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.

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