Sunday, February 19, 2012

vegan summer: hits and misses

Petty grumbles about summer at the vegan coal face.

Vegan cookbooks

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.

Eating out

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?

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Blogger Anna said...

That's funny what you say about PPK and Veganomicon, because I grumble to myself about the conversions when I cook from those sources but I've never actually considered not cooking the recipes because of it. I usually have this metric converter open in another window whilst on american recipe blogs - - it's so quick and convenient, no calculators necessary! However I do agree that the constant conversions get tiring after a while. Imperial to metric doesn't bother me but CUPS and TABLESPOONS to metric does! I mean really, why would you measure solid ingredients by tablespoon (eg '16 tablespoons of margarine')- it seems like they are purposefully trying to create a mess in your kitchen!

3:12 pm  
Blogger K said...

I make lots of recipes from american cookbooks. I didn't know there was different in our measurements until recently though so always just followed it as it was listed and it was ok. However, I have recently noticed that our measuring spoons are american ones. I'm not a big fan of veganomnicon though so would recommend appetite for reduction or viva vegan or my latest fave blissful bites over it.

I only recently discovered how bad agave is. Unfortunately after buying a 1 ltr bottle. So will finish it and then look for alternatives. Its confusing though with all of the conflicting messages about stevia etc.

For fancy dining, I suggest shakahari or if you want super fancy Ezard or jacques reymond.

11:03 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

The SE is the stickler, I tend to fudge my way through recipes in my usual fashion when it comes to measurements, but I so get what you're saying Anna about some ridiculously inappropriate methods of measuring!

K - how could I forget to mention Shakahari? I've been going there since 1987! Our visit this summer though was quite frankly dreadful. It was so humid inside that eating was unpleasant and for once I didn't mind the fact that two courses could be ordered/served and eaten and out of the place in 50 minutes. I found the current menu underwhelming and struggled to get excited about choices. In fact the SE said "you could have made better" :( Not the old Shakahari I remember, so not as broken hearted as expected when I heard the Carlton restaurant is closing soon.

As for stevia...just too sweet for me. Sugar is sugar is sugar...a little of the real stuff now and then is my choice, rather than frequent amounts of alternatives.

8:09 am  
Anonymous Lucy said...

oh, i second not really loving veganomicon...and i had a particularly horrible bean and potato thing the other day that sounded great but was, well, horrid, from Vegan with a Vengence. ruined my beautiful home-grown beans and potatoes.


and yes. i didn't blog that embrasse dinner because, lovely though it looked, i came away feeling very hungry. and a wee bit bored by it.

loving the idea of tempeh bolognaise. p'raps you could show me one day?

9:59 am  
Blogger Johanna GGG said...

One of my veg peeves is the idea that because you are veg you don't need protein - I like your description of the garnish without the meat!!!

I am a bit lacksidasical about measuring so the amercian measurements don't bother me too much - I usually use the cups if given. But I agree with Anna about tbsp for butter (and last year finally saw in a photo that the American stick of butter has tablespoons marked on it).

But what really bugs me is recipes that have food brands in them - earth balance butter and happy meadows sage and apple sausages for example - in recipes. I have started using smoked paprika more instead of liquid smoke which I still don't have a supply of.

5:15 pm  
Anonymous Lesh@TheMindfulFoodie said...

You have no idea how much I relate to this post after having done the 30-day vegan challenge in November last year. It's so hard being a 'social' vegan. And I love catching up friends and family over a decent, whole food feed. Can't stand process-y mock meats (won't go near the stuff). I wrote about my experience here:
PS: I loathe agave too (for the same reasons you have mentioned here)
PPS: I have made tempeh bolognaise once before. It is yummy. recipe was from Jude Blereau's first cookbook, Wholefood. She makes it into a lasagne. But I just had it with polenta (instead of spaghetti)

9:52 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Tempeh bolognaise:
Make your favourite version of a napoli sauce. In another pan shallow fry small cubes of tempeh. A minute before serving, stir the cooked tempeh through the napoli sauce and toss through freshly cooked pasta.

PS I'm loving all your pet peeves :)

10:34 pm  
Anonymous lisa dempster said...

Amazing post, Gill. Personally I don't rate Veganomicon at all, I think there are far better cookbooks out there! (Especially on the healthful side of things!)

Interesting about agave. As you note it's HUGE on the healthy-eating vegan blogs... do you think maple syrup is better? rice malt syrup? something else?? So hard to find good information - that's why things like your newsletter is invaluable!

4:07 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

OK you've all convinced me we're not missing out on anything much in this veginomicon-free household. Phew!

Lisa - it's a bit like the stevia question. Is there ever a "good" sweetener? I think we're kidding ourselves that we can guzzle large amounts of anything sweet in the name of good health. I personally like maple syrup but can't 100% attest to it's health credibility. Like Agave, it too has to be boiled. But the fructose:sucrose ratio ( means it's processed normally like a sugar (versus an alcohol). Maple also has some trace minerals, though you'd have to eat a lot of it for any nutritional bonus. Another reason I like good quality maple syrup is that it's price means you use it sparingly!

8:00 am  
Blogger Cindy said...

I'll pipe up in (weak) defense of Veganomicon! I've found a few keepers amongst its pages - the chickpea cutlets, the no-mayo coleslaw, simple black beans, spicy tempeh 'sausage' pasta, apple peanut butter crumble slice. It got me into making sushi (and nutella!) at home. All that said, many of the recipes are quite heavy - not stuff I'm inspired by during an Aussie summer.

For a vegan meal out, I'd also suggest Mamasita if you can bear the wait. We loved the chickpea cutlets and there are plenty of vegan-friendly salads and sides too. And in the vein of Yong, there's a new cafe called Madame K's on Brunswick St that's very promising!

2:13 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Cindy - so many northern hemisphere cookbooks just don't cut it in a steamy, Australian summer. But glad to hear someone defending the book. Am sure it has some good points considering (elsewhere at least) it seems so popular.

Is Madame K's where the "herbivore" place that never opened is? I've been watching that spot all summer.

3:26 pm  
Blogger Cindy said...

Yes, it is the same spot! I have no idea what that (relatively new-looking) herbivore sign was about because the Madame K one is substantially different.

10:49 pm  
Anonymous LisaDempster said...

Actually Cindy is right - there are some gems in Veganomicon, but for me the hit rate has been low!

Agree with you on the sugar front Gill. I've been eating a
lot less and feel much better for it. I've tried stevia, but find it tastes weird...

7:15 am  

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