I love a good vegetarian cook book, not only for the delicious recipes but also to use it as evidence to convince my omnivore friends that the food I eat isn’t bland and disgusting. Unfortunately, this collection isn’t useful in either regard.
The Ultimate Vegetarian Collection is not so ultimate, but is actually very junior and introductory. The book itself hides this well – it looks very polished and put together but when it comes to actually using it, the curtain falls. Like most vegetarians, I can easily spot the difference between vegetarian meals made by a vegetarian and ones made by omnivores – the difference being that omnivores make bland vegetarian food, as they often just make a meat centred meal and minus the meat, leaving a bland and uninspired dish. In this way, most vegetarians would tell you that the recipes in this book will get boring very quickly. Without meat, extra variety and flavour are essential. Here however, most of the meals don’t have a meat substitute at all, whereas vegetarians will always need tofu or beans or some other additional source of the nutrients to replace meat. But that’s just the first grievance.
On the other end of the scale, the book also highlights vegetarian meals that are so obvious they don’t need to be in a collection at all, such as baking, desserts and breakfast foods like muesli, pancakes and French toast. Including them in this book isn’t very impressive as they are meals that can easily be made vegetarian already – you don’t need a book to tell you that. What would have been helpful is more of a focus on how to build a healthy vegie diet. There is a section called “making the most of vegetables” which seemed like a missed opportunity for this. Rather than providing info on how best to store fruit and veg, it should have talked about the iron and protein levels in each item and match it to the amount we need to consume daily. Again, writing about how to store vegetables suggests this book is directed more at omnivores wanting to expand their diet, not at vegetarians looking to try new recipes.
That said, the ease of the recipes makes it easy to find time to try a few, and while they’re perfectly adequate as meals, they’re not something I’d serve to impress guests nor will they be replacing any of my regular go-to recipes. I made the pumpkin soup, French onion soup and minestrone (soups are great for lazy people like me to make in bulk and then feast off it the rest of the week), and I even tried out Elizabeth’s Favourite Salad which like many of the recipe titles, is hyperbole. It was basically guacamole with lettuce – like all the recipes it’s not bad, but not amazing either.
As a very visual person, I like my cooking books to be rife with pictures – a photo for every recipe preferably. The few showcased here are nothing flash as far as food photography goes and don’t inspire you to get cooking, but are very basic. Granted, “everyday food” has always been Holst’s style, but I still felt it could be dressed up a bit. But really this is a reflection of the meals themselves which aren’t even remotely detailed or elaborate. Recipes such as aubergine stacks, which is literally slices of aubergine layered with slices of tomatoes with cheese melted over it, is as much of a meal as mashed potatoes, scrambled eggs and similar foods included. There were even “meals” that had no proper ingredients and method, but were as simple as “corn cobs”. It was a little baffling flicking through the pages seeing things like this – it’s just disappointing.
Many of the recipes hover in ingredient purgatory, where the simplicity of the meal is sometimes contradicted by more elite ingredients. Who has dry sherry, truffle-infused oil and pistachios on hand? Not me, or the people I assumed this book is targeted at. Because of this, I’m still not sure who the audience is meant to be, as families wanting easy and basic recipes will find a few hurdles in here. Even in terms of physical practicality, this book didn’t win me over. It’s a beautiful, heavy hardback which is fine if you just want it sitting on your shelf, but as a book you would be using on the regular, would need to sit comfortably on a recipe stand or lying open on a bench. Instead, I had to awkwardly weigh the pages open with other items on my kitchen bench just to read it in between preparing my meals.
If you’re an omnivore who wants to eat more veg, but prefers no-frills meals then this book might be useful – though if you fall into this category, you should just save the money and find these basic recipes on line. If you’re a fellow vegetarian looking to try new and exciting dishes, you’re best to look elsewhere.