Karen Page and The Vegetarian Flavor Bible
After all these years of reading and feeling like I “knew” Karen Page, I hadn’t actually met her. When her first groundbreaking book, Becoming a Chef, came on the scene in 1995 I was energized and transfixed. She and her husband and collaborator Andrew Dornenburg brought to life what it actually was like to be a chef. They unveiled the stories of 60 chefs and they showed us a behind-the-scenes world in a way we had never seen before. The idea of the food business being something aspirational or inspirational was not so universally accepted. It was the beginning of what we take for granted now – that food and food information are everywhere! Karen and Andrew felt this pulse early and they have continued to bring us books with singular visions.
Their newest book is the The Vegetarian Flavor Bibleand while I am interested in every book they produce I wasn’t sure how this one would have applications to what we do here at Bakepedia. Then I received the book. It is very hard to describe, but I will do my best to entice you to buy it, as it will become a standard reference for you if you have an interest in flavor and how flavors work – and I know you all do! Karen took some time out to chat with me.
Dédé Wilson: Karen! I cant believe that after all these years of reading you and feeling like I “knew” you that we hadn’t actually met – what with all our overlapping circles of friends…thank you for chatting with me today. Tell me about how the Vegetarian Flavor Bible came about?
Karen Page: Thank you for talking to me and including the book, Dédé. This one was very personal. My father and stepmom both passed away from cancer between 2006 and 2009…we don’t always think about our health and especially for those of us in the food and wine business, it can be difficult. We eat more and drink more than the average American…and you can’t ignore the headlines anymore. We have to pay attention to nutrition for the sake of our health. I really began to start thinking about what we were eating and putting in our bodies when I was not eating professionally…I started reading and it opened my eyes – a lot. I began learning so much and yet there were so many contradictions. The book opens with a quote that I love:
“ Over half of Americans believe it is easier to figure out their income taxes than to figure out what they should and shouldn’t eat to be healthier”.
That’s a stunning fact, however, while many sources don’t agree, they do agree that plant based diets are best.
The reason for the book was to share what we have been learning on the nutritional end of things and the flavor end of things…I hope book will convey some complex info simply.
Let’s talk about how to use the book. It has an unconventional layout and I want to give our readers a clear understanding of what to expect and how to maximize the information. How should they dive in? I’ll just give them a head start by explaining that there is important info in the front of the book that should be read that sets up some guiding principles as well as some helpful info on how to use the book…
There is a lot of color-coding to help you. The most nutritionally dense foods have dark green dots – you can see immediately what foods are the most recommended…
And the bulk of the book is alphabetical. So, in thinking about the foods that we bakers use a lot, you can for instance look up Apples and within that section you can find out flavor descriptions and pairings along with the nutritional info…the pairing are what stand out to me as intriguing and unlike anything I have seen…
Yes, exactly…I’m a big skimmer…so maybe skim for an ingredient that you are familiar with or one you want to learn about…you could look up Acai and see how it is pronounced, seasonality, get a general sense of what this ingredient is. Let’s say you are planning a June wedding and you want to know if something is going to be available – it will tell you…and then you can also easily see where flavor and creativity intersect!
I am drawn to the parts where you describe flavor combinations. Some will be expected, like apples + cinnamon + nuts + raisins (Ed Note: this is the format used in the book), but some make me thing about an ingredient in new ways and then my mind starts racing and thinking about new ways to use that food. That’s very exciting. When I read apples + cinnamon + lemon + honey I could taste it in my mind…
Were there any particular surprises for you? Particularly when it comes to the kinds of ingredients we use in the dessert kitchen?
Almond milk was a great example…it’s not just for heating for hot chocolate or using on granola or oatmeal. There are now cheeses that are made from almond milk that are incredible…fresh cheeses that can sub for ricotta and even soft ripened cheeses. (Ed Note: we love those from Kite Hill, which are the ones Karen is referring to).
The first time I tried them I was floored…so many vegan cheeses can have off putting aroma and texture…if my palate and nose aren’t happy I can’t eat it. I don’t eat anything that’s weird…there is a lot of weird vegan food…these are very neutral…there’s just a note of almond and sweetness. I was impressed with the texture and flavor. I have wanted to try them in a cheesecake for a friend. I’m not sure of the baking properties yet…also Claudia Fleming has a ricotta tart that she makes that is just about the greatest thing I have ever had. I might try modeling after that…
…vegetarian and vegan…we have come so far. Still, we see the letter “v” and we think “weird”, but in fact both vegetarian and vegan foods and restaurants are more mainstream than ever…one of Philadelphia’s top restaurants is vegan! (Ed Note: Vedge was #6 on a recent Philadelphia Magazine poll of best restaurants).
I do agree there is a long way to go…especially with baked goods…so many that haven’t been invented yet!
Anyone on the cutting edge of creativity (in the food scene) should be interested in this whole slew of new products to use that are very compatible with great eating.
This is a good segue. Decades ago vegetarianism was fringe, then more acceptable. We are at that bridge where veganism is crossing that river. Vegan food doesn’t have to be fake.
Exactly…when I was in college in the late 70s there were restaurants beginning to experiment and some weren’t 100% vegetarian but had roots and were exploring organic, way before it was trendy. It was wonderful because it was another option. They made their own cornbread with stoneground corn and the flavor profiles were different.
Right now is a very exciting time for vegan and vegetarian cuisines. They are becoming more mainstream. Restaurants like Per Se and 11 Madison Park are offering vegan tasting menus. Vegan cuisine is being addressed and explored within gastronomy.
So how do you describe how you eat? Do you say “cleanly”?
I say “plant strong” or “plant based”. I don’t like to say vegetarian or vegan because I like to focus on what I eat not, what I am giving up.
Do you eat desserts?
I believe in sweets and sweetness. That period at the end of a meal…but so often we have such large portions of our main meal that by dessert our palates and stomachs are just done! I love the idea of a sweet at end of the day…life is good…not to use as a motivator…but a lovely way to end the day…
Sweetness serves that function of satiation…a hint of sweetness. I am more interested in petits fours than a whole dessert. That tart I mentioned of Claudia’s is truly perfect…and I like so many fruits…and nuts…and nuts take on much more importance in vegetarian diets so they are covered in the book in a thorough way.
Well your book allows us to take a deep dive into plant-based ingredients in a new way and I think it will help bakers expand their way of thinking. I am looking at the Chocolate entry right now and that combo of chocolate + hazelnuts + dried plums has me thinking…
Thank you, Dédé. I am, so glad you are enjoying the book.