One of the best things which has happened to me as a result of this website is being sent books for review. Anyone who knows me or has ever been to my house knows I love books of all sorts - so much so that, when I haul new purchases home from Barnes & Noble, Husband has been known to sigh, pat me on the head and say "We need to get you a library card." But I've digressed, and haven't already begun.
Most people know Mark Bittman as the Minimalist, the column he writes for the New York Times' Food section - one of the few food-related things I read in any newspaper. Bittman's recipes are known for their simple, straightforward use of a only a few really good ingredients - just my kind of cook. He is also known for starting the no-knead bread craze, and for that, I am eternally grateful.
This was my first experience with one of Bittman's cookbooks. At first glance, I've always thought the cookbooks were too large - how could the recipes be good and focused if there were so many of them in one cookbook? Now, I also dislike tiny, one-topic cookbooks, such as a pasta cookbook (you don't need a cookbook for pasta. No, you don't), but this just seemed too overwhelming a project for a one-author cookbook. Fortunately, I think I'm wrong.
At this point, I feel maybe I should digress again for a second and admit something: I haven't yet made any recipes from this cookbook. A few years ago, I heard an interview with 2 cookbook reviewers, one who felt she couldn't be honest if she hadn't tried some recipes, and one who felt he was savvy enough to read the recipes critically and determine if they made sense. I was scandalized: review a cookbook without making any of the recipes?! Mon Dieu! I don't really feel that way anymore. I can pretty much read a recipe - especially these sorts of simple recipes - and know if it's going to work or not. And I'm sure I will eventually cook from the cookbook, but the book hit my doorstep with an assertive THUD last week and we already had our meals planned. And our bacon purchased. Remember, this is How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.
Okay, so I'm not, and probably never will become, a vegetarian. I can't help it. Pork is just too delicious to give up. I'm all about paying extra for a happy piggy, but I still want to eat him. There are a lot of good reasons to become vegetarians, or what I prefer, the new term of flexitarians (people who are meatless many days of the week.). The truth is, there are lots of days I don't eat meat. Or only one slice of bacon, minced into some sort of otherwise vegetarian pasta or veggie dish. I know it might appear as though I eat fabulously beautiful food every day, but the truth is, on a lot of days I eat spaghetti or packaged, dried cheese raviolis from Trader Joe's with olive oil, salt and red pepper flakes. Because I am busy, and lazy.
But, let's get on with the book, shall we? First of all, this book is very educational. I think it's a great first cookbook for anyone interested in cooking, not just vegetarians.
Bittman's premise is that the vegetarian diet consists of numerous dishes consisting a meal, vs. the carnivore's diet, which centers around a meat-based entree, with side dishes. The book begins with a few tutorials on ingredients you should always have on hand, and then a few you might have if you are going to be adventurous, as well as equipment you should have. The thing I've always loved about Bittman is his completely un-snobby approach to these sorts of things. Of course we'd all love to have a $1000 set of All-Clad pots, but the truth is, it just isn't practical for everyone. It's also impractical to insist upon the finest $50 per litre extra virgin olive oil, and $100 5 ounce bottles of balsamic vinegar. This frugal practicality makes the cookbook very accessible. Beginning cooks will find the recipes approachable, while food snobs will recognize the cues and substitute the best ingredient for the most practical, if the time arises.
There are also instructions on cutting veggies, along with nicely rendered sketches (in the Cooks Illustrated manner - the illustrator here is Alan Witschonke), as well as instructions on numerous cooking terms which are frequently thrown around and rarely described, such as "deglazing." For all you crazy vegans, there are instructions for the basics of turning the recipes into vegan recipes; many of the recipes also give instructions for veganizing the dishes. There are instructions for using leftovers, for reheating, for almost everything you can imagine. This is what would make this cookbook perfect for a recent graduate.
One of the best things about the book is there are several "master" recipes, and then there are 20 ideas for changing the recipe - these are the things which will help you become an intuitive cook. An example: there are instructions for poaching eggs, and then there are ideas for flavorful liquids in which to poach your eggs, and then there are 6 great sauces for poached eggs, and then there are 19 things to serve under poached eggs. See? One master recipe, and loads of additional ideas.
There are tons of great condiment recipes, along with ways to use them, ways to reinterpret them, etc. There are loads of great bean recipes (we here at Chez Widow love beans); good descriptions of each bean, and grain recipes with descriptions of each grains ditto rice, as well as pasta recipes, including how to make several types of pasta, dumplings - including Asian dumplings, gnocchi, and spaetzle. The soup recipes are also very comprehensive. There are a few basic stock recipes which would definitely come in handy if you are a meat-eating cook trying to cook vegetarian. We go through about 2-3 quarts of chicken stock a week if we are doing a lot of cooking, and try to have vegetarian stock on hand, too.
I have to admit I sort of got lost on the meat-replacement recipes. Perhaps I should make those the first I try.
There are lots of things in this cookbook I haven't even touched on - descriptions of oils and vinegars, types of meat substitutes, descriptions of flours, the bread or dessert sections, etc. But I have to leave something for you to discover, don't I?
All in all, I found this cookbook to be loaded with easy to follow recipes, instructions, and descriptions. It is packed with information - there is even a breakdown on the lack of supervision of the chicken and egg industry (read: free range is meaningless). Even for non-vegetarians, I think the cookbook is a good buy at $35. It kept my attention from beginning to end and there aren't even any pretty photographs (truly a feat, as I have a pretty short attention span). There were lots of times when I was reading the recipes and thought to myself "all of those things, plus bacon," or "all of those things and sausage." But that's just me; it also shows how a meat eater can still find this book helpful. If you want to add bacon, add bacon!
How to Cook Everything Vegetarian has just been released and costs $35. Click below to order it from Amazon.com: