Mérida Anderson is a self-taught chef from Vancouver who now lives in Montréal. She brought the underground vegan restaurant to Vancouver, after experiencing something similar in her travels. She started Vegan Secret Supper almost five years ago in her small attic apartment with a tiny kitchen, and has grown it ever since.
“What is an underground restaurant?” you might ask. Well, Mérida started off cooking three-course vegan meals for friends every Sunday evening. Those friends brought friends and so on, word spread, and before she knew it there were five tables in the living room and the place was buzzing every weekend. Vegan Secret Supper, or VSS, was born. VSS inspired many people in Vancouver. I’ve heard that there are at least three active vegan dinner clubs in this city (including mine, Plate Invaders), and there were even more, like the Vancouver Vegan Brunch, which is on a hiatus.
Lo ond behold, Mérida has finally put her favourite recipes into a book titled Vegan Secret Supper: Bold & Elegant Menus From a Rogue Kitchen! It’s published by Arsenal Pulp Press, which is based in Vancouver, and in stores now.
I’ll start right away by saying I absolutely love this book! It’s one of the most inspiring cookbooks I’ve read in a while. Maybe that’s partly because Mérida and I have a very similar approach to food. She started meatless cooking at a young age, simply out of necessity, because she decided to become vegan and her mother didn’t know what to cook for her. Mérida taught herself, always aiming to improve her cooking, and remained very playful doing so. Since she started young, she developed her own vegan cuisine, and was not faced with the problem of having to relearn cooking after becoming vegan. Consequently, you won’t find any veganized classics in this book. If you are looking for vegan mac and cheese, vegan burgers, or tofu scrambles, this is not the book for you. No, the only vegan rendition of a classic dish I found in the book is a vegan crème brûlée—and that one is based on sweet potatoes. How awesome is that?
I would say that the recipes are not so complicated that a beginner wouldn’t be able to make them, but this is definitely a book for somebody looking to broaden their horizons. The recipes are all very creative, very artistic, and very fancy. It’s definitely not for everyday cooking but for special occasions, and it showcases what vegan food is really capable of. Everything is made from scratch, and Mérida really focuses on veggies and wholesome ingredients. You won’t find any meat substitutes, and the few tofu recipes are so inspiring that I want to try them right away. One is apple smoked tofu and caramelized onion spring rolls with carrot tamarind chutney and avocado aioli. The other one is the pepper crusted cashew cheese plate with juniper tofu and olive tapenade. I don’t think I can remember ever using juniper berries outside of gin before.
Another thing I love about the book is that Mérida uses many infused oils, syrups, reductions, and spice mixes and explains how to make them all yourself. However, that also means that the menus take some time to prepare. Mérida notes that she often starts three days in advance to prepare the dinners. That’s truly slow cooking at its best! There are recipes like hazelnut-crusted portobellos with caramelized fennel parsnip mash, radicchio marmalade, and balsamic port reduction. Wow! I don’t think I’ve ever heard (or thought) of radicchio marmalade before.
While the recipes are truly inspiring, I also love the look of the book and especially the plating pictures. In many cookbooks, food pictures are often artificially propped up, which is why your results never look as nice as in the books. But I can tell that her pictures are real—yet stunningly beautiful. Mérida really is an artist, and her plating is creative, inspiring, and simply gorgeous. Since I got the book, it’s been lying next to our sofa, and I love to pick it up and just look at the pictures and start dreaming and drooling.
The only thing I find wanting in the book is the background information and stories. I had hoped that Mérida would write more about her experiences running an underground restaurant, or have some tales to tell about how certain recipes came about. There are a few pages of very rudimentary background information at the beginning of the book and after that it’s just recipes. Awesome recipes, that is, but still only recipes. The headnotes for the recipes are very, very short. It’s not rare that the title of a recipe is longer than the headnote, which I find a bit of a pity. Another thing that comes with the long recipe titles is that they are a bit wordy. Why call a stock a consommé or a soup a bisque? The food certainly doesn’t need to be fancied up in the title! I always want to know more than just the recipe—what inspired it, what influenced it, how it can be modified. Some of the ingredients are quite exotic, and I would have loved some information on how to source or substitute them. However, I’ve noticed this lack of background information with other cookbooks published by Arsenal Pulp as well, so I’m not sure whether the author or the publisher is to blame.
Regardless of that, Vegan Secret Supper is an awesome cookbook, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone who wants to broaden their horizons and let their creativity flow.
Tim Aretz is a vegan cook and food writer from Germany, now living in Vancouver. He is the mind behind Plate Invaders and a core contributor to Animal Voices, and has a keen interest in photography and bikes. You can follow @timlapse and @PlateInvaders on Twitter.