Pros: inventive recipes, tasty soups and salads
Cons: unusual ingredients, time-consuming recipes
Written by Sandra Bowens
Seems that everyone gives the way they eat a title these days. Personally, I am a localvore-flexitarian. While I enjoy a nice grass-fed beef burger on occasion, I start most days with a tofu fruit smoothie. I volunteered to review The Conscious Cook expecting a sort of localvore's take on healthy eating. To my surprise, it is a vegan cookbook.
Okay, I've been curious about this "movement." The notion of giving up eggs and cheese is a little hard to swallow, but I went in with an open mind. Author Tal Ronnen is billed as "one of the most celebrated vegan chefs working today," according to the book's jacket flap. He's even been on Oprah.
The Conscious Cook is a beautiful book. Plenty of photographs are included, each one presented on a stark white background that makes the food look attractive. Most of the recipes fit on one page or two so you don't have to do a lot of flipping.
Six chapters of recipes are anchored by sections on "thinking vegan" and "eating seasonally" along with dinner party menus and restaurant recommendations. Chef Tal interviews pioneers of vegan products like mayonnaise and quinoa. He also includes sections where other vegan chefs contribute their thoughts and recipes.
Without really intending to do so, I prepared a recipe from each chapter. First up was the Quinoa, Avocado, and Sweet Potato Timbale with Roasted Tomatillo Dressing. I started here because I already had most of the ingredients on hand. The recipe did call for "2 tomatillos in olive oil, skins removed." Do tomatillos come in jars? I've never seen that so I just bought two fresh ones and then realized that maybe he was calling that papery covering the skin.
The recipe also called for one cup of cooked quinoa. I wish he would have just included the cooking directions because as I got involved in preparing the other four steps, I ended up forgetting to measure out the one cup and used too much. This actually turned out okay because I think the quinoa would have been way overseasoned otherwise. I didn't really expect to like this salad. I sampled the individual components as I went along and didn't care much for the flavors. Layered all together, however, the results were delicious and just as pretty as could be.
Before I could make any of the other recipes, I needed to go shopping. Armed with a list of items like raw cashews, egg replacer, red palm oil and something called Earth Balance, which is vegan butter, I went to the local food co-op. I found the Veganaise and the Gardein, but they only had beef-style tips rather than the strips the recipe required. Never did locate the red palm oil even though I went to four different stores.
I wanted to prepare the Tomato Bisque and serve it with a side of Fresh-baked Focaccia with Caramelized Onions, but first I had to make something called Cashew Cream.
Cashew cream is "the magic ingredient that makes it easy to live without dairy," Chef Tal tells us at the beginning of The Conscious Cook. We soak two cups of raw cashews ("not pieces, which are often dry") in cold water overnight and then puree them. I was dying to see how this stuff worked.
But first the Fresh-baked Focaccia. What a disaster. Mixing the dough actually smoked the motor of my KitchenAid mixer and was so crumbly I never did get it all worked together after turning onto the counter to knead. It did rise so I went ahead. Without specifying a size for the baking sheet, the recipe says to stretch the dough to fill the pan and be about 1/4-inch thick, then dimple it all over without otherwise pressing the dough. No way was all that going to happen. What I had was tough as pasta dough. Nor was there any way I was going to waste my beautiful caramelized onions on this faux focaccia. The results were like a poorly made biscuit, heavy and dense, but it actually tasted okay if you like biscuits.
The Tomato Bisque was a different story. Thickened with the cashew puree, it was creamy and rich. The tomato flavor shone through with no odd taste from the cashews that I sort of expected.
It's difficult to find recipes in The Conscious Cook to prepare on a whim. Ingredients like hazelnut milk and probiotic powder challenge even a well-stocked pantry. Long preparation times as with the cashews soaking overnight or a four-hour perfuming of the sugar in a simple batch of cookies keep you from picking up the book for something to make now. I felt somewhat frustrated with so many recipes calling for the cashew cream.
The Gardein "Steak" Sandwich with Watercress, Red Pepper, and Horseradish Mayonnaise didn't require cashew cream but I had intended to use my focaccia as the bread so I had to make another dash to the supermarket bakery for ciabattas.
Gardein, we learn through one of the interview inserts, is "a blend of healthy veggies and grains slow-cooked to have the texture and nutrition of premium lean meat." It comes in versions that resemble chicken and beef.
I found it rather strange that for the steak sandwich we are instructed to wipe off the seasoning that comes on the Gardein so that we could toss it with the Steak Rub that is a part of the recipe. Maybe this is why the sandwich was so incredibly salty. It was incredibly messy, too, since the Horseradish Mayonnaise was thin and drippy. Oddly enough, I felt bloated after eating it, much like I feel when I let my husband talk me into eating fast food while we're on a road trip.
In order to avoid having to spend even more money on ingredients that weren't on hand, I made the substitutions Chef Tal suggests at the beginning of the Lemon Pistachio Cookies with Wild Blueberries. Still using the spelt flour, Earth Balance and Ener-G egg replacer from the original recipe my Orange Almond Cookies with Dried Cranberries baked up well. Thanks to the four-hour infusing of the orange to the sugars the cookies had a pleasant spicy taste without the addition of any spices.
The real focus of the book is to show that vegan cooking is more than just eating your vegetables. The Conscious Cook's chapter on entrees is determined to show that you can have a "center-of-the-plate plant-based protein." I expected a great deal from the Artichoke Ricotta Tortellini with Saffron Cream Sauce and was certain the two hour prep time would be worth the effort.
This recipe had issues. The pasta dough where tofu stands in for the eggs was nice enough but I nearly missed the crucial step of refrigerating it for 30 minutes because of the way the steps are presented. I wasn't sure when to remove the filling from the heat, before or after the addition of the cashew cream? Rolling the dough to the narrowest setting on the pasta machine resulted in pasta so thin that it couldn't hold the filling.
After whisking in the Earth Balance at the end of step 9, the saffron cream sauce had the appearance of choux paste before it takes the eggs. An addition of pasta water not called for in the recipe saved the day, sort of. The entire dish, even with the arugula and tomatoes added, had the cloying taste of cashews. I could only eat a few of the tortellini before I had enough.
If I were a dedicated vegan this might be a book that I would want on my shelf. The recipes for soups and salads seem easy and tasty, but many of the dishes require major investments of time. I'd also have to do some nutritional calculations because I felt like I was getting a great deal more fat and calories than I do from my normal, fairly vegetarian diet.
Quinoa, Avocado, and Sweet Potato Timbale with Roasted Tomatillo Dressing
For the quinoa:
1 cup quinoa, cooked in vegetable stock according to package directions and cooled to room temperature
1/2 jalapeno, minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of 1 lime
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
For the sweet potatoes:
1 sweet potato, peeled and cut into a 1/2-inch dice
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the dressing:
2 tomatillos in olive oil, skins removed
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon olive oil
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 teaspoon light agave nectar
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the tortilla strips:
2 corn tortillas, cut into 1/4-inch strips
1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning
2 avocados, diced
- Make the quinoa: Place all of the quinoa ingredients in a medium bowl and toss to combine.
- Make the sweet potatoes: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. In a small bowl, toss the sweet potatoes with the oil, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Spread in a single layer on a baking sheet and roast for 15 minutes, or until soft in the middle and lightly browned; be careful not to let the sweet potatoes burn.
- Make the dressing: Lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees F. In a small bowl, toss the tomatillos with 1 teaspoon of the oil. Place on a baking sheet and roast for 15 minutes. Transfer to a food processor, add the vinegar, cilantro, and agave nectar, and pulse to combine. With the motor running, pour in the remaining 3 tablespoons oil in a thin stream. Continue blending until emulsified. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Make the tortilla strips: Pour 2 inches of oil into a small, heavy pot and heat until the oil shimmers. Add the tortilla strips and fry until crisp and browned, 1 to 2 minutes. Drain on paper towels and sprinkle with the Cajun seasoning.
- Assemble the salads: Place a 3-inch ring mold in the center of one of 4 salad plates. Fill with 1/4 of the quinoa mixture and press down with a spoon to pack the mold, smoothing the top. Place 1/4 of the sweet potato pieces on top of the quinoa and press down gently. Top with 1/4 of the avocado and press down gently. Carefully remove the mold. Repeat with the remaining salad plates.
- Carefully place 2 tortilla strips parallel to each other about 1 inch apart on top of each timbale. Place 2 more tortilla strips perpendicular on top of those. Top the timbales with the microgreens and drizzle the dressing around the timbales.
Makes 4 servings
Prep time: 45 minutes.