Cookbook Reviews by Rachel: Big Vegan »
This is the first installment in a regular series in which Rachel gets opinionated about cookbooks both classic and new. If you’ve got one you’d like to see her cover, hit her up at rachel [at] zurer [dot] com.
Chapter 1: Eh
There’s a new vegan cookbook in town and it’s enormous. But as your mom always says, bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better, size isn’t everything, don’t judge a book by it’s cover, and get your elbows off the table (what?).
Case in point: Even though Robin Asbell’s Big Vegan is so full of intriguing recipes that I ran out of room for my little slivers of post-it notes, when the olive oil hits the skillet, the book doesn’t always deliver. Asbell’s instructions sometimes feel wrong, other times arbitrary, and don’t leave you with a sense you’re in good hands, despite her creativity.
Chapter 2: In Which We Get Deep
As Descartes once inquired, “What’s the point of a cookbook?” Or maybe that was Plato. Anyway, the question is even more important now, with the interwebs bursting with free recipes and people trying to sell you special kitchen-friendly iPad cases. Why pay for dead trees?*
One word: relationships.
A cookbook is more than just a collection of ingredients and instructions. Like an art gallery or record label (remember those?), a cookbook curates the vast world of possibilities according to a certain sensibility. Find an author whose taste you like (HAHAHA PUN!), and it’s like finding a foodie best friend.**
Except cookbooks go beyond curating. They also teach. And as sappy Hollywood flicks have proven time and again, good teaching matters. A good teacher sets clear goals and articulates the rules. A good teacher anticipates challenges and gives you the tools to meet them.
A good teacher is someone you trust.
Chapter 3: What smells like burnt fish?
I got a free copy of Big Vegan from Chronicle Books in September, and worked hard to test it as much as possible before writing this review. Some stuff, with minor modifications, came out great, like the version of “Lemony White Beans with Fresh Rosemary Vinagrette” I posted for Vegan MoFo and that both Meave and I found orgasmic.
I also used Asbell’s recipe for Avocado-Lime Cupcakes as the basis of my entry to the Denver Avocado Takedown. The Jamaican Tofu Chowder with Collards made a hearty addition to a soup potluck, and the Veggie Sandwich Loaves (bread with veggies baked into it) was definitely GOOD. And I should know, I’ve been baking bread like mad lately.
But here’s the thing: If I weren’t already an experienced cook, the book would have definitely led me astray. The Tofu Chowder recipe had me put the collard greens in at the end and cook them for just 10 minutes. I thus ended up with tough, icky collards.
The Crispy Sesame Kale was divine (KALE CHIPS!!), but the recipe told me to discard the kale stems. Seriously? You can’t give me a hint as to what to do with those besides throwing them away? (Hint: Put them in stock, or chop them up and add them to stir fries. For example.)
The Veggie Loaf called for “bread machine yeast”, with no explanation of why or what that was — I couldn’t find it at 3 stores, and finally used normal yeast, while ignore Asbell’s rising times, with good results.
Worst offense: The “Millter, Ginger, and Edamame One-Pot” called for adding a sheet of nori, “toasted and shredded” at the end. No further instructions. I put a sheet of nori in toaster oven. It caught fire. I put it in for less long. My husband walked in and asked, “What smells like burnt fish?” Against my better judgement, I added it to the food (trying to really TEST this, you know?). ICK. The dish was decent otherwise, but picking out shreds of nori made it way less fun.
Chapter 4: The Bottom Line
Other pros I should mention: A whole chapter on grilling (though I didn’t manage to try any); recipes for cultured vegan cheese (still on my to-try list); the paperback has flap at the front and back that are great for saving your page. On the flip side: The majority of the recipes are beyond-weeknight complicated, and many use ingredients I don’t tend to have on hand (shao xing rice wine? Kitchen Bouquet? semolina flour?). Very few photos.
Final verdict: This is a book I’ll keep using, but it’s not a kitchen staple, and I don’t trust it.
Overall Rating: B
Level of Difficulty: Intermediate/Expert
Best for: Experienced cooks looking for a challenge and wanting to expand their repertoires.
*That phrase is going to be outdated as soon as someone invents the iTunes of cookbooks and it’s worth it to buy these books digitally. But I’m sticking with it for now.
**Maybe “guru” is a better term for it, since the admiration only runs one way (as much as I like to pretend Isa’s my new BFF because I follow her on Twitter).