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Looks can be deceiving
on January 30, 2012
This book is full of gorgeous photos of architecturally interesting dishes of attractive, colorful foods. It made me drool just flipping through it in my local library. Every dish is completely vegan (no slip-ups on the authors' part such as including honey as an ingredient, which can be aggravating for strict vegans even to see in their vegan cookbooks). Lovely, accessible writing style and suggestions for wine pairings for every entree recipe in the book, combined with the appetizing photos, made me really jazzed to rush home and start planning some menus from the book.
Over a period of two weeks I made 14 of the recipes in Candle 79. I found the book a big disappointment after the promise of such a beautiful presentation and the rave reviews on Amazon.
First, I don't think I've ever eaten so much grease in so short a time--there are a LOT of recipes for things that are breaded and fried in a pool of oil. We all get our jones on for some greasy comfort food every now and then, but this was way over the top. Deep fried seitan cutlets, deep fried potato cakes, deep fried yuca cakes, deep fried polenta, deep fried onion rings, deep fried zucchini flowers, deep fried dumplings, deep fried pastries. By the end of my two-week trial of these recipes, I just couldn't bear the thought of another drop of oil for more than a week after. At least the stuffed poblano chile entree was not battered and fried... but is a recipe for stuffing poblano chiles even necessary? Which brings me to my next point--
Second, I'm not sure whom this book is meant for. On the one hand it's got instructions on how to make your own seitan from a bag of flour--now that's stuff that only the advanced vegetarians I know have ever tried doing, including myself. But then on the other hand so many of the recipes are for things I am certain advanced vegetarians do not need a recipe for. Guacamole, for instance. Or hummus. Or mushroom pate. Or risotto. Or spaghetti and seitan in tomato sauce. Some of the recipes that may sound more exotic or creative are still no-brainer-easy, such as the ginger-seitan dumpling recipe that calls for mushrooms, seitan, green onions, ginger, and store-bought wonton wrappers. Is a recipe necessary for that? Cooks with little experience may say yes, absolutely, a recipe is needed for a dish like that, which is totally cool and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. But the presentation of the book, along with the reputation of the restaurant itself as an upscale vegan dining experience, had me thinking these recipes were going to be something unusual and new and WOW-ing. They're not. They are remarkably visually pleasing takes on remarkably ordinary dishes. The range of spices, herbs, and flavors included in the ingredients lists is pretty narrow--there's not a lot of adventurousness here when you really get down and do the recipes. The book doesn't seem meant for advanced veg cooks, who likely would be bored by a lot of the recipes, nor does it seem to be for beginning veg cooks, who might not have enough experience under their belts yet to intuit how to turn these into exciting dishes.
Third, the ingredients lists, the quantities called for, and the techniques described too often lead to results not at all like the intended finished dish. Take the chocolate mousse tower as an example. Melted chocolate, silken tofu, soy milk, and maple syrup do not make a mousse-like texture no matter how long or how vigorously you whip them together and chill them. They make chocolate pudding. Tasty chocolate pudding, sure, but to make a mousse tower that you can slip out of a mold and have it retain its shape you need a little agar whipped in with the other ingredients (but not so much that you end up with chocolate "flan"). A cook with little or no experience with vegan cooking likely wouldn't know that just from reading the recipe. An example of erroneous quantities, or at least of poor technique description, is the cashew cheese for the cashew cheese-stuffed yuca cakes. One cup of soaked cashews and another cup of onions and leeks needs more than a Tbsp of olive oil and a Tbsp of lemon juice to blend down into something smooth. Blenders need a certain amount liquid to blend the solids into, or you just end up w/ chopped nuts and onions that never blend smooth no matter how many times you pulse, stop, poke everything down w/ a spatula, and start again.
Finally, following from my comment about the store-bought wonton wrappers, there are too many instances in these recipes of store-bought/pre-made ingredients, given the snazzy upscale hand-crafted cuisine suggested by the visuals of this book. Don't get me wrong--I'm all for short cuts when you've got limited time and/or energy to do a bunch of cooking. But I'm referring to things that are easily made from scratch, like vegan mayonnaise or things that act as vegan substitutes where eggs would be called for in a "traditional" recipe. Although quite a few of the recipes call for vegan mayo, the only mention of making your own is in the Glossary section, where you are directed to buy the other Candle book (Candle Cafe Cookbook) to get the recipe. Where eggs are called for in "traditional" recipes, these recipes call for a commercial product called "Ener-G Egg Replacer"--which is just tapioca and potato starches, some basic leavening (meaning high pH, like baking soda), some acid to activate the leavening, and some emulsifiers/thickeners. Why not just say that, and provide an easy recipe for your making your own from stuff you've already got in the pantry? Or use one of the other well-tested, tried-and-true egg substitutes like soaked ground flax seeds or silken tofu or even a mashed banana depending on what you're making. There's nothing wrong with preferring just to pick up a box of some ready-made ingredient from the store. It's just that it seems odd that a book that tells you how to make seitan from scratch has you buying ready-made things like Ener-G Egg Replacer when it's easy to make similar things at home.
I really wanted to like this book, and I really thought I was going to after ogling the beautiful pictures. As it turns out, I am very glad I checked it out from the library and gave it a test run first, since I know now it is not a book I would cook from again. Visually, it's a stellar thing. In all other ways gustatory, unfortunately it's just not very appealing. I have no doubt the people that own and run the restaurant Candle 79 are lovely, delightful, kind, conscious, wonderful people. I know for a fact they create visually stunning photographs of food. Those things alone are not good reasons to fall in love with this collection of deceptively uninteresting recipes.