Thursday, June 30, 2011

Superfoods from the Garden

Superfoods from the Garden
Author: Michael van Straten
Publisher: Cico Books (2011)

Gardening is big these days. It’s for good reason – the sluggish economy, the ever-stronger locavore movement, vegetarian and vegan diets becoming the new “perfect” way of eating and the universal desire for everyone to simply feel healthy all play right into the greening of thumbs worldwide. While the desire to “grow your own” may be as strong as the zucchini crops every summer, there is always the dilemma of what to grow, what will grow, and what will you do with all those tomatoes and zucchini once they explode in August? Michael van Straten addresses these, and much more, in his gardening and cooking manual Superfoods from the Garden.

Superfoods is an eye catcher right from the get go – a bright, colourful cover opens to pages of full-colour temptations. Nine chapters are devoted to everything from roots to leaves, squash, fruit and herbs, and each item van Straten includes is carefully researched, well worded and a delight to read. There are no pretentious selections or complicated instructions for growing your own: the focus is on helping the everyday person grow good, delicious and nutritious produce in a way that’s as simple as the food itself. One of my favourite parts about the “gardening” portion of this book is the little harvesting, nutrition and cooking notes that van Straten incorporates in separate sidebars. For the gardener or foodie that just wants to quickly check when is best to pull beets or can’t stand another salad to deal with their lettuce crop, this is an invaluable resource. Not only will that gardener see that orange-sized beets are ideal and that the crowns will give you an idea of when that is, but that steaming or baking them is the best way to cook them unless you enjoy them raw in salads first (p. 74). The cook will find that not only can lettuce become soup or even be braised with peas (van Straten includes his recipe on page 101), but that it’s also full of B vitamins, folic acid and manganese (p. 92). Each vegetable, fruit or herb page is accompanied by stunning photography, and the few things that do need a bit more explanation to grow well (like scarlet runner beans, p. 56 or potatoes, p. 70) have photo-by-photo instructions that would convince even the most cynical home grower to try it out.

And then there are the recipes. Van Straten’s book is a gardening manual, first and foremost, but at the end of each chapter a few relevant recipes are included, many with gorgeous photos of the prepared dish. While not every recipe has an accompanying photo and most are without much detailed in
structions (unfortunate, since the rest of the book is so rich with these), those that do will make you hungry for more. Some elements for the recipes, too, are not overly common additions to the American or Canadian menu – crème fraiche and rabbit, for example – which take some exploration (and would occasionally require online purchases in less urban areas). A couple assumptions are also made that readers of this book know offhand how to make components like béchamel, bread-like ginger cake and phyllo pastry crusts with their eyes closed. That said, the skilled or determined cook will take delight in treats like Honey and Apricot Pizza (p. 166) and Garlic, Onion and Tomato Chutney in a “Mille-feuille” of Sliced Tomato (p. 47). The photo of the latter is enough to make the average gardener yearn for their tomatoes to balloon to flavourful baseballs overnight. Seafood, beef, chicken, pork, duck, quail, pheasant, lamb and even blood sausage make appearances throughout the book, though there are many vegetarian (bean-or egg-based) and vegan inclusions as well. Vegans would need to supplement the recipes in this book with protein based sides for dinner, but a lunch of van Straten’s Timbale of Beets (p. 80) or Barbecued Summer Squash Salad (p. 144) would win anybody’s vote. This book is also friendly to those needing to keep gluten-free, who will find most of the recipes either inherently so or easily modified.

The tail end of Superfoods is likely the greatest appeal to the nutritionist in everyone – while it is understandably devoid of photos, van Straten makes up for it by listing two pages of “vital vitamins and essential minerals” (p. 187), a section of “useful addresses” for recipes and seed supplies and even a dedicated half-page of information regarding what he terms ORACs, or Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity units (p. 189). These ORACs are antioxidants that exist only as synergistic compounds in whole foods whose effects are destroyed by segregating the individual compounds into refined supplements or processed foods. A score of 10/10 was awarded by van Straten to the notorious prunes, which provide 5770 per 100 grams, and the author includes many other of the “buzzworthy” superfoods on the list as well. Where the recommendation for the highest protection against heart disease, most cancers, artery damage and even aging put forth by the Human Nutrition Research Centre on Aging at Boston’s Tufts University is 5000, taking a look at this new measurement of food’s “goodness” is not only interesting but health-promoting too.

There is a reason that Michael van Straten chose to title his latest work Superfoods from the Garden. Like any good garden, this book takes the healthy seeds of desire and love for good food and lets them grow. The passion, knowledge and drive that van Straten brings to his craft creates “super foods” from even the most mundane vegetables and fruit, and his decadent way of preparing your harvest turns these individual foods into medleys of flavour. While some of them may be unfamiliar, odd-looking or even scary to grow, and some of the recipes may be for things you would never dream of cooking, this book is worth picking up – it may just turn your brown thumbs a bit greener.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Quick and Easy Vegan Bake Sale: More Than 150 Sweet and Savoury Vegan Treats Perfect for Sharing

Quick and Easy Vegan Bake Sale: More Than 150 Sweet and Savoury Vegan Treats Perfect for Sharing
Author: Carla Kelly
Publisher: The Experiment (2011)

Bake sales are one of the most well-received fundraising techniques around. It’s hard to pass up a table or two laden with grab-and-go treats like cookies, muffins or wrapped slices of banana bread, especially when it’s for a good cause. Though the school year (prime time for the events) is briskly drawing to a close, portable snacks are still in hot demand with the camp-kid set and the BBQ potluck crowds. With the popularity and obvious economic benefits of selling batches of sweet treats piecemeal, there is always the worry of alienating those with restricted diets or worse – causing an allergic reaction due to the ingredients that commonly fill these foods. Luckily, vegan treats eliminate the need for the eggs and dairy concern – but can be rife with nuts. Carla Kelly addresses all of these concerns, and more, with her decadent new book Quick and Easy Vegan Bake Sale: More Than 150 Sweet and Savoury Vegan Treats Perfect for Sharing.

Kelly pens this cookbook with a witty, approachable tone – confidently declaring in her introduction that she is “not a dietician, a nutritionist, or a professional chef” (p. xii) and adding that the recipes are ideas for both special occasions and everyday treats as well as saleable fare. Adaptation and substitution are even encouraged with helpful sections on those topics in the introduction as well as blank “Remember” boxes for your own notes. Kelly also writes a primer on bake sales and sharing, covering everything from the economics of it all to location and marketing – a must read for any potential host. Newbie chefs and bakers used to using a box mix will appreciate her exposé of the equipment, ingredients, and basic “how-to’s” for the bakeshop, although experienced cooks and most harried parents will skip these parts along with the somewhat inconsequential “history” section.

The recipes in Vegan Bake Sale are tantalizing, well written and varied – covering not only the “traditional” bars, quick-breads, cupcakes with frosting, cookies, muffins and pie, but also yeasted and savoury treats that will appeal to almost anyone. Whether you’re on the hook for two dozen vanilla cupcakes for the next Girl Guides meeting or just want to make a killer lunch entree on the weekends, one of the titles will fit your bill. For those with allergy concerns, Kelly declares nuts, soy, peanuts, and wheat at the top of each recipe, and again at the back of the book (in a piece titled Allergy and Suitability Information (p. 253) along with a refined sugar-free and child-friendly recipe listing. Regardless of what recipe you opt for first, the ease of making it and the excellent taste will bring you back for more. Your waistline may not appreciate you (another point she admits) but those around you surely will!

I opted to test one of her more “coffee-break”, adult-friendly quick-breads: Chai Chocolate Mini Loaves (p. 78). Taking her approval of substitutions to heart, I chose to use half whole-wheat flour and some of our chai tea in the batter instead of the black and the other spices (except an additional dash of cinnamon). Even with using the specific tea, there was a distinct lack of flavour “oomph” in the batter, but upon doubling the amount of tea the rest was smooth sailing. The scent coming from the oven was enough to cause even non-chai lovers’ mouths to water! I followed Kelly’s preparation instructions easily, and took advantage of her handy “muffin” variation – which, as proscribed, made exactly 12. There was no discernable “weight” or taste from the whole grain flour, and the little pops of chocolate (I used miniature chips instead of a grated bar) were the perfect addition to the not-too-sweet concoction. My taster group loved that an oil-free muffin or quick-bread batter was so light, moist and flavourful, while the non-vegans never knew that they were egg and dairy free too. Once my rhubarb plant takes a bit firmer stand in it’s growing season, page 67’s Rhubarb Squares are on my list!

With so many delicious recipes and clever tips, it’s a shame that Vegan Bake Sale doesn’t include more pictures in it’s pages. Given that Kelly is herself a blogger at Vegan Year and takes fantastic photos, it should go without saying that her recipes be peppered with eye candy to ensnare those who just “flip though” cookbooks for inspiration. Granted, there are 8 pages of colour photographs positioned between the “Ingredients” and “How to Bake” sections, but it is impractical for most visual chefs to constantly flip back and forth. Thankfully the food speaks for itself once it’s in the process of being made, and if nothing else – it’s a bake sale! Make the treats as ornate or rustic as you please to suit the potential clientele!

Whether you’re a steak and cheese fanatic or have been animal-free for years, it’s hard to go wrong with recipes as consistently rewarding as those in Vegan Bake Sale. The simplicity, approachability and practicality of the treats in this book speak volumes about the author’s love for sharing good food, and might just inspire you to do the same.

Available on Amazon