Review: The Naked Vegan

The Naked VeganIf the cover for Maz Valcorza’s The Naked Vegan doesn’t make you pluck the book from the shelf and cook something, nothing will. That and the knowledge that the author grew from being a child who ate Spam out of the can to someone who eats vegan wholefoods. Even with a detour of being a nursing-qualified pharmaceutical rep who lived a hard-drinking, hard-smoking party lifestyle.

Valcorza’s shift toward veganism and generally healthy living kicked off after a chance encounter with yoga based on the idea it might improve her co-ordination and tone her butt. She so fell in love with yoga that she studied to become a yoga teacher, during which she was particularly struck by the yogic principle of ahimsa, which advocates non-violence or non-harm. Obvs that philosophy extended to animals.

Having gone vegan but being starved of choice by the then limited vegan offerings available, Valcorza was buying up the vegan junk food versions of the foods she knew. She figuring there must be better ways to live vegan. And that she might be the one to help find some of them.

She heard about raw food and started experimenting, posting recipes on her blog. Her foray into the area was so successful she went on to found Sadhana Kitchen, Sydney’s first organic, raw-food café. Pronounced sah-da-nah, the name translates ‘one’s conscious practice’, and it essentially relates to your daily ritual. The idea is that you do good in this daily ritual stuff by consciously making ethical decisions, which includes ethical eating decisions.

By extension for Valcorza, conscious practice also involved leaving behind a job with a pharmaceutical company advocating throwing drugs at health issues that could probably be first addressed through healthy food. The irony is that since going vegan, she’s been so healthy she hasn’t so far needed any kind of the kind of medicine she used to peddle.

The takeaway of The Naked Vegan specifically and Valcorza’s story as a whole is if she can completely change her life and manage this vegan stuff, anyone can. Especially when you consider her Filipino heritage is one that was based heavily on meat. (The veganised roast pig incident in her introduction is, though thoughtful and well-meaning, nonetheless quite confounding.) Still, the book’s cover makes a good start on the anyone-can approach because it’s decadent and aesthetically appealing enough to lure even the most cynical eater in.

The book (which handily also falls into the #ByAustralianBuyAustralian category—that is, it’s buy an Australian and you can buy it from your local Australian bookstore) contains a glossary to explain the terms and—surprising to me, at least—it’s up front. I’m not going to lie. Vegan cookbooks that require glossaries make me nervous and invariably go in the too-hard pile. I’m a terrible cook, I live on my own and so have no one to prompt me to prepare food, and I lead an insanely busy lifestyle. When I see ingredients that I have to google or scale some distant mountain to locate a herb grown only in the kind of conditions that support a hardy but benevolent goat, I’m out.

But then I flipped from the glossary to the sesame and nori crackers. And then the bagels. And the zucchini crackers and the felafel plate with beetroot dip and zucchini hummus. And later the spaghetti and beet balls, and the mushroom, spinach, and caramelised onion quiche. And then the strawberry donuts, the bananarama cupcakes, the orange and poppyseed cake, the apple and strawberry crumble pie with rhubarb and ginger coulis. Oh, and the choc-raspberry cheesecake featured on the cover. You get the point.

So while I’ll qualify this review with saying I’d probably be a little more likely to visit Sadhana Kitchen and purchase the kind of incredible treats this recipe book features (I will and I do), I will say the recipes and accompanying images appear delicious. It’s also high time I stopped relying I’m my limited range of vegan recipes and branched out to try something new. With 140 recipes, The Naked Vegan would definitely be an excellent resource for doing that.

Many thanks to Murdoch Books for sending me the review copy.

Peace & Parsnips

Peace & ParsnipsLee Watson’s Peace & Parsnips: Vegan Cooking for Everyone looked so good from the preview cover art and blurb that I went out of my way to see if I could obtain a review copy of it.

I mean, who wouldn’t be sold on the adorable cover with almost-stamped images of pears, broccoli, and what I think are figs?

Once the review copy arrived, I discovered there are pros and cons with the cover design—things I hadn’t noticed in my earlier excitement.

The issues aren’t with the artwork, which I still love, but the format: The book comes with a dust cover that is, for someone like me, something that appears quite finicky and easily damaged.

But what do I know? I’m a terrible cook who can’t be entrusted to have expensively produced books in the vicinity of liquids and solids being smashed together without badness happening. And there’s precedence for having dust covers on cookbooks.

Besides, the glass-half-full slash person-who-can-be-entrusted-with-this-stuff view could be that the thinking behind the dust cover is that it’s removable and therefore ideal to protect the book’s extremities from getting damaged with food splodges and splashes.

But I’m getting ahead of my nitpicking self.

Peace & Parsnips overarching theme is captured by the Dalai Lama quote ‘Approach loving and cooking with reckless abandon’. Which is what it does. For the foundation of vegan cooking, Watson writes in his introduction, is creativity.

Watson’s written this cookbook some five years after converting to veganism from being a hardcore, nose-to-tail carnivore. It means he’s bringing five years’ worth of experience to the fore—enough time for him to have developed expertise in the vegan cooking realm, but not so much that he’s forgotten what it’s like to be a wide-eyed, overwhelmed newbie.

Watson’s argument is that if he can go vegan, anyone can, and here are some recipes to get them started. What we eat reflects who we are, he continues. Also, there’s much, much more to vegan cooking than tofu.

As my introduction intimated, what’s immediately apparent about Peace & Parsnips is its beautiful design and investment in quality. The paper stock, for example, is recycled but organic and expensive in feel rather than dowdy. The images too are gorgeous.

Above all, the book’s useful. For example, there’s a spread tackling food myths that include:

  • meat is the only way to get protein and cow’s milk is the best calcium source
  • we have incisors for a reason
  • it takes cream to make things creamy.

The book also breaks down some of the food groups, outlining, for instance, some of the different types of grains that are great for vegans and tips for how they can be cooked and served. The book also covers fruit, nuts, milks (vegan, of course), and more.

My cookbook wishlist always includes having one colour image for every recipe—I’m such a terrible cook I can’t make what I can’t see the finished product of (and in fact I have a theory that recipes that don’t have full-colour images to accompany them are made far less frequently than ones that do). That would be my one suggestion for improving Peace & Parsnips.

Regardless, the book contains some pretty appetising-sounding recipes that, picture or not, warrant a try:

  • Raw-sli with Grated Apple, Blueberries, & Macadamia Cream
  • Scrambled Tofu with Buckwheat Pancakes & Avocado Butter
  • Sesame & Sweetcorn Pancakes
  • Braised Fennel, Pear & Radish with Toasted Almonds
  • Homemade Vegetable Crisps
  • Open-Top Asparagus & Cashew Cream Pie, with Fig & Apple Compote.

So, dust cover or no, a picture per recipe or no, this cookbook gets my thumbs up.

Superlegumes

SuperlegumesYou need a solidly designed cover to sell legumes, and that’s exactly what Chrissy Freer’s Superlegumes part cookbook, part guide has. With vividly displayed and shot legumes, it’s the kind of cover worthy of more enticing ingredients that would not only inspire you to pluck the book from the shelves but even buy it.

For, frankly, legumes aren’t a particularly gastroporn-worthy topic. The perception (mine included) is that legumes are bland and take copious amounts of time to prepare. The whole ‘I forgot to soak the legumes overnight’ thing is what most often stops me from attempting to prepare them. Well, that and the fact that I hate cooking. It’s a relatively lethal combination.

I’m vegan, and I’d have thought I’d know more than the average person about legumes, yet this book still taught me plenty, such as the legume family includes green peas and beans, soy beans, and peanuts.

Also that legumes are whole foods (they’re as close to their natural state as possible) and one of nature’s super foods, high in protein, carbohydrates, and fibre, as well as iron, calcium, zinc, and magnesium. They’re gluten-free and low GI too and are much cheaper than other food sources that contain similarly important nutrients.

Crucially, legumes are also incredibly environmentally friendly and sustainable—they help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and also fix nitrogen in soils, improving their quality, preparing the soils for subsequent crops, and doing away with the need for environmentally damaging chemicals to achieve the same effect.

Refreshingly, Superlegumes is actually written by someone with some know how. I hadn’t realised cookbook authorship was such a hot-button issue for me until I read the author’s bio on page one. Freer is a nutritionist and writer—not, say, a celebrity chef who thought it a good idea to throw together an ill-informed paleo book for babies—and Superlegumes is her second book (note to self: seek our her first one, Supergrains: Eat Your Way to Great Health).

Freer’s also the nutrition editor for www.taste.com.au, and freelances for Australian Healthy Food Guide, Belle, Prevention, and Weight Watchers. So she, you know, writes for publications that fundamentally promote health and healthy, sustainable approaches to eating.

SupergrainsSuperlegumes showed me recipes for legumes far more interesting than my usual efforts (including two tables showing how to soak and/or cook each legume type and for how long).

For that’s perhaps the beauty of this book: it encourages a rethink of an invaluable protein and fibre source that’s also good for the environment while simultaneously making it appetising and unscary to attempt to cook with. I’m not sure I would have believed anyone if they said they could make legumes appealing, both aesthetically and tastily, but Freer’s managed it.

Some of the recipes that leapt out at me as must-trys were Chickpea, lemon and silverbeet soup, Oat pancakes with berries, Best baked beans, Quinoa bean burgers with fresh beetroot slaw, Cauliflower crust pizza with white beans, pumpkin and cherry tomatoes.

The book does include some meat-related recipes, and I have to say I’m a bit disappointed about that, especially as Freer herself acknowledges the crazypants amounts of leafy matter required to feed livestock that’s ethically and environmentally inefficient. But I also acknowledge that Freer’s goal is likely to introduce legumes to as wide an audience as possible and its primary target audience isn’t vegans, but omnivores.

Either way, Superlegumes is both a solid resource and a beautifully presented inspiration for a range of audiences—even almost-non-cooking vegan ones such as me. First up for roadtesting now I’m inspired and the weather’s turned wintery: Chickpea, lemon and silverbeet soup.

Thanks to Murdoch Books for the review opportunity.

Easy Vegan

Easy VeganWinner, winner chicken dinner is not perhaps the most appropriate response for a vegan to make to anything. And especially not in response to reviewing a vegan cookbook. But that’s the phrase that sprang to mind when I cracked open Sue Quinn’s Easy Vegan, which arrived as a review copy from Murdoch Books.

My other response was to get slightly teary, which I admit sounds slightly hyperbolic. But really, if the number of pages I post-it noted to come back to are any indication, Easy Vegan is onto something. (And yes, I’m sorry for the tree I wasted. If I’d known I was going to post-it note practically the entire book, I’d have held off.)

I’ve been vegetarian/vegan for over 25 years—far, far longer than I wasn’t. (Contrary to what this statement implies, being vegan isn’t the first thing I pronounce upon meeting people, but it’s invariably and necessarily revealed any time food enters the picture. Which is a lot given we all eat between three and five meals a day.)

But for people like me who lived this way before it was cool, which it increasingly seems to be, we largely found our ways in the dark. And still are. For in truth, a vegan lifestyle is always one of learning.

With increasing numbers of people adopting vegan lifestyles for health, animal welfare, or environmental reasons (or for the trifecta, as it is for me), I often get asked for recommendations about recipe books, blogs, and more to follow, and where to find general information. I end up sending them to an assortment of places, but none quite perfectly cover it all.

Could I have created the book I’m after? Probably not, for I am a notoriously awful cook. But Easy Vegan is the kind of book I would love to have produced if I’d had the talent and the know-how. It’s also the kind book I’d happily give to me, or to new and aspiring vegans (or ‘pre-vegans’ as I’ve heard the term used with much bemusement).

There are some important reasons why this book is good.

First, Quinn is a journalist and food writer with plenty of experience. She’s good at putting this kind of information together, striking the right balance between informative and appetising. Second, she doesn’t appear to be wholly vegan herself (or at least doesn’t declare it, which may be by design).

This means she’s coming at the lifestyle with fresh eyes, questions about what foundation information does she need to know to start out, and is skilled at conveying complex information in accessible terms. Importantly, she’s not too emotionally invested in the lifestyle to come at it with a preachy earnestness.

The introduction sets the tone, straight up saying that while veganism requires some planning, ‘it isn’t the quantum leap into alien eating territory’ many people think it to be. Veganism isn’t, Quinn writes, about deprivation.

‘How to be vegan’ and ‘How to begin’ follow the introduction. It’s a simple explanation of what veganism is and how to take your first steps into it. Then there are some fantastic illustrations meet infographics that outline the protein content of food and vegan celebrities. I knew many of them, but Brad Pitt? No idea he was vegan.

A shopping list follows that, with some simple definitions of common vegan ingredients. Even better? A flowchart that outlines how to veganise a recipe. That is, how to switch out eggs and dairy. Right about this point of reading the book, I may have gotten a little teary.

This book is brilliantly considered and beautifully designed. Props must go to the designer and editor who truly grasp the importance of communication design. From simple tips to how to make your own vegan milks, cheeses and ice cream (yes, there are such things as these and they are delicious) to pasta to vegetable stock to pastry to smoothies, Easy Vegan outlines how vegans do get to eat and enjoy the ‘usual’ things.

Then it gets into the meal recipes. First up is bircher muesli, something I used to adore and have never quite mastered vegan-style. Suffice to say, this is one of the initial recipes I’ll be roadtesting. Filled sweet potato skins will follow soon after, along with roast vegetable salads and stuffed artichokes and sweet potato ravioli and gnocchi and shepherd’s pie and vegetable crumble…

And vanilla cupcakes. I actually almost texted a friend when I got to reading this page about 11:30pm. Anyone who even peripherally knows me knows I am able to ingest superhuman amounts of cupcakes. But given I’m not a good cook, I always need to rely on someone else to bake them for me. Until now. Quinn’s pistachio cake and crème brulee also look mighty fine.

The book’s size is practical too. Not so large it really doubles as a coffee-table-meets-food-porn book, it’s small enough to, say, carry with you or peruse recipes in bed just before drifting off for the night. Quite simply, it’s a practical cookbook that’s truly designed to be used.

Importantly, it does what I bemoan so few vegan cookbooks do: It pairs every recipe with a full-page, Donna Hay-worthy here’s-what-it-should-look-like image. Additionally, every recipe is relatively simple. By that I mean no recipe contains 50 billion ingredients, 49 billion of which you can’t find in your local supermarket and instead have to scale a Himalayan mountain to glean from some sheer cliff face only frequented by desperate vegans and mountain goats.

Nor do the recipes include and intimidating amount of steps or require enormous cooking prowess. Simply laid out on a page with plenty of white space, the list of ingredients and recipes make even non-cooks like me feel motivated rather than intimidated.

Worth noting is that they’re the kinds of recipes you could happily serve up to pre-vegans without either having to explain the complex list of ingredients (see previous passage about gathering food alongside Himalayan mountain goats) or worrying about someone turning their nose up.

My one criticism of the book is its title. Though making a clear statement of what the book is about, it’s not content-rich enough to easily find. I’ve spent a lot of time working in bookshops throughout my uni times. I can attest that trying to search databases on vague cookbook titles for impatient, passive-aggressive customers who consider you an idiot for not being able to immediately find the book they’re talking about would not be aided by these search terms.

I couldn’t even quickly find it on the Boomerang Books site, and I had the title correct and knew what the cover looked like (something said passive-aggressive customers rarely do). Rather than sort through pages of similarly titled books, I then searched on the author. So if you’re looking for this book, I recommend you search ‘Sue Quinn’.

Still, title aside, I realise I’m gushing about this book. And we all know me to not be a gusher. It is, quite simply, most excellent and the only vegan cookbook I’ve encountered to date that I’d be happy to both use myself and recommend as a day-to-day cookbook. I mean, you know a cookbook’s good if it can excite a non-cook such as me to start planning out the recipes—plural—they are going to prepare. Double thumbs up.

The Green Kitchen

The Green KitchenOne of my greatest gripes about being vegan (or vegetarian—the same rules apply) is also a rather politically incorrect one.

That is, that it’s assumed I thrive on the smell of incense, that I have musty-smelling dreadlocks, and that I wear tie-dyed clothes.

I’m not that kind of vegan, and the mis-lumping irks me no end. I’m an urban-dwelling one who’s conscious of her carbon footprint, but who is also rather conservative.

You wouldn’t at a glance be able to tell me apart from meat eaters, and even if it loses me my leftie badge, I’m actually fairly ok with that (I think it’s easier to change the system from the inside, you catch more flies with honey, or whatever’s the appropriate adage).

It means, though, that I want to be able to eat delicious food in well-designed restaurants; I want to be able to cook healthy, tasty food from aesthetically appealing cookbooks. Both are surprisingly, frustratingly difficult to achieve.

Discovering the Green Kitchen Stories blog (and its just-released cookbook, The Green Kitchen) was a godsend. I don’t wish to generalise all Swedes just as most people generalise all vegans and vegetarians, but hot damn they know and execute good design. The blog and book understand and deliver function and form and, frankly, make me extremely happy.

David Frenkiel (one half of the couple who put this wonderfulness together) is a magazine art director. It shows. The images are utterly, enviably exquisite. And as if the blog and cookbook aren’t enough, I just happily lost a couple of hours in their Instagram feeds. Bliss.

Vegie CurryEven better, Frenkiel’s vegetarian journey largely mirrors my own. We’ve both been unhealthy vegetarians, omitting meat but existing on carbs and sweets.

He fell in love with a health-conscious meat-eater, Luise Vindahl (I know, right, I really do think those two terms are mutually exclusive), and the two started experimenting with cooking healthy vegetarian food.

The organic, honest approach is palpable in the blog and the book. It’s part of what (apart from the incredible images, of course), makes them so enticing. There’s no judgement and certainly no efforts to bamboozle you with terms and ingredients you wouldn’t normally know. Crucially, the recipes are healthy and tasty.

I’ve recently flopped over into the world of veganism—it’s where I’ve always been heading, but have been stymied by my poor cooking skills and the aforementioned, politically incorrect frustration—so the vegetarian-ness of the recipes no longer entirely applies. But Frenkiel and Vindahl offer vegan tweaks, so with a bit of effort, I’m able to make the recipes work.

Early favourites include the pictured vegie curry, which contains yellow split peas and such goodies as the underutilised rhubarb. And I’m keen to road test the pictured pizzas. If those aren’t enough to make you want to go vego, I don’t know what will.

Vegie PizzasI’m still obsessed with the blog and the book, but it’s worth mentioning too that there’s an app.

Yes, these guys really have thought of everything (and when I say everything, I mean largely freely available online tools that cater to their audience’s needs).

Now, if I can just convince them to come into my kitchen and cook for me, I’ll be set.

Going Vegan With A Gammy Knee

Colour Me VeganGoing vegan while hampered by a gammy knee and while trying to conquer a PhD is arguably not one of my smarter moves. The knee injury was unavoidable. (I was mown down by an opposition player.) The veganism is, arguably, unavoidable too.

It’s always where I’ve been heading—some 23 years of vegetarianism were really aspiring veganism except that Australia wasn’t ready. Something’s shifted recently (maybe hipsters are to thank/blame) and veganism is starting to become (shudder) cool. It means there are marginally more options for me when eating out and more places to buy food for when I’m cooking in.

That said, it’s still face-palmingly hard. Rather than a graceful segue into veganism, I’m more akin to a fat man trying to scale a bootcamp wall—red-faced, hopelessly entangled in the netting, trying to haul my wobbly butt up the scaffolding enough to enable me to flop over to the other side.

Suffice to say I’ve spent the past few weeks a lot frustrated and perpetually grumpy. That’s partly because my knee isn’t healing the way it should be. I’m going to take a punt and say that I don’t think it should be getting red and egg-fryingly hot from me walking around my apartment while talking on the phone. I’m also going to issue an aside that all knees generally, and my knees especially, are exceptionally ugly.

Vegan's Daily CompanionThe knee niggles combined with going vegan mean everything’s gotten exponentially and exhaustingly hard. I can directly attribute the latter to the exasperating fact that meat consumption and its related unsustainability and cruelty are entrenched and feel insurmountable.

I can also attribute it to the fact that I’m a rubbish cook and haven’t yet sorted out my menu. I’m getting hungrier sooner but am eating things that, though healthy, aren’t low enough GI to sustain me. Then I’m eating more to fill this grump-inducing, concentration-skewering hunger and ultimately gaining weight. None of this is helped by the fact that I’m not able to exercise (see above re: gammy knee).

Still, there’s hope.

I’ve found a podcast that’s doesn’t require me to go bunk and live off the grid. (I’m a pragmatic vegetarian and vegan and can’t stand the personal hygiene-challenged alternatives I invariably get lumped with.) It’s by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, an English major who almost pursued a career in academia before deciding instead to pursue a career writing books about veganism. (Parallels much? Except that I will be finishing this PhD if it kills me.)

Patrick-Goudreau has a bunch of books—The Joy of Vegan Baking, The Vegan Table, Colour Me Vegan, Vegan’s Daily Companion—and lots of complementary resources. These include a fantastic podcast, which I’ve been listening to non-stop, back to back, and in which Patrick-Goudreau delivers wise, measured, practical, applicable wisdom. She knows her stuff, mixing information with punchy topics, memorable soundbites, and even literature and etymology.

The Joy of Vegan BakingI’d recommend fast-forwarding the first five minutes of every podcast, though—it’s a very American thing to do to ask for money and to talk up your stuff, but it grates my Australian ethos exponentially. I reckon if you want to support Patrick-Goudreau, buy her books.

That’s what I’m doing, although I’ll confess that her baking cookbook is my number one priority (weight loss here I don’t come). Once I work out my menu and properly adapt, being vegan will be fantastic. No, really. This is my third attempt at making it across the line, but this time I’m certain I’m going to make it. Until then, be warned that I’ll be vaguely hungry and a little bit grumpy.

Vegan Challenge

9781741962451I’ve been vegetarian for more years than I’ve not, but despite my best intentions I’ve never quite made it across the vegan line. That’s largely because I’m an infamously fussy eater and an equally terrible cook—veganism requires a bit more cooking creativity and prowess than I’m currently capable of.

Recently, though, I’ve been heartened to see that there’s been a groundswell of support for veganism—no longer considered the extreme end of the eating stick, veganism is (dare I and my friend and fellow writer and editor Carody, with whom I had this conversation the other night, say it) suddenly cool.

One movement that’s been leading (or perhaps symptomatic of) the shifting attitudes is the 30-day vegan challenge. It is how it sounds: You spend a month sans animal products. They offer a social media- and website-load of encouragement and support. Everybody is happy.

9781921382703Carody and I have gone to take up the challenge a few times now, with the idea that the combination of the challenge and the fact that we’re doing it together would halve the workload and double the motivation, but work and travel have defeated us each time. Until now. It’s looking like February is the month going vegan, and that our friend Tom is going to join us (and before someone argues the semantics, yes, I recognise that February only has 28 days—whatever).

The question, of course, is what to cook? And from which cookbooks? I already own and love cooking from Homestyle Vegetarian, which has a bunch of vegan recipes or ones that can easily be adapted to be so. I also own and love looking at Simon Bryant’s Vegies, although I will admit that I bought it in a fit of it’s-so-pretty pique and got it home to find that, while it’s great gastroporn, it’s much, much too Masterchef for me (as a side note, see book title rant below).

I almost bought Vegan Eats World (also see rant below) in the pre-Christmas I-should-be-buying-presents-for-other-people-but-I’m-really-buying-them-for-myself frenzy. What stopped me is that it doesn’t have pictures for each and every recipe, which is a must in my limited-ability, limited-patience cooking world. But I’m also up for any excuse to buy new books (especially beautifully produced cookbooks). Any recommendations?

9780738214863Rant: While I’m on a rant rampage, a note to chefs and food writers thinking of putting together cookbooks (and to the editors seeing them through to full production): You’re going to want to call it something a little more original and distinct than ‘vegetarian’ or ‘vegetables’ or ‘vegetarian cookbook’.

If you can’t make it something memorable like ‘Vegan Eats World’, at least make it searchable. Nothing is worse than not being able to narrow the search because there’s no extra useful words in the title and you don’t know the author’s name and you can’t search by ‘I think it has an orange cover’. This is especially awful when you’re the hapless bookseller searching for a customer who is simultaneously giving you no information with which to work and getting passive aggressive because you can’t find the cookbook they vaguely remember seeing once, years ago.