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    Half-sour cucumbers, hold the salt

    Half-sour cucumbers, hold the salt

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    Copyright 2008-2015Slow Food Fast. All writing and images on this blog unless otherwise attributed or set in quotes are the sole property of Slow Food Fast. Please contact DebbieN via the comments form for permissions before reprinting or reproducing any of the material on this blog.

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Celebration Update: “Mashup” Does Not Mean “More Potatoes”

Two or three Thanksgivings ago I railed (as I often do) at the lack of imaginative and good-looking (both aesthetically and nutritionally)  vegetarian offerings for Thanksgiving main dishes. I wasn’t having a whole lot of luck being impressed by what I saw in the newsstand food glam magazines, vegetarian and vegan cookbooks, food blogs, my local newspaper food section, or even the freezer section of my local Whole Foods. So I came up with a list of suggestions for vegetarian centerpiece dishes.

This year, we had the double-double challenge: Thanksgiving fell on the first day (though only the second evening) of Chanukah for the first time in over 100 years (1860s was the last time?) and won’t again for another 77,000 or so (well, some sources say there’ll be another Thanksgivukkah moment in about another 100 years and then the big schlep out to 77K. Either way, for most of us, this is “that moment”).

For me, mashing up Thanksgiving and Chanukah just this once gives us some ideas for rethinking the kneejerk popular way of celebrating the big important holidays in general. Maybe even exploring what’s so vital about holidays and family and clearing away some of the thoughtless excesses.

Chanukah came so early this year that we had nearly no chance at buying or making tons of presents before having to schlep ourselves up the I5 to my in-laws’, so none of us was expecting anything but silly socks, a paperback or so, and maybe a stop in Solvang for Danish marzipan-based sweets on the way back home. That’s all to the good–Chanukah was never really meant to be a “more presents all the time” kind of holiday, it’s about freedom of religion, freedom from outside oppression, and gratitude for the miracle of having enough resources to go around. Thanksgiving is about those things too.

Unlike most years, I didn’t find a two-page checklist that Martin Luther would be jealous of, listing all the acceptable giftees our daughter wanted, posted on the fridge. Partly that’s because we wouldn’t be home to see it, and partly because she already had her bat mitzvah in June and she’s old enough now to feel like it’s more than plenty in the way of gifts. Plus by now she knows me–I have a strong tendency to roll my eyes and cross most of the stuff off the list with the familiar yearly litany of:

“Library…library…library…library…not wearable at school or synagogue, so what’s left, the mirror?…we have an unusually skilled cat and I don’t really want to think about hamsters in that context, do you?…library…library…not until you practice piano…I know I promised you could get your ears pierced eventually…maybe next month…”

It’s just a matter of practice. And a willingness to channel Sylvia (one of my favorite cartoon characters,  by the great Nicole Hollander).

Anyway, I have no idea if any of my ideas the last time I riffed on vegetarian centerpiece dishes gave someone else ideas–I hope so–but recently I ran across a vegan cookbook with dishes that look like they’d be just right for a celebration. It’s too late to recommend for Thanksgiving or Chanukah, but maybe for Christmas and onward?

Mouthwatering Vegan: Over 130 Irresistible Recipes for Everyone (paperback and Kindle editions, Random House, 2013; hardback 2010), by Miriam Sorrell, sprang from her blog, Mouthwatering Vegan Recipes, and her enthusiastic, not to say ambitious, take on vegetarianism, particularly since she and her family moved from the UK to live on Malta, which is more isolated in terms of access to vegan ingredients.

In any case, Sorrell’s book and blog are both full of creative ideas and good-looking food. Several recipes, such as her phyllo pie and her vegetarian Wellington, plus a timbale with penne that should have starred in Big Night, really do look like they’d be terrific centerpiece dishes for a celebration.

Most of her everyday recipes are down-to-earth, inspired by her Greek heritage and her London upbringing as the daughter of a chef (she also includes several curries). These are fresh, whole-vegetable-and-bean-based dishes, and have every chance of being eaten happily by vegan and nonvegan diners alike.

Some, like a very realistic simulated hard-boiled egg, down to the flavored yolk, or the next step, a poached egg, are difficult and time-consuming and ambitious. I’m not so sure I’d find them worth the trouble if I were vegan except as a novelty, but she does it in part to show it can be done and in part because she misses eggs from her youth. She has also worked out several vegan cheeses based on cashews and agar agar, and some of these, to my surprise, actually melt for pizzas and casseroles.

If I have any reservations, they come down to some of the processed ingredients she relies on, especially in the more elaborate dishes meant as vegan versions of things like Beef Wellington or Shepherd’s Pie. She specifies Linda McCartney brand vegan ground beef substitute, for example, though she does allow for substitutions. Tofu makes a few appearances; TVP mostly as a substitute for the Linda McCartney “beef” crumbles; seitan none at all, though you’d think it would be pretty inexpensive and available–if you have wheat flour and aren’t gluten-intolerant, you can make your own fairly easily. Especially if you have the talent and patience to simulate a hard-boiled egg.

Worse (to my mind, much, much worse): Marmite, a yeast-extract-based salt paste whose presence makes my stomach turn every time my husband, who got the “bright” idea to order it online (along with a jar of Vegemite, the Aussie version, for an “international comparison”) goes to spread some on his toast. The smell and flavor of both—oy. I can’t be in the same room with him when he’s being enthusiastic about Marmite, I really can’t. But I understand a lot of current and former Brits cling to it, and he is at least part-English. And not a cook. So I have to make allowances, I suppose. But still. My stomach curls when I see it as an ingredient anywhere.

There’s also one use of red food coloring that puzzled me in a jalfriezi sauce for a Valentine’s day curry laid out in the shape of a heart. To my mind, using paprika infused in oil would have done better and been so much easier and less expensive than having to drive around to the shops looking for food coloring with an approved vegan label on it…

The last thing to watch is the layering of repeat ingredients like cashews or starches as vegan substitutes for milk and cheese in a complex dish. Sorrell’s reliance on cashews and other nuts for vegan “milks” and “cheeses” is quite high and would be expensive for most people in the US. Nuts may be a cheaper commodity in Malta while some of the things we take for granted here might be more expensive or difficult to find.

Those cashew-based products turn up several times a recipe, especially in some of her pasta-type dishes. If you have nut allergies, you’d need to leave them out altogether. Some good-tasting non-nut alternatives without too much carb, fat or sodium might be helpful.  I can also easily see these ingredients  having a cumulative effect on the nutrition stats–calories, starches, fats, and sodium– even if, as Sorrell insists, her recipes are healthier than the meat- and egg-containing versions because they’re low in cholesterol and saturated fat.

But for sheer innovation coupled with appetizing photos, I have to hand it to Sorrell–these are the kinds of vegan dishes I’d like to see for holidays.

Visit the Mouthwatering Vegan Recipes blog and consider her book as a good present for your vegetarian and vegan friends or for yourself. I think you’ll be impressed.

3 Responses

  1. My husband loves cashews, but we mostly eat peanuts and almonds because of the cost. And even people who aren’t allergic to other nuts sometimes have trouble with cashews, b/c they have some of the same stuff that poison ivy does.

    I’m not sure why you’d buy name-brand fake meat — is that the only kind of preformed fake meat there? And why not just use tofu instead, or TVP (which is in a lot of cheap ground meat too)? Seitan seems meatier to me than soy anyway, and what about soy allergy/sensitivity?

    Pretty much anything would have to be cheaper, easier to find, and healthier than special vegan food coloring… which is probably petrochemicals.

    With you on the Mar/Vegemite. People, that’s a waste by-product that’s nothing but sodium, between the salt and the MSG. It is not a food. I don’t care if it’s vegan, I’m pretty sure it’s worse for you than cows or their output.

    Glad you had a good Thanksgivvukkah, and hope you also have a happy New Year.

    • Hey, thank you and happy Christmas and New Year! And having been dragged out of the way once and once only (only time I ever was stupid enough to stand around near cows in a dairy) microseconds before one of the little buggers let loose like a firehose exactly where my head would have been, I can say that almost nothing is worse than cows and their “output”. They’re vicious, I tell you. But Marmite does come close…

      Sorrell’s book is actually pretty good if complicated and microwave-free. I’m not vegan myself, and some of these endeavors are things I probably wouldn’t need to try, but they’re fun to read about anyway. So despite my utter jealousy of her camera setup, whatever it is, I could give her a pass on her preferred meat and cheese substitutes. I was just impressed that someone would do so much labwork for home cooking and still have it turn out looking like it would taste good.

      • I used to live near cows. Love the beef and the milk, not so much the byproduct — though it makes great fertilizer. But Marmite can’t even do that. Nor is it cute as a baby.

        I wonder if the fancy stuff tastes as good as it looks.

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