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by Mark Bittman
Review by Christian Perring on Dec 4th 2007
Our kitchen is vegetarian, and we enjoy cooking. We have a shelf full of cookbooks, most of them vegetarian. Yet the cookbook we consult most often is the non-vegetarian Joy of Cooking, because it is so thorough and exhaustive. If we get some nice fresh vegetables, or have something in the fridge that we need to finish off, there will probably be a simple recipe in Joy of Cooking that will work well. The only other book that we use nearly as much is Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison, which has just come out in a tenth anniversary edition; it has some great recipes and has never disappointed us. Now there's a new book that is likely to rival both of these in its usefulness: Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.
Bittman's book is large: 996 pages with an excellent 62 pages of an index, which is essential part of any good cookbook. The recipes range from the very simple (including soft boiled eggs) to the moderately complex. There are very few elaborate recipes here, which is good, since we need mostly simple ideas. Each recipe includes indications of how many servings it makes, how long and how much work it takes, whether it is fast and whether it can be made ahead of time, and whether it is vegan. There are some illustrations, mainly showing preparation or cooking techniques, and they are useful.
The book starts with the basics on ingredients, equipment and techniques, and divides the remaining chapters into common sense food categories: salads; soups; eggs, dairy, and cheese; produce: vegetables and fruits; pasta, noodles, and dumplings; grains; legumes; breads, pizzas, sandwiches, and wraps; sauces, condiments, herbs and spices; and desserts. It combines a variety of cuisines: everyday American with Italian, Spanish, Mexican, Korean, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and more. It has many recipes for commonly-used ingredients and also some for rarer ones: for example, burdock, kamut, morel mushrooms, and tamarind. It has a number of tables setting different kinds of foods or recipes. One example is "Grains for Enthusiasts," which lists many kinds of grains, including faro, teff, and triticale, with cooking times, descriptions, and forms and varieties. Another interesting table is "Grilling Everyday Fruits, which has columns for preparation, flavoring ideas, how to grill, how to sauce or season, and serving suggestions. It includes apples, bananas, figs, mangos, melons and plums. The whole book is packed full of interesting yet simple ideas for cooking different ingredients, and it is a pleasure to use.
Maybe the most useful aspect of How to Cook Everything Vegetarian is that almost every recipe has suggestions for variations, substitutions, or combinations with other recipes. So even if you do not have all the ingredients for the main recipe, you will probably have enough information to work out how to make a version of it. This focus on flexibility and simplicity means that cooks will return to Bittman's book again and again. It should be a pleasure for anyone to use, vegetarian or otherwise.
© 2007 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.