Fine Dining For All

Vegan cuisine has come a long way in just the past decade. Beginning as humble hippie fare, there are now numerous restaurants elevating the meatless and milkless to the level of fine dining. Candle 79, self-proclaimed “vegan oasis” in New York City, is one of the first restaurants that come to mind in this category, as they’ve consistently excelled in the field even before mainstream diners were aware of the growing movement. Be that as it may, two outposts in one city creates a relatively limited sphere of influence, and vegetable-lovers all throughout the country could only drool and dream over their lavishly written menus. As of 2012, that unattainable fantasy is now a concrete reality, thanks to the release of the Candle 79 Cookbook. Scores of elegant dishes, complex flavors, and fancier fare than the standard weeknight meal, it’s a breath of fresh air to see a solid entry in this field of vegan cooking. The previously released Candle Cafe Cookbook could almost be viewed as the starting point on a journey up the fine dining staircase; this new entry finally makes it to the top.

Seeking an elegant starter to whet my appetite, the Heirloom Tomato-Avocado Tartare (page 6) was a stunningly easy recipe to whip together. Not entirely dissimilar to chunky guacamole, minus the heat, fresh, bright, and clean flavors balanced in delicate harmony. The addition of oyster mushrooms struck me as particularly brilliant, lending a subtle savory undertone without disrupting the texture. Speaking of which, the combination of creamy avocado and the garnish of crunchy tortilla strips was spot-on, and although that finishing touch may appear minimal, do not feel tempted to leave them out! While the rest of the tartare is very clean and light, that fried topping brings a touch of decadence and whimsy back to the dish.

Moroccan-Spiced Chickpea Cakes (page 66) were a clear choice from the moment I cracked open the book’s binding. A more involved plate calling for three separate elements, it could certainly be simplified with a store-bought chutney or curry sauce, but you’d be missing out, because the real winner of this combination was the Red Bell Pepper-Curry Sauce (page 117.) I was scraping my plate clean with a spoon long after the chickpea cake was devoured, and have plans to make a new batch of sauce for pasta, veggies, and anything else I can throw together. Subtly sweet, mildly spiced but incredibly flavorful, this is an absolute winner. Even though I cheated a bit and used yellow peppers instead of red, I don’t think this dressing suffered in the least.

Let’s not forget the chickpea cake in the glory of the curry sauce, though! Striking me as the perfect sort of burger patty, I would make those again in a heart-beat come grilling season. Between two buns, this fine fare could blend right in to the everyday meal. Moist without being mushy inside, crisp on the outside (admittedly, after an extra 20 minutes of baking) and redolent of smoked paprika, I can’t imagine anyone not loving this.

Next time, I could do without the chutney, which was doomed from the start knowing my distaste for fruit in savories. To make a more seasonally appropriate offering, and because I couldn’t possibly find apricots in January, I converted the Apricot Chutney (page 125) to a green apple chutney. The ginger pairs beautifully with the tart apples, so I think it would be a hit… With someone who appreciates such a thing.

Seeking a quick fix for dinner one day, the Setian Wheatballs (page 94) stood out as an easy, hearty entree. Normally not the sort of recipe that draws me in, I was most enticed by the fact that we had all of the ingredients on hand, and the falling snow outside dissuaded me from a quick grocery trip. Though tender and tasty enough, they seemed a bit too delicate for a “meatball,” and very mild in flavor. They almost disappeared into the mild-mannered store bought sauce (yes, I cheated) and plain spaghetti. Overall, inoffensive but forgettable.

Finally, ending on a sweet note, the Sourdough French Toast (page 136) had me intrigued. Using a custard that seemed more like unbaked cheesecake batter, it was clear that this would be far richer than my typical approach. True to form, it was not quite like a “traditional” egg-based French toast according to my omnivorous dining companion, but different does not mean bad. Lightly spiced and plenty sweet without any additional syrup, I can’t say it’s my favorite rendition, but it’s a nice change of pace from the norm.

If you’ve made it this far through my exhaustive descriptions, your patience will be rewarded because you now have a chance at winning your own copy of the Candle 79 Cookbook! It took some string-pulling and help from the gracious, lovely, and ultra-talented Mimi Clark to secure a second book, but I really wanted to share this unique text. To enter, your question is this: What Candle 79 dish would you most like to try? It can be a recipe from the cookbook or anything on the menu, past or present. Leave me a comment with your name and email in the appropriate fields before Tuesday, January 31st at midnight EST to have your entry count. This one is open to residents of the US only, because it is a woefully heavy hardcover to ship.


Plate to Pixel

Like awaking suddenly from a deep sleep, disoriented but instantly frantic to pop out of bed and get started, I find myself smack-dab in the middle of fall festivities and obligations, with a workload heavy enough to topple the Tower of Pisa once and for all. It’s a strange time of year, where the end of summer always comes far earlier than the calendar states, further confused by the influx of winter holiday articles and photos requested for future publication. Regardless, vacation is over, school is back in session, and it’s back to the daily grind; Homework done, I’m ready to present to the class a report on my summer reading.

Plate to Pixel: Digital Food Photography & Styling by friend and inspiration, Helene Dujardin, is quite frankly a must-read for any budding food photographer. Especially applicable to the food blogger but also general photo enthusiast, there are few options on the market with this specialized knowledge in such an approachable and easily digested format. Consider it a cookbook for concocting the most delectable pictures possible, including all of the critical ingredients in a successful shot, and thorough instructions on how to bring that scene to life in a still image.

Needless to say, the photos are plentiful and every last one stunning, illustrating each point eloquently. Helen writes in a friendly, personable tone, that makes each lesson feel more like chatting with a friend than taking a class on photography. She covers not only the technical basics including f/stops, white balance, plus lighting considerations and so forth, but also dives into composition and styling, explaining why some photos just work, while others miss the mark. Everything that goes into one of Helen’s highly sought after photos is detailed here, almost like a cheat sheet for the rest of us still figuring out the art. Not just for the beginner either, Helen lays it all out on the table, including EXIF data for each image and advice on improving workflow.

In short, Plate to Pixel is a reference book that won’t spend too much time on your shelf, because you’ll want to look back over it time and again. In fact, it’s such a helpful tool to anyone passionate on the subject, I made sure I requested a second copy from the publisher to give out to one lucky reader. If you’d like a chance at winning this book, just leave me one comment below with accurate contact information filled out for your email address, and tell me: What kind of camera do you use? Be sure to enter before Monday, September 19th, Midnight EST, at which point a winner will be drawn at random.