There's a vegan restaurant my wife and I patronize every now and then. You know the type. It's basically a Chinese restaurant where all of the beef, chicken, pork, fish and other animals they serve are actually fake animals, derived from soy, seitan or some other plant-based ingredient. Whenever I dive into their remarkable Veg Chicken and Walnuts I have the same two thoughts. First, I wonder whether the restaurant management changed since our last visit and they're now actually serving real meat (so faithful are some of the mock meats). Second, I have the same internal debate that began when I first discovered these so-called transition foods. Should I be enjoying this stuff? Is it OK to still enjoy the taste of a chicken, or a cow, or a pig?
Luckily, these thoughts usually disappear within seconds of being inundated with the tastes, smells and textures of my meal. But in the quite moments following the repast I remind myself that I didn't give up eating these things because I didn't like the way they tasted. On the contrary, giving up these foods was a sacrifice. Fortunately, it was a sacrifice that transition foods have made easier to stomach (pun most definitely intended).
That's where Marie Oser's new cookbook The Enlightened Kitchen comes in. Even before the first page the reader knows what's in store. The full-color cover sports four delectable dishes - you're sure two of them contain at least chicken, pork and beef. Flipping through the book, you note the many uses of quotation marks in the recipe names, a dead give-away that these aren't the real things. You see Balsamic "Chicken" instead of Balsamic Chicken, "Cheese" Triangles instead of just Cheese Triangles (a convention that I much prefer to the endless array of contrived puns like Chick-un and Cheeze that fill other books).
This is not to say that there aren't any tried and true vegetables-and-grains recipes that figure so predominantly in other popular vegan cookbooks. They're here too. But the inclusion of so many recipes containing mock meats ensures that this book will appeal to a much broader audience. And it's something I have rarely seen with other vegan cookbooks. The mock meats found on grocery store shelves are usually substituted in favorite dishes from our past meat-eating days. Here Oser creates new recipes specifically geared for these transition foods.
Worried about what to serve a contingent of meat-eating friends coming over for the holidays? Forget about the typically boring spinach-based lasagna - spice things up with Savory "Sausage" Lasagna, probably the best vegan lasagna I ever made (and one of the easiest). The sauce is made with Lightlife's Gimme Lean Sausage Style, which is readily available at most major grocery chains (I've seen it at my local Shop Rite, Whole Foods Market and even Trader Joe's to name a few). (Typo alert: readers should be aware that the 25-ounce jar of fat-free tomato sauce, listed as an ingredient for the Tofu Layer, should instead go into the sauce mixture.)
One of the most interesting and valuable aspects of this cookbook is Oser's diligence in not only specifying the exact nutritional information for each recipe, but also doing the same for the typical alternative! So when your guests are finished gorging themselves on the lasagna you can tell them how many calories they saved by eating this version instead of the typical version: 193 calories per serving instead of 398 calories! Two grams of fat instead of 26 grams! Zero grams of saturated fat instead of 12 grams! To all other cookbook authors - please do the same!
Additional suggestions for entertaining guests are specified in an entire section ("Enlightened Entertaining") which contains at least two dozen festive dishes, including Festive Holiday Roast, Tempeh Chili and Hoppin' John. The Tempeh Chili contains tempeh, garlic, red onion and bell pepper, portobello, stewed tomatoes, chile beans and assorted spices. The tempeh is cubed, steamed, and then crumbled during the cooking process, resulting in a nice concoction of flavor and texture. The Hoppin' John, one of my favorites, is an incredibly flavorful mixture of serrano chiles, garlic, onion, bell pepper, celery, carrots, black-eyed peas, brown rice, tomatoes, assorted spices and vegetarian Canadian bacon. For the last ingredient, Yve's makes a very tasty version and it's widely available.
For the soup lover, the "Chicken" and Barley Soup and the Chunky Vegetable "Beef" Soup are entire meals themselves. With these two dishes one is introduced to the Dixie Diners Club (DDC), a mail-order distributor with the motto "Health Food That Tastes Like Junk Food." These two soups, as well as a bunch of other recipes in this book, require specific ingredients from DDC. Admittedly, my initial reaction was one of impatience, being confronted with required ingredients that weren't available at my local supermarket. But after placing just one order with DDC for five or six of these shelf-stable ingredients (and receiving the parcel a few days later), I was able to prepare our pantry for loads of these recipes for months to come. The "Chicken" soup, for instance, contains DDC Chicken Not Strips which are reconstituted with DDC original broth before adding them to the soup. The results are wonderful. Furthermore, I had so much leftover from this recipe that I gave portions to my friends, who loved it. Likewise, the "Beef" Soup contains DDC Beef Not Ground, another shelf-stable ingredient that seems to last forever. The resulting soup was terrific, especially for a cold winter night.
My order from DDC also included their DDC Roasted Chicken Not, an ingredient in the Roasted "Chicken" and Vegetables, an outstanding melange and one of my favorites from the entire book. The reconstituted "chicken" is added to russet potatoes, baby-cut carrots, garlic, red onion, cremini mushrooms, thyme and vermouth and placed in the oven for 25 minutes. Comfort food at its best!
Looking for more of an ethnic twist? The book is loaded with possibilities. The "Sausage" and Asparagus Fajitas are a very interesting spin on the typical Mexican dish. Here you use the same vegetarian sausage as is used in the lasagna, cooking it with asparagus, russet potatoes, red onion and several spices, topping it all with mango salsa, and then rolling it all into a whole-wheat tortilla (non-hydrogenated, of course). For Spanish, try the Paella. This one uses Lightlife's Smart Chick'n Strips as well as a product called Soyrizo. I had trouble finding the latter but eventually ordered it from Melissa's on the web. The Soyrizo is terrific, but the Chick'n Strips are a tad rubbery for my tastes. Still, the dish is a do-over but I plan on trying a different brand of mock chicken next time.
Two other ethnic dishes, neither containing mock meat, are the Caribbean Mobay and the North African Stew (Sikbadj), both laced with generous helpings of fruit which suffuse them with an edge of sweetness that is deliciously different (though possibly not for all tastes). The Mobay contains loads of nutritious ingredients: gingeroot, garlic, onion, bell pepper, parsnips, carrots, zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, garbanzos, lime, parsley. To this mixture is added coconut milk, a cinnamon stick and an entire cup of dried currants giving the entire dish a delicious fruity punch. The Sikbadj contains two types of fruit - dried apricots and date pieces. The addition of cinnamon sticks, allspice and coriander adds to the fruitiness. The base of this dish is 16 ounces of tempeh, once again crumbled into the mixture. For those looking for something different and delicious, try these out.
Additional sections contain recipes for sides, for muffins and loaves, and for desserts - I haven't even gotten to these sections yet! When one takes the time to absorb the magnitude and variety of the 175 recipes in this book, it's almost impossible to comprehend that there isn't a single ingredient derived from an animal. The next time your friends call you a leaf-eater, and proclaim that plant-based food is boring, hand them this book! In fact, hand everyone you know a copy of this book. Your meat-eating friends will appreciate the mock meats, your die-hard vegan friends will adore the variety, and your lacto-ovo pals won't miss the dairy or eggs. Not only will you be giving them the great gift of food, you'll be giving them the greatest gift of health. Now excuse me while I go and dig in.
Dan Balogh is a member of EarthSave® New York City and works full-time as a systems engineer in the telecommunications industry. Two years ago, 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 300 different recipes - and most they can live with! But he's having so much fun he keeps on searching! Today he can make a mean toast.