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Taste Testing ‘Isa Does It’ Everyday Vegan Recipes

Would You Make This?” is a sporadic column where personal chef Alix Wall evaluates a new cookbook by making some of its recipes, sharing them with friends and asking what they think of the results.

It’s been 10 years since the Brooklyn born and raised Isa — pronounced like Lisa, without the ‘L,’ — Chandra Moskowitz first burst onto the culinary scene with her public access television show, “Post Punk Kitchen.”

Since then, a lot has happened: the former punk rock devotee and Jewish vegan activist has released six cookbooks, including perhaps her most well-known: “Vegan with a Vengeance,” and the best-selling “Veganomicon;” likely gotten more tattoos; and she left Brooklyn for Portland, Oregon, where she met the founder of Vegan Omaha, a guy named John McDevitt, and followed him to Omaha, where she lives now.

It’s here that she wrote “Isa Does It: Amazingly Easy, Wildly Delicious Vegan Recipes for Every Day of the Week,” her latest book, brimming with — as she says — “plenty of thirty-minute meals, and the ones that take longer are designed with built-in downtime, so while the quinoa and lentils are simmering, you can sit back, relax, and iron out your plans for world domination. Or just play with your cat.”

The scope of the book is vegan international: If you’re looking for a vegan version of Pad Thai, it’s in here. Enchilada casserole, check. Channa Saag, an Indian-spiced dish of chick peas and greens, she’s got you covered. In the introduction for her shiitake banh mi (a Vietnamese sandwich on a baguette, leftover from when the French colonized the country), she writes: “I came to the banh mi late in life (as I imagine most Brooklyn Jews did), but when I fell for it, I fell hard.”

While the dessert I tested wasn’t so successful, I can say I’m excited to have the book in my kitchen; if the two entrees I made are any indication of what else is in there, I can foresee some delicious meals in my future, where meat or dairy won’t be missed in the slightest.

A recent dinner party including one vegan as well as a friend who is the Art Ambassador of Berkeley, was the perfect occasion to try “Isa Does It.” The first dish I served was perhaps the most elegant and labor-intensive recipe in the book, Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Seared Brussels Sprouts & Tarragon Cream. The sweet potatoes are baked in the oven, and then mashed with flour, olive oil, miso, salt and cornstarch to make gnocchi, which are then rolled out and boiled. For the sauce, raw cashew nuts are soaked — numerous recipes in the book call for soaked cashews and Isa has even come up with the term A.B.S., which stands for “always be soaking” — and are blended with veggie stock to make cashew cream. Quartered Brussels sprouts are sautéed and then put aside, while onions, garlic and white wine make the base of the sauce, then the cashew cream is added, along with a large dose of fresh tarragon.

Given that all cashew cream sauces are not created equal, I was a bit dubious. But as soon as I added the tarragon, and a bit of white pepper (my call), it pretty much blew me away.

“The consistency of the gnocchi are spot-on,” said Paulie, (chief taster, by virtue of being my husband), before the guests arrived. He also assured me (not that I needed it) that the sauce was a knock-out.

Everyone was in agreement over just how delicious this dish was. Mike loved the licorice-y quality the tarragon brought to the sauce, as well as, visually, the orange and green together, while Susan could be heard murmuring “mmmmm” with each bite.

I had put some olives on the table which were cured with a bit of orange zest, and Alicia noticed how the orange and briney-ness of the olives were a perfect foil for the creaminess of the sauce. This dish was a unanimous hit, and I could easily envision it starring in a vegan Thanksgiving.

Would You Make It? A resounding yes by everyone.

Next, we moved onto Harira, a Moroccan one-pot meal that is often served to break the Ramadan fast. I made it not only because it featured eggplant, which I had on hand, but because it was a dish I had no exposure to, and I liked that it was a break-the-fast dish for Muslims. Plus, I couldn’t remember ever using eggplant in a soup.

While Harira is usually made with chicken or lamb, the eggplant stands in for the meat here. The addition of lentils, chick peas and pasta make this a hearty stew, with a lovely tomato-ey broth scented with paprika, cinnamon, saffron and fresh herbs. While I used a generous pinch of the optional saffron, I think the other spices overpowered its subtlety, and given its price point, I’d omit it the next time.

While Isa didn’t recommend this, I squeezed a bit of lemon juice on top before serving, which brought out the flavors even more.

Interestingly, this dish was too spicy for Susan, while Alicia didn’t get the spice at all. She felt it was something she would make for several weeknight dinners in a row. Paulie agreed, adding it was a complete meal, one he wouldn’t tire of, and said for a vegan dish, it had a “stick to the ribs” kind of heartiness that he liked.

Would you make it? Everyone but Susan: yes, though it was definitely a more weeknight meal kind of dish as opposed to a dinner party dish.

For dessert, I made Chocolate-Zucchini Bundt Cake to use up some of my endless CSA zucchini. Full disclosure: I often am disappointed by vegan desserts, and this was no exception. While in theory, I liked that this cake had zucchini and applesauce, it tasted very much like a “healthy cake” – even though it still called for a whole cup of sugar.

Mike pronounced it “gummy,” while Alicia felt the inside was too moist. As the resident vegan she has the most experience with vegan desserts, and she thought the cake could benefit from having more texture, like with walnuts or chocolate chips in it. A ganache made from almond milk, vegan chips and maple syrup poured over the top was also a “meh.” Alicia suggested a different kind of frosting, again with more texture.

Mike, a fervent pickler, said that adding sauerkraut to the cake would alleviate the gumminess factor. A scoop of vanilla Coconut Bliss helped things considerably, but no one would make this cake as is.

“If it weren’t brown, I wouldn’t necessarily know it was chocolate,” said Alicia. Paulie agreed, saying it just wasn’t chocolate-y enough. Sam was the kindest in the group, saying “I’ve never met a chocolate cake I didn’t like.”

Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Seared Brussels Sprouts & Tarragon Cream

serves 4 total time: 1 hour 30 min (plus time for soaking the cashews); active time: 30 mins

Oh, those addictive, fluffy pillows of pasta. You’d think that the kind of person who makes her own gnocchi would be a world apart from us mere mortals. But you totally can be that person! Sweet– potato gnocchi, in particular, is easier to master because of how effortless it is to achieve a creamy, fluffy potato texture, no special skills or equipment necessary.

This version is a real restaurant–style dish that I think will impress anyone. The combination of fragrant licorice–y tarragon cream complements the earthy autumnal gnocchi just right. Add the seared Brussels sprouts and well, you’re just simply killin’ it at the dinner table tonight.

Don’t worry too much about getting the shapes and sizes of the gnocchi perfect. This isn’t about perfection—it’s about love. And be it love or gnocchi, we shouldn’t have to think too hard about either one.

For the gnocchi:
1 pound garnet yams
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon mellow white miso
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 to 1 3/4 cups all–purpose flour
2 tablespoons organic cornstarch

For the Tarragon Cream and Brussels sprouts:
1/2 cup cashews, soaked for at least 2 hours (see “ABS: Always Be Soaking,” page 14)
1 1/2 cups vegetable broth
2 tablespoons olive oil
8 ounces Brussels sprouts, trimmed and quartered
3/4 teaspoon salt, plus a pinch
Several pinches of freshly ground black pepper
1 medium yellow onion, quartered and thinly sliced
1/4 cup thinly sliced garlic
1 cup dry white wine
Scant 1/4 cup loosely packed fresh
tarragon leaves

Prepare the gnocchi:

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Place the yams right on the rack, with a large baking sheet on the rack below to collect any juices that fall. Bake for 40 minutes, or until very tender. Remove from the oven and let cool.

Once cool, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

Scoop the yam insides out of their skins into a large bowl and mash well, along with the olive oil, miso, and salt. Mix in the flour, along with the cornstarch, ó cup at a time, until you’ve added 1 ½ cups flour. The dough should be soft and smooth and slightly tacky, but not so sticky that it’s clumping on your hands and difficult to work with. If needed, add a little extra flour by the tablespoon until that texture is achieved.

Lightly flour a clean work surface. Divide the dough into four balls and roll each ball into a snake that is about 1 inch in circumference.

Use a floured knife to cut the snakes into about 1-inch pieces. If you like, roll each gnocco across the back of the tines of a fork to make grooves. This takes some practice and isn’t wholly necessary, so at this point you can simply proceed to cook.

Turn the heat down slightly so that the water is at a simmer, not at a full rolling boil. Use a slotted spoon to lower the gnocchi into the water. Once all the gnocchi have been added, wait for them to float to the surface. Let them bob for a minute or so, then remove with a slotted spoon and transfer to a large plate until ready to serve. If you need to heat them through before serving, simply sauté for a minute or so.

Prepare the sauce and the brussels sprouts: Drain the cashews and add them to a blender along with the vegetable broth. Blend until very smooth. This could take anywhere from 1 to 5 minutes depending on the strength of your machine. Scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula occasionally to make sure you get everything. It should be very smooth, with only a slight graininess.

In the meantime, sear the Brussels sprouts. Preheat a large cast-iron pan over medium-high heat and add 1 tablespoon of the oil. Sauté the Brussels sprouts in the oil with ¼ teaspoon salt and some pepper for about 5 minutes, until lightly browned. Now add about ¼ cup water and immediately cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid to finish off the cooking. Let steam for about 1 minute. The water should be absorbed. Remove from the pan and set aside.

Lower the heat under the pan to medium, add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil, and sauté the onion and sliced garlic in the oil with a pinch of salt for about 7 minutes, until lightly browned.

Add the wine, remaining ½ teaspoon salt, and some pepper, stir, and turn the heat up to high. Let the wine reduce by about half. This should take 5 minutes or so. Turn the heat down to medium.

Stir in the tarragon leaves. Pour in the cashew mixture. Stir until well combined, and let cook and thicken for about 5 minutes. Thin with a little water or veggie broth if necessary; you want it to have a pourable consistency. Taste for seasoning. Add the Brussels sprouts back in and toss to coat.

Now divide the gnocchi among bowls. Cover with sauce and Brussels sprouts, and serve.

Recipe reprinted from ISA DOES IT Copyright © 2013 by Isa Chandra Moskowitz. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher. Reprinted by arrangement with Little, Brown and Company.


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