Vegetable Cookbook Review

As the summer harvest starts to roll in, you might be faced with the prospect of coming up with crowd-pleasing ways to use up vegetables and herbs you are unfamiliar with.

Even before I got into gardening I was already involved in coming up with creative ways to make vegetable dishes. I grew up mostly as a vegetarian and my parents started limiting their diets to low-fat vegetarian dishes for health reasons; I’d have to quickly scramble on short notice to make a filling, tasty vegetarian meal when they’d visit me.

As a Melkite Catholic, I’ve also had to prepare a lot of vegan meals for the four fasting periods during the Eastern Liturgical year.



It can be a challenge looking for information on how to use micro-greens, parsnips, swiss chard, and leeks, let alone perennial vegetables like rhubarb, artichoke, and lovage.

I think the current lack of American cultural consciousness about how to feast on nature’s wild abundance of veggies is largely tied to the lack of choice in our supermarkets.

Most supermarkets (notwithstanding specialty markets like Asian grocers) up until recently only offered about 12 different types of vegetables. Of course we, as enthusiastic consumers, only figured out how to use those vegetables commonly available to us.

Gradually, as our awareness of man’s long culinary relationship with nature blossoms, I’d imagine that we’d re-learn how to easily whip up a meal with these strange, wonderful vegetables we’ve started growing in our backyards, aware of the nutrional and caloric benefits as surely as if they were labelled with an FDA nutrition panel.



All of these idealistic notions don’t help us in the here and now, so I thought I’d share some of my experiences with the many vegetarian and vegan cookbooks that are available.

I tend to be a very visual cookbook consumer; I love seeing photos of the dishes in the cookbook even if I might not have much hope of re-creating what I’m seeing on the page. The first thing that will strike you when you start to look through vegetarian cookbooks is how many of them are bereft of photos of any kind. I’m not sure if it’s because photos cost more to publish and vegetarian cookbooks aren’t exactly hitting the New York Bestseller list, or just because cookbook authors thought vegetables weren’t visceral enough, but it’s quite demoralizing to page through a photo-less tome of 1001 ways to cook vegetables.


The other trend you’ll notice in vegetarian and especially vegan cookbooks is that the authors take traditional meat dishes and simply “translate” them into their vegan or vegetarian equivalent. These usually include some kind of processed veggie filler like TVP (Textured Vegetable protein), seitan or tofu. Aside from not using any imagination, these approaches to vegetarian cooking largely ignore many locavore’s desire for their entire meal to be unprocessed and available locally (preferably from our backyard).



Fortunately, there has been a vegetable food movement in the last few years that has started to appreciate that vegetables might deserve their own restaurants, recipes, specialty chefs, etc. It still hasn’t hit the mainstream and a lot of these cookbooks tend to be a bit elitist, but it’s still gratifying to find cookbooks referring to celery roots and tatsoi.

There are also some very solid “classic” vegetarian cookbooks that don’t have a ton of photos but have the benefit of being battle-tested enough that you can trust them.


Below I’ve included a list of some of my go-to cookbooks for veggies; I’ve separated the books into 2 lists, Foundation and Adventurous.

The Foundation cookbooks provide a comprehensive background on how to prepare vegetables (eg., when to stir-fry vs. blanch) and/or are considered classics, but they don’t tend to get too wild with their preparations.

The Adventurous section includes cookbooks that you might not use on a daily basis but show some of the exciting ways you can make a gourmet meal out of your produce. I’m sure I’m leaving out some great books here, so please comment if I’ve committed a travesty and left your favorite book out and I’ll see if I can add it to the list.


Foundation

  • Vegetarian Cooking For Everyone

    Written by the founding chef of the Greens Restaurant in San Francisco, one of the landmark vegetarian restaurants in the country, this book provides a very solid introduction to most of the vegetables you’ll be bringing on to the harvest table. It really covers the basics well and the new version includes some nice photographs and extended explanation of some techniques.
    Purchase At Amazon

  • The Moosewood Cookbook

    A cookbook written for another time and place, this was one of the first cookbooks to introduce Americans to cooking healthy meals using vegetables. Many of the recipes sound delicious, but my main gripe is the complete lack of any photos. I still recommend paging through this book, which you’ll probably find in any decent library (or at least one of the dozen books this classic spawned).
    Purchase at Amazon

  • Food from Your Forest Garden

    Permaculture enthusiasts place a huge emphasis on growing perennial vegetables but they rarely follow up with information on how you actually eat them. Martin Crawford is a UK expert on food forests and follows this up with this wonderful little book introducing us on ways to prepare some of more unusual things you might grow in your garden.
    Purchase At Amazon

Adventurous

  • The French Market Cookbook: Vegetarian Recipes from My Parisian Kitchen

    I like this book because it breaks up recipes by produce available in different seasons. It also has a number of simple, tasty recipes that are perfect for weeknight dinners.
    Purchase At Amazon

  • Plenty: Vibrant Vegetable Recipes from London's Ottolenghi

    Yotam Ottolenghi is a celebrity UK chef who runs lots of fancy restaurants in London, but what distinguishes him for this list is his commitment to creating gourmet vegetarian dishes. This book sources material from a food column he used to write in the Guardian. He uses plenty of different produce, but his recipes tend to be a bit overly complicated.
    Purchase At Amazon

  • Vedge: 100 Plates Large and Small That Redefine Vegetable Cooking

    Vedge is a gourmet vegan restaurant in Philadelphia with a tapas approach to preparing vegetables. Many of the dishes listed in this cookbook make great sides that you can pair up in different combinations for flexibility in dealing with the variability of garden harvests.
    Purchase At Amazon