Every time I see a Tom Cruise film, I desperately hope it will be terrible, just to vindicate my deep dislike of the man himself. Ella Woodward (now Mills) is the Tom Cruise of the cooking world for me. I admit that I approached this book hoping I would hate it, but I still wanted to give it a fair review. I expected it to be the cookbook equivalent of Edge of Tomorrow, and I would have to grudgingly admit that she wasn’t the devil after all, so I was quite pleasantly surprised to find that the recipes were absolute bobbins. Now I’m justified in my dislike of the author and her empire! Hurrah!
What’s my beef with the author? Well, she’s not exactly a great voice for veganism, despite producing a largely plant-based food empire (she uses honey), and despite a lot of her customers being vegan. In this interview with the Telegraph, she says of the vegan lifestyle: “It’s all about being really exclusive and I think it so often comes with a criticism of other people. While I love and would encourage as many people as possible to try a plant-based diet, I’m not sitting here judging anyone.” Except vegans, of course.
She goes on: “For me it’s about natural food, eating a healthy diet, but also being as accessible as possible.” I’m not sure you can really call this book accessible. From a financial standpoint, there are lots of dishes calling for almond butter and dates. And from another point of view, my brother once asked me to recommend a vegan recipe to him, but specified that it shouldn’t contain any ingredients that would require a trip to a specialist shop – it’s not really accessible if you can’t pick it up at your little local supermarket.
Slagging off a large percentage of your target audience is pretty stupid. But with two books, a successful blog and her own deli, I was expecting the food to wear me down and overcome some of my doubts. But the recipes were just baffling. Sometimes fine, sometimes just plain old bad. Let’s have a closer look.
Starting with breakfast, of course: the cinnamon pecan granola was tasty and had a nice combination of flavours (cinnamon, coconut oil, maple syrup). It didn’t contain as much oil/syrup as a lot of other recipes I’ve seen, which was nice, and everything still held together beautifully.
I really enjoyed the apple and cinnamon porridge bake, though I would leave it soaking in the fridge overnight and add some nuts in the morning to help it all come together. Dr HH preferred the Oh She Glows recipe I usually use.
This creamy coconut porridge was a delight! I soaked the oats in the coconut milk overnight in the fridge, so they were extra soft and plump in the morning. The banana was a wee bit overpowering, so I would use less. It was a really satisfying start to the day though.
On to snacks: I’ve only made nut cheese once before, and I was keen to give it another try, so I embarked on the creamy Brazil nut cheese. The recipe didn’t recommend soaking the nuts first, which surprised me. I was already at the point where I didn’t have too much faith in the book any more, so I decided to soak them for an hour or two, but it wasn’t enough – they still wouldn’t blend into a creamy cheese. I added rice milk until it became creamy, and it was delicious!
It’s also been a while since I’ve made hummus, but I decided to get back on it with two different varieties. The classic hummus was really good, very well seasoned and balanced. It was easy to adapt it and make the roasted red pepper and paprika hummus, which was also good.
There weren’t too many soups in the book, but I made these two with a cannellini bean base. This one is roasted tomato with red pepper and basil soup, and it was very good indeed! The creaminess from the beans was lovely, and roasting the tomato and pepper really added to the flavour – even though it was so hot in my apartment that I could hardly bear to turn on the oven! This is exactly the kind of soup I love.
And the other is pea and mint, which I forgot to photograph because I didn’t actually eat any myself, I just gave it to Dr HH. His review? “It was nice. It was pea soup.”
I made the roasted squash, avocado, olive and arugula salad with spinach instead of rocket, and I really liked it. I didn’t peel my butternut squash, because who has the time for that? I also used enough oil to roast the squash that I didn’t need to add more in the dressing, so keep an eye on that. It was really nice for a summery packed lunch. It was delicious, but was really crying out for some crunch. Maybe a handful of seeds?
I thought the fresh spring rolls would be really refreshing and delicious on a hot June weekend, but actually they were quite disappointing. Using two mangoes in the dip made it too sweet, and I had to add a lot of salt, pepper and chilli to make it more savoury. The end result was just a bit weird. I decided against adding any more mango in the rolls themselves. The veg was fine, but it was crying out for some smoked tofu or something more substantial and flavoursome.
Dr HH whipped up the classic stir fry one evening and did a mighty fine job of it. You don’t really need too much instruction with a stir fry, but the addition of tahini was a really nice touch and gave it a nice creaminess as well as a good flavour.
Black beans, in Prague? Don’t be silly! I made the black and kidney bean chilli using only kidney beans, and added a tin of chopped tomatoes to beef it up. The main selling point in the recipe seems to be the 10 minute cooking time but to be honest, I think it’s worth taking more than 1o minutes. Throw in an onion. Add some spices besides chilli. This is definitely not the best chilli recipe I’ve ever had.
I added red curry paste to the coconut Thai curry with chickpeas, because I was already a little underwhelmed by the seasoning in the recipes. It was delicious! And it made approximately a million portions, which is always a bonus.
The lentil and butternut squash dal was simple, but tasty. Because of the green lentils it was quite a dark, wintry-looking dish, but fortunately it tasted alright. I increased the spices, as usual.
The recipe for the cauliflower and potato curry was a bit baffling. The potato had to be boiled for 15 minutes first, then simmered in the curry for 45-60 minutes, until “nice and soft”. I probably don’t need to tell you that they were already soft long before then. I added some garam masala, because spices are good.
I gave up on this book halfway through the month. I was eyeing up further recipes to try and when I came to a lentil bolognese that contained neither onions nor herbs, I just couldn’t go on.
This book is a great example of style over substance. It looks pretty, and it conveys a certain covetable lifestyle. But these are not well-developed recipes. There is no onion and very little seasoning. Everything is bland and uninspired. I don’t understand how first the blog and then the books became so successful on the back of these recipes. (Well, her parents are mega rich and powerful, so I have some idea of how it happened.)
I don’t really know who this book is intended for. If you’re vegan, you’ve probably already got far superior versions of most of these recipes in better books, so I’d say it’s non-essential. And if you’re non-vegan but looking for healthier, meat-free options, it just isn’t inspiring enough to convince anyone to make permanent changes. Anyone looking for whole, healthy foods should try Oh She Glows, and anyone looking for astounding vegan meals of various health levels should delve into the back catalogue of Isa and Terry.
There will be no cookbook of the month in July, as we’re on the road for a month. Woot! Dr HH will be in charge of August’s cookbook, so wish him luck!