Saturday, July 5, 2008

Vegan Fire and Spice: Just What the Tastebuds Ordered

Robin Robertson’s new cookbook, Vegan Fire and Spice, is garnering rave reviews from all over. And with good reason. The dishes are easy to make, use commonly-available fresh ingredients, and offer a splendid array of tastes.

Many of us who have been vegetarian or vegan for a while reach a point when we want to do more than order Indian take-out. We want to make Indian take-out. Not to mention African, Caribbean, South American, and more. We want to shake up our own kitchens by bringing in different techniques and flavors. This book promises to give us the means. The book is a reworking of Robertson’s Some Like it Hot, with all recipes veganized and 25 additional recipes added. It is also the first to be published by Robertson’s new enterprise, Vegan Heritage Press. I recently tested several of the recipes from different parts of the book and all were successful. Some made it to a coveted place on my sure-to-make-again list because they are simply too good.

The cookbook is divided into sections, each section a geographical region that is known for spicy and hot dishes. When you open to that section there is a list of recipes, categorized by “appetizers”, “soups”, and so on. The recipes, then, are not listed in their entirety in one place. The index is complete, however, so if you are looking for a specific recipe and don’t remember where it comes from you will find it there. It makes sense to look within a region for a menu of dishes rather than take a chance on mixing cultures, picking one from Italy and another from China, for example. For this reason I find the arrangement agreeable.

Each recipe is on its own page. No sharing. I prefer this standard, as it’s easier to find the recipe and to follow it.

There are no pictures, other than on the cover. I love pictures but I appreciate the economies of leaving them out. It adds to the adventure, too.

The recipes are easy to make. I admit to being an occasionally ambitious cook, happy at times to create complex dishes that take specialized skills. Most of the time, though, I prefer to put together meals quickly and easily and know they will turn out right even when some parts go wrong or I have to substitute some ingredients. Forgivable recipes, I call them, that’s what I look for.

From my experiments with Fire and Spice, I believe that’s what we have here: forgivable recipes. When I made the Senegalese soup (p. 119) the first time I got distracted and burned the mix of onions and celery. I didn’t want to start over so I scraped out the less-burned parts and dumped them in another pan and continued on. I suspect the soup would have been better if I’d had the full contingent of onion and celery and none of it was burned but it was nonetheless delicious. When I made the vegetable pakoras I didn’t chop the cauliflower enough, and I made the mistake of throwing in the cauliflower before I had the flour and water mixed. But I soldiered on and although the pakoras were not beautiful they were tasty indeed. Way too tasty, considering I made a full batch and there was only the one of me in the house.

Some of the mistakes I made came about because the recipes are not always as specific as they could be. One recipe calls for two Granny Smith Apples, another for a head of cauliflower, another for one or two yams or sweet potatoes. Not all of these recipes specify the size of these vegetables or an alternative measure, like weight or number of cups. In my experience some vegetables and fruits can vary dramatically in size. Sometimes the directions lack a little: the pakora recipe says to mix enough water into the flour mix to “make a batter”. But how thick?

And sometimes the timing is off. When I made the Chickpea and Green Bean Curry (p. 158) I had to make my dinner guest wait because it took much longer for the green beans to cook than estimated. My beans were fresh and cut according to directions and I think they were typical of what you would find in a grocery vegetable section, so I’d suspect my experience would be typical. Most of the time I did find the time estimates within the recipes to be accurate, however. What I would have appreciated, though, would have been estimates of time to make the entire dish.

Minor gripes. Most of the recipes do list ingredients by weight or cups and most of the directions are clear and unmistakable in intent.

The recipes call for fresh vegetables and fruits most of the time. Occasionally they require canned diced tomatoes or canned beans, but most of the ingredients are fresh, as they would be in their native countries. This means you do need to do a little preparation. The good news is that most of this preparation can be done ahead of time, as it would be in a restaurant if you were the sous chef (according to Wikipedia the more correct term may be commis chef, one who prepares vegetables unaided). The better news is that this is basic prep, nothing fancy, nothing beyond you.

Should you be new to kitchen equipment or preparation, though, there is a helpful section at the beginning of the book that tells you all you will need to know. There is also a section on the nature of spices, chiles, and other “exotic” ingredients. I inserted the quotation marks because seitan is about as exotic as they get here, meaning you should be able to find most of the ingredients, or reasonable substitutions, in any well-stocked grocery store, and the few remaining can be obtained at a natural foods store or even online.

Using fresh ingredients means the dishes will taste as good as they should. It’s worth using the freshest you can find because you’ll notice the difference.

Even though I see this book as the guide to an adventure the seasoned vegan is going to want to take, a brand new vegan cook can confidently prepare these delicious dishes and be proud.

No comments: