Vegetarian Planet

by Didi Emmons

The Harvard Common Press, 1997. 364 pages, 350 + recipes.

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"This dish (Tomatoes and Eggplant over Couscous with Caper Sauce) makes me momentarily feel as if I am in an old Moroccan village sitting in a cafe overlooking the thrashing Mediterranean...A dashing waiter who resembles a your Marlon Brando is pouring me a glass of Chianti. This is all much more fun thanlooking out my kichen window, which faces another building."

Gunsmoke Slaw

Wheat Berry Salad

Hot Artichoke and Goat Cheese Dip

Grilled Smoked Gouda Sandwiches with Mustard Dipping Sauce

Lemon Grass Broth with Carrot Dumplings

Portobello Burgers

Rice Pudding with Lavender and Raspberries

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"Does the world really need another vegetarian cookbook?" That's what I was muttering to myself the a few months ago while I was flipping through some lackluster cookbooks in the already overpopulated vegetarian cooking section of the bookstore.

Then I saw a book that revved up my heart rate and triggered my salivary glands. I felt this gotta-have-it excitement as I flipped through the pages filled with recipes like Gunsmoke Slaw, Hearty Korean Pancakes, Banana Cream Pie with Chocolate Lining, Sushi Party Balls. The book was Vegetarian Planet.

This book is an expansive global food fest with recipes inspired by cuisines around the world. The author Didi Emmons, chef at "the hippest eatery in Boston" (according to the Boston Globe) writes, "My style is not fusion cooking - I don't try to mix various cuisines. But I do invent twists on traditional concepts and dishes." Unlike the multi-cultural mayhem of many fusion dishes, her food surprises rather than shocks. The Lavender Rice Pudding with Raspberries has a subtle sophistication that this down-home dish usually lacks. The Zucchini-Jicama Cakes with Tomato Coulis get their perfect twist from the crunch of jicama.

Emmons is a zesty, inspiring tour guide who can coax you into culinary territory you may have previously been intimidated or unmotivated to explore. I used to shy away from cooking with lemon grass (there's something implacable looking about those long tough stalks). But the Lemon Grass Broth with Carrot Dumplings looked so intriguing and do-able that I broke through my lemon-grass block. The resulting dish had an impressively authentic Asian flavor (although my dumplings disintegrated into sad little wisps - my fault, I think).

For all the enthusiasm Emmons generates in getting you to try unfamiliar foods, she's maddeningly vague in helping you locate them. For example, she says you'll find chipotle peppers in Latin American markets. But what if the closest thing to a Latin American food source in your community is Taco Bell? Why didn't she include a list of good mail order sources for foods that might be hard to find?

Vegetarian Planet's 300-page Main-Dish category is especially meaty (in a meatless kind of way, of course). My dinner-making horizons have expanded greatly thanks to the imaginative array of dumpling dinners, savory crepes and cakes, substantial grain dishes, stews, and more. In the Burgers and Sandwiches section Emmons performs a minor miracle: she re-incarnates the much maligned Veggie Burger into more eater-friendly entities (the Portobello Burgers, which are filling without being heavy, have become a family favorite).  Eggs  and dairy play a minor role in Emmon's cuisine, but you don't miss them because her food is so flavorful.