Category Archives: Vegetarian cookbooks

186 Cookbooks – No. Just no.

Still Life with Menu by Mollie Katzen

A keeper? OH no.

Another book that sounds really good…until you try to cook from it. Still Life with Menu is a vegetarian cookbook with, well, menus – instead of the usual cookbook structure of recipes organized by type or by main ingredient, this is the kind of book that gives you lots and lots of menus, with the recipes for each meal grouped together. It’s a wonderfully convenient type of organization if you want to make that whole meal just as the author planned it; not so much if you’re curious about what you could do with some particular ingredient, or you’re trying to decide what to make for dessert.

Yes, but no matter how a cookbook is organized, the first question is always “Would you want to eat this food?” I decided to try the Banana Cheese Empanadas (Latin American turnovers), because at a quick glance the recipe sounded easy, appealing and unusual.

Well. It was unusual. I’m not sure it was ever tested, though.

The first problem crops up when you start to make the dough for the turnovers – it’s just flour and water (well, a bit of salt). And not enough water. Moistening all the flour was impossible. Bad start. (I checked a couple of Mexican cookbooks, and found that their empanada recipes called for pastry; flour and water, yes, but also some fat. Maybe Katzen was following the low-fat-no-matter-what approach; but, as you’ll see when we get to the cooking instructions, probably not.

Then I really read the instructions for preparing the filling. You’re given detailed instructions on exactly how to cut a banana into 8 pieces – cut it crosswise, cut it lengthwise, got to get this right. And then the recipe tells you to “cut a 1/8 inch piece of the banana into several small strips”. (1/8 inch is about 3 mm.)

That’s just silly. I assumed that what Katzen really meant was “cut 1/8 of the banana into small strips”, and did that. (Well, actually, I used a quarter of a “nino” banana for each empanada, since I was only making half the recipe.)

You’re given two choices for cooking the empanadas – bake or fry. If you’re going to bake them, you’re supposed to use a couple of tablespoons of butter to grease the pan and to brush the tops of the turnovers; that’s a lot of butter, really, which would have been better used mixed into the dough. Oh well. By this time, I was annoyed enough to stick to exactly what the directions said.

So I daubed two of the empanadas with butter and baked them for the specified 15 minutes. Meanwhile, I melted a little more butter and fried the other two.

Frying worked better than baking, though the fried empanadas (above) were much too greasy for my taste. Also, since you’re shallow-frying them, you have to stand them on edge in the pan to get the sides of the turnovers cooked.

The baked ones (right) were hard on the outside but barely browned, and the dough was so gluey I didn’t want to eat it. The fried ones were less inedible; at least they were cooked through. Unfortunately, the filling wasn’t very good; some bites tasted of just melted cheese, which was okay but it’s less work to make a toasted cheese sandwich; some tasted vaguely of cooked banana; some tasted of nothing.

I had intended to try Katzen’s spinach souffle too. After the empanada disaster, though, I re-read the souffle recipe, paying more attention to the fact that her approach to souffles relies on putting cottage cheese and buttermilk through a food processor. That’s not the usual method for souffles, but I would have given her souffle technique a chance if the empanadas had been good. At this point, I think I’ll skip it. Especially since I seem to have tried one of her salad dressings a while ago – I didn’t leave any notes on what went wrong there, just a scribbled “no”.

I guess I should be thrilled to announce that I can get another book off the shelves.

186 cookbooks – Well, the cover’s pretty

Both front and back. But I should have read the endorsements on the back of the cover more skeptically. “The food on Yamuna’s table looks great!” says Deborah Madison. Yes, she goes on to rave about the flavors and creativity. But I really ought to remember that when people praise cookbooks for pretty food, they’re likely to belong to the we-eat-with-our-eyes (and gum up our eyelashes?) school; the folks who brought the world mock guacamole made from mashed peas. Hey, as long as it’s the same color, isn’t that good enough?

Not hardly. Pretty food is nice, but there are several things that matter more. Is it healthy? Can you prepare it and have time for the rest of your life? How much does it cost? And the question of all questions, how does it taste? (In this case, not very good.)

Worse yet, the recipe I tried from Yamuna’s Table didn’t even end up looking pretty. I tried the “Cheesy Corn-stuffed Crepes with Ancho Chili – Tomato Sauce”. I like Indian food (and Mexican food, a closer match for this dish), and the recipe is full of good stuff – corn, cilantro, cheese, potatoes, tomatoes, cumin, pumpkin seeds, lime. And yet it came out of the oven a flaking, disintegrating mess that tasted blandly awful.

Part of the problem was her restaurant-style presentation. Usually, when you roll crepes or tortillas around a filling and oven-bake them, it helps to top the dish with a sauce that prevents things from drying out. I suppose that would have been too ordinary. Anyhow, we’re told to “spray the crepes with oil and bake until the stuffing is heated through”, then plate them in a puddle of the tomato – ancho sauce. The texture was not pleasant.

And neither was the taste, and this is where I find this cookbook useless.  Vegetarian food is fine. Food that avoids other specific ingredients is fine – one of my friends is a very good cook who just can’t eat onions or garlic. But the more things you exclude from your diet, the more challenging it is to come up with dishes that are enjoyable, especially for people who don’t share your list of restrictions.

What I didn’t realize when I bought Yamuna’s Table is that it adheres to an unusually limited variation on vegetarianism. Milk, and some cheeses, seem to be acceptable; but no eggs. No onions. No garlic. There may be other excluded seasonings I didn’t notice. What’s left is a lot of dull-tasting, very complicated dishes.

Maybe I’ll offer this one to my friend with the onion allergy. It’s no use to me, no matter how decorative the cover is.