Great Chefs Cook Vegan
by Linda Long
Published by Gibbs Smith/Raincoast, 2008 hardcover $38.95; 272 pages

If I were to be reincarnated as a vegetable, I would like to be a fava bean, hiding inside that little stem, living inside a velvet room.” – Todd English

There’s something about the above quote from the devilishly handsome Todd English that sums up what this book is all about.

Vegan, it seems, has definitely gone upscale here, a velvet room of eating where chefs wax poetic on the beauties of carrots, lift the humble potato to dazzling heights and shape zucchini slices into jewel boxes almost too pretty to eat.

And though these are top American chefs contributing full dinner menus to Linda Long’s book, two have a B.C. connection: Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, two New York City culinary superstars who are opening restaurants in Vancouver, Boulud in the former Lumiere and Vongerichten in the new Shangri-La hotel.

Long, herself a long-time vegan, deliberately sought out high-end restaurants with full menus, identified herself as a vegan and asked for dishes that contained no animal products. She was dazzled by what was offered and even her non-vegan dinner mates were astonished at what can be done by just visiting the produce section.

A book was the inevitable outcome and all 25 chefs she approached happily complied with her requests for full menus (one for breakfast), producing spectacular appetizers, main courses and desserts that stretch the boundaries of divine eating.

Mind you, these are the creme of chefs who have access to a much wider array of ingredients than the average cook and who have a supporting cast of prep cooks able to produce dishes that might include five, six, even seven sub-recipes.

Take for example Phoenix, Ariz. chef Bradford Thompson’s recipe for Baby Beet Salad with Pistachio Vinaigrette and Chickpea Fritters. It has seven components: the baby beets, the vinaigrette, beet chips, borscht coulis, pickled onions, the fritters and a garnish of shaved pistachios, bibb lettuce and cumin seeds. In all, it calls for more than 25 ingredients, daunting for those of us who freak at anything listing more than six or seven ingredients.

What the book does illustrate is that vegan cooking is possible on a grand scale, and to be fair, there are recipes here that look to be fairly quick to put together. Some of sub-recipes can be pulled out and used in less extravagant preparations too, such as Boulud’s Black Mosto Oil (part of his recipe for those gorgeous zucchini jewel boxes), a concoction of dried olives, olive oil, Tabasco and balsamic vinegar that would be terrific brushed  on simple grilled vegetables or rustic bruschetta.

I’m an omnivore, meaning I love to eat most things, including meat, but my eating has changed over the years to reflect a growing awareness of the vegetable kingdom. Having a vegetarian meal isn’t so extraordinary anymore, and red meat appears on our plates only on special occasions.

But I’ve always thought of vegan cuisine as too “out there”, something that could never satisfy a foodie’s palate. This book has changed my mind. Especially when there’s a possibility Todd English might be the fava bean on my plate. Yum!

Here’s an easy recipe from the book created by Bon Appetit magazine’s Executive Chef Cat Cora. Although it’s intended as a cold salad, it would be delicious served warm, too. Cora serves this  alongside vegetable kebabs spiked with a spicy key lime sauce.

Curried Cauliflower with Currants and Pine Nuts

¼ cup plus 2 tbsps. rice wine vinegar
1 ½ tbsps. granulated sugar
2 tsps. Madras curry powder or garam masala
¼ tsp. sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
½ cup olive oil

2 lbs. cauliflower crowns
2 tbsps. kosher salt (or use sea salt)
1 cup pine nuts, toasted
1 cup dried currants
½ cup raw sunflower seeds
1 small red onion, chopped
Cilantro leaves

To make dressing: in large bowl, mix rice wine vinegar and sugar until sugar is dissolved. Whisk in curry powder, salt and pepper. Very slowly, drizzle the olive oil and whisk into the vinegar mixture until incorporated. Taste and add more salt and pepper if desired; set dressing aside.

To make cauliflower: Blanch cauliflower in boiling salted water. Drain and add pine nuts, currants, sunflower seeds and onion. Pour dressing over salad, tossing lightly to mix thoroughly. Chill for 1 to 2 hours before serving. Garnish with cilantro leaves when ready to serve. Serves 6 to 8.

From Great Chefs Cook Vegan