October 03, 2013
(+++) COMFORTABLY VEGAN
The Cheesy Vegan: More Than 125 Plant-Based Recipes for Indulging in the World’s Ultimate Comfort Food. By John Schlimm. Da Capo. $19.99.
Remember The Farmer in the Dell? That’s the kids’ rhyme with the line, “The cheese stands alone.” And so it does, for many people: cheese is delicious on its own as well as being a wonderful complement to everything from elegant dishes to French fried potatoes, hamburgers and macaroni. But cheese is an animal product and therefore a problem for vegans, whose philosophical commitment to their lifestyle has left them striving to accept tofu, seitan (wheat gluten) and other cheese substitutes, or led them to eat vegan cheese that has neither the flavor nor the mouth feel of the real thing.
John Schlimm’s The Cheesy Vegan intends to do something about that. Schlimm may be exaggerating in calling cheese “the world’s ultimate comfort food” – has he somehow missed out on chocolate? – but certainly cheese is a comfort food, and also a staple of many people’s diet and an excellent addition to the food choices of many more.
Schlimm’s basic recommendation is that vegans make their own cheeses, which he describes as “versatile and fun to make.” These are not going to be tempting to non-vegans, and many of the ingredients will not be ones that non-vegans are familiar with, but this book is not intended to convert people to a vegan lifestyle, as many vegan-focused books are – it is aimed at helping those who are already committed to living as vegans enjoy a type of food that they would not otherwise be able to eat. So you will find a cheddar recipe here that uses agar powder or flakes, cashews and pimientos; a mozzarella one that includes rolled oats and tahini; a brie recipe using “crumbled firm silken tofu,” agar powder and smooth tahini; a Swiss one calling for cashews, almond slivers, soy milk and miso; and so on. These are really hands-on recipes, and sometimes hands-in ones: “Using your hands, crumble the tofu into a medium-size bowl. Continue mixing with your hands until the tofu achieves the texture of large-curd cottage cheese.” (This is from the cottage-cheese recipe.)
Schlimm is well aware that the absence of cheese can be an issue for vegans and would-be vegans: “The mere mention of cream cheese sends the imagination in so many delicious directions at once, from breakfast straight through to that midnight snack,” he writes at one point. But he argues that his cheese-creation recipes will give vegans substitutes that will be more acceptable to them than what they have been able to eat before. And of course the book is not entirely about making your own cheese – most of it is actually filled with recipes for using various vegan cheeses in a wide variety of ways. Indeed, cheese creation gets only one of the 10 chapters here, the other nine being devoted to “Breakfast & Brunch,” “Sides,” “Sandwiches,” “Appetizers & Snacks,” and so forth. There is even a “Mac ’n’ Cheese” chapter with seven recipes (one featuring ground cashews and truffle oil, another called “Parmesan-Cheddar-Swiss Skillet Macaroni”). And yes, there is a “Cheesecake” chapter as well, including creations that are unlikely to appease the sweet tooth of non-vegans but that certainly sound tempting within the vegan context: “Pecan-Crusted Cheesecake Bars” and “White Chocolate Cheesecake Petit Fours,” for example.
Vegan eating is a choice that limited numbers of people make, generally for sociopolitical and philosophical rather than dietary reasons – although there are plenty who argue for it on health grounds as well. To non-vegans, the vegan form of sustenance looks like a real sacrifice, and apparently some vegans feel that way as well, which is why there are books such as The Cheesy Vegan. The underlying idea of Schlimm’s book, and others of the same type, is that vegans can fulfill whatever rationale they have for the way they eat and live without giving up the flavors and food experiences that non-vegans enjoy. The proposition is arguable, but certainly books like Schlimm’s make a good argument for it when it comes to specific types of foods and food groups.