Sampling Veganism: 2 Cookbooks for the Curious Omnivore

Let’s just get one thing straight, I’m probably never going to turn the corner to veganism. I just love goat cheese way too much. I’m not much of a vegetarian either, nor do I proclaim to be. But having gone through vegan-like cleanses a few times, I also know the incredible benefit that this kind of diet brings to my body. So this Christmas, as I was getting ready to embark on my January detox, one of my dear friends gave me a beautiful vegan cookbook.

After reading The Conscious Cook by Tal Ronnen for a few days, I was intrigued. The food feels accessible – the book even opens with the words “Welcome, meat-eaters.” So Chef Tal seems to understand what he’s up against. And he’s willing to try to engage those of us who just aren’t sure about veganism or vegetarianism. He says things like, “There are no sprouts in this book, or in my refrigerator. I don’t like them. I like rich, hearty meals, and I love cooking. I love being in the kitchen, along or with friends. And this book is for people who feel the same – people who love to cook.” No wonder this twanged my little heartstrings! The recipes are generally easy (though some ingredients are new to me) and look delicious. Chef Tal provides a ton of educational, myth-busting information and suggests foods for stocking my pantry. I was ready to try – heck, I was excited to try! I hit the co-op and whipped together a batch of cashew cream faster than you can say, “no animal products!”

The recipe that really got me interested was the Meyer Lemon Asparagus Risotto, as I am a die-hard risotto lover. (And an unrelenting risotto critic.) But risotto without handfuls of parmesan cheese? What’s that about? Even in exploring vegetarianism or veganism, I’m not one of these people who can get behind faux meat or replacement cheese products. For me, it takes that crucial step away from natural, unprocessed food and usually takes more than a slight departure from taste. (Keep reading though, as I try a fake chicken product and am pleasantly surprised, though my mother was suspicious.) Anyway, the risotto uses cashew cream as the creamy, rich thickener and binder needed to hold my lovingly stirred rice together. Having solved that problem, we just need that cheesy, salty bite which is – incredibly – successfully provided by nutritional yeast flakes. Yes, I said it: nutritional yeast. Again, let me remind you that I’m in a bit of uncharted territory here, but so willing to try something new that I hunted through my co-op to find this odd, super inexpensive little “seasoning” in order to be a good sport. And, it was just the ticket (call it a comeback, call it hype, but this stuff is hot right now). The light flakes taste nothing like the yeasty name might suggest, but instead are rich, nutty and salty – just like parmesan. All told, this risotto was a complete hit. I’m making it again this week for my foodie friends and can’t wait to get their reactions!

I also picked up a Gardein (a meat-replacement product made of wheat gluten; the name is an amalgamation of “garden” and “protein”) that looked really appetizing. It was a chicken breast-like product stuffed with black beans, corn and sauced with something that looked zippy and delish. To me, this was a microwave quick lunch should I need one. Again, I was in research mode. I have to admit, I actually didn’t mind the product at all. The first time, running between appointments, I ate the dish “as is.” The second time I chopped it up making Gardein and roasted Portobello tacos with salsa, guacamole, refried beans, lettuce and a little plain coconut yogurt as a stand-in for sour cream. My mom added cheese to hers. I thought the ruse was going well and she was enjoying her taco until I told her it was fake chicken. Then she commented that the texture did seem "weird." And it is, I mean, it’s not chicken, people! But if you’re dying for a good replacement, these products are a great option. Mom even ate two of them! For me, I won’t be experimenting with Gardein anymore but only because I try not to eat wheat or most grains with gluten anymore. But if you don’t have a wheat issue, I’d definitely suggest trying one or two of their products and seeing for yourself.

What I really loved about The Conscious Cook is that it appeals to foodies and cooks. Chef Tal addresses real issues like not being able to use heavy cream, which is so effective at reducing, thickening, and carrying flavors through a dish. Enter: cashew cream. And vegan and vegetarian cooking shouldn’t necessarily mean no- or low-fat. Fat is delicious and your body needs it! So learning a few new techniques about how to add plant-based fats makes all the difference in yummy cooking. Thanks Chef Tal!

Next, on an ill-advised trip to Barnes & Noble (I have what you might call a book “problem,” meaning, they’re all ill-advised trips), I picked up The Kind Diet by "actress, activist, and committed conservationist" Alicia Silverstone. Alicia is also a vegan but comes to her lifestyle though the notion of kindness; I can get behind this. Taking a look at the way you eat and making some changes is being kind to yourself, kind to the environment, and, critically important for Alicia, kind to animals. The general tone of this book is very sweet, positive and nonjudgmental. Although she does call meat, dairy, white sugar and other processed junk “nasty,” she backs it up with lots of facts and alternatives. I’m open to an education, if it’s smart and well considered.

She encourages gently, but really drives home the message with an abundant use of hyperbole. I have a friend from high school who’s now a raw food vegan and she talks the same darned way! Everything is amazing! You feel so sexy! Cook with adoration! Mix with positive thoughts! Talk like a yoga instructor and put an exclamation point after everything! Sure, there’s something a little hokey about this, but honestly, the book reads so simply and with such positivity, these people glow through their written word. Plus, you can’t help but notice how healthy they all are. You quite simply want what they’re having.

Alicia’s book is filled with great ideas to try vegan recipes (what she calls “Flirting”), through true veganism, and even guides you toward full-blown “Superhero” mode (Alicia follows a macrobiotic vegan diet herself). I love the influence of Japanese ingredients (sea veggies, miso, kabocha squash, umeboshi plums and vinegars, teas, seasonings, etc.) and the profusion of warm, hearty, winter-friendly dishes. But I’m really excited to dig into her desserts like Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups, Vegan Chocolate Cupcakes, Mixed Berry Cheesecake. Yes, some flour here but lots of flavor and satisfaction, so I’m happy to make the exception. I’ve got the Candied Ginger Pears on the menu for my dinner this week. Can’t wait.

The best part about both of these books – though they approach the vegan lifestyle from slightly different angles – is that they make the concepts of veganism and vegetarianism more accessible to us omnivores. No one wants to be shouted at, judged, or put down for their food choices. But there is a greater world out there that’s worth understanding, sampling, and enjoying. Who cares if the dish is vegan if it’s delicious and makes my palate sing? That’s both kind AND sexy, if you ask me.

Tracy Morgan is a Twin Cities foodie and the owner of Segnavia Creative, a marketing services consulting company located in St. Paul, MN.