For Bon Appetit, by Christine Muhlke.
I hope you like vegetables. This spring’s cookbook selection is not just vegetable-forward, it is vegetable-dominant, with an assist from books that aim to make you a better weeknight cook. The vibe? It’s a really nice time to be in the kitchen.
Let’s start with the queen of veg, Deborah Madison. After convincing Americans that vegetarian food could be sophisticated and complex with her 1987 cookbook, Greens, she strengthened her position with the seminal books Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone and Vegetable Literacy. It has been written that we couldn’t have the likes of Anna Jones without her, an association that could be broadened to include other vegetarian bloggers with cookbooks out this season (see: The First Mess, My New Roots, and Blissful Basil).
With In My Kitchen: A Collection of New and Favorite Vegetarian Recipes, Madison proves that she’s not just puttering around her New Mexico garden in a smart hat, looking like Diane Keaton in a Nancy Meyers film I’d very much like to see: She still has serious (meatless) game. Many of the recipes collected here are refined and reconstructed versions of her classics, which have changed as she has. But they don’t feel like Greatest Hits, Vol. 13. A chard and saffron tart is still creamy after all these years, but the rich crust has been replaced with ground almonds. A yeasted holiday bread with rosemary and lemon has become a quick bread for Sunday mornings. Even an updated 20-year-old recipe for kale and quinoa gratin feels new. When she includes a recipe for brown rice porridge with nut butter and chia seeds, it’s because she’s been eating it since before the Instagram founders were born. #respect
Joshua McFadden’s Six Seasons: A New Way With Vegetables is poised to join the veggie canon. Before he became the chef at Ava Gene’s—a BA favorite—in Portland, OR, he stopped out to work as a manager at the fabled Four Season Farm in Maine. There, he developed a deep respect for seed-to-table cooking. Although it’s organized by season and vegetable, it doesn’t read as "meh" as a seasonal vegetarian cookbook. It’s modern and bro-y in its enthusiasm; lusty rather than reverent. Mushrooms, cabbage, even kohlrabi are described as “sexy.” An in-season tomato is capable of “moving your soul.” And, yeah, there’s some meat in the mix.
Of the books I cooked through this month, Six Seasons excited me the most. The flavors are big: A slather-on-everything vinaigrette packed with balsamic-plumped golden raisins, capers, anchovies, and garlic jump-starts everything from roasted turnips to steak; tomatoes are marinated in falafel spice and zapped with herb-packed yogurt that even sneaks in some sriracha. They’re also layered and complex, despite their apparent simplicity. What will really change your cooking is his approach to seasoning, learned in part from Mona Talbott at the American Academy in Rome: Add the acid and seasoning before the oil when making salads and many veg dishes, tasting and tinkering to get it just right before you stir in the lubricant to “carry and marry all the other flavors,” writes co-author Martha Holmberg. Trust me: Read this book and you’ll never look at cabbage the same way again.
Other noteworthy releases to veg out with include Chitra Agrawal’s Vibrant India: Fresh Vegetarian Recipes from Bangalore to Brooklyn; the arty garden party vibe of Julia Sherman’s Salad for President: A Cookbook Inspired by Artists (full disclosure: I wrote the foreword); Rustic Canyon chef Jeremy Fox’s restaurant-y but thought-provoking On Vegetables; and Carolynn Carreno’s Bowls of Plenty.
Some of spring’s best books are about getting through a week of dinners not just alive but delighted. Nothing fancy, just thoughtful and inspired recipes and great advice for beginners and seasoned cooks alike. Funnily enough, these books all implore you to read them, internalize them, then go out on your own to improvise—ostensibly giving the book to a deserving friend. (Burn after eating?)
In the Bay Area, writer and chef Samin Nosrat has cult followings both for her pop-up dinners at Tartine Bakery in San Francisco and her cooking classes, which friends swear have changed their time in the kitchen. The affable former Chez Panisse cook, whose recipes will appear in our June issue, distilled the essence of both experiences into a teaching philosophy that became the title Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking. Like McFadden, she believes in balancing the aforementioned components and tasting like crazy until the dish is right.
This is a new kind of book. Lots of words to live by before you get to her kitchen basics and, finally, recipes more than halfway through. Wendy MacNaughton’s delightful illustrations capture Nosrat’s infectious joy for the subject. Just reading Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat will make you a better cook, adept at seasoning, balancing, understanding what it really is you’re doing and why. Hey, you might not even need those recipes by the time you get to them, but they are nice, a mix of Chez Panisse-y Cal-Med and Nosrat’s Cali-Persian heritage: Persian-ish rice, tuna confit with simmered white beans, rhubarb and frangipane tart with vanilla cream. Make room on the bedside table—and the countertop.
In New York City, Alison Cayne’s Haven’s Kitchen has developed a reputation for its fun, friendly cooking classes, as well as for its aspirational, gorgeous spaces. Cayne brings both a teacher’s mindset and a student’s questions to The Haven’s Kitchen Cooking School: Recipes and Inspiration to Build a Lifetime of Confidence in the Kitchen. I was asked to blurb the book, and ended up cooking out of it as I read. Each chapter, based upon a type of ingredient or dish, imparts a core technique and master recipe. Beans and grains are a lesson in “cooking with purpose”; soups teach the layering of flavors; salads composition, etc.
The book’s magazine-like layout makes learning knife skills, frying, poaching eggs, and more easy. Even the simpler recipes are saved from being basic, like a four-ingredient roasted carrot soup, which contains a sub-recipe for the complex spice mix ras el hanout, which is delicious in many dishes. The recipes for sauces and dressings add up to a complete arsenal of fresh basics, from fish sauce vinaigrette to green goddess; sesame gremolata to green cashew sauce. And yes, you should memorize her Flourless Chocolate Cake to Commit to Memory.
Even seasoned cooks can be daunted by weeknight meals. As Tartine Bakery, and now Tartine Manufactory, co-founder Elisabeth Prueitt writes in the introduction to Tartine All Day: Modern Recipes for the Home Cook, “I understand that limitations on time can reduce the family meal to a slapdash event on most days.” So she set out to write her version of The Joy of Cooking, a useful companion of favorite everyday recipes, underpinned by her discoveries as both a professional and home cook.
Her recipes for salads, soups, and entrees take a Cal-Med approach that can be creative on one spread (sorghum and corn “risotto”), classic on another (restaurant mashed potatoes.) Her roasted chicken recipe is updated by spatchcocking and placing the baking sheet on a 450-degree pizza stone. So good—especially when paired with her salsa verde. And then there’s the Insta-famous pull-apart cheesy whole garlic bread that we snagged the recipe for…
But as a world-famous baker who happens to be gluten-sensitive, she is uniquely skilled in creating craveable sweets that happen to bypass the AP flour. I made banana bread with a mixture of oat and rice flours (brown and white), and chocolate buckwheat madeleines that were both exceptional, and am not waiting for a birthday to make her birthday cake with fluffy milk chocolate frosting, even if it means tracking down coconut flour. Tartine All Day is a modern way to put the joy back in cooking. Click here for more recipes from the book.
Popular New York Times columnist Melissa Clark offers inspiration and encouragement with Dinner: Changing the Game, over 200 why-didn’t-I-think-of-that recipes that could be on a table near you in under an hour.
The key is to have a strong pantry game, heavy on Mediterranean and Asian staples. If you’ve ever wondered why you need to stock up on pomegranate molasses, the answers are a) chicken breasts with walnut butter, b) quinoa with crunchy chickpeas, roasted tofu with eggplant and toasted cumin, and d) peachy pork or veal with charred onion. And if you can’t think of one more thing to do with chicken, help is at hand. The flavors in Dinner are bright and creative, and Clark is a seasoned cheerleader, there to encourage you to “Take charge, go forth, and conquer.” Hand me my sheet tray, girlfriend. Let’s do this dinner thing.
P.S.: And now, if I may go completely off-piste and trash my own veggies-and-dinner theme, I have to say: Joe Beddia’s Pizza Camp is so. Much. Fun. Will you be preheating your oven to 500 for an hour every night this summer? Mmmmaybe not. But you will be inspired—to cook and to create. And that’s what a good cookbook should do.
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