Thursday, October 16, 2008

On Cookbooks

Don't you love those titles. It's one of those lead-ins that make you think the author knows what they are talking about. I'm not saying I'm an expert but as you can see from my ever growing cookbook collection on the sidebar), I do have an insight.

When shopping for new cookbooks in person, like lots of people do, I flip through the recipes to estimate how much of the book I might find tasty. I look at the pictures (if there are any), if the food looks tasty then it might actually be tasty. I often even have a quick read of the "about the author(s)" bit. Where is this person coming from that they have such an awesome insight into vegan cooking. People who run or used to run veggie businesses usually have tasty treats up their sleeves. Bloggers are a good bet too, their recipes have one of the greatest testing bases in the world, everyone reading their blog.

When I'm shopping online, especially for a book I have never seen in person I have to rely more on reviews, both word of mouth and written reviews. This is where things can get dicey though. Some people review books like the author was supposed to write the book especially for them and they did it wrong.
I've seen a lot of reviews say things like "this book could have used more recipes, half of the book is a tutorial on how to cook basics." The book probably has a section dedicated to basic cooking skills and the reviewer did not appreciate this. Unfortunately, in my mind, this makes the reviewer ridiculously self centered. The book was not written for them in particular, cookbooks are written for as large of an audience as you think you can capture. Especially vegan cookbooks. Any good vegan cook knows that good food is one of the best ways to create a favorable avenue to vegan discussion (and possible future new vegan commitments). Review a book for what it is. If none of the recipes work out for you, by all means say so, maybe the author didn't have the recipes thoroughly tested and that is a problem. But don't complain there weren't enough cookie recipes in the breakfast book you just bought if you catch my drift.

After reading another blogger's daily mofo post I realized something about most vegan cookbooks that I hadn't really acknowledged before. Vegan cookbooks really take care of you. No, I don't mean they cuddle you when you are sad (although I've found lots of recipes that are good stand ins for this), I mean they teach you about food. What tastes good, how to prepare it. Common issues and how to fix them. How to cook grains, beans, vegetables. This sometimes causes bad reviews because some people stop appreciating it after the 4th or 5th cookbook purchase. Everyone, please remember, this might be some new vegan's first cookbook into mysterious new world of veggiedom. Don't fault the author for accounting for this and trying to make sure it's a happy, easy transition. And you should still read this info. You might learn something new and if not you will just be reinforcing your know-it-all-ness.

I would like to mention some of my favorite cookbooks to learn something from. These aren't reviews, I'd like to devote a separate post for an actual review. These are just books that have taught me something. Books that are good to read from as well as cook from.

Voluptuous Vegan
by Myra Kornfeld
This book has an ingredient section that gives you a good introduction to grains. What they are, where they come from & preparation tips. Not on every grain of course. Just a few that you will come across, particularly in this book. How practical, right? There are also equally useful greens and beans sections.
There is a kitchen equipment and terms section. For me I find equipment sections less than useful until I am looking to actually get a new item, then I want to know what the other people that I cook with use. The cutting techniques section can be invaluble to a kitchen noob and even someome fairly familiar with chopping things. There are terms, descriptions and handy illustrations to help you aquire the skills. Then you get into the recipes. I can tell you they are mighty fine. At the end of the book you will find a glossary filled with familar and foreign terms (depending on how long you have been cooking vast arrays of deliciousnesses). Following this is a mail order section, good for those who don't have ready access to awesome stores with every ingredient they will need and then some. The very last page is all about conversions from imperial to metric. Not just that but typical American termanology (that might have been used in the book) to possibly more familar termanology (lima beans - broad beans, cheesecloth - muslin). Again, you might know all this but maybe, just maybe you'll learn something new.

Vegan with a Vengeance
by Isa Chandra Moskowitz

This book will always have a special place in my heart as this was my first vegan cookbook. This book doesn't have huge sections about kitchen stuff. It spreads it out a bit, giving you bits of information as you need it. Using new information in a practical hands on way will help you remember it and apply the knowledge again. In the begining of the book is a good little section on outfitting your kitchen, not a huge remodel, just the basics in tools and food. It then goes straight into recipes but here's where the information starts to flow. There are little hints & tips (some of them from her cat Fizzle) about what kind of pans to use or how to cut something easily or what something is that you might not know about (like tvp), you get the idea. There are lots of these tips, they are very accessable but you can also easily ignore them if you want to. There are also 1-2 page sections scattered about with personal stories and super useful tutorials like how to press and cut tofu. Let me tell you, this might be common knowledge to some but I was new to tofu, without this little guide I might not feel as comfortable with tofu as I now do. Now, tofu is my bitch. This book also brought me to The Post Punk Kitchen the most awesome vegan community of the web.
How It All Vegan
by Tanya Barnard & Sarah Kramer
This is a good beginner vegan book. I'm not saying you can't still like it when you aren't a beginner. I'm just saying that it makes a good starter book too. First we learn what veganism is and how to get there. We also learn how to replace familiar animal products in your life with nonanimal products. Not everyone approaches veganism with needing replacement, some people like to start fresh and incorporate new things into their diet. But some people need replacements and that's not a bad thing. Whatever works for you is great and you should go with it. In this substitutions section we aren't just learning how to replace eggs and milk we are also learning about the loads of new foods you probably have never heard of in your narrow omni existance (ok this isn't true for all omnis but I think it's true for most of them). They can't cover everything but it's quite a start. It would get you going in the bulk section of your co-op. There's also a section on making your own household cleaners and an appendix covering typical nonvegan ingredients.
The Garden of Vegan
by Tanya Barnard & Sarah Kramer
This is the second book and here we get some Q & A, some personal stuff some practical advise stuff. Also you'll find a list of kitchen tips & tricks (these are just a good array of stuff to know). A list of 45 things to do with baking soda, yes this really is a versatile ingredient. Kitchen first aid, we all hope we'll never need it but in truth we'll probably all need it at one time or another (I've cut myself several times, luckily no fires yet and only minor burns). At the end we get some party tips (if you are new to hosting any kind of party then you could probably use all the help you can get right?) and a terms glossary (vocabulary lessons are never a waste of time).
La Dolce Vegan
by Sarah Kramer

This book begins with some great little "common complaints" for lack of a better term. Things people say to justify their not following a vegan diet. This probably isn't necessary for someone who owns the book, they are probably already vegan buying vegan cookbooks and all. This is useful for those inevitable discussions you have with people who aren't supportive, the dreaded ex-veg*n, or the just plain argumentative. Here you will also find time management and emergency tips as well as basic cooking tips like cooking pasta, rice, tofu, veggies, baking (separate cake & pie). And where would we be without another cool list of "45 things to do with salt"?
By Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero
What isn't to learn from this book? The recipes cover a wide range of cooking ingredients, styles, and events (casual to fancier). The begining of this book does a fantastic job of orienting the vegen to their kitchen. Equipment recomendations and basic panty stocking aside it also talks about the basic cooking of grains, beans and veggies. Sometimes you might not need these instructions, especially if you are following a recipe but what these little tips do is teach you to create for yourself. It's like a gentle push on your backside to get into the kitchen and take a chance (if you're the kind of person that needs a little butt nudge). I reference these pages a lot for grains and beans I haven't cooked enough to remember how to cook them properly. Yes there is always trial and error but why take the chance of screwing it up beyond edibility when help is right there on your bookshelf?
Get it Ripe
by Jae Steele

This is one of my more recent cookbook purchases and so I haven't made any recipes from it but I've been hearing over this crazy mofo month of delights coming from this book so I'm going to (I think safely) assume that this is a good tasty addition to your collection. Now just because I haven't cooked from this book doesn't mean I haven't cracked it open. I've actually read everything in the book aside from each recipe. There is some awesome information that really got me thinking in there. I didn't have to be convinced to become vegan, I am already there. Jae talks a lot about food cleanliness and fair trade practices. I found the beginning of the book to be a really great motivator to think about where your food is coming from and learning the value of organic foods. You are conveniently presented with a list of most contaminated conventionally grown foods and least contaminated so help you make those shopping decisions whether it is to switch to organic or to just stop buying that item (except maybe sales and special occasions, like me with bell peppers) because the organic item is really quite expensive but the conventional is just filthy. At the beginning of the baking section there is a little about vegan baking and tips. And at the back you will find a section of cleansing. This came at a good time for me because I have recently become interested in cleansing. I'm still doing reading about it so who knows if I will actually perform a "cleanse" but the information is useful, interesting and a jumping off point to do your own research if you would like to know more. Suggested resources are also given.

Ok I've gone on long enough for one post.


Happy Herbivore! said...

My favorite is either VWAV or Skinny Bitch in the Kitch :) Vcon I'm 50/50 on... my 2 cents.. but youknow, I'm also partial to my own cookbooks! hehe

Lindsay I-F said...

VWAV was my first vegan cookbook (well I also received the Candle Cafe cookbook at the same time so it was one of my first) anyways I found it to be a great introduction to vegan cooking it had a lot of recipes that really were easy to put together and is great for a beginning cook. Although I don't find myself using it as often it is my favorite cookbook because it is what inspired me to really get into cooking.

Carrie said...

VWAV was my first vegan cookbook too! In fact, at the time, I had been lacto-ovo for 10 years and that's the book that gave me the push to go vegan.

aTxVegn said...

It's great to have so many choices for vegan cookbooks these days. I am interested in buying Get It Ripe.

Anonymous said...

That's funny that you mention Get It Ripe. My husband saw me looking through it the other day and I was looking at the very front section of the book. He inquired as to where the recipes were. :-)

I love the informational stuff that authors put in their books. Guaranteed - I learn at least one thing from every cookbook I read.

Destiny's Vegan Kitchen said...

This was a fun read! I have, or have had, all those except the Get it Ripe! one. And then some. : )

allularpunk said...

thanks for your comments on all those books. i don't have any sara kramer books (not sure why) but now i think i might get one or two. my favorites are probably veganomicon and eat drink and be vegan right now. but it changes from month to month! vwav was my first vegan cookbook, and contains my go-to seitan recipe! but i still have lots to make out of it.

Vaishali said...

Thanks for this very comprehensive guide on vegan cookbooks. I have a couple of these, but some of the others are going on my wishlist.

beastmomma said...

Those look great. I also enjoyed Eat, Drink, and Be Vegan. I am hosting a giveway on my blog as part of VeganMoFo which may be of interest to you:

Anonymous said...

Great post! For me it has to look good~ I need pictures in a cookbook! I love 'My Sweet Vegan' and The Joy Of Vegan Baking'. I know Vcon and VWAV are very popular but I've only made 2 recipes from them so far(one being a pizza base which I didn't need a picture of :o) and the other jelly donut cupcakes~ which I'd seen on Flickr!).
I'm such a simpleton! ;o)

Sanja said...

Thanks for this post, always a nice resource. :-)

Ginger said...

most excellent writing! you do hav a lot of cookbooks! (...someday....)