If you think of what inspires you, perhaps a person comes to mind. Maybe, you envision a painting, the lyrics of a poem or a dynamic speech that stir you to action.
What Bryant Terry uses as the catalyst for his incredibly interesting cookbook “The Inspired Vegan” are people who have made a difference in their community and the role of places that have left their inspiring marks upon him. This includes everyone from his parents to Detroit community activists Grace Lee Boggs and James Boggs, from New Orleans to Hong Kong.
This cookbook is described as an impromptu “jazz jam session” and is not far from the mark. Each chapter encompasses one single, thoughtful meal. He begins the chapter telling a story and engaging the reader to become part of the source of inspiration through cooking what comes next. Terry composes well-crafted menus with the skill of an artist bringing all the dishes and flavors into harmony.
To cook through this book, I considered how it would behoove me to actually cook an entire menu at once. In the spirit of brief moments logged at home during the past month and the ensuing airplane miles, I found myself taking an a la carte approach, while still appreciating all the components invested into his menus. The book is broken up into three sections: Basics, Interlude and Menus.
In the Basics section, he offers simple preparations and techniques to amplify the flavors in everyday cooking such as making your own vegetable stock, oven-roasting your own tomatoes or quick-pickling mustard greens. He then later cross-references how to use these preparations in recipes that appear later on in the menu section.
If this was a musical album, Interlude would reveal the B side songs you’re about to encounter, listed as bites, salads, side dishes, main dishes, sweets and drinks. The simple categorization helps the cookbook reader use Interlude as a resource from which to easily assemble their own meal or pick and choose the components, if they don’t delve into an entire menu.
Menus run from spring to winter, highlighting fresh and seasonal ingredients available. The menus bring a playful artistic sensibility to the concoction of drinks intended to play off the mains, sides and sweets. I, for one, appreciate his clever drink suggestions that are not always alcoholic but created to complement the menu. You’ll find a spicy tea or limeade along with his version of a Bloody Mary.
Instead of wine pairings accompanying each recipe, he suggests a song, film or book. It’s a clever trope intended to expand the story started early on in the chapter, as if setting the table and knowing that meals shared together are the gathering places for ideas and the nourishment of community.
I met Bryant Terry in an elevator earlier this year. He had just finished being a panelist in a chat on “The Intersection of Great Food, Good Health, and Social Justice.” I appreciated a comment he made about the importance to draw up leadership from the community itself, believing that is essential to long term change. It’s hard to not yammer on about the need for kids to get in the kitchen early or the right for low-income neighborhoods to have access to fresh foods and not just boxed offerings, but after we sufficiently chatted about such topics off we went in our separate directions with some similar goals. Special thanks go out to Da Capo Publishers for sending a review copy my way.
Since I’d gotten a taste for his food justice passion, I knew I needed to check out his style of cooking – a plant-based approach to empower in good health and good flavor. “The Inspired Vegan” does seek to inspire understanding that “the food revolution will find its spark in home kitchens.” (p. xvii)
Cooking through the Book in Our Kitchen
I’m usually good in abiding by the seasonal mode of eating, but I broke one of the rules out of an incessant need to sample a spring menu item in late summer. Let me tell you, the Aromatic Asparagus and Sweet Potato Curry with Cilantro, on page 67 was worth the in season rule-fudging. This “South Asian Supper” menu item featured the mellow sweetness of melted sweet potatoes paired with al dente asparagus in a curried coconut milk sauce. Think of this curry as more of a riff on an Indian curry than Thai. We looked forward to leftovers with much gusto.
One weekend, we poked into the “Fete before Fast” menu dedicated to New Orleans and soaked red beans on a Saturday night to make the Red Beans with Thick Gravy and Roasted Garlic on page 181, the next day. Here’s a perfect example of Terry at work as he makes his “thick gravy” by pulsing some of the red beans with the roasted garlic. What results, is a pot of red beans that are so soft, they win me over to actually liking kidney beans. This recipe is easy to prepare for the week ahead and makes a fine hot breakfast served over rice or the beginnings of a simple dinner.
His Savory Grits with Sauteed Broad Beans, Roasted Fennel and Thyme from the “Grits. Greens. Molasses.” menu on page 45, might have been my least favorite of the recipes we tried as it seemed a little flat in flavor. I intend to try this recipe again when favas are in season, since he suggests going fresh or frozen and I used dried. I would happily use his grits technique anytime. In a move akin to the kidney beans’ roasted garlic addition above, Terry adds cashew cream to the grits making them rich, supple and entirely unforgettable.
In keeping with the “South Asian Supper” menu theme, but on a different night, I prepared the Yellow Basmati Rice, (p. 71) and the Saag Tofu (p. 69). Stay tuned later this week for Terry’s Saag Tofu recipe. I’m of the mind that it might make a believer out of the harshest tofu critic. Instead of using paneer, the cheese for which Saag Paneer or Palak Paneer is originally named, this recipe introduces a zesty flavor in slow-roasted tofu cubes. Served over bright yellow rice, made vibrant by spicing it with turmeric, you’ve got one winning South Asian at-home meal better than take-out.
One cold summer evening in San Francisco, we dipped into the “Winter in Hong Kong” menu finding the 2 Rice Congee with Steamed Spinach on page 164 a welcome evening meal. If you’ve never had rice porridge before, it’s a cinch to put together provided you’ve got time. A bowl of this congee warmed us right up in spite of the bank of fog lodged outside our house. We took Terry up on his suggestion to serve the Congee with Quick-Pickled Mustard Greens on page 19 and the Tofu with Peanuts Roasted in Chili Oil on page 166. The acidic greens complemented the roasted peanuts and slightly spicy tofu cubes, lending a nice kick of flavor to the rice porridge.
This winter, I long to try out the recipe for the Wet Jollof Rice with Carrots, Cabbage, and Parsley-Garlic Paste on page 94 and intend to make a big pot of Roasted Winter Vegetable Jambalaya on page 179 when our late summer turns back to fog. Also, while the cookbook notes Vegan in the title, it does not require that a person adhere to the vegan lifestyle to enjoy it. Greater emphasis for health reasons, environmental and accessibility quandaries are all reasons for folks to consider incorporating more vegetables and legumes into their everyday diets.
And Terry certainly makes a plant-based diet inviting and exotic. His use of spices denotes a love of culture and people and in concocting recipes and meals that hearken their place, shares their story. I have a hunch that you might find new sources of inspiration within the pages of “The Inspired Vegan.”