May 13, 2009

Cookbook review: Peta's Vegan College Cookbook

I was asked to review Peta's Vegan College Cookbook and was really looking forward to it even though it's been an awfully long time since I was in college. I don't know what I was expecting, but when I first saw the recipes, I was a little worried. For one thing, everything that's cooked, is cooked in a microwave (though you could adapt the recipes to stove and oven). And the recipes are heavily dependent on canned, frozen and fake food - lots of fake food. Not my usual style of cooking, but it makes sense, when you consider the lack of cooking facilities dorm residents face, coupled with their lack of storage. They often have a tiny refrigerator and a microwave in a micro-room. Not to mention the not- yet-fully-developed cooking skills of many college students, living on their own for the first time. Most of the ingredients are standard supermarket stuff, but some things, like vegan cream cheese and vegan mayo may be harder to find depending on where you live.

The book starts out by suggesting a list of staples to have on hand, and offers an extensive and very helpful list of meat and dairy alternatives, including brand names. The recipe section is divided into categories for breakfast, sandwiches, salads, soups, sauces, dinner, drinks, dips, snacks and desserts. There also are special sections for student staples like peanut butter, potatoes and ramen. The brand name product list was especially helpful since I'd never purchased "chicken strips" and didn't know what to look for!

WTF? Wings (looks a little like fried slugs but tastes like chicken!)

To be perfectly honest, the first few times I looked at the recipes I couldn't find anything that I'd actually want to eat! I laughed at the sandwiches — do you really need a recipe that tells you to put hummus, lettuce and tomato between two slices of bread? Or cream cheese on a bagel? There's even a "recipe" for ants on a log (called Ants on a Blog). Many of the recipes called for such excessive amounts of vegan cream cheese and mayo — sometimes in the same recipe — I could feel my jeans getting tighter as I read the list of ingredients.

Super Cheezy Sauce over rice and The Sweetness 'Tater Salad

I scratched my head and agonized over how to be fair but honest. I wanted to like this book, I really did. So, I sat myself down and took a much closer look. It's true there's a recipe calling for one cup of mayo to make a dressing for two people to dip pizza into, but on looking closer, I found lots of healthier choices, too. Something for everyone. And, if you're a new, aspiring vegetarian or vegan coming directly from a meat-eating family, maybe a few ideas for the simplest meals a vegan can throw together is exactly what you need.

Tough and Stuffed Sweet Potatoes (future post coming on this)

I decided to actually try a few recipes from several of the categories before passing judgement, choosing a mix of healthy and less healthy foods. The first thing I tried was definitely on the healthy side — The Sweetness 'Tater Salad — from the potato section (photo above). It contained raw, grated sweet potato, shredded cabbage from a bag, shredded carrots, raisins, apple, canned pineapple, lemon juice and olive oil. It was quick and easy to make, light and crunchy. It was supposed to serve two but there was an enormous amount that would easily serve four or more. Two of us happily ate it for dinner and lunch the next day, and there was still some left. I also made Super Cheezy Sauce to serve over precooked (Trader Joe's frozen to keep with the book's theme) rice. This was practically an instant sauce with yeast flakes, soy sauce, olive oil and water, and tasted surprisingly good.

In a Pickle Chickpea Salad

 I made WTF? Wings (that's right) out of chicken strips (photo above), and although they were too salty for me, my son ate them all! They were tasty and chewy and I think anyone looking for a salty meat-like main dish or snack food would find them yummy. For a healthier dish from the salad section, I made In a Pickle Chickpea Salad, and it was incredibly quick and really delicious — something I would make again.

EZ Cheezy Broccoleezy

In the dinner section, I decided on two dishes, one healthy and one — ahem —less healthy. The healthy one, a delicious recipe called Tough and Stuffed Sweet Potatoes (photo above), had sweet potato, black beans and tomato, and the other, Chick Magnet "Chicken" Casserole (photo below), had everything from tofu to vegan cheddar to corn chips to chicken strips and more — probably enough salt and fat to supply an adult for weeks. For balance, I tried EZ Cheezy Broccoleezy (photo above) from the snack section. The casserole was probably the strangest thing I've ever "cooked" in my adult life, but it was delicious. It was the kind of thing a busy person, student or not, could serve to omni friends, and they'd love it. It's hard to believe it's vegan. (To cut the salt content a little, I only used half the recommended amount of chicken strips and no additional salt in the filling, but it was still intensely flavorful.) The broccoli was fine if you don't mind the slightly rubbery texture of frozen veggies. But who can complain about broccoli as a snack?

Chick Magnet "Chicken" Casserole

I couldn't resist the ice cream and pudding pie recipe from the dessert section. I had the ice cream and pudding ready to go, but then reconsidered. It didn't seem possible to mix ice cream and pudding and place it in the refrigerator for a few hours, and end up with anything but ice cream soup. I guess the recipe meant to say, "vegan pudding mix" not "vegan pudding." And what kind of pudding mix? Would that be Jello instant pudding? Well, I just couldn't bring myself to use that chemical mix — chicken strips were challenge enough! — and the other pudding mixes I encountered either had to be cooked or mixed with tofu. So I made my own instant dessert with the ice cream and pudding. I layered raspberry ice cream with chocolate pudding, sliced strawberries and sliced bananas. It wasn't a pie, but it was good — my contribution to the next edition! And proof that the book offers inspiration as well as recipes.

Parfait not actually in, but inspired by, the cookbook

The authors have fullfilled their promise. Peta's Vegan College Cookbook would be a great reference for making quick, easy and enjoyable vegan food. It's filled with ideas for making the most of limited cooking equipment and supplies. With a very small amount of effort, even a student in a dorm room can enjoy delicious, vegan meals and snacks, and create dips, spreads and even whole dinners for parties. I'm not sure I would consider it cheap, though, as the authors imply. Living on packaged goods is much more expensive than cooking from scratch, but the book is primarily intended for those with limited access to cooking facilities.

If you've gotten this far and think you'd like to own the book, or give it to your favorite college student, leave a comment to that effect by May 20. (U.S. and Canada only, sorry) I'll randomly choose a name and announce the winner on this blog. Once the winner sends me a mailing address, the (slightly used) book will be on it's way!

(It's also OK to leave a comment if you don't want the book!)

other reviews:


  1. I love cookbooks, and I think that chickpea salad looks great! I never win anything, but it is worth a try, right?!


  2. I'm a brand new vegan, and would LOVE this book! I need all the help I can get. Thanks!

  3. I'm not commenting for a chance to win the book, I just wanted to say what a great book review! Very detailed and honest, and to tell you the truth, I don't seem that interested in it, even if I was back in school. :(

  4. Wow, I'm impressed! You really put this book to the test. I am with you on the health thing though. While there are some gems, I'm well passed those college years of convenience foods :)

  5. Courtney and Michelle,
    Thanks for your comments and good luck winning the book!

    LK and Alisa,
    I really appreciated (and agree with) your thoughts. The book really does cover a range of choices from very processed to healthy and natural, with a theme of quick and easy. It could be a useful reference for a new vegan cook.

  6. This looks like a fun book! I've been out of college for a year, but I'm always looking for super-quick vegan meals and anything fun to convince my omni husband that vegan can be tasty and easy!

  7. Wow, you are quite the reviewer! (Note to self...)

    I have to admit, for a college cookbook I was disappointed that the 'tater salad wasn't made from tots, but I'll get over it. Thinking about college cooking makes me very glad I'm past those days, but I'm glad there are resources for kids now.

  8. Yeah. Bummer about the tots. You'd think with a whole section about potatoes there'd be at least one!

  9. I think there's a place for this kind of book, and I don't mean the trash can! I'm sure just about any cook book can inspire one or two ideas or variations to try. I'd like to give it a try.

  10. Great review, Andrea! I am intrigued.

  11. I am so impressed you found worthwhile recipes in that book, because when you first showed it to me I DID comment that it would be perfect for my college daughter, and then laughed at the ingredients and recipes! But you sure showed us! If I won the book, you can be sure Roya would find it in her kitchen.... just as soon as I copied down the chickpea salad recipe...

  12. I am trying to go vegan so this seems like a great book for a new convert. Thanks for the opportunity.

  13. Oh, man, I thought this was one cookbook I could do without. But the broccoli and chickpeas look so good! AND my son and his gf could really use it too, although I can proudly say my son cooks quite nicely without recipes - not as well as your son though! You don't have to enter my name for the drawing. I've been out of college a very long time!

  14. That parfait looks wonderful! I would love a copy of the book seeing as I'm a newbie college vegan.

  15. Lovely giveaway for me, since my daughter is a vegan, and i am trying to follow suit!

  16. Hi!
    The sweet potato and pickle/chickpea recipe looks really great! I'm new to veganism and a college student, and look forward to getting tips anywhere I can!


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