The subtitle of this book could easily have been the main title; “Real Food for Everyone” is what I found in the pages of Ann Gentry’s latest cookbook.
I received a complementary review copy from the publisher, Andrews McMeel, a few months ago and I’ll admit the title didn’t entice me to pull my attention from the many tasks at hand to flip through it right then and there. I set it on a bookshelf with good intentions but those good intentions dissolved into out-of-sight-out-of-mind abandonment.
After chatting with a friend (who happens to be vegan) about recipes and cooking, a little bell went off in my head about this book. There it was on the bookshelf where I’d left it, patiently waiting to be cracked open.
I began flipping through the book from page one to see what looked enticing. My initial pass through a new book is always done with a stack of sticky note tabs in hand to flag every recipe of interest. Then I sort through my selections and decide which recipes I’ll make first, which moves the tap from the top of the page to the side. There’s a process for everything.
I flip a page and see a recipe for Umeboshi Rice Balls. Really? My heart raced just a little bit because I have a container of umeboshi (Japanese pickled plums) in my refrigerator, also teetering on the brink of out-of-sight-out-of-mind abandonment. Purchased for a specific recipe, the remaining puckery-tart, pungent, salty little plums have been languishing ever since. Reading on, the recipe included toasted sesame seeds, nori, and sushi rice made from short-grain brown rice and sweet brown rice, rice vinegar and mirin. With the reveal of each ingredient I became more excited as I realized I had all of these items in my kitchen.
What are the odds? I’d only just discovered sweet brown rice weeks ago. I purchased it simply because it looked cool and I wanted to know what it was like (it’s really good, incidentally). Without turning another page I stood up, headed to the kitchen, got the rice cooking and was eating Umeboshi Rice Rolls within the hour. I proudly discarded the empty umaboshi container chalking up a point for me in the endless game of use-it-up-before-it-goes-bad. Though I lost a point today when I noticed mold on a lemon. Drats.
Umeboshi sushi was not what I was expecting to find when I flipped this book open. Had I known, it would’t have gone untouched for so long. Ann Gentry explains in the introduction that she’s explored all kinds of plant-based diets over the course of her adult life. Clearly the time she spent eating a macrobiotic diet informs the way she cooks today. Not only through her use of Asian flavor-powerhouse ingredients like umeboshi, rice vinegar, miso, and fresh ginger, but also through her talent for playing ingredients off one another to capture the elusive balance of sweet, salty, bitter, tangy and hot that is so much a part of Asian cuisine.
Curious to see if the other recipes would be as pleasing, I made the Ginger-Apple Smoothie and Blueberry Corn Pancakes the next morning. The Ginger-Apple smoothie called for 1 (6-inch) piece of ginger. That’s a lot of ginger! With my first sip a cartoon image of steam blasting out of my ears flashed through my mind. Behind the heat and bite of the ginger was a nice combination of banana, apple juice, almonds and green tea powder. Next time, I’ll use less ginger. A six inch piece of ginger is somewhat ambiguous. Given that the ginger is grated and the juice squeezed from the pulp, a specific measurement of ginger juice seems like a more accurately replicable quantity, and is what I’ll use next time.
Skeptical of vegan bready goods, I was really surprised at how good these pancakes were. Rolled oats, corn meal and buckwheat flour give them great texture and flavor. Not being a vegan, the only reason I have for making these again is that they are good, and I’ll be making them again. Yes, that’s real butter I slathered over my vegan pancakes, which makes the point that these are just good pancakes that happen to be vegan.
There’s hummus and then there’s this beautiful bright green Edamame Spinach Hummus. Everything goes in the food processor and in about two minutes a spectacular spread is ready to serve. The recipe suggests serving this on endive spears, but I went the casual chip and dip route and toasted up some whole wheat pita chips. Edamame and spinach not only make the hummus pretty, but also add a sweet fresh flavor. I did back off a bit on the eight cloves of garlic that were called for because I didn’t want to be breathing fire the rest of the day. This is the nice thing about cooking your own food, you get to cater to your own taste.
This Jicama-Carrot Slaw is a happy bowl of sunny refreshment. The vibrant colors and juicy crunch of the vegetables gets you halfway there, but it’s the clever balance of sweet maple syrup, tangy apple cider vinegar and tart lime juice that brings it home. I’m not a big fan of raw onion and the one I had was particularly pungent, so I only added half of what was called for. This salad hit home on all levels and is a great example of Ann Gentry’s skill at keeping it simple and letting the ingredients do their thing.
Thrilled with everything I’d made so far, I moved on to one of the three soups I had flagged; a lovely and simple zucchini herb soup that took less than an hour to make from start to finish. The smooth creamy texture is in part due to rolled oats of all things.
I nervously flipped through the dessert section a number of times trying to decide if I wanted to risk breaking my recipe winning streak. I’ve had some incredibly lackluster and downright awful vegan desserts in my eating history. I selected the Chocolate Cupcakes figuring if anything was going to be dreadful it would be these. I was encouraged, however, by the fact that there was no applesauce in the recipe, an ingredient I blame for most of the odd texture issues that plague so many low-fat and vegan baked goods. A hefty amount of cocoa powder promised good flavor and no skimping on the oil or sugar gave me even more hope.
These are fantastic rich chocolaty cupcakes that taste like cake should taste. The icing I used is not a vegan recipe from the book. I didn’t want to run out and buy vegan butter, so I improvised and made a simple chocolate glaze. I baked them at 375 degrees F rather than the suggested 350. Partly because I always bake cupcakes at 375, but mostly because I had something already baking in the oven at 375 degrees and I wanted to get double duty out of the oven. The recipe says to bake them for about 32 minutes, which seems like a long time even with a lower oven temperature. I took mine out at 22 minutes and probably could have taken them out a minute or two earlier. My advice anytime you’re cooking anything is to base cooking times on what your food is doing rather than solely on what the recipe states.
The success with these cupcakes is because they were allowed to be a true sweet indulgence. Sugar, fat, cocoa, white flour, it’s all in there with no apologies. Bravo Ann Gentry for steering clear of the “healthy” whole-wheat, fruit-sweetened “cake” trap.
I look forward to continuing to explore this book and discover new ingredients. I’ll likely never get around to trying the Maple Tempeh Bacon or Tofu Frittata because quite frankly I’d rather have actual bacon and an egg frittata. That’s of little concern though because I’ll be plenty busy with recipes like Adzuki Bean Soup, South American Stew stuffed in a whole kabocha squash, Sesame-Hiziki Croquettes, and Oven-Roasted Sweet Potato Fries, along with revisiting many of the recipes I’ve already made. This is a great book if you’re looking for some new inspiration, but still want to keep things simple. It also never hurts to have a collection of great vegan recipes on hand.
With permission from the publisher, I’m happy to be able to share a couple of recipes from Vegan Family Meals. Give them a try, I’d love to know how you like them.