Thursday, January 14, 2010

Review: The Gluten-free Vegan

The Gluten-Free Vegan: 150 Delicious Gluten-Free, Animal-Free Recipes by cooking instructor and consultant Susan O'Brien offers a broad collection of recipes, from beverages to main dishes to dessert. Many of the recipes are basic, and will be helpful to gluten-free cooks looking to expand beyond the meat and potatoes paradigm, but obvious recipes for vegan staples like hummus, roasted vegetables, and garden salad will hold little interest for moderately experienced cooks.

The book's layout is straightforward and modest: one recipe per page, no photographs. Brief introductory text accompanies each recipe; it is occasionally helpful, but mostly inane ("My friends/son/husband really liked this..."). The intro to Baking Powder Biscuits does not inspire confidence: "These are not easy to make without gluten. I have done my best..."

Most of O'Brien's recipes emphasize whole ingredients and natural sweeteners. The first dish I tried, Betcha By Golly Bean Salad (why this title?), is a healthy, orange-juice sweetened adaptation of the traditional three-bean salad. Looking over the recipe, which calls for canned beans, cilantro, walnuts, red bell pepper, and only a touch of seasoning, I hoped it would magically be more than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, tin can was the dominant flavor. I added more orange juice and more cumin, as well as olive oil, cider vinegar, coriander, salt, and pepper. Canned beans can't stand on their own like that.

Though I won't follow this recipe again, I probably will use orange juice instead of sugar and include walnuts in future three-bean salads.

I found the Curried Coconut and Squash Stew similarly bland. Butternut squash, red bell pepper, coconut milk, and soy milk are naturally sweet; simmered together, without assertive rich or spicy seasoning, they were cloying. I needed cumin, Sriracha, and lots of lime juice to enjoy this curry. Tofu had no business here—it contributed nothing to the flavor, and was just another soft tan thing thing in a stew full of boiled squash. Black beans would have been a better choice.

I can find recipes for lentil soup and sautéed greens in any vegetarian cookbook; what I really need to learn about is gluten-free baking. Many of O'Brien's recipes call for Ener-G Egg Replacer, a pre-mixed combination of starches and leavening agents that seems a little lazy.

After my last round of baking, I didn't expect the Carrot Cake to be edible. (I'm learning it's best not to get your hopes up when baking without gluten.) Boy, was I surprised.

It may be the best carrot cake I've ever eaten. It's light, moist, and not too sweet, with shredded carrots, chopped walnuts, coconut, and pineapple in every bite. It rose beautifully, and though it's made with quinoa flour and xanthan gum, there's not a hint of weirdness. Our resident carrot cake fiend approves. I chose the optional brown sugar over agave nectar (it's cheaper and I prefer the flavor), and since I don't have a 9x11 pan, I baked ⅔ of the batter in a square pan and made the rest into cupcakes. If you made only cupcakes with this recipe, you would probably get 18; mine were cooked through after about 25 minutes.

O'Brien suggests frosting this cake with her Cashew Crème Frosting, a purée of coconut milk, dates, and raw cashews that thickens after a few hours in the fridge. I would have preferred a lemon or coconut buttercream. This spread, which would be delicious with sliced apples, made the cake taste like health food.

Encouraged, I tried the brownies. They were rose quite a bit in the oven (2 teaspoons of baking powder!), and were gooey in a lovely, chocolatey way. I don't enjoy the chocolate-banana combination, so I'd like to bake these again with a different puréed fruit, or even silken tofu, as a binder.

The Gluten-Free Vegan may have some winning recipes (I look forward to trying the pumpkin scones), but only a few shed light on gluten-free technique. Beyond a couple of cookie recipes, the rest of the desserts are coconut milk puddings, fruit crisps, and other vegan dishes that are easily prepared without gluten or are gluten-free to begin with. The majority of the book is dedicated to unimaginative savory dishes; if you're new to vegan cooking, these quick and easy recipes may help you expand your repertoire. If you're a long-time vegan looking to learn about gluten-free baking, get this book from the library, photocopy the carrot cake recipe, and save fifteen dollars.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. (I hate it when my smiley faces get chopped in half by a line break! Looks like the vanishing Cheshire cat or something). So as I was saying, I foresee the day when you author THE definitive gluten-free vegan cookbook!

    At least the carrot cake helped redeem the book, maybe more recipes like that are lurking between its covers...

  3. Oh, I was going to buy this cookbook, but seeing your review I don't think i'll bother! I'm looking for a more ADVANCED gluten free cookbook...the Flying Apron one fails also with its dreadful use of the vile gram flour! lol

    I found your blog onnnn PPK I think.

  4. I think You should author your own GF cookbook. It seems like such a natural progression, and it would be Beautiful. Nice review.
    Eco Mama

  5. You know, I was just looking at this today, but the amazon reviews confirmed what you say, so I think I'll pass!

  6. What a fantastic review! I love your straight-forward way of comment. Way to go, Mary! I will check this book out from the library and make a photocopy of carrot cake recipe and maybe pumpkin scones and coconut milk pudding. They all sound so yummy!

  7. Yeah, I have this book, and haven't made anything from it b/c I was so uninspired by the recipes, lol. Great review though! I'll be sure to try the carrot cake someday! And I'll stay away from the savory recipes..

  8. I bet that carrot cake, with the agave option and cashew frosting, would fit in line with my cleanse. Man, I'd kill for a piece of carrot cake right now.

  9. Great review, that carrot cake looks so good!

  10. I felt the same about this cookbook, although I only managed to try one recipe for a curried cabbage stir fry. It was so intensely boring I ended up having to whip up a sauce after I'd already sat down to eat. I'm also not impressed by the variety of basic vegan recipes that you don't need a GF cookbook for. I will definitely keep the carrot cake in mind (and I'd probably like the coconut cashew frosting cuz I like healthier desserts), though.

  11. Thanks for an honest and well written review. Although I admit that I rely on Ener-G a lot, mainly because I love to veganize non-vegan recipes and it's an easy way to do that, albeit a bit lazy...


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