I lost track of how many times the following exchange has occurred.
Me: I'm a VEE-gan, not VEH-jin. My universe of food choices is huge because
I eat every food on planet Earth except animals and animal products.
Them: Uh, so that means you don't eat meat?
Me: That's right.
Them: But you eat fish, right?
Me: No, fish are animals. I don't eat animals.
Them: Then what DO you eat [gasp] just vegetables?!
While this exchange sounds like something you might hear on a TV sit-com, I can fully understand why folks ask these sorts of questions. Consider standard American cuisine: a hunk of animal flesh (sometimes covered with some type of animal product like cheese) occupies half of the plate, while two overcooked and unseasoned vegetables occupy the other half. We eat the obligatory vegetables only because we have to. If we remove the animal from the plate, how does one fill the remaining void? You guessed it - with more overcooked unseasoned vegetables! Does that sound appetizing? Can we blame this apprehension regarding veganism?
Two recent cookbooks provide many answers to the question "So what DO vegans eat?" When combined, Robin Robertson's "Vegan Planet: 400 Irresistible Recipes With Fantastic Flavors from Home and Around the World" and Gentle World's "Incredibly Delicious: Recipes for a New Paradigm" contain nearly 1,000 innovative, tasty vegan recipes. No, I didn't type an extra 0 by mistake - there are over 900 vegan recipes between them! If you bought these two cookbooks on New Year's Day 2004, and prepared one new recipe per day, you would run out of recipes in the second half of 2006!
At first glance the two books look quite different. "Vegan Planet" is shorter and fatter, with no photos, written by one author. "Incredibly Delicious", on the other hand, is taller and thinner, with color photos and is comprised of recipes from multiple sources. But after preparing about twenty dishes from each, what they share is much more obvious: both books contain some awesome dishes. Over half the recipes that I tried are absolute winners.
From "Vegan Planet," the Ultimate Shepherd's Pie is the best vegan Shepherd's Pie I've ever eaten, perhaps because it uses crumbled vegan burgers. I used Boca's vegan burger, but I'm anxious to see how different varieties yield different results. Part of this recipe uses another recipe, the Mashed Potatoes & Company. If you're tired of the same old mashed potatoes, then try this amazingly tasty concoction of Yukon gold, sweet potatoes, parsnips, garlic and olive oil. This one was so good on top of the Shepherd's Pie, I ended up making it as a side for a different dish just days later. Other outstanding entrées include vegan variations of dishes from around the world. The Tofu and Kale Spanikopita is much easier to prepare than other spanikopita I've encountered (but just as tasty). The Fusilli with Roasted Asparagus, Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Pine Nuts is very easy to prepare and loaded with flavor. The Belgian-Style Seitan Stew with Dark Beer involves seitan simmered in a mixture of wonderful flavors and served on noodles. From Morocco, there's the Moroccan-Spiced Fava Bean Stew. From Lebanon, the Chickpea Eggplant Kibbeh, comprised of alternating layers of bulgur-chickpea and eggplant mixtures baked in a casserole.
Another of the book's strengths is its lunch fare. The Chickpea and Avocado Muffaletta is absolutely decadent. A hard, crusty round loaf is sliced in half from the side, hollowed out and filled with (among other things) a cup of green olives, a cup of black olives, olive oil, two avocados, garlic, a chickpea-roasted bell pepper paste, tomatoes and several spices. You'll think you died and went to Heaven while eating this creation. But don't eat it too often or you actually will die and go to Heaven. Based on its list of ingredients it's loaded with fat. (Unfortunately, neither book provides nutritional information for the recipes, so you'll never know exactly how much of what you're eating.) Equally tasty are the Three-Nut Burgers. They don't taste like hamburgers (they're not supposed to), but that won't matter when you bite into one of these bad boys. Speaking of bad boys, the Fried Green Tomato Po'Boy is now another of my lunch favorites. Sub rolls are loaded with green tomatoes coated and fried, tempeh bacon, soy mayonnaise, romaine lettuce and Tabasco sauce. It's a bit messy (like all great sandwiches), but it's worth it.
"Incredibly Delicious" is a collection of recipes from various sources. Like all recipe compilations, while there are many wonderful recipes from many different folks, it inevitably lacks an overall, consistent style. For instance, many of the recipes contain very explicit directions while others assume a greater kitchen experience. Also, some of the recipes might be a bit bland for some taste buds, while other recipes should be eaten with a fire extinguisher on the side. Summer's Split Pea Soup (which is, incidentally, the best split pea soup I've ever prepared) calls for two tablespoons of Tabasco sauce! Isn't that about half a bottle? I don't know Summer, but I know that she likes her soup extremely spicy! I used one teaspoon and found it just fine!
This book is also filled with terrific dishes. For breakfast, try Mom's Pancakes, probably the best vegan pancakes I've prepared. The difference here is the use of yeast, which is placed in warm water and left to rise. Its froth is added to the batter causing the fried pancakes to rise very nicely.
For dinner, the Eggplant Parmesan-less, while a bit messy to prepare, is incredibly tasty. Eggplant slices, dipped in tahini and then a seasoned breading mixture, are pan-fried, stacked with raw onion slices in a casserole, layered with tomato sauce and faux cheese, and baked in the oven. Delicious! Somewhat similar is the Eggplant Tomato Tahini Bake, though here the eggplant isn't fried beforehand, and the casserole is topped with scallions and garlic-fried mushrooms. Are you drooling yet? The Homemade Chili, one of the best I've prepared, contains beans, garlic, onion, bell pepper, cilantro, jalapenos and TVP as well as an assortment of spices. Good stuff!
What's for dessert? The Cinnamon Rolls are amazing! Set aside an afternoon for this one (you'll end up waiting 2 ½ hours for the dough to rise at various stages) but you definitely won't regret it. My father-in-law, who is a sticky bun connoisseur, adored these (and he's tough to please). The twenty buns that this recipe yielded were history in a matter of days. The Apple Turnovers were also delectable; though I had lots of trouble working with the dough and ended using a dough recipe from another cookbook instead.
I could go on and on, but space won't allow me to discuss all the wonderful recipes that I prepared from these two books. "Incredibly Delicious" even has section of raw recipes, but I haven't yet tried any! Suffice it to say, from the forty or so recipes I prepared (a mere 4% of the total), both books are worth purchasing. If you're toying with the idea of becoming a vegan, but you're not sure what to eat, these two books will provide hundreds and hundreds of wonderful ideas. On the other hand, if you're already a vegan, the next time someone engages you in a conversation that ends with the question "So what DO you eat?" plop into their outstretched arms these two books: 900 pages worth of vegan recipes - total weight of about four pounds. Perhaps then will they discover the amazing world that they've been missing.
Dan Balogh is a frequent contributor to VegSource.com and a member of EarthSave® New York City. He works full-time as a systems engineer in the telecommunications industry. In April of 2001, he and his wife Laura pledged to become vegans if they could find a dozen recipes that they could live with. Unable to prepare toast without burning it, Dan decided to learn as much about vegan cooking as was humanly possible. Since then he has amassed a huge collection of vegan and vegetarian cookbooks and has tried well over 350 recipes - and most they can live with! Today he can make a mean toast.