Book Notes: America’s Test Kitchen takes a detailed look at vegetarian cooking
“The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook: A Fresh Guide to Eating with 700 Foolproof Recipes” By the Editors at America’s Test Kitchen. Published by America’s Test Kitchen, Brookline, Mass., 2015. Paperback. Pricing varies.
I’m a fan of America’s Test Kitchen in its many iterations. Whether you’re consulting the daily Feed blog, founder Christopher Kimball’s down-home newsletters, the recipes, Cook’s Illustrated magazine, the videos showing how to make, for example, the best thin-crust pizza, you’re bound to learn something new or interesting.
Though America’s Test Kitchen is a relentless self-promoter, the editors have good reason to tout their products and their advice. The test kitchen is staffed with cooks that deconstruct and then reconstruct a recipe until they land on the yummiest results.
I also like their advice about products and tools. Their recommendation for a small, inexpensive knife sharpener has served me well. I bring it with me when I commute between NYC and Rockport, and when I go north to hike and make evening meals using New Hampshire’s fine, local produce.
What interests me about the editors’ new “Complete Vegetarian Cookbook” is Kimball’s happy claim: “Resorting to incredibly complicated recipes is also not necessary — good vegetarian cooking should be and can be simple. Forget about fat and cheese being the go-to solution; there are plenty of ways to add flavor without dairy.” I especially warmed to “forget about fat and cheese.”
Many vegetarians lean hard on dairy, while vegans lean hard on starches/carbs in order to feel sated and to get quick, good flavor. I don’t want to eat like that, and yet I believe many of us are natural-born vegans looking for a way in. This book offers 250 vegan recipes and 500 recipes that are gluten free.
Despite the claims, cheese is part of the book’s repertoire, though in most cases it can be eliminated without imperiling the integrity of the dish. Further, we are not talking cheese blankets here, we’re talking cheese dustings.
Unlike recipes from other sources and cookbooks, which you can usually find online with a little effort, those from America’s Test Kitchen often require a monetary investment. You can view some of the recipes on their website, but you can’t download or print most of them unless you pay a subscription fee.
Thus, it makes sense to a certain segment of the foodies out there to invest in the book if you’re sincerely interested in cooking with fresh vegetables, legumes and grains and getting tried-and-true results.
My personal criteria for this book’s success: Are the vegetables the focal point of the dish? Can I taste the actual vegetables in the dish or are they buried under globs of cheese, fat or heavy sauces? The answer is yes.
The digital version of the book, which I purchased for $16.47, is well designed, with lots of internal links between the table of contents and the recipes, and between the index and the recipes.
The food photography is gorgeous, and though readers may long for more of it, this is a big document and it’s a bit of a challenge to navigate. Pages froze a few times, and I’ve had to reboot.
Though many buying this book will be experienced cooks, the numerous primers within are helpful all the same. In the very first section, you’ll read about flavor enhancers. Look for tips like how to store hard cheeses, tools and techniques, and a visual and verbal description of a number of vegetables, including advice about what to look for, how to prep and how to store. Also, be sure to read the introduction to each recipe, “Why This Recipe Works.”
The chapter lineup is: Hearty Vegetable Mains (according to Kimball, this is the heart of the book); Soups, Stews and Chilis; Pasta, Noodles and Dumplings; Rice and Grains; Beans and Soy; Salads Big and Small; Vegetable Sides; Savory Flatbreads, Pizza, Tarts and More; Sandwiches, Wraps, Burgers and More; Eggs for Breakfast and Dinner; Small Bites and Savory Snacks.
If you have a sweet tooth, you might be disappointed because desserts aren’t part of the package.
From the table of contents, take a link to the chapter of your choice and you’ll see that each dish is color coded to indicate whether it’s vegan, gluten free and/or fast — anything 45 minutes or under.
In Rice and Grains, for example, there are 54 recipes, ranging from Overnight Steel-Cut Oatmeal to Mediterranean Lettuce Cups with Quinoa, Olives and Feta. As many as a quarter to a third of the recipes include variations, with links to helpful hints, related recipes (such as sauces) or sidebars such as “Getting to Know Rice.”
A conversational, instructive tone gives this book a friendly, confidence-boosting feel. The editors never talk down to you but they clearly have guidelines about never leaving readers guessing. If you’re making the Vegetable Paella (a luscious dish), for example, you’ll learn that you’re to aim for a soccarat, which is a traditional part of the paella. Without a big fuss, the editors gently explain that a soccarat is a layer of crusty brown rice.
Sidebars and notes proliferate. Learn more about mushrooms, eggplants, using dried herbs, Asian ingredients (along with recipe and recommendations for vegetarian fish sauce substitute), and how to produce a great stir fry.
Kimball makes the point that we shouldn’t really view this book as a vegetarian cookbook. This is “just a well-considered cookbook for the 21st century. We ought to treat vegetables better, as ingredients worthy of main course attention.” I agree. America’s Test Kitchen has perfected its brand. We know what to expect and we get it.
Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in some bookstores. Write her at email@example.com, read her blog at freefallrae.blogspot.com or follow her on Twitter at @RaeAF.