Vegan with a Vengeance review

September 29, 2007 at 9:37 pm (Cookbook reviews, Isa C. Moskowitz)

I heard nothing but rave reviews about Vegan with a Vengeance by Isa Chandra Moskowitz.  The reviews on Amazon are almost universally positive, except for a few eccentrics complaining about the difficulty of the dishes, the hard to find ingredients, or the general low health quotient of the recipes.  After trying almost 20 recipes in this cookbook, I would argue that the recipes are reasonably varied and inventive, but the cookbook is not the standout I was hoping for.

  • Difficulty: This cookbook does have some time-consuming recipes, such as the recipe for cauliflower leek kugel, but it also has plenty of everyday recipes as well (at least for someone who cooks a lot and is comfortable in the kitchen).   I didn’t find any of the recipes to be technically complicated.
  • Accessibility: The ingredients are no more weird or hard to find then in my other vegetarian cookbooks.
  • Health: The cookbook is definitely not aimed at health nuts; some of the recipes call for excessive amounts of salt, and only a small percentage of the recipes are very-low (<20%) or even low fat (<30%). That said, the recipes don’t seem terribly unhealthy to me, especially since it’s easy to reduce the oil and salt according to your own taste. Although there are a few recipes that call for TVP, for the most part the recipes don’t call for processed or prepared foods.  Most recipes are based just on tofu, vegetables, beans, seitan, or tempeh, with a good mix of the five. In most cases the dishes are quite heavy, with a home-style comfort food feel to them: it would be nice if there were a few more raw or very light dishes. The authors do include a recipe for mango spring rolls, but that’s about it on the raw front. I was disconcerted when I read the Amazon reviews to see people extolling the fact that this cookbook has no salads in it: the absence of salads is a weakness, not a virtue.  The cookbook contains a large selection of recipes for vegan baked goods (in the breakfast section and in the dessert section), most of which call for white flour and white sugar.
  • Creativity: The cookbook includes recipes for some simple vegetable sides, but these tend to be pretty standard: ginger roasted winter vegetables, orange-glazed beets, balsamic portobello mushrooms, kale and tahini sauce, sesame asparagus, garlic brussels sprouts… nothing too new here. Compared to the vegetable sides, the entrees are much more creative, spanning a number of different cooking techniques, seasons, and international cuisines. One technique I found interesting that I haven’t seen before is to use pureed silken tofu in baked dishes to give a rich, fluffy, almost egg-like quality to the dish. The technique works quite well, and it’s something I’m going to try to experiment with on my own.
  • Personality: I enjoyed many of the short introductions to the recipes: Isa definitely has a wry sense of humour. She does an excellent job of establishing her voice in only a couple of sentences. There are also some longer entries giving tips on things such as “perfect pancakes”, “prepping a butternut squash”, and how to store a lot of kitchen items in a small space. As a pretty experienced cook, I didn’t find these sections to be terribly enlightening, although they are reasonably entertaining.
  • The physical:  The cookbook is a good size–not too big and not too small.  The pages in the paperback version stay open pretty well, and I haven’t had any pages fall out.
  • The visual:  The fonts and recipe layout are easy to read.  There’s a section with color photographs in the middle of the book.
  • The organization:  I like that all the recipes are listed in the table of contents, for easy scanning.  The recipes are organized by category, such as entrees, sides, brunch, pizzas and pastas, etc.  That organization worked fine for me, but the index is poor.  It’s missing a number of essential entries (which I will write down once I have my book in front of me).
  • Seasonal eating:  There’s no mention of eating seasonally in the cookbook, and the few recipes that refer to a season seem confused.  For example, the Moroccan Tagine with Spring vegetables calls for zucchini, green beans and tomatoes.  I suppose in Texas those are spring vegetables, but the author is from NYC.
  • Accuracy: The recipe instructions are generally pretty precise, with the exception of amounts of fruits and vegetables, which are given in inconsistent measurements. Isa often does not provide weights, or even volume measurements. What is a medium sized golden yukon potato? And how can she call for 1 head of cauliflower in her braised cauliflower recipe. Doesn’t she realize the size of cauliflower heads can vary by a factor of three? And does she really think 2 medium-size heads cauliflower equals 4 cups of florets (in the cauliflower kugel recipe)? Other than that I generally found the instructions clear and easy to follow. It would have been nice if she had provided nutritional information though.

After trying almost 20 recipes my feeling is that this is an above-average vegetarian cookbook. I had a few recipes tank, and a handful more I probably wouldn’t make again. The majority were fine, but so far I’ve only found one or two that I adored, and that I’m definitely adding to my repertoire.

  1. Seitan Portobello Stroganoff B+/B
  2. Cauliflower Leek Kugel B/B-?
  3. Jerk seitan B/B+
  4. Cold Udon Noodles with Peanut Sauce and Seitan B
  5. Spanish Omelet with Saffron and Roasted Red Pepper-Almond Sauce B/C
  6. Vegan french toast B
  7. Barbecued Pomegranate Tofu B/A-?
  8. Banana pancakes B-/A
  9. Tempeh and white bean sausage patties, B the first time, C the second time
  10. Italian baked tofu B-/B-
  11. Frittata with broccoli and olives B-/B-?
  12. Mango spring rolls B-
  13. Corn fritters C/?
  14. Moroccan Tagine with Spring Vegetables C
  15. Millet and Spinach Polenta w/ Pesto C
  16. Butternut squash soup with ginger and lime C
  17. Tempeh bacon D/B
  18. Spanakopita D/C
  19. Matzoh Balls F

I’ve put my rating first, with Derek’s after (if he happened to be around when I made that dish).

A few comments about the items that haven’t made it into my blog elsewhere:

I didn’t really care for the taste of the italian baked tofu–a bit too vinegar-y perhaps? Derek liked the flavor more than me though. Also, even after marinating all day the inside of each tofu slice was still white with no flavor. I used extra firm tofu but the texture of the baked tofu was surprisingly soft, rather than the toothsome texture of the baked tofu at the upscale vegan restaurants in New York. I didn’t care for the tofu as a side dish, but it made a pretty good sandwich filling. The moisture/softness was actually a plus in a sandwich. Derek gave the tofu a B-, and a B as a sandwich filling with other ingredients to add flavor.

The barbecue sauce that comes with the pomegranate tofu recipe is not bad, but needed a bit of tweaking.  In particular, it needed more acid. Also, I suspect more expensive ingredients are used than is absolutely necessary.  The barbecued tofu recipe is very rich, so everyone else liked it, but I was disappointed in the texture of the tofu.  The tofu just tasted like plain tofu covered in barbecue sauce to me–it didn’t meld into a single, cohesive dish.  Also, I didn’t think the pomegranate seeds really went with the dish at all, either visually or flavorwise.

The second time I made the tempeh and white bean sausage patties they were bland, undersalted and dry.  I didn’t have fresh sage, and had to use dry, which maybe explains the blandness?  The recipe says it makes 10 patties I think, but using the 3 Tbs. of batter the recipe calls for, I got 19 patties.  I can’t figure out what happened.  I definitely used a pound of tempeh and a cup of white beans.

The mango spring rolls sounded marvelous but were a little boring, even with the dipping sauce.  My friend Alex said she thought they needed something salty.  She said that she uses tofu baked in soy sauce in her spring rolls, and it adds an important salty/umame flavor.  (Okay, she didn’t say the umame bit.)  Our mango was delicious, and we liked the mung bean sprouts and the chopped peanuts in the spring rolls, and the dipping sauce was tasty.  In the end, though, the combination just didn’t seem more than the sum of its parts.  We then made up our own spring rolls with avocado and the dipping sauce and soy sauce and mung bean sprouts and thai basil and those were much, much more satisfying.

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