Toss the takeout menus and get cooking!
Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review at the publisher’s behest.
I’ve taken to reviewing cookbooks lately because I like the challenge. I can be rather lazy when it comes to cooking, and tend to procrastinate to the point where my only choices for dinner are last night’s leftovers – or a pita bread pizza. Making unfamiliar dishes, on the other hand, requires planning and flexibility – my culinary arch nemeses! Enter: the cookbook review. Since publisher-provided review copies usually come with a deadline (albeit self-imposed, but then I’m always my own biggest critic), they provide just the right amount of motivation to keep me on track.
So when Penguin USA offered me a free copy of The Chinese Vegan Kitchen: More Than More Than 225 Meat-free, Egg-free, Dairy-free Dishes from the Culinary Regions of China (Donna Klein, 2012) for review, I jumped at the chance. Though I love (some) “Chinese food,” my experiences up until now have been limited to the occasional takeout and prepackaged vegan egg rolls found at the local supermarket’s “meals to go” cooler. Before last month, I’d never so much as made my own lo mein – let alone assembled egg rolls from scratch!
The same time I was working my way through the recipes in The Chinese Vegan Kitchen, Salon featured an interview with English Fuchsia Dunlop in which she “explain[ed] Western misperceptions about one of our favorite culinary imports”: There is no “Chinese cuisine”. In a country as large and diverse as China – more the size of a continent than a nation – to speak of one common culinary style amounts to an “over-simplification.” Chinese food, says Dunlop, is at once “varied and multi-faceted,” yes shares certain cultural elements.
Luckily, chef and food writer Donna Klein – whose library includes several previous regional cookbooks (Vegan Italiano, The Mediterranean Vegan Kitchen, The Tropical Vegan Kitchen) – seems to know her stuff. Having lived in China for a year, Klein begins The Chinese Vegan Kitchen with a brief explanation of China’s regional cuisines. The recipes which follow are reflective of China’s diversity, with dishes from Hunan, Sichuan, Hainan, Shanghai, Yunnan, Tibet, and Northwestern China, to name just a few.
Prior to writing this review, I made about a dozen different recipes:
Velvet Corn Soup (page 35)
Roasted Carrots with Sesame and Ginger (page 155)
Stir-Fried Bok Choy & Shiitake Mushrooms (page 152)
Baked Vegetable Eggless Egg Rolls (page 12) with the Basic Dipping Sauce (page 9)
Roasted Sesame Green Beans (page 160)
Hunan-Style Baked Sweet Potato “French Fries” with Chili Sauce (page 161)
Pantry Lo Mein (page 98)
Microwaved Sichuan Green Beans (page 160)
Instant Ramen Noodle Soup with Vegetables (page 45)
Country-Style Vegetable Stew with Tofu Puffs (page 43)
Chinese Corn Flour Flatbread (page 6)
Sichuan-Style Lo Mein with Sesame and Garlic (page 100)
Sesame-Mustard Vinaigrette (page 60)
I would have liked to have tried a more diverse selection – including at least one seitan and several more rice dishes – before publishing this review, but I also wanted to get it up in time for the holiday shopping season. If you’re still shopping, look no further: The Chinese Vegan Kitchen would make an excellent gift for the Chinese food afficionado/aspiring chef in your life – vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores alike!
Nearly all of the recipes I tried were winners. (Photos and individual reviews are included after the jump!) Among the standouts are the Baked Sweet Potato Fries (which we enjoyed as part of our Thanksgiving dinner); the Instant Ramen Noodle Soup (with a very high taste-to-effort ratio); the Velvet Corn Soup (different!); and the Roasted Carrots with Sesame and Ginger and Roasted Sesame Green Beans (which I bet would taste amazing together!).
Though I had some trouble here and there, most of it concerned obtaining the right ingredients for the job. For example, I was unable to find vegan egg rolls, so I had to swap them out for spring rolls when making Baked Vegetable Eggless Egg Rolls. Since the filling is rather saucy – and the spring roll wrappers, thinner than their egg roll counterparts – this resulted in not a little leakage during baking. Still, the rolls were super-delicious and I’ve no doubt that my results will only improve once I’m able to get my hands on some proper egg rolls.
This isn’t to imply that all – or even most – of the recipes in The Chinese Vegan Kitchen include hard-to-find items. Most of the necessary ingredients are available in Asian markets, if not the Asian section in your local grocery.
With few exceptions, the recipes are simple and easy to follow, though the degree of difficulty varies. The egg rolls, for instance, proved a little tedious and time consuming. The result was delicious, though probably this is one food that I’ll mostly enjoy as takeout in the foreseeable future. On the other end of the spectrum, I was pleasantly surprised to find how effortless a dish lo mein can be. Why pay a premium when you can make it at home?
Many of the dishes are a little (okay, a lot) on the spicy side, with fiery ingredients like five-spice powder, Chinese hot oil, jalapeno peppers, and chili paste. Luckily, it’s easy to take it down a notch by reducing or eliminating some of the hotter spices.
For the most part, Klein’s directions are clear and concise – though I’d appreciate a little more visual instruction in some areas. The foods which require folding, for example – the Scallion Pancakes and Eggless Egg Rolls come to mind – left me scratching my head. Since I’m not a very visual thinker, a sketch or diagram would have come in handy. As it just so happens, though, the egg (spring) rolls did include drawings on the packaging – and the husband swears that he understands the directions for the scallion pancakes – so at the end of the day, no harm, no foul.
If you like a ton of pretty photos and glossy pages in your cookbook, you might be disappointed by The Chinese Vegan Kitchen – save for the cover, there’s not a photo to be found. Personally, I don’t mind the lack of photos, since it helps keep costs down. The convenience of the internet also helps render pricey, full-color cookbooks unnecessary (or less so, anyway), when you can oftentimes find photos from both the author and fellow readers online. Start a flickr group for your own favorite vegan cookbook and get sharing!
For the newbies like me, Klein includes a glossary of ingredients that, while helpful, isn’t quite as complete as I’d like. During my first foray to the Chinatown Food Market, I quickly discovered that a number of the ingredients (particularly tofu items) have different names. Tofu Puffs, for instance, also go by the more descriptive term “Fried Tofu.” Essentially, this is precisely what Tofu Puffs are – chunks of fried tofu – but beginners, of course, aren’t apt to know this!
Likewise, I found the index similarly frustrating to use. Returning again to tofu, the dishes containing tofu (some of them, anyway) are listed under a single heading (“tofu dishes”), with additional entries for individual tofu recipes appearing throughout the index (organized alphabetically by title). Entries for the more unusual tofu products – “tofu skin” and “tofu bamboo” – simply direct the reader to the glossary. Considering the variety of tofu items – “regular” tofu, silken tofu, fried tofu/tofu puffs, tofu skin, etc. – more specific entries would be most helpful.
True story: once I purchased the tofu puffs, I had trouble figuring out which recipe I’d bought them for! I only happened to stumble upon the Country-Style Vegetable Stew with Tofu Puffs while flipping through the cookbook. (In the index, this dish is listed under “C” for “Country,” but doesn’t make an appearance under “tofu dishes.” Go figure!)
All in all, I’m happy that I agreed to review The Chinese Vegan Kitchen. I learned how to make some of my favorite Chinese dishes and, better still, discovered a number of new favorites too. A few minor complaints aside, I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who likes “Chinese food.” Though it’s a bit of an exaggeration to say that you can toss all your takeout menus – we all need some fast comfort food from time to time – The Chinese Vegan Kitchen will give you the knowledge and inspiration to make many of these foods yourself, in the comfort of your own home and tailored to your own specific tastes. All-vegan, too, without the unpleasantness of grilling the waitstaff!
A strong 4 1/2 stars, rounded up to 5 where necessary. (Amazon, why no half stars?)
This soup is a lot like my favorite potato and corn “spowder,” but minus the potatoes and with white wine, sesame oil, and soy sauce for extra flavor. Okay, so maybe it’s not that similar after all! Either way, the Velvet Corn Soup is quite tasty, though a little on the thin side. Drink it from a mug or add a little flour for a thicker consistency!
Coated with a delicious, sweet soy sauce-rice vinegar-ginger-sesame glaze, these roasted carrots are so good that you might want to eat them on their own, as a snack. The recommended cook time is 20 to 25 minutes, but I had to cook them a little longer to get them nice and tender. No big.
Almost as easy as they are tasty!
The mushroom soy sauce really makes this sing! (Seriously, why am I just now trying mushroom soy sauce? Someone tell me please!) Garlic, bok choy, and mushrooms satueed in peanut oil, sesame oil, and soy sauce, served atop a pile of rice, and topped with peanuts.
I’m finding that I’m not a huge fan of steamed or fried greens – I prefer them fresh and crispy instead of wet and stringy – so next time I make this, I’ll probably swap the bok choy out for baby corn. But the mushrooms are delish, and the saucy broth? Triply so!
Most of the effort is in the prep – two pounds of bok choy takes forever to slice! – but the rest of the process? Easy peasy.
I couldn’t find any vegan egg rolls locally, so for this recipe I used spring rolls instead. The result was…interesting.
The filling is a little saucy, with stir-fried cabbage, bean sprouts, carrots, scallions, and water chestnuts (which I swapped out for mushrooms). Most likely because it’s meant to be used with a thicker wrapper, some of the sauce leaked out of the ends of the rolls during baking. Messy, but still perfectly edible!
The cook time was a little off, too; instead of the suggested 20 minutes, I cooked ’em for about a half hour, and they still didn’t quite brown on top.
Even so, these egg/spring rolls are amazaballs! If you have trouble finding vegan egg rolls in restaurants or prepackaged in the store – or if you just want to experiment with your own filling combos – you’ve got to try making your own.
Assembling the egg rolls is a bit tedious, with lots of trial and error involved (see, e.g., this side-by-side comparison of the first and last egg rolls; hello exploding insides!)
but once you get the process down, it goes much more quickly. Klein uses a cornstarch/water mix to seal the seams; while she instructs the reader to apply it around the edges of the wrapper, before adding the filling, I found it much easier to dab it on the sections that I needed to stick as needed. Use it like glue – apply it on the underside of the seam and press gently to seal.
Most likely this isn’t a recipe I’ll use often – truth be told, it’s easier to drive to the nearest Chinese restaurant for my egg/spring roll fix – but I’d definitely like to try it again with vegan egg roll wrappers, to see if I get better results.
Oh, and the dipping sauce? Quick, basic, and tasty. Can’t ask for much more!
These green beans are more delicious than any (non-fried) vegetable has the right to be! Tender and juicy, with a sweet sesame coating…the first words out of my mouth when I taste tested a green bean, to see if they were done? “THAT IS SO GOOD! I am seriously impressed.”
In the background: white rice topped with leftover Stir-Fried Bok Choy & Shiitake Mushrooms and the extra sauce from the Baked Vegetable Eggless Egg Rolls. So much yumminess on one plate.
Along with Straight-Up-Thanksgiving Burgers, mashed potatoes, and stuffing, I made the Hunan-Style Baked Sweet Potato “French Fries” with Chili Sauce for Thanksgiving. Though neither the husband nor I deigned to smother them in gravy (like all the other foods), they proved a winning addition nonetheless.
And low effort, too. You bake the sweet potatoes halfway and then fry them to finish. During the last few minutes of cooking, they’re coated in this delicious ketchup-soy sauce-chili paste concoction that’s finger-licking good. (Pro tip: averse to spicy foods? Cut the chili paste to 1/4 teaspoon. That’s just enough to add some flavor, but not enough to set your tongue on fire.)
WOW. This lo mein is even better than takeout!
The main recipe is just for lo mein noodles and a sauce, but Klein provides variations for a few different dishes. Pictured above is the Spinach and Mushroom Lo Mein, with the spinach swapped out for grated carrots. (Though I did serve the noodles on a bed of spinach – perfection!) The stir fried veggies also come with their own saucy goodness, so you could just easily serve ’em on rice or pancakes. Versatile!
Since we tried the Sichuan Green Beans not long after the Roasted Sesame Green Beans, the husband and I couldn’t help but compare the two. I prefer them Sesame style, while he likes the Sichuan beans better. Luckily, we can agree on at least one thing: both dishes are delicious.
While some people might be down with the microwave cooking thing, I find it easier just to cook the beans in the oven. Microwaving requires constant check-ins to stop, stir, add ingredients; with the oven, you just stir once, halfway through. (I guess it’s a good thing that the husband made this one for me, huh?) I think I’d like to take this recipe for a spin in the oven and see how it comes out.
Either way, another winner!
Probably owing to the fact that I lived at home all throughout college, I never had to subsist on ramen noodles. In fact, I’m not even sure I tried them prior to making the Instant Ramen Noodle Soup. Which is weird, because I love all the noodley things!
And today’s dish is no exception: deceptively simple, this soup is lip-smacking good. With just eight ingredients (nine, if you count the water), it’s a snap to prepare and makes for a tasty on-the-go meal. Not instant, exactly, but about as close to it as homemade can get.
Pro tip: use fresh veggies instead of frozen. Way yummier, and it only adds a few extra minutes to your cook time. Cut the carrots first and let them simmer in the soup whilst you prepare the scallions – that’ll give ’em more than enough time to tenderize!
I have a confession to make: I’m not tofu’s biggest fan. Sure, I’ve learned to love the stuff, but with some very tight strings attached. Namely, I’ll only eat tofu when it’s masquerading as something else. Eggs, perhaps, or (in the case of silken tofu) chocolate pudding. Ice cream, even. But straight up chunks of tofu? Not my thing. It feels like I”m eating a sponge! So it comes as no surprise that I didn’t love the “Tofu Puff” portion of this dish. I thought since the tofu was fried, things might be different this time around, but…not so much. I picked the tofu out of my soup mug (brand new! you like?) and gave it to Shane.
Otherwise, the Country-Style Vegetable Stew is good enough, though it’s not one of my more favorite dishes from The Chinese Vegan Kitchen. The broth isn’t as flavorful as some of the other soups and sauces I’ve previously encountered. Also, the sweet potatoes seem out of place, and there are way too many onions for my taste. Shane loved it though, so perhaps I’m just being overly fussy?
Though Klein recommends serving it with the Rice Congee with Shiitake Mushrooms and Peas, we had this flatbread with the Country-Style Vegetable Stew, as you can see in the photo above. You’re supposed to heap a hearty meal atop a piece of flatbread (well, half a round – these suckers are BIG!), but we used it for dipping instead. Not the worst idea I’ve ever had!
The bread itself is quite dense – though I’m not quite sure if it’s supposed to be like that, or if the dough just didn’t rise sufficiently. Hey, it happens. Overall, it’s okay, but not something I’d make again; the husband proved a much bigger fan. As far as yeasty bread goes, it’s super-easy to bake: the dough’s a snap to assemble and, after an hour+ of rising, just split it into three equal sections, flatten into rounds, and fry on the stovetop.
You guys, I came so close to messing this one up something epic! Instead of one tablespoon of sesame oil, I used three. (That’ll teach me to multitask in the kitchen!) Luckily, I was able to salvage the sauce by adding extra soy sauce, rice vinegar, and sugar to even things up. Sure, I ended with with a little leftover sauce, but I can use it on a bowl of rice and veggies. Recycling!
This is a super-garlicky and sesame-y lo mein (though probably mine is more over-the-top than most), with eight – count ’em, eight – cloves of garlic and both toasted sesame oil and tahini. I tossed in a few miscellaneous mushrooms I had on hand but otherwise, this is a very noodle-centric recipe. In other words, yay!
Though I didn’t like it quite as much as the Pantry Lo Mein, I think it’s my own fault for mucking it up. This has the potential to be another super-delicious dish.
I snagged this Vinaigrette recipe from the Iceberg Lettuce, Cucumber, and Carrot Salad to use with my own greens – namely, a bag of spinach and beet greens, with some carrots and black olives tossed in for extra nom. Actually, the black olives didn’t pair so well with the dressing, but that’s okay – I know now not to use them again.
Otherwise, two thumbs up!
(Usually I eat my big salads in equally big plastic Tupperware containers – but seeing as I was photographing it, I used my fancy ceramic popcorn bowl instead. Talk about a bait and switch!)