I grew up in Austin, Texas on a steady diet of barbeque and Tex-Mex. My childhood and adolescence was a solid stream of brisket, jalapeño sausage, breakfast tacos, chicken enchiladas, occasionally interrupted by the same cheeseburgers and pepperoni pizza that everyone seems to have had in common. In college, I taught non-native Texans about chipotle chili and chicken fried steak. But in both my last year of graduate school and my 20s, I made some significant Life Changes. One of which, and the most pertinent to this cookbook review is this: I stopped eating meat.
Admittedly, I had done brief stint as a vegetarian before; however, this was as a 19 year old, still eating the vast majority of her meals in the college’s dining hall. This time, I gave up meat equipped with very little money, a tiny kitchen, and not much time to cook around teaching, grading, and finishing my dissertation. I have always enjoyed scouring the Internet for recipes and adding them to Pinterest boards—the natural, much more efficient successor to copying them down in a composition notebook—and so I turned to the Internet and its proliferation of food blogs to offer me vegetarian and vegan recipes beyond veggie fajitas and pesto pasta.
I stumbled upon Jeanine Donofrio’s blog, Love and Lemons, and, spurred by the vibrant photos and the fact that she, too, hailed from Austin, I purchased her recently published cookbook, The Love & Lemons Cookbook: An Apple-to-Zucchini Celebration of Impromptu Cooking. The cookbook’s structure differs from the traditional “Appetizer, Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Dessert” arrangement; it is organized, instead, alphabetically by fruit or vegetable. Each fruit or vegetable’s section entails a few recipes that make that food one of its star ingredients. As Donofrio encourages her readers to cook seasonally, I took her advice; resultantly, I largely sampled only those recipes favoring autumn, winter, and spring produce. The other caveat for my review is that my boyfriend, who is vegan, joined me in my exploration of this cookbook. Therefore, we only sampled the recipes that were vegan, or could be made vegan by absenting certain ingredients or making other alterations. Donofrio herself frequently makes suggestions at the end of each recipe for ways to make it either gluten-free or vegan if it is not already thus; so, this restriction only became a barrier in a small handful of breakfast recipes—such as “Baked Eggs with Kale, Sage & Sweet Potatoes”—that heavily feature eggs.
The cookbook opens with Donofrio’s urging her readers to find cooking freedom by learning the art of “impromptu cooking”—i.e. how to cook with what you have, and avoid those week-long meal plans that can be aggravating nigh impossible to maintain. I have to admit, I’m still working on this. Sure, it sounds ideal, but in eastern Iowa in the winter there is no farmer’s market from which to leisurely select ‘whatever looks good’, and a graduate student recently transplanted into a new apartment with a just as newly depleted savings account in no way has even half of the pantry staples that seem required to live this life of Cooking Nirvana. However, if I could not necessarily live the essence of the book in my kitchen, I nevertheless did work my way through a considerable percentage of the recipes.
Donofrio clearly loves kale. I mention this because it is a stereotype about vegans and vegetarians; in this case it happens to be true. The cookbook not only features “Kale Salad with Roasted Root Vegetables”, but also a full-page guide on “How to Make a Kale Salad” complete with four different variations. The green also makes its way into a large number of the recipes, from “Peanut Noodle Kale Bowls” to “Kale and Fennel Vegetable Soup.” It even makes a cameo appearance in “Carrot and Tomato Tagliatelle” and “Spring Leek and Lemon Pasta.” But—I hasten to add—in both of these pasta recipes, the amount of kale seemed excessive to me, as if the kale was not satisfied with a supporting role and sought the limelight. I saw fit to add kale to taste, rather than incorporating the 2-3 cup measurements suggested in the recipes.
Many of the recipes do lend themselves to easy alterations. “Butternut Squash & Black Bean Enchiladas” has become quite a favourite in our meatless household; Donofrio’s red sauce uses diced tomatoes and chipotle peppers in adobo sauce and is exceedingly easy to alter based on one’s heat preferences (we are very fond of spicy food and so sub in fire-roasted tomatoes and double the chipotles). It’s also a simple matter to exchange dairy-free cheese for the grated cheddar cheese that is meant to top the enchiladas. In fact, adjusting the recipes to one’s own individual tastes—and to the availability of the ingredients—seems to be right in line with Donofrio’s cookbook philosophy.
But perhaps the biggest surprise—and also my biggest complaint—about these recipes was that, for the most part, they were not very filling. Though recipes like “Lemon Broccoli & Caper Cousous” and “Coconut Rice with Brussels Sprouts” were absolutely delicious, seasonal, and inventive, the listed serving size (4) was deceptive. My boyfriend and I consistently finished the entire output of food and, a few hours later, had to make popcorn to get us through the night. As a veteran vegan, he would not let me complete my review without noting that the recipes do not seem to be mindful of the need for protein.
Yet, I consider this cookbook a success. The recipes effectively showcase the flavors and flexibility of various fruits and vegetables, making the book a cornucopia of inspiration for plant-based cooking. As a recently converted vegetarian cooking with and for a vegan partner, I found The Love & Lemons Cookbook both highly accessible and comforting. The recipes themselves represent creative combinations of flavors that frequently would otherwise not have occurred to me. I recommend this cookbook wholeheartedly, as its own philosophy of “impromptu” cooking is easily upheld by the ease with which the recipes can be altered due to either desire or necessity.