Thursday, August 30, 2018

Cookbook Review-Part 3 of4: America's Test Kitchen-Vegan For Everybody

This blog post will appear in four parts, each part being a review of one specific book. Part 3 of 4  follows below:

The third review in this series focuses on a vegan cookbook published by America's Test Kitchen. People may be familiar with their television show or web site. I admit that I have probably only seen a handful of episodes. I was attracted to this cookbook, Vegan For Everybody, because of a brownie recipe found online. Honestly, the brownies were so good that I figured the rest of the book couldn't be wrong either.

ATK has a methodical and scientific approach to recipe development, very similar to Alton Brown if you are familiar with his way of working. The claim to fame for this book is that ATK has taken non vegan recipes and made them vegan, not through simple one-to-one substitutions, but through new cooking techniques and novel ingredient combinations. The book very much promotes veganism as a new way of eating, one that is both tasty and good for you. And timely too since a plant based way of eating is becoming more and more popular.

The first section of the book is a pretty thorough (and standard) coverage of common ingredients in a plant based diet. It's a good primer for someone absolutely brand new to vegan cooking. This cookbook would be a very good place to start for a newish cook and anyone interested in a plant based way of eating. And because it is ATK, you get the scientific reasons behind each ingredient and just exactly what it does for the dish. Each recipe provides an explanation of the normal preparation and then covers the techniques and substitutions made. The reader has the idea that ATK was very thorough and thoughtful in their approach to recipe development.

The remainder of the book covers breakfast, lunch, and dinner recipes along with snacks and dessert. (I do recommend those brownies!) The recipes themselves are all dishes that most American eaters would recognize: chilis and stews, barley and tomato soups, bean burgers and pizza, lots of standard and unique salads, and of course, dessert! Cookies, crisps and pies are featured along with granola bars and even ice cream. Someone slowly transitioning to this "new" way of eating really wouldn't miss their old stand by recipes. Many standards are included. The final pages of the book includes recipe nutrition information as well as several tables of conversion charts. 

There are some good points to this book. Font size and degree of darkness of the printing are very user friendly. (My last reviews touched on these points which I feel are relative for people with mildly impaired vision.) Most recipes are on one page with a photo of the finished item on the page right next to it. All in all, this is a very user-friendly book. My recipes have come out as expected with only one flop in the bunch. (The bean beet burgers need a binder other than carrots.) 

One point I feel that is in the book's favor (and is worth talking about here) is the inclusion of nutritional information.  I did a little research on this topic and I learned some new things that I didn't know previously. Calorie counts and nutrient info. are not an exact science, for starters. There are many variables in play and as such, many experts feel that the information simply isn't reliable. Another point is that for many people, calorie counts can be very stressful. They can even be a "trigger" for someone recovering from an eating disorder. Still another approach to things says that healthy eating doesn't involve calorie counting. Mealtimes should be about enjoying the food in front of you, eating enough to feel full, and having an overall different relationship with your food, one not based on "restrictions" or rules. My own thought is that people are free to decide (in most cases) and that for many of us, having a baseline of sorts regarding nutritional information is helpful. It at least gives an access point into decision making. (I should add here that the majority of cookbooks I enjoy, several of which are my absolute favorites, don't include this information which works just fine for me. I have enough cooking experience to figure things out.) Something to consider is whether or not this type of information is relevant for you personally. Pertinent information such as sodium, fat and carbohydrate counts are important for many people with special dietary needs. Without that information, things aren't impossible, but it takes a little more work to tweak a meal. So because of this reason alone, I consider the inclusion of this type of information to be an added bonus, not something strictly necessary, but a perk, if you will.

Now for the bad news. I don't love this book! I do recommend it however for all of the reasons mentioned above. Although I use the book and peruse it for ideas, I find that it feels as if non vegan authors made a vegan cookbook, if that makes sense. There are no rules of course about who can write about what, but a year ago I would not have noticed this kind of subtlety in a cookbook. Now however, the feeling is sort of in the background, humming away. The other thing, and it's a small point, is the excessive use of aquafaba (chickpea brine). Honestly, opening up a can (when I don't even have a can-I cook my own beans) to get a few tablespoons of liquid is kind of silly. Other than these two things, the new to newish vegan (or interested bystanders!) should be good to go with this book as a guide to getting started.

Next week, (God willing!), I will wrap up this series with my very favorite vegan cookbook, one that I turn to first and which I feel presents a voice of real reason in a very, at times, confusing food centered world.

As always, send an email or leave a comment if you have questions.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Cookbook Review #2 of 4/ Minimalist Baker's Everyday Cooking

This blog post will appear in four parts, each part being a review of one specific book. Part 2 of 4  follows below:

The Minimalist Baker's  website was one of the first resources that I found when I began my research into a plant based way of eating. I experimented with an apple carrot beet ginger juice.  At this stage of the game, everything was brand new to me: juicing, macro bowls, bean burgers from scratch and tofu prepared in an infinite number of ways. It was all a little exotic and foreign, particularly the flavor profiles. I found Dana Schultz's site (AKA The Minimalist Baker) to offer a generous number of introductory recipes that helped me get used to some basic vegan ingredients and ways of preparing food.

Most food/cooking bloggers/authors have a "point of view" or a cooking aesthetic. There tends to be a concentration on categories of food (vegan, vegetarian, paleo, etc.) coupled with something a little less objective and more touchy-feely. Terms like "comfort food", "clean eating",  "simple ingredients" or "raw food" can give the reader an idea of the bloggers food philosophy. As mentioned in my first post, sometimes cookbook authors/food bloggers may have a partiuclar regional influence as well. An example may be that the author focuses on "southern comfort food." 

Schultz's claim to fame, as the title of her blog suggests, is that the recipes require ten ingredients or less, take 30 minutes or less, and only require one bowl. She is generous and welcomes all eaters to her blog site. As an aside, and I do recommend reading Dana's blog, the site itself has a fun, hip feel to it. Her voice is kind of light hearted and quirky. There is very little personal talk, just enough for some interest but not so much that you are rushing to the recipe part because of TMI.

Her cookbook, Minimalist's Bakers Everyday Cooking: 101 Entirely Plant Based, Mostly Gluten Free, Easy and Delicious recipes, is based on the same premises as her website and has the same kind of feel. She offers easy redo's of many familiar recipes. These are recipes that we may all recognize, such as a classic lasagne or 3 bean chili, only made with vegan ingredients. She has also included a wide variety of typical vegan foods as well as the more unusual: have you ever had a spicy jackfruit sandwich? There are many recipes to get a new vegan intersted in cooking. The book covers all of the bases, offering breakfast, lunch and dinner ideas as well as dessert and essential vegan condiments. There is also a section in the back which lists essential vegan pantry items and to Schultz's infinite credit, a list of nutrtional information for each recipe. The book is thorough, with quite enough information to get the new vegan started but also to keep the attention of those who have been eating a plant based diet for awhile.

The cookbook is setup in some very helpful ways. Prep and cook times are provided for each recipe. Ingredients are broken down by step and the steps themselves are very logical. It's always good for me when the photo of the finished food and the recipe can each be viewed simultaneously. This isn't always possible so expect that for this book, you may be flipping back and forth between pages to get the complete recipe. All in all, this book is a great read and fun to use. It's a good size and lays flat on the counter too. Double bonus!

I have made several of her recipes so far with good results. The Thai baked sweet potatoes are good and the chili is now my main chili recipe. I also made the carrot, potato and chickpea curry recipe. That was quite good too. There are many recipes left to explore and I feel confidant that they will turn out well. This cookbook would be good for someone with some basic cooking experience. The directions are easy to follow and the cooking terms quite simple to understand. The beautiful photography helps to enhance the whole experience!

I have one major complaint and a comment about this book and the recipes offered.  The first issue has to do with both the font size and the font selection. The font size is just a little too small and the font style is a little too complex. (It actually feels like there may be several font styles in use though I couldn't say for sure.) This sounds nit picky but for anyone with mildly poor eyesight, both things will be a problem. Many of the fraction numbers are impossible to make out without squinting and in general, the fonts could be darker. The workaround here is of course good lighting and a magnifying glass at hand. The second issue has to do with nutritional requirements. If fat, sodium, and cholesterol intake are considerations for you, please know that many of the recipes will need to be modified. (This isn't a specific diet type of book, so I wasn't expecting recipes conforming to any guidelines anyway.) The problems are not enough, however, to deter anyone interested from purchasing the book.

I hope that the above information is helpful for anyone searching for a good and solid vegan cookbook. Be sure to check out Dana's blog as well where you can test out some recipes and get a feel for things before purchasing the book.

Stay tuned for the next review!

Monday, August 20, 2018

Big Trees and The Bigger Picture

Big Trees State Park, Arnold, CA

It must seem like I write a lot about hiking! It's both a solo and group activity that I do once a week, weather permitting. Hiking is a great chance to get outside for some exercise, to explore the area in which you live and generally, to clear your mind.  Hiking by myself is great, I like the solitude and time to think, but I also enjoy hiking with other people. Specifically, I love observing other people. Listening to them, watching to see what catches their eye, and just generally being in someone else's company for a little while is very enjoyable.  

I think, too, that walking along with someone for any length of time and listening to them, provides a learning opportunty. It's a chance to discover something about that person and in the process, to find out something about myself. It's my belief that we gain insight into our own personalities (and our world)  through watching and listening to other people. I love getting the chance to see other people in action, to listen to what they say (and don't say) and to watch how they do things. It presents a real opportunity for reflection and growth. And I like that. Get a hike in, learn about someone else, and possibly gain some personal insight. Nothing wrong with that!

Not that long ago, I had the opportunity to hike with a small group of women, some of whom I know fairly well and three new-ish ladies that I had only met once before. The day started with a beautiful morning, clear and warm. We began the hike and right away there was a problem. One of the women couldn't keep up and requested that the group not wait for her. We agreed, knowing that the route was easy to follow and that her husband was with her in case anything happened. The second thing that occurred, gradually as the hike progressed, was that one of the other women was clearly struggling to move along, even at a slower pace. Though we made lots of stops to take pictures and drink water, she was still having a hard time. We eventually made it to the halfway point of the hike (a creek) and decided to rest for a bit.

As the group stood by the creek, talking and looking around, I had the chance to consider things. I realized that I was irritated with the way the hike was unfolding. Specifically, I was annoyed with these two women. Why had the one woman come on this hike if she wasn't physically able to do it? Why was the other woman struggling so much? Didn't they both realize that they were negatively impacting the group? My impatience started to grow. It wasn't long before I was regretting helping to lead this hike.

I should mention that it's nerve wracking for me to witness someone else struggling to keep up with the group. It's difficult for me to not feel responsible for that person's welfare and how the group may be impacted should something happen. These hiking outings, organized through an online social group, are voluntary of course and the hike "leaders" aren't actually leaders in a true sense. They are simply organizers and not essentially responsible for anyone or what happens. Still. It's disconcerting to watch anyone have a hard time. When I watch that person, I see myself and think that it could easily be me. 

As I stood by watching the group, I thought about the remaining woman who was physically having a hard time keeping up but who appeared to be enjoying herself nonetheless. I tried to consider what I would do if I were in her shoes. Would I have signed up for this hike? Would I be standing around now, laughing and enjoying myself despite some difficulties?   I didn't have any answers. Finally, in frustration, I just gave it up. 

The problem of what to do when someone falls behind on a hike or maybe should not have signed up to begin with, felt unsolvable at that moment. To distract myself from the unanswerable questions and my own circular thoughts, I absently looked at the creek instead. Amid the noise of the talking, both interanl and external, I heard the water's small, quiet sounds. Some kind of insect was buzzing around and I heard that too. I looked at the plants growing along the banks and thought what it would be like to be a plant; how it must take some patience to endure the rain and heat and snow. I turned my thoughts inward again and realized that I was lacking in something. Maybe a little empathy and understanding. Perhaps some kindness was needed on my part towards these two women. 

Having patience with yourself and with others isn't always easy to do. I find though that thinking about things in a somewhat persistent but gentle way can often lead to small insights; little reminders about something that I may have forgotten. Despite my irritation, which was beginning to fade away, I gradually found myself overwhelmed with a sense of joy. Somehow I felt connected to the very people that I was unhappy with. I realized something that I had lost sight of in my frustration. We are all in it together, responsible for one another in a way that isn't always easy to define. This doesn't mean that others aren't accountable for their own actions. It simply means that we are connected. Interconnections cause someone else's problems to become your problems. You take on a heightened sense of someone else's suffering and happiness, develop a feeling of empathy, and as a result, it's easier to offer words of kindness instead of words of anger, both to yourself and to others. For better or for worse, we are our brother's keeper. 


Wednesday, August 15, 2018

It's My Anniversary!: Cookbook Review, Part 1 of 4 -Thug Kitchen:The Official Cookbook

*This blog post will appear in four parts, each part being a review of one specific book. Part 1 of 4  follows below:

As I was getting ready to write this post, it occurred to me that I might be the only one left using a cookbook (dinosaur that I am!). Turns out I am not that old fashioned and cookbooks are just as popular as ever though the nature of their content has changed. This article in the Huffington Post explains that while recipes are basically free on the Internet, people are still putting down hard earned money to purchase cookbooks. Cookbooks these days, however, are not just how-to manuals. They have become a kind of food focused novel with a good story, good characters, and insider information. People who buy cookbooks want recipes but they also want to be entertained. Content is important. Buyers want the background on the chefs and the cuisine.  A cookbook can focus on a well known chef or a hot regional cuisine. Even a way of life or a diet fad can be a selling point for a book. Cookbooks are still a treasured source of how to do something, a refernce book if you will, but are now a kind of entertainment too.  It's a good time to be a chef, a food blogger, or consumer if you think about it.

With the above trends in mind and to celebrate my one year anniversary of veganism, I thought I would give a rundown of  the books I bought when I first transitioned to this way of eating. I am notorious for buying books when I am trying something new and this time was no exception. I like to have something in my hand, such as a book, for reference. I enjoy writing notes for each recipe and being able to look things up. I want to make sure I am doing things right! Having a book in front of me really helps. And really, I just love books. They are better than a collection of miscellaneous recipes in a folder or having to constantly look at my phone. Books, to me, are the real deal!

Over the past year, four books have made it to my kitchen shelf. I use each of them regularly and for different reasons. Each book offers something to the user that is fairly unique. They are all good generalized introductions to a plant based way of eating. For my review, I focus on ease of use, my results, and the uniqueness of some of the content. I will point out some things too that I see as problems. So, here goes!

First up is a book called Thug Kitchen: The Official Cookbook, written by Thug Kitchen. This was my introductory book to vegan cooking and as such, it is a pretty good primer. The authors seek to demystify and generally tone down the level of cooking "talk", allowing us regular folk to understand common terms and basic ways of preparing food.  And because this is a vegan based cookbook, there is a lot of information about why a plant based diet is important. The reasons given focus on both a macro and micro viewpoint with regard to food selection, production, and individual health benefits.

So, who is this book written for? It seems like the audience might be the "eat-out-often-frozen-food-twenty-something" crowd. (The authors do maintain a website here, where they explain better their point of view.) Regardless of age, the book is a good read for someone just getting started in the kitchen or maybe someone with a little experience who wants to eat a home cooked meal more often. The book does a good job of reviewing the basics of a plant based pantry, gives tips on measuring accurately and following recipes more carefully, making substitutions, and what kitchen tools/gadgets you might need to get started. You also get a good basic introduction to preparing some common vegan foods such as tofu and tempeh. 

Some of the recipes are fairly standard vegan fair. Many though go beyond that. I have enjoyed the whole wheat banana pancakes, roasted potato salad with fresh herbs, 5 spice fried rice with sweet potatoes, and chocolate chip and almond butter cookies. They have all come out as expected and I would make them again. 

There aren't any complicated methods or exotic ingredients. The recipes are straightforward with easy to follow instructions. The book is suitable for someone with some cooking experience. I would say that the skill level needed is somewhere between beginner and intermediate. I think the authors have done a good job of targeting a specific audience: those among us who may be sick of eating out and not getting a healthy meal, or maybe just want to eat better but don't know where to start. They try hard to make the ideas accessible to the everyday person. 

The best feature though of this book for someone my age comes under the category of "ease of use." The text of the book is big enough, the font is dark and readable, and the ingredient list/step-by-step instructions are clear. There are no portion sizes given, however, and no calorie content so it isn't a suitable book for anyone who wants that information. I also found that the yields of many of the recipes are more than expected, at least for me. 

The big drawback to this book for many people of course will be the language. The authors' point of view/style of writing is that of a pseudo street "thug", for lack of a better term. Or maybe "street" language is the way to describe it. (In their defense, I think this is part of their efforts to make cooking and cooking terms more accessible, in a way. It's a specific appeal.)  Be warned though,the book is riddled with the "F" word. It's even in the title. If you can't take that, there are other books that will work fine. If it doesn't bother you, this is a great first cookbook for a new vegan and quite a hilarious read if you are into that sort of thing. I tend to pull this book out when I am casting about for ideas. Sometimes I just read it for no particular reason other than to be entertained. It's that kind of a cookbook.

I hope this first review has been helpful. If there are specidfic questions or points please email me: Stay tuned for part 2/4. Thanks for reading and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Listen With Our Hearts: An Article and Some Artwork

Listen With Our Hearts
18" x 18" mixed media
acrylic and painted papers

Perhaps one of the hardest things to understand as an adult is how complex some issues can be. Human beings are complex creatures. We can both love and dislike someone simultaneously. We can break laws in the name of moral justice knowing full well that we are doing something illegal. And we can want to help someone whose values, reality or lifestyle may differ from our own beliefs. It's very complicated to be human. Things are not neat and tidy, very seldom are they black and white, and they almost never are static. Issues can be open for discussion and outcomes can often change long standing beliefs. As I said, it's hard.

So, it was with a happy heart that I read a recent article last week written by Billy Critchley-Menor, SJ and published in the Jesuit Post. The article highlights the efforts of an Argentinian nun to minister to the trans gendered community members in her area. It was good to read something both positive and uplifting despite the controversy of the subject matter. And make no mistake, the controversy around the Catholic Church and gender issues is very strong. But, the Sister's message was simple and clear: love people without judgement and with a pure heart. A difficult achievement for most humans but one that is worthy in striving for.

The above piece of artwork, made by me in response to that article, is simplistic in showing some standard symbols of love. I have included other elements that represent things I think but I am interested to know what other associations people might make. As I made the piece, I thought about tolerance, acceptance, and understanding. Understanding, I think, is where many people get caught up. Understanding asks us to put ourselves in the other person's shoes. It requires empathy. It's complicated, as they say. And while the above subject matter is intense and multi-faceted, (I mean to say that it can't be reduced to simple symbols), I very much wanted a simple piece of artwork, showing positive colors and elements. I thought that would most accurately reflect how I felt about the Sister's overall message to put love first. A good message for all of us.


PS: As with any issue, there are multiple viewpoints. This issue is no exception. I learned a new term today called "ideological colonization." I had to look this up. The article I read about it is here.

Perfect In My Imperfection!

Recent haul from Sprouts market The other day I told a friend that veganism is an imperfect way of living. At best, you can only hope to...