When I was growing up in a suburban neighborhood of St. Paul, Minn., we had neighbors who didn't eat meat. The couple had a black-haired little girl with dark brown eyes and glowing pink cheeks. She didn't eat meat, either. This stirred up much curiosity among the people who lived along our street. My parents just couldn't understand it. What in the world did these people eat? How did they stay healthy?
Their questions were answered when the couple invited us to their house for dinner. Mysterious aroma greeted us at the door of their home as it wafted from their modest kitchen. I know my meat-and-potatoes-loving father was skeptical as we gathered around the table for a meatless feast the young couple had prepared.
That was my first vegetarian meal. The plate that was set before me held colorful crisp, yet tender vegetables, rice and beans with sweet and sour flavors that were new to me and dark, dense, chewy bread.
My dad cleaned his plate and went straight home to make a thick summer sausage sandwich with soft white bread.
Years ago, the young family who lived across the street from me were the only people I knew who chose to eat no meat at all.
Today, many people have made a conscious decision to eat a plant-based diet for reasons that may include better health and well-being, positive ramifications for the environment or concern over animal rights.
Twin Cities-based food writer, chef and cooking instructor Robin Asbell believes more and more people are working to integrate an abundance of plants into their diet. Her newest cookbook, "Big Vegan," makes it easy to bring bright color, wonderful texture, mouth-watering aroma and delicious flavors to the plate with ingredients that emerge from the soil.
"I'm a chef. I want real food, whole food," Asbell said in a recent interview. "I want food to taste delicious."
In "Big Vegan," Asbell proves it. With more than 350 recipes, the hefty book offers easy-to-prepare vegan (pronounced VEE-gun) creations that can be enjoyed by everyone. Whether you're a veteran, newbie or part-time vegan, Asbell's book will bring delightful surprises to your palate as you cook and bake your way through the recipes that just happen to be animal-free. From Red Lentil-Roasted Garlic Hummus to South American Sweet Potato Salad and Harvest Vegetable Stew served in Mini Pumpkins to Apple-Walnut Cake with Caramel Sauce, there is something for everyone in "Big Vegan."
As I paged through the recipes, most with short lists of familiar ingredients, I was drawn to the Sweet Potato Drop Biscuits. It's not often you find the word "drop" describing a biscuit. I felt confident I could create decent biscuits if I didn't have to roll or pat out the dough.
One day I baked a couple of sweet potatoes. After they were cool, I put them in a zip-top bag and stored them in the refrigerator. Two days later, I pureed the sweet potatoes and mixed up the dough. Dropping the dough out of a ¼-cup measure yielded a dozen moist and flavorful biscuits created with no animal products.
My life as a vegan was very short-lived. I couldn't help adding a slather of butter to the top of my biscuit.
"Big Vegan" is not about deprivation. It's a celebration of vibrant, tasty food that is plant-based. Asbell, who wrote "The New Whole Grains Cookbook" and "The New Vegetarian," will continue her celebration of plant-based food in her next book on whole-grain vegan desserts scheduled to be out in May.
Sweet Potato Drop Biscuits
Vegetable oil spray
2 1/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup organic corn or canola oil
5 tablespoons soymilk or other milk
1 1/2 teaspoons cider vinegar
1 1/2 cups mashed or pureed sweet potatoes
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lightly coat a large baking sheet with vegetable oil spray or line it with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, thyme, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
In a medium bowl, stir to combine the corn oil, soymilk and vinegar, then stir in the sweet potatoes.
Stir the wet ingredients into the dry just until mixed.
Use an oiled 1/4-cup measure to scoop and drop portions of the dough onto the prepared pan with 2 inches between the biscuits. Slightly flatten the dough to make each biscuit 1-inch thick.
Bake for 15 minutes or until the edges and bottoms of the biscuits are golden brown. Transfer the biscuits to racks and let cool, or serve warm. Store in a zip-top bag for up to 1 week. Makes 12 biscuits.
Recipe from "Big Vegan," by Robin Asbell. Chronicle Books. 2011.
Tip from the cook
--For pureed sweet potatoes needed for the biscuits, wash two or three whole sweet potatoes and prick all over with a fork. Place on a foil-lined baking pan. Bake in 400-degree oven for 45 minutes to an hour, until potatoes are tender and can easily be poked with a fork. Cool before pureeing in food processor or blender.