The Eleventh Cookbook of Christmas: The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook

Jack Bishop

I am a simple soul. I wear jeans and t-shirts. I prefer Chucks to heels. I don’t wear make-up.  And my favourite ice cream flavour is vanilla. Less is more. When watching Masterchef, I am frustrated when the judges and contestants yammer on about “technique” and “plating.” And what is the point of foam? My cooking mantra is “Let the food be the food.” DSC01787My favourite foods are simple: mashed potatoes with butter, salt, and pepper; tomato sandwiches with tarragon mayonnaise; pasta with sautéed vegetables and a little parmesan; pizza margarita with sweet tomatoes, basil from the garden, and milky, fresh mozzarella cheese. I am also a great believer in cooking what’s in season. There is nothing more delicious than a perfectly sun-ripened tomato; and there are few things less appealing than a pale, flavourless winter hot-house tomato — no amount of technique will make it taste good.  I defy anyone to come up with anything more exquisite than an ear of sweet corn straight off the stalk with a bit of butter, salt, and pepper.

I prefer food that is only one degree of separation from the soil.  I’ve dined at three-Michelin-starred restaurants, but too often the experience left me cold.  DSC01792I appreciate the art and science behind modernist cuisine, but I cannot warm to a dining experience that puts so much technology between me and the food. I’m suspicious of “fusion” cooking that confuses me with too many moving parts. Dining in the dark? Spare me. If a recipe has forty steps, I reckon that is about 35 steps too many. I don’t have a single squeeze bottle in my kitchen, unless you count the ones Simon’s HP Sauce comes in.  As my adorable partner put it, I have no time for precious food.

A few years ago, I  spent a month in Sancerre, a picture book medieval walled city in the Loire valley. 1929893_15495843409_3121_nI was immersing myself in French at the Coeur de France Ecole des Langues.  Every morning, I walked into town and bought my food for the day.   A croissant or petit pan au chocolate for petit dejeuner. A baguette at the boulangerie, a handful of haricot verts and champignons at the greengrocer, a wedge of cheese here, a bottle of wine there. We went on a field trip to a chèvre farm where I milked my first goat.1929893_15495833409_2522_n  Most days, I lunched at the Cafe des artes, where the friendly staff would patiently suffer my feeble French (I’m sure I saw their ears bleed). Once, I had a long and spirited argument with the veg vender from the market about George W. Bush. He loved him. I didn’t. 1929893_15495858409_4008_nI rarely ate dinner out. My evenings were given over to homework and working on my vocabulary by watching badly dubbed episodes of NCIS and CSI. And I cooked, simply, and with whatever looked good at the market on the day. It was spring, so the market was teeming with some of my favourite things: asparagus, tiny artichokes, and haricot verts.

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The Bubbles were pretty nice, too!

My neighbour, Anita, and I spent a long weekend in Paris in 2011. I think she would agree that one of the best meals we had there was a simple omelette, salad, and a glass of house red wine at a corner cafe near our hotel. I had a similarly memorable meal in Giverny, just outside Monet’s house. In Lisbon, sardines grill over open wood fires all over the city, and the aroma is tantalising. My favourite meal in Brussels was pommel frites with mayonnaise.

I visited Venice briefly in 2013, and spent much of my time wandering around side streets and exploring the fruit and vegetable markets. I got lost. I got hungry. I stopped for a plate of linguine con vongole and a glass of Orvieto at a cafe at the edge of the vegetable and seafood market. I walked more. I got lost again. I met a lovely man who made carnival masks. I chatted with another artist selling his watercolours outside one of Venice’s ancient churches. I bought two. I walked more.

Got lost more. Ate lemon gelato. Finally, having managed to find my way back to the train station, hot, footsore, and happy, I drank the best mug of beer I’ve ever had. The most expensive, too, but that didn’t matter. It was a golden day.

The Kale Whisperer’s Eleventh Cookbook of Christmas, Jack Bishop’s The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook, honours the beauty of simple food.  This book is full of the kind of simple, fresh food that I love: polenta, pasta, and rice with seasonable vegetables; frittatas, tortas, and pizza; salads and bruschetta. Bishop is an editor at America’s Test Kitchen, and he provides plenty of good, practical advice.  His step-by-step instructions mean the recipes here are manageable by even a beginner. I particularly appreciate the serving suggestions that follow each recipe. None of these recipes require any special equipment. Not a foam canister in sight.

I probably cook from The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook more than any other single book on my cookbook shelf. I especially enjoy it in the summertime, when no one wants to eat hot, heavy food. Packing a picnic for an outdoor concert? This is your cookbook. One of my favourite picnics consists of a vegetable frittata (my favourite is the Zucchini Frittata with Parmesan and mint), the Roasted Potato Salad with Herbs and Red Wine Vinegar, and a loaf of crusty country bread. I am a huge fan of pasta e fagioli, and Bishop’s version, with lots of garlic and rosemary, is among my favourites. I also love the Chickpea Soup with Fennel and Orange Zest. I have borrowed that flavour combination — chickpea, fennel, and orange — as a pizza topping, too.

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Jack Bishop wrote another excellent cookbook, Pasta e Verdure (Morrow, 1994). Sadly, it is out of print, but there are used copies for sale on Amazon. In it, Bishop presents 250 recipes for simple pasta and vegetables. The books has chapters for 27 different vegetables, so if you come him from the farmers’ market with fresh, spring favas, or all you have for dinner one winter night is some pasta and cauliflower, you can find something delicious to cook. I often use Bishop’s flavour combinations as pizza toppings. If you can put it on pasta, why not pizza? Each chapter opens with advice on how to choose, clean, and store each vegetable. Many of the combinations he presents here have become standards for me: the hot pink sauces (tomato + red pepper flakes + a little cream) is a particular favourite. My mother used to make what we called “crummy spaghetti”, which was simply spaghetti tossed with bread crumbs toasted in a little butter.  Bishop has several scrummy variations on that theme: Spaghetti with Wilted Spinach and Breadcrumbs and Linguine with Asparagus, Toasted Breadcrumbs, Lemon, and Garlic. My biggest deliciousness surprise was the Fusilli with Shredded Brussels Sprouts, Orange, and Almonds. Think you hate Brussels’ Sprouts? You won’t if you try this!

Let me finish by mourning another much-loved but tragically out-of-print cookbook: Marlena Spieler’s The Vegetarian Bistro (Chronicle Books, 1997). Spieler does for simple French cooking what Bishop does for Italian Vegetarian cooking. I haven’t even bothered to flag the “to cook” recipes here, because I can literally open the book to any random page and happily cook whatever I find there, knowing it will be delicious. If you can track down a used copy (they are available on Amazon, too), buy it. Then cook the Lentilles “Dom Perignon” (Lentils cooked in Champagne — don’t worry if you don’t have left over bubbles, it works with any dry white wine). Just lentils, shallots, garlic and white wine.

Simply. Delicious. Food.

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The Fourth Cookbook of Christmas: Mediterranean Harvest

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It’s Tuesday. I need to use up the two pounds of asparagus I bought at the market on Saturday. My plan to pickle it has been foiled by my inability to find dill seed in the Hutt Valley. (This year, I’ll remember to hang on to the end-of-summer dill flowers.) So, I just whipped up a batch of fresh pasta to make Asparagus Pasta with Herbed Béchamel, a recipe from one of my all-time favourite cookbook authors, Martha Rose Schulman. Under the circumstances, it seems appropriate that today’s cookbook recommendation is her Mediterranean Harvest: Vegetarian Recipes from the World’s Healthiest Cuisine (Rodale, 2007).

While I consider myself a culinary adventurer when it comes to trying new cuisines, I must confess that my heart lies in Italy. For me, food is merely a delivery system for olive oil and garlic. One of the very first cookbooks I ever bought was a Gilroy Garlic Festival cookbook. Schulman’s recipe for garlic broth — which, I promise, tastes almost exactly like chicken stock — is worth the price of the book all on its own. It’s my failsafe for when I need vegetable stock and the freezer is bare. It’s also a good way to use up slightly past its prime garlic. You know, the ones with the green shoots about an inch long. As my Dad used to quip, no one needs to worry about vampires at my house.

Come to think of it, though, I’m also quite fond of vampires. REAL vampires — Dracula, Lestat, Barnabus Collins, and Spike — not today’s domesticated, broody teenage angst vampires. Which reminds me, you must immediately get on Netflix and add What We Do in the Shadows to your watch list. It is the perfect marriage of old-world Vampires and new world New Zealand. Nosferatu meets The Flight of the Conchords. It will make you want to move here, just for the vampires. And the werewolves. And there really was a bar called The Big Kumara, but it’s closed now. Sorry.

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Now, where was I?

Mediterranean cuisine is among the most vegetarian-friendly in the world, given its emphasis on fresh ingredients and simple preparations. Mediterranean Harvest is by no means limited to the food of Italy. It includes recipes from around the greater Mediterranean region: Algeria, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Egypt, France, Greece, Iran, Italy, Lebanon, Morocco, Spain, Syria, Tunisia, and Turkey. The book is organised topically — Breads, Little Foods, Pasta, Sweets, etc. — rather than geographically, but there is a list of recipes by country in the back. The lion’s share of the recipes here are French, Greek, Italian, Spanish, and Turkish, but it does include some important outliers. Schulman includes a (slightly) slimmed-down version of one of my favourites, Persian Rice, that uses four tablespoons instead of the usual quarter pound. In my opinion, it needs fresh fava beans or baby limas mixed in, but you can do what you like.

My favourite chapter is “Little Foods: Starters, Snacks, Mezze, and More.” Here’s where you will find all those delicious little tapas and other tidbits that are such fun: filo pastries, dips, spreads, and marinated things. A few of these, a cold bottle of prosecco, and some lovely fresh strawberries and you have a party. Okay, maybe a few bottles of prosecco. I’ve been over hummus since 1993 when I traveled to Palestine and ate hummus every breakfast, lunch, and dinner for nearly three weeks. You’ll find traditional hummus here (if you really must), but also some nice alternatives: White Bean Brandade (a vegetarian version of the classic French white bean and salt cod puree), Turkish Hummus (spicier, with no tahini), and Fresh Fava Bean Puree. There is also a useful section of suggested toppings for bruschetta and crostini.

Do you love risotto but never make it for company because you don’t want to be stuck in the kitchen stirring over a hot stove during cocktails while your guests are snarfing up all antipasti? Schulman will tell you how to cook it part of the way in advance, reducing the final prep to 15 minutes. And her easy polenta will save you the ordeal of stirring polenta (in one direction only) for 30 minutes and blistering your thumb. Perhaps a purist could tell the difference, but I sure can’t. Except that I don’t have a painful blister on my thumb.

While I’m on the topic of polenta, a word about grits. If you adore grits as much as I do, and live outside the Southern US, polenta can be your saviour. You can do pretty much anything with polenta that you can do with grits. It’s not going to be the same as real, stone ground grits; but it will be way better than <gasp> instant grits. On Masterchef Australia last year, the eventual winner — Brent Owens — made grits out of popcorn. I’ve been meaning to try that. I’ll let you know how it turns out. Sadly, if hominy exists in New Zealand, I haven’t found it.

Martha Rose Schulman is also a food columnist for The New York Times. Her focus has long been on healthy eating, and her column, like Mediterranean Harvest, is replete with meatless, lower fat versions of classic international dishes. But don’t mistake healthy for worthy and boring. I have her recipe box bookmarked in the Times Cooking app on my iPad. (If you don’t have the Times Cooking app yet, download it immediately. Even if you aren’t a vegetarian.)

Every vegetarian cookbook collection should have at least one good Mediterranean cookbook, mine has several, including others by Schulman. Her newest, The Simple Art of Vegetarian Cooking (Rodale, 2014), is prettier — with loads of lovely colour photographs.  But in terms of culinary breadth and basic kitchen knowledge, Mediterranean Harvest is a must have.

And Remember: eat garlic every day to keep the vampires away.

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