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Vegetable love

(article, Christina Eng)

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I’ve never met a Brussels sprout I didn’t like. Or a portobello mushroom for that matter, or a red bell pepper. Neither, it seems, has Mollie Katzen. 

In The Vegetable Dishes I Can't Live Without, the prolific cookbook author shares close to 100 of her current favorite meatless recipes — “current,” she says in the introduction, “because this list shifts around with the seasons, and the inherent moods – and produce – they deliver.” 

She offers directions for a variety of inventive foods: Gingered Asparagus, Garlicky Pea Shoot Tangle, Southwest Summer Corn Hash, and Southeast Asian-Style Eggplant with Chiles, Red Onion, and Mint. She makes vegetables appetizing and the kitchen accessible.

As she does in her classic Moosewood Cookbook — inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Cookbook Hall of Fame in 2007 — Katzen focuses on natural ingredients and healthful eating. She presents ideas and combinations in mildly whimsical prose; the text appears hand-lettered, the illustrations accompanying it meticulously hand-drawn.

(The original Moosewood Cookbook, published in 1977 and updated slightly in 1999, highlights dishes from the Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, New York, of which Katzen was a founding member. Along with Frances Moore Lappé’s [%bookLink code=0345321200 "Diet for a Small Planet"], the book helped bring vegetarianism into the American mainstream.)

Katzen — whose other books include [%bookLink code=1401308929 "Eat, Drink, and Weigh Less"], [%bookLink code=1580081266 "The New Enchanted Broccoli Forest"], and [%bookLink code=0786862696 "Mollie Katzen’s Sunlight Café"], as well as children’s cookbooks like [%bookLink code=1883672066 "Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes"] and [%bookLink code=1883672880 "Honest Pretzels"] — roughly arranges her newest book alphabetically. From artichokes to tomatoes, she makes her nimble way through an impressive selection of produce, generating menu options for everyday meals. 

[%image feature-image float=left width=400 credit="Photo: iStockphoto/gsermek" caption="Fresh pea shoots make a delicious stir-fry."]

Intrigued first by the Artichoke Heart and Spinach Gratin, featuring layers of artichoke hearts and spinach topped with breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese, I set off in search of frozen artichoke hearts. For some reason, I didn’t realize they’re available outside of jars and cans. 

Though I follow Katzen’s instructions closely, I'm ultimately disappointed with the results of the gratin. The flavors aren’t as bright or as remarkable as I’d hoped they might be. The dish would benefit, I think, from pinches of red pepper flakes. I don’t know. Leftovers a couple of days later taste no better.

On the other hand, both the Braised Brussels Sprouts in Maple Mustard Glaze and the Crispy-Edged Roasted Brussels Sprouts turn out terrifically. I could not be more pleased. 

The former gets its sweetness from maple syrup and its tang from mustard; cooking the sprouts a little longer further intensifies these flavors. The latter requires only extra-virgin olive oil, salt, a pan, and an oven; the vegetables come out crunchy on the outside, tender and savory on the inside. 

The Garlicky Pea Shoot Tangle and the Oven-“Fried” Sweet Potatoes also turn out successfully. Stir-fried briefly in hot oil, the pea shoots remind me of a Chinese dish my mother sometimes makes. With Katzen’s guidance, the vegetables remain vibrantly green and irresistibly crunchy. As for the fries, when eaten alongside baked chicken, for example, or a hamburger or a warm sandwich, they’re addictive, their natural sugars filling the mouth. 

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The Vegetable Dishes I Can’t Live Without has a narrower focus than many vegetarian cookbooks. It’s less comprehensive, for example, than Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, released a decade ago and updated last year. (Madison’s book, too, won a James Beard Award.) At just 144 pages, Katzen’s book is a fraction of the size of Madison’s 700-plus-page work. 

And The Vegetable Dishes I Can’t Live Without is certainly less versatile than Peter Berley’s The Flexitarian Table; Katzen, a self-proclaimed “leaf geek,” does not suggest adaptations to her recipes to suit carnivores. That is not the intent. 

Instead, in this new book of occasional misses and more hits, she continues to celebrate in her own subtle manner all that is good and exciting about fresh, wholesome ingredients and simple, straightforward cooking. 

p(bio). Christina Eng is a writer in Oakland, California, and a frequent contributor to Culinate.


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