Being a vegetarian for almost a decade, sometimes I feel like there is a disconnect between what my heart and emotions want and the food I put into my mouth. The vegetarian versions of classic comfort foods don’t always hold up and often times I’m left feeling like the urge to nourish and comfort through food (and not in that bad way) isn’t really realized. When Vegetarian Heartland by Shelly Westerhausen (of the blog Vegetarian ‘Ventures) arrived in my mailbox I was immediately taken with the beautiful photos of both food and the amazing Midwestern locations that I think helped shape this book. As she says in the beginning of the book, “The vegetarian movement in the Midwest is a modern, meat-free version of the comfort food many of us grew up on” and I think this is the best part of Vegetarian Heartland — the modern, yet comforting recipes that speak to that urge to nourish ourselves with hearty dishes while enjoying them with our families and friends.
Something else that I completely identify with is how regionality shaped Westerhausen’s vegetarianism. When she says, “Most Midwesterners don’t understand why anyone would give up eating meat” I felt as though you could sub in “Albertan” for “Midwestern” and that statement would still hold true. Growing up in Alberta, where farming was such a part of my childhood (my grandparent’s farm, located just outside Edmonton was the place where we spent much of our free time growing up), my family found it really tough to understand the whys of my decision not to eat meat. Since much shared experience as a family revolves around food and food-related activities I think what they were really wondering is how those shared experiences could transcend eating meat. Could the food ties still bind without it?
This is where Vegetarian Heartland comes in — focused on seasonal cooking, the cookbook is organized by season but then each season is divided into a related activity with corresponding recipes. From fruit picking and cookouts to being snowed in or just plain brunching it with friends this book is a wealth of inspiration. What really speaks to me is all of the attention that is paid to cooking with fresh, wholesome ingredients without being too fussy. I found that all of the recipes I tried were interesting and many provided fun twists on old favs. If you’re curious to see what I’ve been making from Vegetarian Heartland you can check out my special Instagram hashtag #eatworthysvegheartland or visit my dedicated Facebook post (as I cook from VH, I’ll keep posting new photos).
It’s the old favs I find myself dwelling quite a lot on these days. Now that I have a child of my own, I find myself thinking back to my own childhood and the foods that my mom made for us that were comforting and wholesome. When I saw Westerhausen’s recipe for Apple Bread Cheddar Grilled Cheese I knew this would totally fulfill my yearning for a dish that was nourishing and one that I could share with my daughter in hopes that it would be a dish she would remember fondly in her later years (no pressure, eh?! but those early-memory food experiences start somewhere right??). The recipe shows you how to first make the apple bread (pictured above) and then how to get that cheddar and tangy mustard grilled (I like to grill mine in my waffle maker nbd) to gooey perfection. Those sammies were 100% enjoyed, no doubt about it! The apple bread itself was more like a moist, sweet bread (think banana) rather than a yeasted loaf of sandwich bread. Totally fine, the bread was great but I did find myself cutting the sugar down a bit (I did this in a few other recipes I tried but that’s the beauty of these recipes, they’re easily altered or adapted to fit whatever preference you have. So while there really aren’t specific vegan, gf, etc adaptations given for most of the recipes you can very simply convert what you need to in order to meet your diet. So when I omitted the egg white from the savory granola recipe and replaced it with coconut oil the results were pretty fantastic and I don’t feel like the integrity of the recipe was affected). I found it easy to source ingredients for the recipes — fresh vegetables, in season. I was also able to rely on my pantry staples (i.e. veg stock, canned beans, etc).
I really appreciate Westerhausen’s attitude towards new/first time cooks — she really tries to both inspire and empower them to venture out and try new things. For example, take crackers. While you can totally buy them pre-made, in a store she encourages you to make your own because she provides a really easy and tasty recipe with her Whole-Wheat Pumpkin & Poppy Seed Crackers. Not only will you impress yourself but those you share them with. Oh, while you’re at it make a
batch double batch of the Salted Maple Pecan Butter to accompany those darn fine crackers (both pictured below).
The combinations of ingredients is really quite unique and wonderful too. She really takes the time to re-imagine classic dishes — the pairing of raspberries and hazelnuts in her pancake recipe is incredible (pictured below). She’s completely right — the hazelnut meal does compliment the ripe fruit so gorgeously! Seriously! So. Good. Not that I’m a huge Baba Ghanoush connoisseur but I found the addition of mint to her recipe to be really inspired. Such a fresh (literally) take on a classic. She also knows when to economize — take the Vegan Wild Rice & Potato Chowder (pictured below). No fancy herbs or spices just a generous seasoning with salt and pepper to completely draw out the flavours of the wild rice and veggies! (and if I were to poll my husband I think he would say that this soup was his standout favourite of this book!)
What Vegetarian Heartland ends up being is a completely unique cookbook that really is shaped from it’s Midwestern roots — as Westerhausen explains “our vegetarian heartland culture is there” and she does a wonderful job mapping out what that culture looks and tastes like.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Chronicle Books for providing me with a free, review copy of this book. I did not receive monetary compensation for my post, and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.