Sunday 13 July 2014

What I Look for in a Cookbook

I love cookbooks. I always have. And now that most of them have wonderful food photography, they're even more exciting. And I have quite a collection. As a matter of fact, I've come to the conclusion that no one needs to own as many cookbooks as I do. Unless you're running a lending library. So, I've gotten fussier about what cookbooks I want in my library, and drew up this set of guidelines. And when I do a cookbook review, I'll be referring to this list.
Here's what I look for in a cookbook:
1. Plant-based or vegan. While I do have some non-vegan general purpose cookbooks with basic preparation and cooking information, I don't really feel I need any more. I also have some niche cookbooks, like 5-Ingredient Slow Cooker Recipes or 660 Curries, that either have some plant-based recipes that I like or are easily veganizable. But, as a general rule, I don't want any more of these. I really find it gross when a cookbook tells me how to bone a chicken. Eeeewww! Or a picture of something made with shrimp. I could never figure out how anyone can eat something that looks like a grub from the garden. So, basically, I want only vegan cookbooks.
2. Whole foods. I don't mind the occasional bit of white flour or maybe even a small amount of refined sugar (I use organic). But I'm really disappointed when a plant-based cookbook uses mostly refined products. Remember The China Study? It's a whole foods, plant-based diet that's healthiest for us. It's all well and good to go vegan, especially for the animals' sake, but I think some meat eaters might be healthier because they eat less refined foods. Remember: potato chips and soda pop are generally vegan, but definitely not healthy. 
3. Limited use of meat analogues. Meat analogues, that's what we used to call those pretend meats. And there are pretend cheeses, too. And there are more and more available. And that's great, because it does help make the transition to a plant-based diet easier. And they are nice upon occasion. I love some good veggie bacon. But most of these products fall under category #2 above. They are highly refined foods. They also tend to be much more expensive than less refined products, like whole grains and legumes. And when you live in a small town in red-neck cattle country, like I do, there is limited availability as well. I'm not happy when I want to prepare a recipe, only to find out that it requires vegan sour cream or some other product that would require a trip to the city - about 90 minutes drive away - to purchase. And if I'm trying to turn people on to the plant-based lifestyle, I don't want them to give up because it's too expensive or inconvenient.
4. Limited use of obscure, exotic and specialty ingredients. My local health food store carries nutritional yeast, Bragg's Liquid Aminos (or whatever they're calling it now) and quite a number of other useful products. But still I sometimes open cookbooks and end up having to google some of the ingredients. See above under #3. Being a vegan should not be expensive or inconvenient. If I'm making a special meal, like a curry, for instance, I don't mind going out of my way occasionally to find unique ingredients, but I don't intend to do that on a regular basis. I don't live in Los Angeles, or wherever it is people find those things.
5. Easy to follow instructions, simplicity of preparation. Yes, I will occasionally make a recipe that requires a lot of preparation, like Vegan Trifle or Frozen Peanut Butter Ice Cream Cake. These are worth the effort, but I don't make them on a regular basis. I work full-time. I also have outside interests besides cooking, so I don't want to spend most of my free time preparing food. Oh, and it's frustrating when one recipe calls for you to cook several other recipes first, though, on the other hand, if a recipe calls for vegan sour cream and it gives me a recipe option for it, that's a bonus. Even better if it gives me the page number to find it.
The above are the most important points in this list. The following are more about personal preference. 
6. Limited use of ingredients I don't like. Cilantro makes me gag. Ditto for seaweed. I find mushrooms quite unappetizing as well. Trust me, you can be a vegan without ever having to eat fungus. So, why is it in so many recipes? I can tolerate mushrooms raw, if I have to, but cooked - they make me shudder. So, when I heard that there is a naturally occurring carcinogen in mushrooms, I found that a good enough reason to dispense with them altogether. Beets and parsnips I tolerate, but I don't want to eat too many of them. I'm not at all fond of black licorice, so anything with a flavour reminiscent of licorice (anise, fennel, tarragon) is also out. In addition, as an abstainer, I will not use any alcoholic beverages in my cooking. And when I found out where Tempeh comes from - moldy beans - I haven\t eaten tempeh since. And Tempeh also falls under the meat analogue/exotic ingredients category. I certainly can't find it in my town. 
7. Awesome food photography. I am a food photography junkie. Let's face it: some well-done pictures can really make your mouth water and long to try that recipe. I have some older, pocket novel sized cookbooks that have no pictures. Are they ever boring! I don't even use them most of the time, unless I know there's a favourite recipe in there.
8. A glossary of unique ingredients and cooking techniques. Always great for the novice. And not everyone knows how to google.
I think that sums it up. 

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