Food for thought: How to evaluate a new cookbook

This was going to be a review and recommendation of Vegan: The Cookbook by Jean-Christian Jury. The book had received a glowing write up in the very uneven Saturday “Off Duty” section of the Wall Street Journal, and I was eager to tell you about it. It is only available in hardback, which even discounted on Amazon is over $30. Fortunately, I was able to find a copy at my local library.

The first recipe I tried was the Chickpea and Currant Pate on p. 32. I chose this because it used almost entirely ingredients I had on hand. (Rule #1 for evaluating a cookbook—don’t go out and buy exotic ingredients until you know you like the book. Stick to familiar ingredients and learn how this cookbook deals with them.) But alarm bells went off as I was preparing it. There’s supposed to be a bottom layer of chickpea puree, then an onion/sweet potato mix, then more puree. But the proportions are such that this is impossible (nowhere near enough chickpeas). And it’s not really a pate but a terrine because the instructions were to puree the chickpeas, but leave the finely chopped onions in the middle layer. Plus there’s no binding agent so it fell apart pretty quickly when unwrapped.

I browsed a few more recipes I’d like to try. Peanut Stew with Cucumber Sauce (p. 202) had a typo: 400 g of tomatoes equals 14 oz, not 7 oz. (I assume we should go by the grams since the author is European.) And on page 31 we are advised to cook Puy lentils “according to the packet instructions”. A statement like that has no place in a book presumably written by a chef. What’s happening with this and the somewhat questionable technique specified for the pate is either a/the chef knows what he’s doing but isn’t good at putting it down on paper or b/somebody else is shadowing the chef and they don’t know what they’re doing. So rule #2 is: decide whether you can trust the person writing the recipes.

One more strike against the book is that it uses black-box ingredients without really explaining and analyzing what’s in them and telling you how to make appropriate substitutions. “Vegan grated cheese” (p 129), “soy cream” (p 252) and “unsweetened soy yoghurt” (p. 53) are some random examples. (He does provide a recipe for “vegannaise” on p. 52, but it’s in the context of another recipe.) One of the things I love about Teff Love is that the vegan author takes standard Ethiopian spice mixtures and seasoned oils and tells you how to make vegan versions. Rule #3: make sure the instructions are transparent and don’t resort to black box ingredients.

Also! The author gives no guidance as to the use of salt except to add salt to taste. When the dish itself is unfamiliar, that’s not good enough. Is it supposed to be noticeably salty? Just a little salty? Give us at least a baseline, please.

In the end I did find a couple of recipes I liked in Vegan: The Cookbook (a pretty presumptuous title, is that not?) But it’s gone back to the library. Caveat emptor if this appeals to you.

This entry was posted in Food for Thought and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Food for thought: How to evaluate a new cookbook

  1. JB says:

    I never trust salt quantities in recipes and always salt to taste. Nothing will ruin a dish like too much salt.

    • Burnt My Fingers says:

      True, but I am talking baseline. How do I know how much salt there should be in a vegan chickpea terrine?

      • JB says:

        Season/taste, season/taste. Unless you’re willing to risk that the recipe, as written, won’t be too salty, you’re going to have to add a portion of the salt and then season/taste anyway.

  2. Burnt My Fingers says:

    Agreed. Generally you can get a feeling from the base recipe. if there’s 1K of product and a teaspoon of salt I’m not going to be concerned; will add a bit less and plan to adjust. Some recipes on the internet are wildly over salted, probably from typos. (That are then picked up by other blogs that never try the recipes.) Those are the killers.

Comments are closed.