may just chalk them up to being another ingredient. For those completely new to the realm of hypoallergenic fare (especially those readers picking up this book in order to cook for a loved one) the first 85 pages are dedicated to Key Lessons - how to successfully replace wheat, milk, eggs and whenever possible avoid soy ingredients. Summaries of each lesson are provided at the end of each chapter in a succinct and easy to understand list that is not unlike those in a highschool textbook.

Baked Doughnut Holes - Second Batch (p. 119)
Perhaps my favourite portions of "Part 1" are Martin's pieces on Redefining Healthy Eating (p. 12), Eating Together (p. 14) and Breaking the Rules (p. 15). These speak to the heart and soul of those with restrictions and those who love them, as they bring to the forefront the true worth of food - not simply a matter of feeding, but an experience that should be relished in every part. Allergen-Free's introduction also includes a portion on The Allergen-Free Baker's Pantry (p. 67), which is like the preamble to any good baking book (containing lists of recommended tools and "stock" items to have on hand) in addition to safe shopping and organization to avoid contamination. For even more insight on the capabilities and varieties of store bought allergy-free baking mixes (such as brownies, muffins and cakes) the last chapter provides a lengthy, but easy to read how-to manual of sorts that also features innovative twists on the standard preparation methods. A convenient staple to have on hand, especially with a busy life and family, these boxed mixes occasionally call for dairy or eggs - however Martin also has answers for those ingredient needs. As not many of these pre-made mixes are commonly available in my area (though in larger Canadian cities and definitely in the United States they are in regular grocery stores), but if I had a special occasion such as a birthday or function with food-allergic individuals I would certainly source a suitable mix to make the Favourite Chocolate Cake (p. 241) or Raspberry Brownie Bites (p. 250).

Zucchini Bread (p. 103)
The recipes in Allergen-Free are all found in the second half of the book - although given the length and depth of the appendicies and notes at the end it may be more appropriate to term it the middle! Martin organizes the offerings into Cakes, Muffins and Quick Breads (p. 89); Scones, Doughnuts and Other Yeast Free Standbys (p. 111); Cookies, Tarts and Pies (p. 127); Breads, Rolls and Pastries Made with Yeast (p. 151); Chocolate 1-2-3 (p. 187); and Bars, Cookies and Stovetop Delights (p. 209). Thanks to a neighbour's over-producing zucchini garden, the Zucchini Bread (p. 103) was a logical first choice for my testing. I mixed my own flour blend from chickpea, brown rice and sorghum flours (Martin simply calls for a "gluten-free flour blend") and substituted a home-made, thick rice milk for the hemp milk. The resulting loaf was incredibly moist and fluffy, with a texture identical to any cake I've had. I'd hesitate to call it a real "quickbread", though, as it is nowhere near as hearty or dense as one (conventional or allergen-free). It's also hard to clearly classify it amongst the ranks of zucchini bread due to the distinct lack of spice in the recipe - it tasted more like a "white" or "vanilla" cake that happened to have zucchini in it. In fact, when I served it to my taste testers, they told me that though they'd never know it was allergen-free if I hadn't said anything, the only indication of the vegetable were the green flecks. While this is a good thing or not is a personal preference, but parents could certainly use peeled zucchini and picky children would gladly eat the "cake" as an afternoon snack.

I also made a few batches of Martin's Baked Doughnuts (p. 119) for the office crew at my mom's work. As written, I found the mixture to be very problematic - the directions called for "rolling a ball of dough back and forth between your hands" to make the "ropes" which would become the doughnut rings, but what I wound up with was so wet and sticky (even after adding extra starch) that it was all I could do to get 5 circles before giving up. Thankfully, I opted to put the remaining batter-dough in mini muffin tins and was rewarded with fluffy, moist doughnut holes that were far better in consistency and flavour than the flat, spread-out attempts. Like the zucchini bread, there is no spicing in this recipe, which struck me as odd since all the old fashioned doughnuts I've made or eaten have contained at least a touch of nutmeg. The second batch of doughnut holes I made (which you can see here on my food blog) used mashed banana and not the applesauce in the original, plus extra binders and spicing. This round was much closer to a "dough" than the previous one, but I still opted for the doughnut hole format and was not disappointed - especially after glazing with a powdered sugar-cinnamon mixture. With my notes on that recipe, it will be one I continue to make over the years.

Baked Doughnuts - First Batch (p. 119)
Many of the recipes in Allergen-Free call for hemp milk, which cooks who are making one or two of the recipes for a friend or loved one will, like me, find hemp milk prohibitively expensive and not that tasty on its own. There are many other allergen-free alternatives on the market including rice and coconut, and obviously, where soy, dairy and/or nut allergies are not a concern those respective drinks can also be used without issue or conversion. The Zucchini Bread also calls for Ener-G Egg Replacer powder, which is a specialty ingredient but one I find indispensible in my kitchen - per serving it is less expensive than eggs (one $7 box replaces up to 100), and as an egg-allergic person I would wind up with half a carton spoiling before I could use it. Luckily, for those loath to purchase a box, Martin often notes in her recipes what ingredient replaces eggs, and how many are being substituted - the reader need only flip to the chapter on Baking Without Eggs (p. 53) to select another.

The final portion of Allergen-Free is mode of a series of appendicies: Troubleshooting Recipes (p. 253), Substitutions (p. 257), A Blueprint for Adapting a Traditional Recipe (p. 259), Metric Conversions and Weights (p. 263) and a list of Resources (p. 267). These nuggets of information are invaluable for the fledgling cook in general, not the least one beginning to bake allergy free. Even as a long-established baker of both "standard" and allergy-free items, I appreciated the wealth of information organized in this portion of the book.

Lovers of classical baking will find no lack of treats to make in Learning to Bake Allergen-Free: A Crash Course for Busy Parents on Baking without Wheat, Gluten, Dairy, Eggs, Soy or Nuts - regardless of whether they're afflicted with a food allergy. Colette Martin is approachable both to novice bakers and old pros, with a writing style that is direct and descriptive without coddling the reader, and though the recipes are mild in flavour they are a blank canvas to experiment with. Any bake sale, dessert table or brunch buffet will benefit from this book, and when everyone can share a meal we can all feel free to enjoy.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Romantic Prairie Cookbook

The Romantic Prairie Cookbook
Author: Fifi O’Neill
CICO Books (2012)

There's something special about the "old prairie" lifestyle. Things are simpler, purer, and while not always easier, the days always seem to end with the sense that it was lived completely. The style of prairie homes is charming and whimsical, and it is no mistake that Fifi O'Neill has made this life the subject of many projects since 2007. Between her blog (Chez Fifi), a book titled Romantic Prairie Style and editing a magazine with the same name, she has made her name on the quaint way of living in the country. It seems only natural that a progression to the joys of simple prairie cooking would follow, and finally it has in a gorgeous volume: The Romantic Prairie Cookbook.

Romantic Prairie is divided into the fairly standard recipe categories of Starters and Snacks, Main Courses, Side Dishes, Desserts and Baking, and Drinks and Preserving, along with the separate "mini-book" section Celebrations and a brief but elegant introduction. Every recipe is accompanied by a stunning photograph of the dish, and the whole book is a full-colour work of art thanks to Mark Lohman's photography. In fact, the photos may even demur the meeker cooks from trying a recipe out of worry their version will not look identical - though more likely it will entice an attempt anyway.

Dark Chocolate Chip Raspberry Cookies (p. 113)
This book is a wealth of recipes that we've all stashed in the back of our minds but have forgotten in the pursuit of faster, more convenient fare. Items are not heavily sauced, spiced or gussied up, which is a welcome experience when many other books (though wonderful in their own right) feature just the opposite. Dinners like the three-ingredient Tri-Tip Roast (p. 57) and a simplified Cassoulet (p. 60) are perfectly at home in this work, as are slightly more complex options like Vegetable Bread Pudding (p. 42) and Zucchini-Goat Cheese Tart (p. 50). None of the dishes in Romantic Prairie are overly difficult to manage by someone with basic cooking skills, and while beginner foodies may feel more comfortable with a lunch of Rustic Turkey Sandwich with Broccoli-Peanut Salad (p.15), the truly ambitious will certainly find their niche with a Venison Stroganoff (p. 65) or special-occasion Tourtiere (p. 179). Those with a sweet tooth will enjoy items like and Mom's Dutch Apple Pie (p. 106). Our family and friends fell in love with the Dark Chocolate Chip Raspberry Cookies (p. 113) shared with O'Neill by Raspberry Fields Farm's Sara Higgins - a perfect option for a bake sale that is just slightly away from "the norm". I made the filling of Maria Carr's Lemon Sour Cream Pie (p. 124) three times on its own - it was simple to do and, while too sweet and lacking in lemon flavour for my family's palate on the first go round, achieved perfection with a slight sugar reduction and addition of lemon zest. It was so enjoyed by my mom that she asked me to make the recipe for a dinner guest, and even with my huge adaptations to the original it never lost its comforting nature. Because the food is so simple, it is perfect fodder for adaptations large and small - be it for reasons of health, taste or ingredient availability.

Lemon Sour Cream Pie (p. 124)
This book is not one for the overly weight-conscious, as it does rely a fair amount on full-fat, heavier items and meat. However, it is a wholesome one - in Romantic Prairie, the most processed item readers will find is store-bought pastry crust and candies used in O'Neill's Celebrations chapter. Whole foods like fresh produce, cream, butter, eggs and quality meat are stressed, always with a mind towards embracing the pure flavour of the ingredients, and the portions a diner would require to be satisfied are more than reasonable - yet another nod to a simpler time before the "super size" option. Where most readers will find fault in this book is not that the recipes are difficult, but that creating the romantic, old world foods takes time - and more than is commonly allotted to the cooking experience. Savouring the creations in Romantic Prairie is also a time investment - it's hard to wolf down an open-faced Grilled Tartine with Eggs and Peppers (p. 35) - but you shouldn't want to. Certain ingredients can be a challenge to find as well, depending on your market's variety (in my suburban shops, venison, buffalo and gooseberries are rare, or very expensive). Luckily, those items are possible to substitute (a quick web search can provide alternates) or are not so central to the dish that leaving them out is a great disservice to the flavour.

While we can't all afford to live in the prairies, create long-cooked meals from scratch daily or even sit down as a family together for dinner every night, we can dream. Fifi O'Neill does a wonderful job of furthering this romantic notion with simple, classic recipes, honest ingredients, charming dialogue and enticing photography in The Romantic Prairie Cookbook. If nothing else, it is a delicious taste of where we came from and an example of what we should never forget - simple is best, occasionally indulge, and above all, savour each moment.

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Beginner’s Guide to Edible Herbs: 26 Herbs Everyone Should Grow and Enjoy

The Beginner’s Guide to Edible Herbs: 26 Herbs Everyone Should Grow and Enjoy
Publisher: Storey Publishing (2010)
Borage (p. 29) Blossoms
My family is fortunate enough to have a large and varied backyard garden providing us with months of organic produce every year. From heirloom tomatoes, carrots and beets to my stepdad's favourite hot peppers and Romano beans, we run the growing gamut as it were - we even have a vineyard, strawberry patches, and both fig and Meyer lemon trees! When it comes to appreciating this bounty, we try to keep things as simple as possible, but after a while we fall into a rut with our flavour pairings. Sure, salt and freshly ground black pepper on still-warm tomatoes is fantastic, and hot peppers are wonderful on sandwiches and pizza, but fresh herbs have the ability to elevate even the most pedestrian, store bought items to new heights. While we often buy our herbs at the grocery store, they are easy and certainly more economical to grow at home - whether in the garden or in planters on the windowsill. What to choose for your kitchen herb garden, how to grow it and - most importantly - how to use it are the tenets of Charles WG Smith's book The Beginner’s Guide to Edible Herbs: 26 Herbs Everyone Should Grow and Enjoy.

Oregano (p. 107)

Smith's book is small and succinct in that it only contains 26 of the hundreds of culinary herbs available. However, this 143-page manual contains everything a gardener could need to know about those herbs, and the ones chosen for inclusion in Edible Herbs really are some of the most quintessential in classical European and North American cooking. The beautifully photographed images in this book lend assurance to the reader that they are buying the correct item once at the nursery, and I have brought this guide with me on occasion so that the staff could help me find a particular plant. This was incredibly helpful, especially in the case of herbs like calendula (p. 36), borage (p. 29), bee balm (p. 26) and the hyssops (pgs. 11, 80), since these plants are more often grown for their gorgeous blossoms than for their culinary applications. Some readers may even find that a flavour goldmine is sitting in their own backyards!

Catnip (p. 46) Leaves and Blossoms
Once the herbs for this season (at least) are chosen, Smith really begins his strongest work. If the reader is unsure about growing anything at all (I know several "black thumbs" out there), the introduction to Edible Herbs addresses the best places to plant in general, "companion" herbs and vegetables, preventing the common "herb sprawl" (with a clever little piece titled Beware the Garden Huns (p.3)) and general care and tending. There is even a handy "yield guide" (p. 6) to prevent the gung-ho gardener having to give away (or worse, throw out) armfuls of mint or lemon balm halfway through the season. I only wish I had read this book sooner, since with only two catnip plants I've been giving away tons of it, not to mention "doping up" our three cats almost every day! Each herb in the book is given it's own chapter, which is divided into "garden" and "kitchen" sections. The "In the Garden" sector covers seeding, final planting and harvesting techniques, as well as providing a simple-to-read chart of ideal soil and  light for that particular plant, as well as whether it is considered an annual or perennial.
Dried Calendula (p. 36) Petals

Once the bounty of herbs is harvested, the "In the Kitchen" component of each of Edible Herbs' chapters comes through, providing ideas as to just what to do with each part of the plant that is considered edible, flavour pairings to try, and general tips on usage. These tips are along the lines of when to add an herb to a dish for best flavour (beginning, midway through or as a finishing touch), if the herbs should be cooked with the other ingredients or only used raw, and whether it's best to choose a fresh or dried version in a recipe. After reading that calendula (p. 36) was considered a saffron substitute, I immediately bought three plants for my own herb garden with grand plans for paella. Unfortunately, the combination of unseasonably warm weather and our hungry backyard wildlife meant I only managed two harvests before they all perished or were eaten, but what I could save I dried, now I can't wait for my first batch of rice pilaf with "Canadian saffron".

Drying Calendula (p.36)

The thing I find confusing with this book is that the recipes and culinary guides are not always cohesive with the herb chapter they appear in. For instance, Making Herbal Vinegars (p.101) is nestled between Marjoram and Mint, yet neither of the two recipes offered contain either of those herbs. Also, while I don't expect complete innovation in terms of recipe suggestions, I did hope for something slightly more than a pizza (p. 110) for oregano and pickles for dill (p. 65). That said, the recipes themselves are good, solid formulae, and once our vegetables catch up I'm looking forward to enjoying the spicy-sweet Red Onion, Mango and Chile Salsa (p. 60) and bowls of the hearty Beta Soup (p. 25) well into the fall and winter.

A "Lemon" Variety of Thyme (p. 137)
For so few herbs included in the pages of Edible Herbs, the level of inspiration available to the reader is astounding. From budding gardeners to old pros in the dirt, kitchen newbies to seasoned gourmands, one of the twenty-six is likely to find a niche in your household. Some herbs may be completely foreign to your eye and palate, while others will be old favourites, but Charles W.G. Smith brings them all together in an accessible, approachable guidebook. With The Beginner’s Guide to Edible Herbs: 26 Herbs Everyone Should Grow and Enjoy, there is no excuse for not going green in your diet and your yard.  

Available on Amazon