CHICAGO -- In the last few years, what once was a trickle of vegetarian cookbooks has swelled to a stream, with everyone from veteran vegans to suddenly health-conscious celebrities getting into the act. Few vegetarian cookbook authors, however, can claim the offbeat credentials of Brother Ron Pickarski.
Brother Ron, as he likes to be known, is a Franciscan monk and professional chef who considers himself a "food missionary." Raised in the restaurant business, he once took a course in specialized meat-cutting and has worked as a pastry chef. A one-time devotee of hamburgers, french fries and milkshakes, he became a vegetarian in 1976 for health reasons and gradually became a vegan (someone who avoids all animal foods, including eggs and dairy products).
Since the late 1970s, Brother Ron has espoused an elegant approach to whole-foods vegan cuisine that has made him a three-time winner in the International Culinary Olympics, the food world's version of the athletic extravaganza. The last chapter in Brother Ron's "Friendly Foods" (Ten Speed Press, paperback, $16.95), in fact, features award-winning vegan gourmet recipes from the Culinary Olympics, including tofu seitan Wellington, vegan London broil and Southern blackened tempeh with tomato-apricot-ginger coulis.
While Brother Ron notes that not all these more challenging recipes are terribly tricky, less experienced cooks may want to start with one of the many easier "gourmet" dishes and work their way up to the fancy stuff.
The mix of relatively simple and relatively complex recipes makes "Friendly Foods" a user-friendly cookbook for experienced vegetarian cooks and folks who simply want to give vegetarian eating a try. In addition to providing a wide range of recipes for appetizers, soups, entrees, side dishes, breads and desserts, Brother Ron briefly discusses nutritional issues and food-preparation techniques.
Speaking of meat substitutes, many of the entrees rely heavily on seitan, made from wheat gluten, or tempeh, made from soybeans. Those who have not developed a taste for these meat substitutes -- and not all vegetarians are crazy about them, by any means -- also will find entrees built around grains, pasta and vegetables.
Brother Ron defines "friendly foods" as "foods friendly to our bodies, our pocketbooks, our busy schedules and our environment . . . natural, healthful foods designed to help people make the gradual change from the typical American diet to a natural-foods American diet."
While he's clearly on a vegetarian, whole-foods mission, he's not a fanatic when it comes to occasional treats; one of his dessert recipes even calls for real chocolate, and others call for cocoa, though he mostly touts carob and tofu chocolate.
Here are two recipes from the book.
Bulgar rice pilaf
Makes 4 servings.
1/2 cup brown rice
1 cup bulgar
3/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
3/4 cup finely diced onions
3/4 cup finely diced carrots
4 teaspoons minced garlic (or 2 teaspoons garlic powder)
2 tablespoons dill weed
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
3/4 cup green peas (fresh or frozen)
1 tablespoon dark miso (see note)
Wash the rice and place in a saucepan with 1 cup of water. Bring to a simmer, cover and cook until soft (about 40 minutes).
Meanwhile, place the bulgar in a separate pan with 2 cups of water and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt. Bring to a simmer, cover and cook until soft (about 20 minutes).
Heat the oil in a skillet. Add the onions, carrot, garlic, dill weed, pepper and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Saute for 5 to 8 minutes, or until the vegetables are barely tender. (If necessary, add just enough water to keep the vegetables from sticking to the pan.) Add the peas and miso to the vegetables. Continue cooking for 5 minutes. Then add the cooked rice and bulgar and cook 5 minutes longer. Serve hot.
Note: Miso is a fermented paste made from beans and/or grains and salt. It is available in Asian markets.
Whole wheat onion herb bread
Makes 3 loaves.
2 cups unbleached flour
3 cups stone-ground whole wheat flour
1 1/2 cups finely diced onions
2 teaspoons minced garlic (or 1 teaspoon garlic powder)
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried whole rosemary
1 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons dry yeast
2 tablespoons Sucanat (see note)
2 cups warm water
2 tablespoons soy margarine,melted
In a large bowl, mix together the two flours and add the onions, garlic, herbs and salt.
In a separate bowl, dissolve the yeast and Sucanat in water, and let stand until it begins to foam. Pour this yeast mixture into the flour and herb mixture. Add the melted margarine and mix to form a medium-stiff dough. (Add a little more flour if the dough is too wet or sticky.)
Oil the bread pans. Divide the dough into three equal parts and put the dough in the pans. Lightly oil the top of the dough and place the loaves in a warm area. Allow the dough to rise until nearly doubled in size (30 to 40 minutes). The dough should retain an imprint when you touch it with your finger. When the dough has risen sufficiently, bake the loaves in a 350-degree oven for about 30 minutes, or until brown.
Note: Sucanat is made by processing the juice from sugar cane; malted barely syrup or brown sugar may be substituted. If time allows, let the bread rise once in a greased bowl; then punch down and put in the pans and rise and bake as directed. Use 8-by-4-inch loaf pans.