February 26, 2015


The Gluten-Free Vegetarian Family Cookbook: 150 Healthy Recipes for Meals, Snacks, Sides, Desserts, and More. By Susan O’Brien. Da Capo. $17.99.

     With all the health-focused food books out there, you would think that by now authors and editors would know the difference between “healthy” and “healthful.” No such luck. A “healthy” recipe would be one that is robust, pink-cheeked and probably lifts weights when not doing cardio. Being “healthy” is an attribute of the thing itself. Something that is “healthful” is good for someone or something else. In other words, if you stop eating bacon-wrapped deep-fried pork lard and instead have some kale and quinoa, you are eating a more-healthful dish – because it is better for you. It is not healthier. It is more healthful.

     And now that we have gotten past the “healthy recipes” error in the subtitle of The Gluten-Free Vegetarian Family Cookbook, we can consider how many other standard elements of food can be left out until everyone is essentially grazing on naturally grown grass. Well, no one is quite calling for that, yet, but it is certainly true that advocates of removing certain traditional elements of many people’s diets are now saying that even more such elements ought to disappear. Gluten-free is not enough, argues Susan O’Brien, author of several previous books about gluten-free eating. Gluten-free plus vegetarian is the way to go.

     Leaving out the sociopolitical elements of this sort of dietary recommendation, readers should be very careful about adopting a gluten-free eating regimen unless they have been diagnosed with celiac disease. There is strong medical and scientific evidence that gluten-free diets are often lacking in vitamins, minerals and fiber. Reports on the risks of gluten-free eating from sources as diverse as Scientific American, WebMD, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and even Fitness magazine will not convince people who believe there is some vast conspiracy to force people to consume and be consumed by the evils of gluten. But those with a smidgen of objectivity should look into those reports seriously: unlike authors of books about the gluten-free life, the scientists studying dietary habits have no particular axes to grind and no additional personal profit to be made by taking a pro-gluten or anti-gluten position.

     Assuming, though, that a reader has celiac disease and therefore should look into a gluten-free diet, O’Brien’s book provides some interesting options for going gluten-free because you must – and vegetarian because you want to. As a guide to preparing food meeting both gluten-free and vegetarian criteria, the book is fine. O’Brien provides the usual list of foods to have always on hand: sorghum flour, chia seeds, arrowroot, grapeseed oil, Earth Balance non-GMO spread, mung beans, seaweed, guar gum, kelp flakes and many more ingredients that will be unfamiliar to the vast majority of cooks but sensible for those at whom this book is targeted. The book’s readers will also presumably not be thrown by the large ingredient list for foods that most people would regard as simple. “Best Sunrise Breakfast Muffins,” for example, require 18 ingredients, including coconut milk (“not canned”), coconut palm sugar and almond meal or flour. “Raw Avocado and Corn Soup with Cilantro Pesto” has 20 ingredients, among them chopped raw cashews, maple syrup and chopped serrano pepper. This book is best for people who are not only determined to eat foods of the type O’Brien describes but also have plenty of time available to prepare them – and, indeed, enjoy spending time in the kitchen (although she does label some recipes “quick & easy”). There are recipes here for breakfasts, salads, main dishes, side dishes, desserts, and even snacks, with interesting and often appealing or intriguing names such as “Mochi Waffles,” “Jicama and Fruit Slaw,” “Tempeh and Veggie Bourgignon,” “Tandoori-Style Tofu with Sesame Tahini Sauce,” “Sauerkraut Stir-Fry with Kelp Noodles,” “Sesame Tahini and Lime Dressing,” and “Delicious Protein-Packed Strawberry-Blueberry-Tofu Smoothie.” O’Brien has certainly managed to assemble an extensive list of foods that have both gluten-free and vegetarian characteristics, and she couples the recipes with some useful information – for example, “Wine and hard liquor are…gluten-free, although there are many people who believe otherwise.” For people with an interest in gluten-free food that also fits vegetarian diets, The Gluten-Free Vegetarian Family Cookbook is certainly a useful guide. But the fact remains that gluten-free eating has become a fad rather than a matter of health and wellness, and there are dangers to switching to a gluten-free diet just because “it seems more healthful” (not “healthier”!) rather than because of a medical diagnosis that makes it necessary. O’Brien does not address this issue – her book is one of advocacy rather than considered balance – so readers should seriously think about it on their own before making significant changes in what they eat.

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