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Cookbook review: Peta's Vegan College Cookbook

Posted May 13 2009 10:12pm

I was asked to review Peta's Vegan College Cookbook and was really looking forward to it even though it's been an awfully long time since I was in college. I don't know what I was expecting, but when I first saw the recipes, I was a little worried. For one thing, everything that's cooked, is cooked in a microwave (though you could adapt the recipes to stove and oven). And the recipes are heavily dependent on canned, frozen and fake food - lots of fake food. Not my usual style of cooking, but it makes sense, when you consider the lack of cooking facilities dorm residents face, coupled with their lack of storage. They often have a tiny refrigerator and a microwave in a micro-room. Not to mention the not- yet-fully-developed cooking skills of many college students, living on their own for the first time. Most of the ingredients are standard supermarket stuff, but some things, like vegan cream cheese and vegan mayo may be harder to find depending on where you live.

The book starts out by suggesting a list of staples to have on hand, and offers an extensive and very helpful list of meat and dairy alternatives, including brand names. The recipe section is divided into categories for breakfast, sandwiches, salads, soups, sauces, dinner, drinks, dips, snacks and desserts. There also are special sections for student staples like peanut butter, potatoes and ramen. The brand name product list was especially helpful since I'd never purchased "chicken strips" and didn't know what to look for!

To be perfectly honest, the first few times I looked at the recipes I couldn't find anything that I'd actually want to eat! I laughed at the sandwiches — do you really need a recipe that tells you to put hummus, lettuce and tomato between two slices of bread? Or cream cheese on a bagel? There's even a "recipe" for ants on a log (called Ants on a Blog). Many of the recipes called for such excessive amounts of vegan cream cheese and mayo — sometimes in the same recipe — I could feel my jeans getting tighter as I read the list of ingredients.

Super Cheezy Sauce over rice and The Sweetness 'Tater Salad

I scratched my head and agonized over how to be fair but honest. I wanted to like this book, I really did. So, I sat myself down and took a much closer look. It's true there's a recipe calling for one cup of mayo to make a dressing for two people to dip pizza into, but on looking closer, I found lots of healthier choices, too. Something for everyone. And, if you're a new, aspiring vegetarian or vegan coming directly from a meat-eating family, maybe a few ideas for the simplest meals a vegan can throw together is exactly what you need.

WTF? Wings (looks a little like fried slugs but tastes like chicken!)

I decided to actually try a few recipes from several of the categories before passing judgement, choosing a mix of healthy and less healthy foods. The first thing I tried was definitely on the healthy side — The Sweetness 'Tater Salad — from the potato section. It contained raw, grated sweet potato, shredded cabbage from a bag, shredded carrots, raisins, apple, canned pineapple, lemon juice and olive oil. It was quick and easy to make, light and crunchy. It was supposed to serve two but there was an enormous amount that would easily serve four or more. Two of us happily ate it for dinner and lunch the next day, and there was still some left. I also made Super Cheezy Sauce to serve over precooked (Trader Joe's frozen to keep with the book's theme) rice. This was practically an instant sauce with yeast flakes, soy sauce, olive oil and water, and tasted surprisingly good.

In a Pickle Chickpea Salad

I made WTF? Wings (that's right) out of chicken strips, and although they were too salty for me, my son ate them all! They were tasty and chewy and I think anyone looking for a salty meat-like main dish or snack food would find them yummy. For a healthier dish from the salad section, I made Chickpea salad, and it was incredibly quick and really delicious — something I would make again.

EZ Cheezy Broccoleezy

In the dinner section, I decided on two dishes, one healthy and one — ahem —less healthy. The healthy one, Tough and Stuffed Sweet Potatoes, had sweet potato, black beans and tomato, and the other, Chick Magnet "Chicken" Casserole, had everything from tofu to vegan cheddar to corn chips to chicken strips and more — probably enough salt and fat to supply an adult for weeks. For balance, I tried EZ Cheezy Broccoleezy from the snack section. The casserole was probably the strangest thing I've ever "cooked" in my adult life, but it was delicious. It was the kind of thing a busy person, student or not, could serve to omni friends, and they'd love it. It's hard to believe it's vegan. (To cut the salt content a little, I only used half the recommended amount of chicken strips and no additional salt in the filling, but it was still intensely flavorful.) The broccoli was fine if you don't mind the slightly rubbery texture of frozen veggies. But who can complain about broccoli as a snack?

Chick Magnet "Chicken" Casserole

I couldn't resist the ice cream and pudding pie recipe from the dessert section. I had the ice cream and pudding ready to go, but then reconsidered. It didn't seem possible to mix ice cream and pudding and place it in the refrigerator for a few hours, and end up with anything but ice cream soup. I guess the recipe meant to say, "vegan pudding mix" not "vegan pudding." And what kind of pudding mix? Would that be Jello instant pudding? Well, I just couldn't bring myself to use that chemical mix — chicken strips were challenge enough! — and the other pudding mixes I encountered either had to be cooked or mixed with tofu. So I made my own instant dessert with the ice cream and pudding. I layered raspberry ice cream with chocolate pudding, sliced strawberries and sliced bananas. It wasn't a pie, but it was good — my contribution to the next edition! And proof that the book offers inspiration as well as recipes.

Parfait not actually in, but inspired by the cookbook

The authors have fulled their promise. Peta's Vegan College Cookbook would be a great reference for making quick, easy and enjoyable vegan food. It's filled with ideas for making the most of limited cooking equipment and supplies. With a very small amount of effort, even a student in a dorm room can enjoy delicious, vegan meals and snacks, and create dips, spreads and even whole dinners for parties. I'm not sure I would consider it cheap, though, as the authors imply. Living on packaged goods is much more expensive than cooking from scratch, but the book is primarily intended for those with limited access to cooking facilities.

If you've gotten this far and think you'd like to own this book, or give it to your favorite college student, leave a comment to that effect by May 20. I'll randomly choose a name and announce the winner on this blog. Once the winner sends me a mailing address, the (slightly used) book will be on it's way!
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