Earlier this month, a Lopez Island Kitchen Gardens blog reader wrote: “You should do a post on your favorite cook books…I’m always looking for new and different ways to cook vegetables.” At her suggestion, I started to make a list of the cookbooks I go to regularly for recipes and inspiration. I didn’t even need to look at my cookbook shelves to make this list because these writers are so much a part of my kitchen, some of them, as the publication dates I added later reveal, for over two decades.
Alice Waters: Chez Panisse Vegetables(1996)
Deborah Madison:The Greens Cookbook(1987) Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone(1997), Vegetable Literacy(2013)
Yotam Ottolenghi: Plenty More(2014)
Nigel Slater: Tender(2009)
Viana La Place: Verdura(1991)
Nancy Harmon Jenkins: Flavors of Tuscany(1998)
Marcella Hazan: Marcella’s Italian Kitchen(1986)
Jack Bishop: Pasta e Verdura(1996)
There are a lot of reasons that these books made my short list. They are all either vegetable-focused, like Madison’s, Waters’s, Ottolenghi’s, Slater’s, LaPlace’s and Bishop’s, or they have excellent sections on vegetables as do Hazan’s and Jenkins’ Italian cookbooks. I can count on opening the table of contents of any book on this list and finding some inspiring ideas for cooking whatever vegetable I’ve brought in from the kitchen garden.
They are all strong on technique, introducing each recipe with an informative paragraph or two and then providing clear, step-by-step instructions. Alice Waters, in Chez Panisse Vegetables, also offers what she calls snapshot recipes: “narrative descriptions that leave much to the imagination and intuition of the cook.” Characterizing her book as an “album of possibilities for vegetables,” she says that these snapshots are scattered among more formal portrait recipes that list specific quantities of ingredients and step-by-step instructions. (p. xx) Actually, all of the recipes I love in the books on my list leave room for imagination and intuition, substitution and variation, making the cooking experience even more creative.
These books also vary in their organization. The most common is by courses, making it easy to focus in on recipes for vegetable soups, side dishes or main courses. Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Vegetables, Nigel Slater’s Tender and Bishop’s Pasta e Verdura are organized alphabetically by vegetable, clustering all of the recipes for one vegetable together for easy study. Georgeanne Brennan’s Potager is organized by season, an inspiring pattern for a year-round kitchen gardener. Yotam Ottolenghi organized Plenty More by cooking technique—tossed, steamed blanched; simmered and braised; grilled, roasted and fried; and mashed—a pattern that I’ve grown to love because of the way it helps me think about each cooking technique.
Overall, the books on this short list and the recipes I turn to in them as well as recipes in other cookbooks on my shelves reveal a lot about the flavors and techniques of my cooking. Olive oil or butter, garlic, salt, pepper and maybe red pepper flakes are about as complicated as I get with seasonings. Roasting or sautéing are my default techniques. My goal is to let the flavor of the particular fresh-from-the-garden vegetable stand out. This approach means I’m missing out on the more complex flavors of Asian and Indian cuisines, a lack I sometimes think about addressing. From Ottolenghi, though, I’m getting a helpful nudge in the direction of the Middle East. Thanks to his creative recipes, cumin and coriander, tahini and yogurt based sauces are a bigger part of my vegetable cooking now. Who knows, maybe one of these years my palate will advance beyond West Coast and the Mediterranean and my cooking will get there too. Maybe I need to get some more cookbooks or better yet, travel farther east!