This month we review a cookbook that is an invaluable reference for anyone desiring to master the art of vegetarian cooking.
How to Cook Everything Vegetarian:
Simple Meatless Recipes for Great Food
By Mark Bittman
Bittman is the author of How to Cook Everything, his amazing successful book that is now in its fourteenth printing and has sold over a million copies. He is an award-winning cookbook author, food writer, and columnist for the New York Times.
How did an omnivore like Bittman come to write a vegetarian cookbook? As the author explains in the introduction, "My cooking and eating life has changed greatly in the past three years since I began working on How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. I wasn't a vegetarian then, and I'm not one now."
The author would classify himself as a semi-vegetarian or possibly a flexitarian, a term recently coined to include both not-so-strict vegetarians and carnivores who are embracing a healthier diet that is more environmentally friendly. He emphatically states, "A diet that's high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes is a healthier diet than one that isn't."
He reiterates the argument that animal protein is not essential to a healthy diet and points out that Americans average over a half pound of animal protein daily.
"Unfortunately, it's still difficult to eat good vegetarian meals unless you cook them yourself," says Bittman. This is where the profit motive enters the picture. Restaurants and supermarkets don't make enough profit offering healthy food choices. Bittman realizes that most Americans don't have any idea of how to create a vegetarian meal. They're so used to ordering prepared foods or having a meal created with meat, chicken, or fish as the centerpiece. "That's what this book is about: simple, straightforward, good-tasting cooking. It just happens to exclude meat, poultry, and fish."
Bittman is well aware that many people who become vegetarian may have little experience in preparing meals. His beginning chapters on ingredients, are valuable in covering the basics of operating in the kitchen. His checklists like 21 Ingredients You Really Need, 4 Essential Pans for the Oven, and 25 Great Ideas for Using Leftovers are just a few of the basics covered in these chapters.
Expanding on the concept of the salad as a few raw vegetables topped with a dressing, Bittman offers salads featuring seaweed, cooked vegetables, potatoes, beans, grains, pasta, and noodles. Ones that call to this reviewer are Jicama Salad with Pineapple and Mint, Spicy Dulse and Daikon Salad, and Warm Chickpea Salad with Arugula. Especially helpful was a chart detailing 32 Make-Ahead Salads.
The chapter on Soups begins with the basics of creating different types of soup stocks. Almost all of the soup recipes can be prepared in less than a half hour. Helping the neophyte cook are sidebars like Giving the Soup More Body, 6 Unusual Condiments for Almost Any Soup, 12 Soups You Can Also Serve Cold, and 22 Whole-Meal Soups. A few of the recipes that say, "Try me!" are Faux Pho, Sauerkraut Soup, Spanish Style Plaintain Stew, and Bread Soup.
Over 200 pages of the book are devoted to Produce: Vegetables and Fruits. Included in this chapter is everything newbie cooks need to know before they ask. Anyone not knowing how to shock vegetables will be enlightened by a half-page sidebar that tells all. A five-page chart gives information on how to grill individual vegetables, how to flavor them, what sauce to use, and how to serve them. Anyone searching for a recipe or recipes using a particular vegetable will find it easily in the alphabetical arrangement in this chapter.
Fruit lovers will tune into the Basics of Cooking Fruit as well as charts like Grilling Everyday Fruits and 29 Recipes That Feature Dried Fruit. Bittman follows an alphabetical arrangement for fruits with information on buying, storing and preparation, and recipes, of course.
Pasta, Noodles, and Dumplings receive special treatment because "people love them." Offered here are 13 Alternative Toppings for Pasta; 13 Sauces, Salsas, or Condiments That Make Terrific Fast Pasta Sauces; and 25 Fast and Easy Ways to Spin Tomato Sauce as well as recipes for pastas found around the world. Instructions are provided for people who want to make their own pastas
"Eating a variety of grains is the most enjoyable way not only to add a ton of fiber to your diet, but also to keep your diet from falling into a rice rut," says Bittman. The Grains chapter covers the basics of buying, storing, and cooking. Those unfamiliar with Farro, Teff, Kamut, and Spelt will appreciate the chart Grains For Enthusiasts.
Legumes receive their due in Everyday Legumes and Legumes for Enthusiasts. Anyone wanting to prepare Aduki Beans, Flageolets, and Tarbaises can become a real bean enthusiast by absorbing the information on using beans in the diet.
"Whether you're a vegetarian or not, tofu is among the most valuable foods on the planet, a nutritional powerhouse as versatile as the egg," Bittman writes. In the chapter Tofu, Vegetable Burgers, and Other High-Protein Foods he deals with the different types of tofu, shows how to prepare them, and features them in recipes like Tofu Escabeche, Tofu Provencal Style, and Braised Tofu in Caramel Sauce. Those who want to pass up the frozen patties in the market can prepare their own vegetable burgers at home with a bit of help from Bittman. Also featured here are making seitan or wheatmeat and cooking tempeh (fermented soybean cake).
Breads, Pizzas, Sandwiches, and Wraps discusses everything from making your own homemade bread to creating quickbreads, flatbreads, pizzas, and wraps.
Bittman feels that sauces can be used to enliven many of the recipes in the book. Even a bland brown rice can come to life with a dollop of sparkling sauce covering it. Sauces, Condiments, Herbs, and Spices offer charts and basic suggestions on how to use them as well as specific recipes.
The Eggs, Dairy, and Cheese chapter and the Desserts chapter are the two parts of this book that are less satisfying to vegans. Bittman does his usual fine job of presenting valuable information on the use of eggs, dairy and cheese. The Desserts chapter will be a major disappointment for vegans. Of course, desserts don't include meat, chicken, or fish, but most of Bittman's sweet treats contain eggs and dairy. Vegans, however, may turn to their egg replacer and soy products in many of those same recipes with satisfying results.
The book concludes with a section of suggested Menus, Recipes by Icon (F=Fast, M=Make Ahead, and V=Vegan), and Sources (foods not available in most supermarkets). Even the end pages have charts with Measurement Conversions, Some Useful Substitutions, 20 Essential Vegetarian Dishes, and 20 Essential Charts.
How to Cook Everything Vegetarian is a monumental work with over 900 pages crammed with useful information for any cook. It definitely belongs in every vegetarian household. Vegetarians will find a trove of information to get cooking and be weaned away from fast foods and prepared foods. Vegans may feel slight disappointment because of his use of eggs and dairy, but there are enough recipes labeled with a "V" to satisfy vegans. Compassionate cooks may be able to veganize a number of the vegetarian recipes. Bittman is to be commended for spending three years creating this valuable compendium that will help move omnivores and flexitarians toward vegetarianism. Maybe, he'll get there himself one of these days.
Reviewed October 2008