Top | The Vegetable Challenge

The best books about vegetables

(post, Carrie Floyd)

Signing up for a CSA is like getting used to a new pet in the house. Just as the joy of a new puppy gets all mixed up with the dismay of house training and chewed-up possessions, the delight of stellar-tasting produce waxes and wanes with the tasks of procuring and cooking those darn vegetables before they rot. 

Thankfully, there are a gazillion recipes to help you figure out how to turn four eggplant and two ears of corn into dinner. Here are several cookbooks I pull off the shelf when looking for vegetable inspiration. Let me know in the comments which book(s) you consider essential when it's time to eat your vegetables.
[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Reading up on veggies."]

Alice Waters
Chez Panisse Vegetables
I love this book in its entirety: the illustrations, the recipes, the paper both are printed on, even the solid binding that holds everything together. I cook from this book (and its sibling, Chez Panisse Fruit) all year round, turning to the asparagus section in the spring, finding solace in the fennel recipes come fall when my CSA share overfloweth in fennel, consulting it repeatedly in the winter for variations on cooking leafy greens.

Waters writes in a voice both reverent and informed, providing background on the season, heirlooms and hybrids, how the particular vegetable gets prepared at the restaurant, cooking suggestions, and tasty little relevant tidbits to whet the appetite. This woman knows and loves her subject. 

From its pages I have supped on Braised Cabbage; Beets with Blood Orange, Endive, and Walnuts; Sage and Butternut Squash Risotto; and Tomato and Cantal Cheese Galette.

Deborah Madison
Vegetable Soups From Deborah Madison's Kitchen
Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
One excellent way to work more vegetables into your daily diet lies in making and eating vegetable soup. Deborah Madison's Vegetable Soups is brimming with delicious possibilities that fall into chapters by season, hardiness, and accompaniments (beans, grains, bread). Recipes I've marked to try include Wild Rice Chowder; Roasted Squash, Pear and Ginger Soup; and Broccoli Rabe and White Bean Soup. 

As for Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, it's a cherished reference book in my house, one I turn to again and again when pondering what to make or how to cook a certain vegetable (legume, grain). Hands down, if I only get one book to take to my desert island, this is it. There I'll have time to digest all 742 pages, to finally read up on salsify, grasp the many types of squash and how to cook them, and commit to memory the recipes for Winter Squash Soup with Lemongrass and Coconut Milk, Stir-Fried Roasted Eggplant, Polenta Gratin with Mushrooms and Tomato . . .

Madhur Jaffrey
Madhur Jaffrey's World-of-the-East Vegetarian Cooking
Madhur Jaffrey is a great writer who never fails to make me hungry when I read her books. And, too, her writing is so thorough, I have yet to cook a recipe of hers I haven't liked. The binding of this particular book cracked long ago (I'm always stuffing the pages back in as I turn them), but still, it's a resource I rely on when looking for straightforward and compelling ways to prepare vegetables. 

An example of the breadth and depth here are the 22 recipes for green beans — cooked alone, mixed with other vegetables, fried into fritters, and combined with coconut and mustard seeds. 

If you like Asian and Middle Eastern cooking, you'll appreciate having such a variety of recipes from so many countries — India, China, the Philippines, Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, etc. — all in one book.

Mollie Katzen
The Vegetable Dishes I Can't Live Without
Artichokes to zucchini, the recipes here are arranged by vegetable alphabetically with Mollie Katzen's signature script and illustrations. In the introduction Katzen defines vegetarian as "pro-vegetable," and throughout the book she illustrates both simple and detailed ways of cooking vegetables: roasting, pickling, stir-frying, braising, sautéing, searing, stuffing, chopping, shaving, mashing, grilling, and marinating. In the back of the book there's information on stocking your pantry and kitchen equipment essential for preparing vegetables, as well as a compendium of ways to up your veggie quota.

On my docket to try: Broccoli Stem Pickles; Eggplant, Green Beans, Pumpkin, and Basil in Coconut-Tomato Curry; Bright Greens on a Bed of Creamy Polenta; and Stir-Fried Eggplant with Ginger-Plum Sauce. 

Cynthia Lair
Feeding the Whole Family
Author Cynthia Lair is a wizard at combining whole foods — grains, vegetables, meat — for the full healthy-meal deal. A certified nutrition counselor and teacher, Lair's book focuses on family-friendly meals that just so happen to work a lot of vegetables into the mix: with eggs for breakfast, into sushi rolls, salads and sandwiches for lunch, and soup, stews, and casseroles for supper. 

The chapter "Got Color" offers tips on easy methods to cook vegetables, as well as salad and cooked vegetable recipes such as Garlic-Sautéed Greens and Luscious Beet Salad with Toasted Pumpkin Seeds. My favorite recipe from this book is Emerald City Salad.

Mark Bittman
How to Cook Everything Vegetarian
Mark Bittman excels in no-nonsense, plain-talk basics. There’s nothing to be afraid of_ is the subtext of his writing, which in the chapter called "Produce" manifests itself in comprehensive how-to vegetable prep. Think of this as a reference book to consult on preparing and cooking vegetables, complete with illustrations (dicing carrots), graphs (grilling everyday vegetables), and as many recipes as there are days in the year. 

The cross-referencing sidebars (which list other recipes in the book) are great resources if you are searching for ways to cook a particular ingredient. I also appreciate the variations that often follow a recipe; Oven-Roasted Fresh Plum Tomatoes, for example, is followed by variations for canned and “everyday” tomatoes. Recipes range from simple (steamed corn on the cob) to more complex (corn pancakes, Thai style), though few are complicated.

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