"The Kripalu Cookbook: Gourmet Vegetarian Recipes," Atma Jo Levitt

Pros: Delicious and hearty vegetarian food
Cons: Author doesn’t seem to have read any cookbooks
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

First published 1/6/2001

I’m back with yet another entry in my series of spa cookbook reviews. I think this particular book doesn’t quite stack up against Rancho la Puerta or Golden Door in the ease of use category, but the quality of food helps to make up for that.

Kripalu is a wonderful place; when I lived in Massachusetts I went there every once in a (long) while just to relax. It’s where I took my first qigong class. It’s like a cross between a Hindu Ashram and a spa, which is to say, it’s a beautiful place with lots of fields, forest, and lake, very nice people, and interesting programs, but you won’t see lots of rich people with perfect bodies in spandex. You’re much more likely to find ordinary people just like yourself. And it’s a heck of a lot less expensive than Canyon Ranch.

The Food There

At Kripalu, the cost of meals is included with your (fairly inexpensive) room and program cost. Meals are served in the “dining chapel,” where you pick up your tray and plates and serve yourself from the long buffets. They serve hearty vegetarian food, filled with natural and organic ingredients. (Everyone I’ve ever talked to there spends the first couple of days discovering that they fill up very quickly, and thus really don’t need to pick up as much food as they think they want to eat.)

The food is quite good, and has gotten even better lately; the last time I went it was fantastic. So my fiancee and I decided to pick up their cookbook, “The Kripalu Cookbook: Gourmet Vegetarian Recipes.”

Odd Ingredients

You really will find some odd ingredients in here; it’s that stress on organic and natural foods. If you don’t have a health food store, some good ethnic grocery stores, or a very accomodating grocer, you may have trouble finding some of these things. Hopefully you’ll be able to find some of them at online grocers.

Some of these things are more difficult to find than others. One or two I’ve never even heard of before, and that doesn’t happen very often any more. You’ll find recipes that call for umeboshi vinegar, lots of tamari, brown rice vinegar, “kuzu,” white miso, umeboshi paste, “hiziki,” rice syrup, almond butter, Sucanat (granulated cane juice)… The list goes on.

Luckily there’s a glossary in the back, because they certainly don’t explain any of these things in the recipes. However, not all entries in the glossary are correct! For instance, it identifies “mirin” as a vinegar. Mirin is an alcohol, not a vinegar. I don’t know whether any of the others are wrong, but mistakes like this always cast a certain amount of doubt in my mind.

With some of these ingredients you can substitute. For instance, rice syrup seems to be their generic sweetener; with some recipes you can just experiment with light corn syrup or other normal sweeteners. Unfortunately, there seem to be no substitution notes in the glossary. That would have been helpful to the home cook.

The Instructions

I’m guessing here. Totally and completely guessing. But I’d say that this author never read many cookbooks, and learned cooking by trial, error, and experiment. Which is pretty impressive, when you think about it – assuming I’m correct.

Why do I make this guess? Because the directions are not expressed in familiar terms or instructions. I’ve looked at recipes in here and immediately said to myself, “uh, that way won’t come out very well; if I do it this other way, which is the way every other cookbook expresses it, it’ll come out better.”

And there are some recipes that just don’t quite work as is. For example, the “Sambhar,” a quite delicious concoction of red lentils, carrots, potatoes, and various spices. The potatoes are supposed to completely cook through in the sambhar. But if you don’t cook them separately first, there’s just no way they’ll cook through in the amount of time listed. In fact, there’s no way they’ll cook through before the liquid all cooks off and the dish burns.

The Recipes

Ms. Levitt obviously has some talent for good food. The food in here, I’ve found, always comes out tasting very delicious. But the recipes often need mucking with, even though most of them are very simple.

The Baked Macaroni and Cheese Casserole (with broccoli and mushrooms) is surprisingly and wonderfully delicious – probably the best macaroni and cheese I’ve ever had! I think, however, that you’ll find the sauce ends up smoother if you whisk the flour mixture into the butter (making a “roux”), and then whisk the milk in gradually, rather than whisking the flour into the milk.

There are some gorgeous recipes in this huge cookbook: Tofu-Basil Lasagna, Spiced Peanut Sauce, Spiced Yogurt Nog, Creamy Italian Dressing (made with buttermilk), Apple-Cilantro Chutney, Raisin Bread, Madrasi Red Lentil Dahl, Cinnamon Soymilk Pudding, Wheatfree Gingerbread Cake, and more.

Honestly, if you want healthy vegetarian food you can do a heck of a lot worse than this cookbook. I really like the things we’ve made from here so far – they’re quite delicious! But you do want to be familiar enough with cooking that you can sanity-check the recipes a little when making them. I wouldn’t say that there are lots of mistakes, just that there are a number of directions which are sub-optimal (I suspect some of them made more sense and worked better when making huge batches of food for a couple hundred people, and just didn’t scale down well). And, of course, you’ll need to find sources for the odd ingredients. Luckily many of them are sold on-line now.

Posted in Cooking, Reviews

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