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Minimal Effort, Maximum Results

A review of Dana Shultz's The Minimalist Baker's Everyday Cooking

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I am not a vegan. I was once a bad vegetarian. In high school, I decided to quit meat for no other reason but the experience itself. Meat was a staple in our household. My father, who grew up on a farm in Western Pennsylvania eating venison and squirrel potpies, ran the kitchen. There was never a question as to whether we would eat meat, just what type. So my foray into vegetarianism was a shock to the familial system. I was the only one in my immediate and extended family who considered turning their back on meat. But my vegetarianism consisted of eating French fries and ramen noodles (chicken flavored which means chicken broth was used, because I can’t emphasize enough how much I didn’t understand being a vegetarian). This period lasted for a year and ended with a McDonald’s double cheeseburger (I’m not proud). The problem was lack of inquiry. I made a lot of assumptions, but did not go out of my way to make any substantial changes to the way I approached food. There was no research on my part to better understand substitutions and alternatives. At the time, there was no widespread talk of “plant-based” meals. Vegetarianism was still regarded as fringe (at least in rural Pennsylvania) – something for neo-hippies.

Conversations regarding meat have changed since my high school days. In graduate school, my best friend and scholarly ally, was (and continues to be) a vegetarian. She introduced me to a world filled with seitan, tempeh, and avocado (my mom is allergic and my father is revolted by them, so our household was a guacamole-free zone). I began to notice the conversations we were having regarding ethics, bodies, and eating were also happening beyond our own kitchen. More people began changing their diets for health and ethical reasons. It wasn’t just Morrissey and PETA discouraging meat, it was Eating Well magazine and Dr. Oz. More and more people seem willing to go meatless on Mondays and more restaurants offer vegetarian options outside of potato side dishes and a salad of iceberg lettuce.

Parisian vegetarian restaurant. Image courtesy of Tim Venchus via Flickr.

Parisian vegetarian restaurant. Image courtesy of Tim Venchus via Flickr.

Going meatless still comes with baggage. Vegetarian and vegan cooking are often associated with being expensive and more complicated – they remain associated with privilege and only for those who can afford to buy good produce. And for somebody on a grad school budget, these complaints rang somewhat true. Recipes were full of ingredients that were either hard to find in rural Ohio supermarkets, or collectively too expensive for one meal. It helped to split costs with roommates, but when I started to live by myself again, and wanted to continue integrating more plant-based recipes in my meal plans, the costs and labor seemed overwhelming.

As a coping mechanism to handle the chaos happening inside and outside of the kitchen, I would turn to websites and cookbooks found at the library. Writing down recipes became a sort of meditation. During this period I stumbled upon Dana Shultz’s, Minimalist Baker website. Nothing about the site screams plant-based, with the focus placed more on how to make simple meals. As I scrolled through the pages, however, I realized all her recipes were meatless, but full of substance. The recipes and photos also looked appetizing. Of course, I was skeptical by the idea that cooking these recipes could be quick, cheap, relatively painless, and taste good.

Shultz’s Sweet Potato Black Bean Burger converted me. Most ingredients were easy to find and inexpensive. I usually tack on an extra hour to the prep and cook times listed, because I’m nervous and slow in the kitchen. I was surprised when I found myself finishing within the timeframes provided in the recipes. Better yet, the patties had texture and flavor. They retained their moisture and reheated easily. The batch made twelve and I had no complaints about eating burgers every day. For somebody in need of baby steps, this was the site for me.

Ever since Shultz announced she was developing a cookbook, I’ve been waiting. When Minimalist Baker’s Everyday Cooking arrived at the office, I scooped it. Every recipe is paired with a photograph (she also offers food photography workshops through the website) and so there is a model to work toward.

There is a focus on color. The individual ingredients’ shades are emphasized – avocados paired with carrots and leafy greens highlight the dynamic nature of these ingredients (for those who think avocados aren’t exciting) and that colors can go beyond the beige nature of typical vegetarian foods like tofu. Cheddar biscuits, sloppy sandwiches, more burgers, and even items like granola that regularly have little interest for me caused me to bookmark pages.

There was no shock moving from image to ingredient list and recipes. Everything seemed feasible. Typically, I’ll see a recipe and hold my breath until I see the labor and ingredient list. In the past my hopes have been dashed when I’d see 30 ingredients, 10 different Cuisinart attachments necessary, and 46 steps.

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Shultz’s Double Chocolate Gluten-Free Waffles is just one of her recipes promising to take 30 minutes with only 12 ingredients. Image courtesy of Avery Publishing.

Everyday Cooking recipes rarely go beyond ten ingredients and when they do, more often than not, it is due to individual spices, most of which are easy to find or part of most pantries (like salt and paprika). Many recipes are also gluten-free and take 30 minutes or less. This simplicity allows for fairly uncomplicated recipes, which is the Shultz’s goal and I think one necessary in a culture ever crunched for time. Some of this simplicity means short cuts – using canned foods, for example, as opposed to making sauces, but for those looking to expedite, these alterations aren’t a huge sacrifice.

But the patties I made were from Shultz’s website. The book features an array of new recipes. Again, I was skeptical. Perhaps the rush of developing recipes for publication would mean a loss of quality. I made her Vegan Breakfast Burritos and The Best Enchiladas (see recipe below) on a Sunday morning, and despite waking up at a solid 10:30 AM, I was done with everything (including eating the burrito, putting dishes in the dishwasher, and storing extras in the fridge) by 1:00 PM.

Left: Spinach and Artichoke Dip which is gluten-free, 30 minutes or less, and ten ingredients. Right: Pizza Burgers featured on the front cover and another 30 minutes or less recipe with ten ingredients (minus those for serving).

Left: Spinach and Artichoke Dip which is gluten-free, 30 minutes or less, and ten ingredients. Right: Pizza Burgers featured on the front cover and another 30 minutes or less recipe with ten ingredients (minus those for serving). Images courtesy of Avery Books.

True to her word, the recipes were light on ingredients and labor. Even when you look at the enchilada recipe (featured below), it might seem like a lengthy list but when you unpack it, you realize there really are only 10 ingredients that are repeated for use in the sauce and filling. The ingredients and instructions are also placed in blocks based on when and how you use them. The sauce has these ingredients – put them together and move onto the next section. It’s well organized for somebody like me who can get overwhelmed relatively quickly.

There was heartiness to the burrito thanks to the potatoes, but does not induce the lethargy that typically comes with a potato-based burrito. The enchiladas are both sweet and savory (thanks to the sauce and beans) and offer add-on opportunities like cheese, sour cream, or even meat if you can’t deal without. There are options to make things sweeter, more savory, or hotter/spicier depending on your inclination. Meat wasn’t missed.

Schultz's enchiladas promise to be the best vegan enchilada recipe. Image courtesy of Avery Books.

Shultz’s best enchiladas. Image courtesy of Avery Books.

Shultz’s book feels like a gift. When my vegetarian best friend/roommate and I separated, she gave me a parting gift – a recipe box full of hand-written index cards, each a recipe we had made together and ones she knew I liked. We had worked hard over two years collecting and eating these meals (many of which came from Robin Robertson’s fantastic, Vegan Fire and Spice). Reading through Minimalist Baker’s Everyday Cooking feels like I’m peeking through somebody’s own index card collection – a set of recipes tinkered with, tried, and beloved. The success of Shultz’s site is no doubt, in part, to her ability to make her food accessible and approachable. There is little pretense to her food, though there could be. Instead, Shultz illustrates a cooking philosophy based in experimentation and success through failure (many recipes mention various attempts to master or missing something with meat and trying to find a vegan hack). The book really does help the reader ease into the process of going meatless, making it seem less complicated, and dare I say, exciting.

Vegan cookbooks are few and far between, but those promising simplicity and delicious are even fewer. For my vegan and vegetarian friends, this book will add to the recipe box. For those wanting something new, this is a book that won’t overwhelm you. And for those looking to trick family members and friends with what can be made without meat, this is book is full of “I told you so” and high-five moments.

Images and recipes courtesy of Avery Books and Dana Shultz.

Melinda Lewis holds a PhD in American Culture Studies from Bowling Green State University. She watches too much TV and writes about popular culture. She is the managing editor of Table Matters.

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