Vegan Secret Supper by Merida Anderson

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?

How it all Vegan (10th Anniversary Ed.) by Tanya Barnard and Sarah Kramer

A review of a vegan recipe book  seems to demand an upfront declaration of the reviewer’s dietary position. So: I’m a vegetarian (never eaten meat or fish or fowl)  who has flirted with but never quite committed to veganism. I don’t do leather or cosmetics tested on animals, and I don’t touch those red M&Ms colored with crushed insects. Avoiding eggs is pretty easy if you read ingredient labels, which I do, ever since a seemingly innocuous tomato juice was revealed to contain anchovies.  But it all goes pear-shaped when it comes to dairy–I find tea spiked with soy or rice milk unbearable. More tellingly, I’ve never been quite convinced of the moral urgency to skip dairy–if the cows aren’t destined for slaughter but live peaceful and healthy lives, it doesn’t seem so bad, really, to take a bit of their organic, cruelty-free milk.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s turn to the book. First off, a 10th anniversary for a vegan recipe book is a victory for herbivores everywhere. It wasn’t so long ago that we were  expected to shut up and eat iceberg lettuce; just who did we think we were, checking that our minestrone didn’t have chicken stock and asking for no bacon bits in our Caesar Salads?  That this book is successful is clearly cause to celebrate, and especially so, because it’s a bloody good book. It makes its ethical case without  being preachy, recognizing that each of us arrives at our moral comfort zones at our personal velocities. The tone is conversational and chatty and filled with fun asides “please lock me up so I can eat my way to freedom, straight through these fantastic chocolate chip bars.”  At its heart, this is a book for anyone who enjoys cooking and eating flavorful food, and it’ll appeal  to omnivores and herbivores alike. And, and, and,  the authors are the last word in cool. I mean, just look at them.

How It All Vegan 10th Anniversary Edition by Sarah Kramer

Kramer writes in the foreword “I have countless fan mail from people telling me that they purchased the book without even looking inside because they saw us on the cover and were excited to see someone like themselves reflected back. I also have a few letters from mothers  who ripped off the cover, or covered the book with paper so we wouldn’t influence their kids with our tattoos and piercings.”

Anyone for Tea? by Sarah Kramer

Yes, I have something of a girl crush on Sarah Kramer, she of the piercings and tattoos and Cleopatra eyeliner.

How it all Vegan is divided into user-friendly  categories such as breakfast, sauces and spreads, entrees etc. etc. The recipes all seem to to demand many many ingredients, but they  are nicely laid out, and the cooking itself is uncomplicated. Best, they are written in a sensible, down-to-earth style suitable for dodgy cooks of my ilk. The mains aren’t a poor man’s meat substitute, but would hold their own at a Thanksgiving table. As might be expected, the desserts are the most substitution-based recipes of the lot.  There’s a handy index of alternatives for commonly used animal products–I used the suggested 3 tbsp applesauce instead of an egg in my brownies, and it worked.

The book ends with tips on making vegan household products, including mouthwash and baby wipes and bug repellent. There’s also an excellent index of ingredients that contain animal products. You may not be convinced about going vegan after reading this book, but you can’t cite a dearth of foods or resources  as a reason anymore.

I wish though, that there were more pictures of the food.  I’m surely not the only one to read recipe books like others read fashion magazines, and eight full-page photographs–two of which feature (the admittedly toothsome) Kramer–just aren’t enough for this book.  The photos are all clumped together in the middle, and you have to go back and forth to match them to the recipes. And I think they could have really selected more interesting recipes to photograph. Two pictures of peppermint patties? One for a generic glop-on-the plate cilantro ginger tempeh toss? The one photo that actually got me moaning was the butter tarts.


Better Than Butter Tarts by Sarah Kramer

I’d never tried these tarts till I came to Canada. Oh, my wasted life.

Better Than Butter Tarts

1 cup raisins
1 tbsp vegan margarine
3/4 cup sugar
2 tbsp ground flax seeds
3 tbsp water
1 tsp vanilla extract
12 unbaked pre-made pastry shells (3 inch)
1/2 cup walnuts, finely chopped

Preheat oven to 400F. Put raisins into a medium bowl and cover with very hot water. Set aside for 10 minutes. Drain hot water off raisins and add margarine, sugar, flax seeds, water, and vanilla. Stir together well. Spoon 1 tbsp of mixture evenly into each tart shell. Sprinkle each tart with finely chopped walnuts. Bake for 15 minutes and serve at room temperature. Makes 12 tarts.


How it all Vegan (10th Anniversary edition) by Tanya Barnard and Sarah Kramer

Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010

Genre: Cookbook