Review: Vegan Soul Food Cookbook

When we in the UK think of food in the US it often looks like food from Epic Vegan: burgers, hotdogs, pizza, doughnuts. Deep fried overindulgence. I’m not knocking it; there’s just a bit of an unfortunate knowledge gap. Which is why I’ll buy pretty much any book with ‘vegan’ and ‘soul food’ in the title. This is my favourite so far. Nadira Jenkins-El’s Vegan Soul Food Cookbook. There’s a great selection of recipes in here and you can tell it’s been written by a professional cook. The recipes are straightforward and unfussy, yet still satisfying. Here are six reasons why I think you should get a copy:

Spiced rice with kidney beans and chard

If you want a quick, simple and so, so filling combo this is the one for you. Caribbean Coconut Greens have become a staple around here. Mostly because ordinarily Kate hates chard (on the other hand when I was a veg grower my boss said to me ‘I’ve never seen someone so into chard’ like I was some chard loving weirdo… not the point). The greens here are cooked in with some herbs, a bit of liquid smoke, and coconut cream to make a rich, flavourful side dish. Here it’s served with Island-Style Rice and Beans. And this is the rice and beans dreams are made of. It serves six and we are two so when I make it I have some leftover for the freezer. Not as much as I should though because I keep going back for a little sneaky spoonful.

Fusilli served in a ‘cheese’ sauce, Popcorn chicken and Broccoli

Looking back at this picture in the future I’ll know it was taken in the autumn of 2020. Why? Well, two reasons. One is the overcooked broccoli. There were a couple of months last year where I could not cook broccoli if my life depended on it (luckily it didn’t). I steam it for four minutes, it’s still raw. I steam it for five and it’s mush. I just couldn’t get it right. Then in December suddenly it’s all okay again and I do not understand. The other thing is the fusilli. I’m not known for using the correct pasta shape to match the sauce but usually I’ll at least be able to get one with a hole through it for Mac and Cheese. But you know what getting pasta has been like recently. This is Butternut Squash Mac ‘n’ “Cheese”. Butternut squash mac ‘n’ cheese has become a bit of a vegan staple recently but to be honest most of them are trash. Actually all of them are trash except this one. This one is really, really good. It’s not hiding the fact that it comes from a vegetable and has a nice cheesy note to it. It’s one of the first recipes I’ll turn to if a butternut squash turns up on the doorstep. Which they tend to because we get a veg box.

‘Ribs’ straight from the grill, still sat on tinfoil

These Barbecue Riblets are incredible. They’re a seitan/jackfruit combo which makes them moist and tender, and gives it the perfect pull-apart but not fall-apart texture. It’s smothered in the delicious Jerk Barbecue Sauce which is really quick to whip up. The cook time for these is fairly long but not very difficult and you won’t regret the effort.

Cubes of fried tofu smothered in Buffalo sauce in a bright red bowl

The hardest part of this one is remembering to freeze and thaw the tofu. These are the Buffalo Popcorn Chickenless Bites. Fried in about five minutes and tossed in Buffalo sauce. I may have eaten the whole bowl myself. Don’t worry. I went foraging for vegetables after. Also I only made half the recipe so that’s only supposed to serve 3, not 6.

Six tarts with a pecan pie filling on a white plate

I decided that this review wouldn’t be complete without something from the sweet section so I spent yesterday morning making up 12 of these adorable little Pecan Pie Mini Tarts. I love each and every one of them. They have a perfect crisp crust and sweet nutty filling. Everything you want from a tiny pie.

Take a look at this book – you won’t regret it.

A Tale of Two Chickens: Subway’s Tastes.Like.Chicken and Papa John’s Not Chicken Vegan Bites

Usually we’d spend Veganuary eating and then writing about all the new Veganuary food. This year however we can’t go anywhere. As much as I want to try the new Starbucks breakfast sandwich, it’s probably a better plan to stay inside. There are a couple of things we’ve been able to order in though. Literally a couple. Just two. On nights we just could not be bothered to feed ourselves we’ve ordered in: Subway and Papa John’s.

Sub with ‘chicken’ chunks, garlic aioli and spinach.

Subway has the new Tastes.Like.Chicken. This makes 3 vegan sandwich options at Subway: the Plant Patty, the Meatless Meatball Marinara and the Tastes.Like.Chicken. Also there’s rumours that some people just have salad on their sub, but they remain unsubstantiated. Now I ate Subway back when I did eat chicken and I never really thought their chicken tasted all that much like chicken. And I don’t think Tastes.Like.Chicken tastes all that much like chicken either. But it can be a good base for all the sauces and toppings. Just don’t expect a huge amount of flavour. We still prefer the Meatless Meatballs.

Two double chocolate chip cookies

We will be sneaking more of these double chocolate chip cookies in with our order though. When I make my own cookies I like them too be big and fat and crisp but there’s something about the almost molten nature of these that’s irresistible.

On to chickenish substance number 2: the not-chicken vegan bites from Papa John’s. Let’s start with the positives. The chicken nuggets have a really good texture. The coating tastes okay. The chicken tastes a bit meh. Thank god for dip.

A stuffed crust pizza topped with olives, green peppers and vegan meats.

Papa John’s have really upped their vegan cheese game. I don’t know what they’ve done but it tastes so much better. And they’ve even managed to stuff that crust full. I was actually really impressed with the pizza. In the past we’ve often ordered it just because it’s the only vegan pizza we can get to our front door in a reasonable time. Great for days when I’ve screwed up whatever I’m cooking. However now… I could happily eat another right now.

There you have it, two vegan chickens that we weren’t impressed with and the new vegan options we were. Hopefully next Veganuary we’ll be able to get out more.

Review: Vegan Fakeaway

Vegan Fakeaway intrigued me even though I don’t think home cooking can truly replace a takeaway. When I want a take away I don’t just want a specific dish I want someone else to do all of the thinking, planning, cooking, and cleaning. To give credit where it’s due the book gives some great practical tips on how to minimise the work but sometimes I don’t want to do anything. Anything. So what won me over? Well this book is written by someone in the UK so I was hoping that some of the dishes would hit the nostalgia spot. I love all my American cookbooks with their takes on Beef and Broccoli but I grew up with Chicken Chow Mein and Chinese Curry. Do other countries even have Chinese Curry? I’d hoped to find some authentic British Takeaway food within. The results were mixed.

Two slices of Tofish and a portion of chips.

The book starts with the American section where, inexplicably, we find the recipe for Beer-Battered Tofish and Chips. I do feel a lack of chip shop recipes in here. There’s no deep-fried option for the chips, no pies, no gravy, no battered sausage, or battered Mars bar. I know I’m being extremely Northern but I would kill for a chippy focused section. I thought I’d give the tofish a go though. The chips are oven baked, I’d call them wedges but they’re okay. The Tofish looks the part and is really tasty with a nice thick batter but I had issues with the recipe. This one is deep fried but there’s no indication of either the temperature to heat the oil to (why vegans need thermometers even if we’re not eating meat!) or an alternative way to test the temperature. I got called out on Instagram by someone who has never used a thermometer to deep fry but I taught myself deep frying last year, mostly from books, and if you’re new to it you need some way of knowing if the oil is hot enough. Unless you like burnt and greasy batter.

Gnocchi baked in tomato sauce, dollops of cream cheese and a dusting of pepper.

Moving on to the Italian Section then. I decided to try the Baked Gnocchi Caprese. You bake the gnocchi in a tomato and basil sauce and finish with dollops of cream cheese. It’s a one pot dish and it’s truly easy to make. You just throw everything in the pot and bake in the oven. The gnocchi end up cooked a little unevenly. It’s an okay dish, especially for the lack of effort it takes.

Onion Bahjis in top left hand corner, shown here with dal and naan bread

In the Indian section has these Candy-Stripe Onion Bhajis. The candy striping coming from a mix of red and white onions. Not that you can really tell after batter and deep frying. This time we’re told how to check the oil is hot enough by dropping a bit of the batter in. Generally I like a thicker batter but it’s a solid bhaji.

Butterbean Korma, served on rice and topped with coriander

Korma was, as a pre-gan, Kate’s favourite curry. The book offers us a recipe for a butter bean version. It does make use of curry paste to get the flavour right though. I don’t think it’s cheating. Or if it is cheating I don’t really care as long as it gets the flavour right. But I now have the rest a jar of curry paste in my fridge, and planning around using it up takes away the convenience factor for me. The Tikka Cauliflower Skewers also use curry paste but I’ve never been convinced by cauliflower as a substitute for chicken so I’m not even going to go there. Back to the Korma though. It’s delicately flavoured and butter beans are fabulous in a curry.

A dark, Chinese-style curry served alongside plain white rice.

Given my love for Chinese-style curry, Carrot and Cashew Chinese Curry, from the Chinese section, had to be tried. I was, however, not impressed. I didn’t think extra heat from the chilli flakes added anything. In fact it distracted from the curry, and the Chinese five spice. The flavours were just a little off-balance. It also seemed like there wasn’t much thought put into the contents of the curry. With sugar snaps and carrots and cashews and frozen peas and water chestnuts… it’s like a dish made up on the spot when a cook just puts everything vegan they have into a sauce. There’s no focus. I really wanted to like this one so I was a bit more disappointed with it than perhaps I should have been, but I just didn’t think it worked.

A casserole of chickpeas, dates, carrots, sweet potato, and parsley served alongside couscous

We head towards the Middle Eastern section for what was my favourite recipe. The one recipe in this book that I liked enough to put a smiley face sticker next to. Smiley face stickers, in case your household doesn’t have a smiley face sticker system, mark a recipe that we both love so that I can remember it when I want to make it again. It’s another one-pot dish, started on the hob and finished in the oven, but this time it’s flavourful and all the vegetables are cooked perfectly.

One-Pot Harissa Baked Falafel also earned a thumbs-up from me, but not Kate who doesn’t like olives. I used some truly awful sweet potato falafel from Asda in this as the recipe promised to transform even the worst supermarket falafel into something edible. It delivered.

Pita bread stuffed with jackfruit ‘doner’ meat and shredded lettuce

But now we return to the disappointing. Jackfruit Doner Kebabs. Again it just didn’t work. Perhaps it was the lack of spices. A pinch each of cumin and cinnamon is nothing on 400g of jackfruit. And jackfruit at the best of times tends towards soggy and a little sweet. Nothing was done to mitigate that. It was just lightly flavoured jackfruit in a pita. And as jackfruit has significantly less flavour of its own than lamb it’s not at all appetising. I tipped the filling out and ate the pitta plain.

We come to the part of the review where I tell you if I think this book is worth buying. I think you’ve probably noticed that we’ve had more misses than hits. Other dishes just sounded a little off like the Dirty Nachos with mayo. I’m no purist but I can’t get my head around mayo on nachos. Not in the year of our lord 2021 when every supermarket in the UK is fighting over who has the best vegan cheese. I couldn’t suggest buying this book just because it has one good tagine recipe. If you want UK-style fast food dishes take a look at Leon’s Fast Vegan instead. Well, have a look at it when you’re allowed to look at books in person again.

Review: Vegan JapanEasy

When Vegan JapanEasy came out last March I’d been weighing up which of Tim Anderson’s other cookbooks to buy. JapanEasy was tempting but I really wanted Tokyo Stories. I’m already used to veganising recipes from non-vegan Japanese cookbooks (Sonoko Sakai’s Japanese Home Cooking and Luiz Hara’s The Japanese Larder are my current faves) and veganised versions of dishes from Just Hungry and Just One Cookbook. I’m not an expert, or even close to one, but I’m fairly used to veganising Japanese food.

Preparing a batch of citrus-pickled radishes

When Vegan JapanEasy came out I was half excited to own a Japanese cookbook that I wouldn’t need to convert and half worried: after all, it’s been written by a non-vegan author. Don’t get me wrong, non-vegans have a lot to add to the vegan cooking scene but when writing cookbooks they do tend to make similar mistakes. Like making weird generalisations about vegan diets, saying how vegan food is all unseasoned tofu and lentils and they’re here to save us from a life of bland. Completely ignoring any innovations vegan authors have made. Thankfully Tim Anderson avoids that one but he does express incredulity at vegan sushi and ramen in a way that a vegan author probably wouldn’t, and he’s not a fan of mock meats and alternate protein sources. Which, okay, some people aren’t fans, but when it comes to recipes like Stir-Fried Cabbage and Bean Sprouts With Ginger Sauce and Cauliflower Katsu Curry they’re just not going to fill you up as much as pork would.

Sweet Potato Ponzu Roll, before being rolled. Nori topped with rice, sweet potato and chives.

Mostly though I enjoy his writing style. On the Amazon reviews (never to be taken very seriously) someone questioned his respect for veganism and another person complained that he talked about kebabs. But – you know what – I’m still looking for something that hits all the same spot as a greasy kebab, so I have no objections in that department. I’m a big fan of the cheesy jokes and puns and that page-long rant about what Katsu means… well I’d frame it and hang it on the wall. If I didn’t live in a small flat. Enough of the general comments then, on with the food.

Yaki-onigri. A rice ball coated in miso glaze, grilled and wrapped with a small strip of nori

Years and years and years ago I bought myself some onigri moulds. I though it would be impossible to get that perfect triangle shape by hand. It’s not but I have the moulds now so I don’t even need to try. I made them to turn into Yaki-onigri. In which your plain rice ball is turned into a ball of rich, sweet caramelized perfection with a coat of sweet miso sauce and some time under the grill. Twice I’ve had these for lunch and then spent the afternoon drooling at the memory.

An assortment of dishes over short grain rice: teriyaki roasted carrots, cucumber and wakame with seasoned vinegar and jackfruit karaage

Teriyaki-Roasted Carrots was the next dish to try. Both roast carrots and teriyaki sauce are favourites of mine and the combination was exactly as good as I thought it would be. I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by this version of teriyaki sauce though. Based on the sweet-soy sauce recipe earlier in the book with cornflour which makes it a bit too tacky when its baked on (we tried it on tofu as well as these carrots)

The night I made the carrots was a night where I just made whatever I had the ingredients for. Then I chucked it on some short grain rice to pretended it was a balanced meal. So there is also Cucumber And Wakame with Seasoned Vinegar (favourite!) and Jackfruit Karaage. The Jackfruit Karaage was interesting. The taste was spot-on but the jackfruit was kind of soggy. I usually make Karaage with chunks of unchicken breast from Miyoko Schinner’s Homemade Vegan Pantry and this hasn’t converted me to jackfruit.

a messy rendition of agedashi tofu with more cucumber and seaweed salad and the finished pickled radishes

Just before Christmas I got a packet of vegan tempura prawns to try and figured I’d cook up a few other small dishes to go with it. It seemed like a good opportunity to try my hand at Agedashi Tofu. It turns out that I am not skilled at keeping silken tofu together as I deep-fry it. The taste made up for it though. Fresh and subtly sweet. Not exactly what you expect when you heat the oil for deep frying but perfect to eat in the middle of all those rich festive meals. Also with a fresh taste, but by no means a subtle one, I made a batch of citrus-pickled radishes. They’re a mind- and taste-bud-blowing treat.

Sweet Potato Stuffed Sushi Rolls with a small dish of citrus-pickled radishes and some cucumber and wakame salad

I couldn’t pass the Makizushi section without trying one of the rolls. I went for the Sweet Potato Ponzu Rolls because it didn’t have crushed cornflakes on the outside; sorry, but that’s a texture too far for me. The Sweet potato is baked and marinated until it’s the best sweet potato you’ve ever had, and chives make everything better. I made a batch of this to take to my Guides’ Christmas Party. It was over Zoom so I got to eat the whole batch myself.

breaded burger, cabbage and beansprouts, and rice

Kate’s very favourite dish in the entire cookbook (and possibly her favourite thing I make at all right now) is the Mock Meat Menchi Katsu. Tim Anderson hated all vegan burger attempts before trying the Beyond Burger which he says is ‘life-changing’ (considering how much money I’ve put into the pockets of the Beyond Burger people through this pandemic I can’t argue with that) so he suggests using it here. I knew though that the serving suggestion of raw cabbage would not be met with Kate’s approval so I thought maybe Stir-Fried Cabbage and Bean Sprouts with Ginger Sauce would be better. I thought it was great. Bags of ginger flavour. But Kate hates cabbage in all forms and would, in future, prefer her fried, breaded burgers without vegetables.

Last up is today’s lunch – curry ramen – so I can remember both the brilliant taste and burn on my tongue because I couldn’t wait to eat it. So good! I like Japanese curry in all its forms so if you drown carbs in it and cover with crunchy veg I’m going to be very happy.

Should you buy this book? Well, if you’re vegan and new to cooking Japanese food this is 100% perfect for you. But it is, after all, JapanEasy so if you’ve got a bit of experience under your belt you might only find recipes for things you know. If so you still might find it worthwhile to have a collection of recipes that are already veganised and ready to go. I know I do.