21 April 2012

Cookbook Review: Gluten-Free Vegan Comfort Food

A few months ago, a representative from Da Capo Press generously offered to send me a review copy of Gluten-Free Vegan Comfort Food: 125 simple and satisfying recipes from "mac and cheese" to chocolate cupcakes (2012), the latest cookbook authored by Susan O'Brien.* I am not particularly sensitive to gluten, but am always eager to familiarize myself with methods of food preparation that are suitable for the people I know who are gluten-sensitive or -intolerant. And with the assurance of vegan comfort food appeal--in the form of "125 simple and satisfying recipes," in fact--the book aims to do more than just cater to special dietary needs; it intends to feed body, mind, heart, and then some.

For those individuals who may be hesitant to jump into gluten-free vegan cooking, rest assured: O'Brien provides an informative "About the Ingredients" section that discusses the types of gluten-free vegan items she uses for the recipes in the book. There are clear notes about "foods to avoid" for vegans and further clarification about what items gluten-sensitive or -intolerant consumers must also avoid. O'Brien also discusses flours and starches, other dry ingredients, sweeteners, nondairy milks, vegan cheeses, egg replacers, and fats in detail, highlighting both common and preferred ingredients within each category; they constitute a useful reference for seasoned vegan cooks, gluten-free cooks, and new cooks alike. I particularly enjoying reading the sections about cooking with wine, the importance of using organic and non-GMO products, and farmers' markets and food co-ops. They're details which I don't tend to acknowledge as readily as the items themselves, so mention of them serves as a much-appreciated nudge to be more mindful of my consumer practices.

The recipes are organized in chapters, ranging from "Ideas for Breakfast" to "Family Favorites" to "Delightful Desserts." They are fairly easy to navigate, although I was momentarily confused by the inclusion of two different lasagna recipes in different chapters (but that's probably just a weird quirk of mine). Admittedly, I generally prefer to see the usual appetizer-pasta-entree-etc type of divisions, just because it does make sifting through the recipes extremely straightforward. No matter; this format really is quite hassle-free.

With that, let's talk recipe review (plus a bonus recipe near the end of this blog post)...

Candied Nuts (page 62)
This recipe is incredibly simple to make. Although the nuts didn't turn out very sweet--not really sweet enough to be considered "candied," in my opinion--they were certainly good and highly munchable.

Red Pepper Hummus (page 58)
Another simple appetizer, this hummus had good flavor that was very much like traditional hummus with the slightest hint of red pepper sweetness and color.
Millet Bread (page 101)
I had high hopes for this bread. Very limited success with baking gluten-free, yeast-risen bread has made me a little resistant to subsequent attempts, perhaps made worse by my being so accustomed to and enamored of wheat bread (both in terms of the overall product and ease of making it). Unfortunately, this Millet Bread didn't do anything to soften my resistance. The dough was difficult to manage and the loaf ended up dense, with a tight crumb and coarse texture. O'Brien suggests broiling the loaf to brown the exterior; doing so ended up making a very hard crust, even without much browning. The flavor was fine, but not enough for me to want to make another attempt on this bread anytime soon.
Cornbread with Green Chiles (page 100)
I also expected more from this cornbread, which I didn't end up liking at all. The texture was dry, crumbly, and dense, and the flavor (surprisingly bland) was no saving grace.
Black Bean Burgers, Kristine-Style (page 128)
As someone who happens to love black beans, I find it difficult to resist the call of a black bean burger. These were easy to assemble and turned out well. They were best eaten warm, as they dried out a bit after they cooled.
Avocado Mayo (page 197)
Although I've never been inclined to add condiments to my food, I made this mayo with the intention of eating it with the black bean burgers, as well as for the sake of being open to trying previously-disliked food items. I turns out that the burgers didn't really benefit from the addition of the mayo, which boasted little flavor. That may be dependent on the amount of flavor in the avocado itself. In any case, I ended up adding more seasoning, primarily in the form of additional hot sauce, just to get myself to accept the use of this mayo as a condiment.
Meatless Meatballs (page 139)
These nuggets of mushrooms and walnuts were delicious--convincingly "meaty" in flavor and appearance. The soft, moist interior made them almost juicy. I started making these before realizing that the parsley the recipe required was suddenly nowhere to be found. Fortunately, neither flavor nor texture suffered from the lack of parsley, although a touch of green, herbal freshness would have been a lovely addition. This is certainly one of my favorite recipes from the book so far.
My Favorite Lasagna (page 137)
This lasagna (not to be confused with Traditional Lasagna, which is a separate recipe in the book) is also very good. Making lasagna can be a labor-intensive project, but the layers of flavor (pun intended...har har) make the task worthwhile. The red sauce was a particularly delectable combination of tangy, savory, sweet, and spicy flavors. It was balanced by the creamy richness of the mushroom cream cheese sauce. I topped the lasagna with vegan mozzarella, because I had some on hand and cheese was listed in one of the steps, although not in the ingredients (oddly enough); it fit in nicely with the overall flavor of the dish. Texturally, the lasagna was akin to one made with wheat noodles. The brown rice noodles I used actually seemed to hold up better than wheat noodles, the former retaining a good chew that usually disappears for the latter once they absorb more of the liquid.
Cinnamon-Oat Scones (page 36)
I hate to say it, but these scones were not very good. They had the texture I have come to associate with too many gluten-free baked goods: sandy, crumbly, and dry. If the oats were meant to provide textural interest, I didn't notice it. However, I do see promise with this recipe and am willing to give it another shot, albeit with some alterations. The addition of nuts and dried or fresh fruit and berries may help with the lack of moisture. Additional spice or extract, perhaps even a glaze, could also give these scones a much-needed flavor boost.
Chocolate-Dried Cherry Biscotti (page 172)
Biscotti are some of my favorite types of cookies. This gluten-free version relies almost entirely on nuts for its body and crunch--something I don't mind at all, as I tend to enjoy the inclusion of nuts in baked goods. The limited amount of starch may have been what made the dough a bit difficult to work with, but once baked, the cookies held together just fine. Simultaneously chocolaty, crisp, and chewy, these biscotti were a welcome treat after the aforementioned recipe mishaps.
Banana-Nut Bread (page 35)
This bread was actually the first Gluten-Free Vegan Comfort Food item I attempted and ended up being one of my favorites. That familiar banana bread flavor was there and the texture was comparable to that of wheat-based quick bread. Save for the top sinking in slightly and a bit of crumbling upon initial slicing, this gluten-free loaf held up quite well. It also happened to be quite moist and remained so a few days after I baked it. Although sweeter than I prefer, the bread wasn't what I would consider cloying. However, I have made it again with just the maple syrup and no granulated sugar, which yielded a sweetness more to my liking without harming the bread's texture. I recommend adding the optional cardamom; its subtle spiciness pairs beautifully with the cinnamon. The publishing company has been gracious enough to allow me to share this recipe with you, so please do give it a try!
Banana-Nut Bread
A great way to use up any ripe bananas and a GREAT snack for the kids to take to school, have with breakfast, or eat as an after-school snack. This is also a terrific bread to serve to guest or just enjoy with a hot cup of tea.

Makes 1 loaf

1/4 cup canola oil
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup organic chunky applesauce
2 ripe bananas, mashed
1/4 cup coconut or sorghum flour
1 1/4 cups all-purpose gluten-free flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon xantham gum
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of cardamom, optional
1/2 cup chopped walnuts

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease and flour a standard bread pan.
2. In a large mixing bowl, beat together the canola oil, maple syrup, sugar, vanilla, and applesauce. Mash bananas with a fork, and then add to the mixture, stirring to combine.
3. In a small bowl, combine the dry ingredients and stir well.
4. Incorporate the dry ingredients with the wet ingredients and beat 30 seconds, or until the batter is well blended. Fold in walnuts.
5. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 40 to 45 minutes. Check the center of the bread for doneness by inserting a toothpick, which when removed, should be completely clean. Let stand on a wire rack for 10 minutes before removing the bread from the pan.

From the book Gluten-Free Vegan Comfort Food by Susan O'Brien. Excerpted by arrangement with Da Capo Lifelong, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2012. www.dacapopresscookbooks.com
Although I have not been pleased with every recipe I've tried from Gluten-Free Vegan Comfort Food, there is certainly enough that has turned out well to convince me to try my hand at more of O'Brien's comfort food creations. Pizza, Vegetable Potpie, and Tempeh Tacos are just a few of the recipes I have eagerly bookmarked. Truth be told, it's difficult to pass up any comfort food recipe, so I may end up cooking through the majority of the book sooner than expected! I know I won't exclusively be cooking gluten-free fare in the near future, but I'm happy to have this book as a guide during my occasional avoidance of gluten.

*Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this cookbook from the publisher. The opinions expressed here are entirely my own; I was neither paid nor otherwise pressured to write favorably on the topic, or even to share my opinion publicly.


  1. fantastic review, tiffany!  i enjoyed reading it very much.  you have a great way with words ;)

  2. Nice review! The recipes look great, too. 


Thanks for reading! Your comments are always welcome and appreciated. :)