You can keep your membership to the Bilderberg Group; I’ve finally found a club I’d like to join. The Vegan Secret Supper (VSS) is a dining club run by Canadian chef Mérida Anderson, who engineers awe-inspiring vegan meals. Here’s a sample menu from the VSS Sunday Supper blog.
Back bean soup with coconut cream
Roast baby parsnips with shaved fennel, avocado, cilantro and pine nut parmesan
Hibiscus and beet empenadas with serrano mole, sunflower cream and sweet potato puree
Pecan and fig shortbread with brown rice caramel and chocolate truffle covered in dark chocolate with candied orange and fig preserve.
But the club is restricted (as clubs are), and it’s only the lucky dwellers of Vancouver, New York and Montreal who get to sample these meals. Well, the last two cities are each a seven-hour drive away, and Vancouver might as well be Vanuatu for all the good it does to me, so I asked for a review copy of the VSS cookbook from Arsenal Pulp Press hoping to replicate some recipes in my own kitchen.
On reading this book, it became clear(er) to me why I’ll never find employment as a chef. The meals I cook tend to be ladle-friendly sloppy gloppy one-dish wonders that are really hard to mess up, and when I do, they can be resuscitated with a heartfelt squeeze of lemon and a pat of butter. My food usually tastes pretty good and tends to be very nutritious, but no-one would call it sophisticated or beautiful. Hearty, rustic, comforting, yes, but too many of my dishes resemble a glob of something with chunks of other things poking through.
Vegan Secret Supper insists that the ingredients be thoughtfully chosen and carefully assembled, and the dishes be lovingly prepared. It isn’t a book for novice cooks, and these aren’t meals you dish up while pulling apart Lego with your teeth for your implacable five-year-old. Anderson’s meals are intelligent, complex, and stunningly plated–the starters and mains are all about this with this and this and this (spiced peanut and yam soup with pickled string beans and sweet coconut bread. Hazelnut-crusted portobellos with caramelized fennel parsnip mash, radicchio marmalade and balsamic port reduction). Also, there’s a lot of while something is happening, do this. Two big danger flags for a lazy, inept cook like me. My husband, however, was completely taken by the recipes and can’t stop admiring their creativity, and he plans to try them out, for he thrives on activities like zesting lemons and marinating ingredients the night before and infusing flavors into oils. (Crazy, right?)
The desserts would be fairly easy for anyone who is familiar with standard baking techniques–it’s then mostly a question of substituting vegan ingredients. (But I’m not a baker–I use my oven mostly for roasting veggies and making lasagna. ) In sum, my dream restaurant would feature just about all of Chef Merida’s dishes, but my kitchen might give it a miss. What really worked for me was the section on VSS pantry staples. Chipotle-apple reduction, quick pickled beets (yes, quick), and the carrot- tamarind chutney all look achievable and delicious. There was a recipe for sour cream (with coconut cream and lemon) that I know I’ll eat by the bucket.
(A note about this book’s layout: the last recipe book I reviewed was also from Arsenal Pulp, who apparently specialize in cookbooks by beautiful edgy crush-worthy tattooed vegan chefs, but I remember feeling very disappointed that the book had a sparse little clump of photographs of the goodies. This one has photographs galore–and then some more. No complaints at all.)
And best, it’s all vegan! The lack of dairy or eggs becomes inconsequential very soon; who would miss animal ingredients in a menu of such variety and complexity? There are many fun surprises; imagine devouring a crème brûlée only to discover the “cream” is sweet potato. I love how Anderson elevates humble vegetables– beets, butternut squash and pumpkins all come up trumps in the most unexpected places. She uses a lot of fresh herbs and spices–each of these dishes must explode with flavor on your tongue.
I’ve concluded that while I probably won’t actually attempt any of the mains, I’ve definitely found a lot of inspiration. The condiments and ice-creams and soups are all relatively easy, and quite delightful. This book would be a lovely gift for the sort of cook who takes pleasure in the prep work, and it is a pleasure to read on its own terms. But enough with the review! What I really want is a VSS club in Toronto so I can taste Anderson’s cooking. Oh lovely Mérida, won’t you please consider visiting my corner of the vegan world?