All Hail the Vegan Queen

She's a high-school dropout with no formal culinary training, but Isa Chandra Moskowitz is quickly becoming one of the hottest names in the vegan cookbook world. At the age of 16, Moskowitz, a born-and-bred Brooklynite eschewed her meat-and-potatoes upbringing and embarked on a vegan punk rock journey that would morph into a public access television cooking show and ultimately, into a successful career as a cookbook author. It was only two years ago when Moskowitz, now 34, published her first book, "Vegan With A Vengeance," which has sold more than 50,000 copies, and already she's got two more under her belt, "Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World" and most recently (October), "Veganomicon," both written with her punk pal, Terry Hope Romero.

Isa Chandra Moskowitz.

If you thought vegan was far off the mainstream path, think again. "Veganomicon" is kicking everyone's butt on; it is currently #18 on the list of amazon's best-selling cookbooks, up there with titles by celebrity chefs Paula Deen and Jamie Oliver. Weighing in at more than two pounds, "Veganomicon" is a collection of 250 recipes, offering a solid foundation for the beginning or aspiring vegan cook. The first chapter is a detailed primer on setting up a vegan pantry, written in a clear, accessible style, with good humor sprinkled along the way, described by some as the vegan "Joy of Cooking."

But the vegan gospel doesn't stop here. There's more to come, says Moskowitz; she and Romero are working on a DVD series for release later next year, and they're both cooking up more books -- a solo venture on vegan brunching and another collaboration with Romero on dairy and egg-free cookies. There is no doubt they are poised to start the ultimate vegan cooking revolution. Below, snippets from our phone conversation last week.

Q&A below the jump.

Did your parents raise you meatless or teach you how to cook?
No, not at all. It was sloppy Joe's and McDonald's. My mom likes to pretend I learned from her. I grew up on a such a crappy diet. And even though I went vegan at 16, I didn't have a portabello mushroom till I was 18.

So how did you learn how to cook?
I traveled around the country with "Food, Not Bombs" from my high-school age years till I was about 20. So much of what I was learning was in vegan cookbooks. I also worked on the line in vegan cafes, and in the punk scene there was always food, so I tried to make myself useful.

Do you have any culinary sources of inspiration?
It's hard when you're vegan to have an inspiration. Terry (Romero, her co-author) and I inspire each other. Hmm... I watch a lot of Food Network. If anyone inspires me, it's Nigella (Lawson), and I like Michael Chiarello. Lately, I've been watching more PBS shows, because you actually get tips.

I can do without meat. I am creative with grains and legumes, it's the nutritional yeast facsimile for cheese i can't get past, and the no eggs in baking. Tell me why I should get over myself.
Well, if you don't like the nutritional yeast, don't eat it. There's lots of vegans that don't like it. I don't think it perfectly replicates cheese, but I like the umami feeling you get from it.

I was a cheese person. In my 20s, I stopped being vegan and I ate cheese, particularly blue cheese. Although an imperfect system, it worked for a while. People put so much pressure on themselves. Our taste buds are tricky, they kind of own us.

The pine nut cream (recipe in Veganomicon) works really well (a puree of pine nuts, silken tofu, lemon juice, nutmeg and garlic) as a cheese alternative. I think after a while your taste buds will catch up to your lifestyle.

When it comes to eggs, unless you love meringue, there's not been anything I couldn't veganize. Often the gluten in flour is good enough for cakes. You know, there were Depression-era cakes that didn't have eggs. I like to play with textures -- starches such as tapioca flour, corn starch, ground-up flax seeds. But usually what I do when I start a recipe, I omit the egg and see what happens.

So basically what you're saying is if I have a cookie recipe and I want to veganize it, I could just take out the eggs?
Yeah. You might need to reduce the flour a bit, and add a little liquid. Oh, and I don't like using soy milk in cookie batter -- it makes cookies too cakey.

My husband, who's an omnivore, tried a vegan experiment for a month. He made it for four days. He didn't prepare, research recipes, and I started noticing lots of products in the house. fast-food vegan if you will. What would you suggest to someone who's interested in exploring a vegan diet?
Get a good vegan cookbook, of course. But really it's about stocking the pantry and figuring out a meal plan for at least one week. And look around on the Internet. Online support is probably the best thing that has happened to the vegan community. The biggest challenge for many is replacing that hunk of meat in the center of the plate.

You've been a vegan a long time. Has your vegan approach changed over time? And what about the outside world?
My approach changes every month, which is good. I go through taste bud cycles; right now I would never eat a curry, and I'm on a Mediterranean kick, eating lots of capers and olives, experimenting with grains and beans. That's what is so exciting with vegan cuisine, there are thousands of things you can make from the plant kingdom, whereas there's only a handful of meat items unless you want to experiment with monkey.

And as far as the outside world goes, I've noticed such a positive change. This interview that we're having right now wouldn't have happened five years ago. When "Vegan With a Vengeance" came out (in 2005), people were shocked it was good. Plus there are so many more people with health issues, people are pretty open to it now.

What do you think of the trend of "flexitarian?" (a term describing people who eat meat half the time)
I have different thoughts -- on one sense, I'm happy that people are reducing meat consumption, but on the other hand there's not a very genuine understanding of animal rights issues. The "Omnivore's Dilemma" lifestyle of finding out how farmers are raising their animals and where to buy their meat seems so much more complicated. Veganism is pretty easy in comparison.

By Kim ODonnel |  December 10, 2007; 10:34 AM ET Cook's Library , Q&A , Vegetarian/Vegan
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i love looking through the PPK cookbooks for ideas! I rarely actually follow any of the recipes--I find a lot of them too-labor intensive or too demanding of my pantry (seriously, who can have soy sauce, tamari and liquid aminos all on hand??), but they do have a lot of great ideas for cooking with tempeh, tofu, seitan. and that vegan cookies book sounds like a godsend!

Posted by: not a vegan but | December 10, 2007 2:47 PM

Great interview -- I love Isa's books, and Veganomicon is fantastic. I've made the chickpea cutlets four times already, and the vegan poundcake is amazing.

Posted by: Julia | December 10, 2007 4:06 PM

I would love to try some of her recipes but I fear that for the Gluten Free individual it would not be as good esp since she mentioned that the gluten in flours tends to help with the lack of eggs. Any thoughts or tips?

Posted by: Curious | December 10, 2007 4:21 PM

Curious, you should probably avoid the cupcake book, but Vegan with a Vengeance and Veganomicon would still work for you. They both have tons of veggie recipes, and Veganomicon even labels appropriate recipes with a gluten-free icon.

I've loved everything I've made from Vegan with a Vengeance, and I can't wait for my copy of Veganomicon to arrive.

Posted by: mollyjade | December 10, 2007 5:14 PM

Soy sauce, tamari and liquid amino aka Bragg's are interchangeable, IMHO. I usually only use tamari as I don't like the flavour of Bragg's (am I the only one??).

I highly recommend the pumpkin muffin recipe. It is absolutely amazing.

Posted by: shan | December 11, 2007 4:32 PM

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