vegan summer: hits and misses
Petty grumbles about summer at the vegan coal face.
With barely 1% of Australians claiming to be vegan (according to a 2010 Newspoll survey) the market for local vegan cookbooks is slim to say the least. The bulk of recipe books available are American and that leads to the perennial problem of measurements. I love PPK and would likely buy Veganomicon if it did a metric edition. Despite being more than competent at maths, adjusting for English versus US cups and pounds for grams is exhausting after a while. The SE is a stickler for following a recipe and in the end the conversions really got to him.
I did however make PPK orange ginger baked tofu, because there was a heck of a lot of tofu consumed over summer and I’d never baked it before. In the end the quantities were a total guestimate, not only because of the imperial to metric conversion (it gets so tiring checking every single ingredient) but because I was using a smaller block of tofu so resizing each one was another issue. Fortunately it wasn’t a cake and I can read a recipe and get the general gist of where it’s going. I also had no wine open and as the SE is also currently a non-drinker, so I modified it further by using about a tablespoon of dry sherry instead. The alcohol gives the flavour of the sauce a bit of depth but I think mirin could do a similar thing for those with a grog-free kitchen. Despite all that the dish was a hit.
As an aside I tracked down the title of an Australian vegan cookbook and was excited to discover that it was being reprinted and that the authors were publishing their second cookbook. This is only available from a few outlets in and around Sydney as it’s self-published. But despite having a website, they don’t seem keen to distribute online. I contacted them with the location problem, mentioned Fishpond being useful (they have a number of vanity titles in their catalogue) but they responded by reposting the interstate options. It’s really hard to support an initiative that wants to shoot itself in the foot.
The website for the aforementioned book showed promise. The one sweet recipe they shared had something going for it. That being it didn’t use agave syrup. Oh boy, don’t get me started on this stuff. Oops too late! Rant alert.
Agave syrup continues to feature like a vegan star both in recipes and every vegan-friendly eatery. I have no idea why so many health oriented eateries keep pushing the stuff. It’s been known for years that agave nectar/syrup has a similar molecular structure to the dreaded high fructose corn syrup and is metabolised by the liver in a similar, potentially hepato-toxic way. By my reckoning it’s just an overpriced, and potentially harmful, fad. On top of this it seems to appear in many sweet raw foods recipes. It’s not raw. The substance that becomes what we know as agave nectar or syrup begins life in the cactus as a starch, which is boiled to be transformed into the syrup. This process alters the molecular structure, producing a high fructose liquid. The original indigenous “nectar” was also either fermented or boiled. It’s not a case of tapping a ready to use liquid straight from the plant.
Before the vegan summer I’d been excited to attend a special vegan dinner at Embrasse. While it was a lovely night, with elegant food and great company, it left me wanting. The minimalist style of the cuisine had not taken into account the degree of hunger the diner is left with when the morsels of animal protein are left out of the degustation. Imagine a multi-course dinner where you get only to eat the garnishes? Knowing the SE’s devotion to filling his gut, I figured that the vegan options at many glamorous omni restaurants would end up being a waste of money, so when not cooking at home the local veg*n haunts were visited on high rotation.
Despite some delectable meals, by the end of six weeks I was over the grunge factor. Are there not elegant vegans, who enjoy a bit of linen, a decent wine list and to be skillfully waited on once in a while? Having suffered a lack of choice in fine dining, even with fish and eggs on my regular diet, I just couldn’t face forking out big dollars for a potential disappointment, or to gorge on something fishy and fabulous but watch the SE miss out. Accordingly we opted to support the eateries that make an effort to cater for those who don’t eat meat. This meant Yong Green, The Veggie Bar and Munsterhaus in high rotation (plus a couple of our local omni Asian joints where we chomped our way through a lot of vegetarian fried rice and stir fries with tofu and vegetables).
The SE had been lukewarm about Yong Green when it first opened but all that changed once he became vegan. This was his new spiritual home and he’d rip through three courses without blinking, loving every bite. We also became reacquainted with the Dragon Bowl (the first thing we’d eaten there a couple of years ago) and the combo of kimchi/rice/tofu and salads became a home cooked summer staple.
My relationship with the Veggie Bar goes back a long way, to a date in 1988 in fact. It’d just opened in the small corner site, there was no liquor licence but the rather gorgeous owner at the time gave us teacups to surreptitiously sip our illicit BYO wine from. In the early days I fell in love with the tofu burgers and was introduced to tempeh bolognaise, something I really must make at home again. But a bit like the date, while we hung around together for a while and shared the odd episode of deliciousness, it was never going to be a long-term infatuation.
Going back to the Veggie Bar after so many years was a bit like catching up with an old boyfriend. There was the rush of reconnection and reminiscence but after a couple of meetings you tend to realise why you broke up in the first place. On a warm summer’s afternoon we stopped in for a quiet juice and the best hommos (raw! sprouted!) I’ve ever eaten. How I marvelled about the gluten-free seedy crackers and craved more! The next visit at 6.30 on a Monday night found us in a noisy, chaotic and rather annoying restaurant, eating food that we really could have made at home.
Munsterhaus has been a weekday lunch favourite ever since it opened. I’m just a little addicted to the glass noodle salad and tofu a hundred different ways. But alas, it’s not a night dining option and the hard seats never make you want to linger.
After six weeks I was well fed but a little miserable. A restaurant with not just one but a number of enticing vegan options on their standard menu, is a rare find. Spontaneous eating out became a bit of a chore.
The SE is back in Sydney and I have to admit my standby proteins, eggs and tuna, have snuck back into my weekly eating in his absence. I can see a day when I ditch tuna, if not all seafood, but I still love the handy egg hit. It's so bloody easy and satisfying. Although my vegetable intake has always been higher than the national average, I'm still consuming even more than before the summer of vegan cooking. I've got into the habit of upping my intake with fresh vegetable juices and amazed that the second hand juicer I snagged nearly 23 years ago is still up to the job.
On the downside, and here I'm not claiming that 6 weeks of mainly vegan eating is the biggest culprit, I discovered that I'm quite severely anaemic. It first began as a child when I'd have meat at least twice a day. Since animal flesh was dropped from my diet in 1984 the deficiency has come and gone. I have no desire to ever eat meat but perhaps the fish and eggs have helped kept the problem at bay, a little.
What are your vegan loves and peeves around Melbourne?