The Essential Vegetarian
by Diana Shaw

1997. 600 + pages, approx. 500  recipes.

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"They'll tell you they're elegant; they'll tell you they're tasty. But no one else is going to name the real reason for making filled vegetables: you get to play with your food. In fact, you must. To fill vegetables, you have to carve and scoop and pat and smush."

Pasta with Tomato and Peanut Curry with Sweet Potatoes and Collards

Corn and Red Pepper Salad with Caramelized Onions

Savory Cheesecake

Fig Glace

Mu Shu Mushrooms

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Where was Diana Shaw when I needed her years ago when I was a clueless newcomer in the land of natural foods and less-meat cooking? I might have avoided early disasters with gluey bulgur, crumbly veggie burgers, and soybeans erupting from my pressure cooker.

Diana Shaw's The Essential Vegetarian Cookbook may be the whole-foods Joy of Cooking for the 1990's. She starts her 600-page tome with a brisk tutorial in nutrition and the basics of creating balanced vegetarian meals. She finishes Essential Vegetarian with an excellent appendix with profiles and preparation tips for all kinds of vegetables, legumes, grains, and more. In between, Shaw has packed in 600 recipes for just about every kind of dish imaginable. Better still, each recipe comes with extra info: prep time, any do-ahead directives, how long it keeps in fridge or freezer, and a calorie/fat/ cholesterol/nutrition profile. Especially useful for novices are her "Basics" she provides on the preparation of everything from muffins to gratins to curries. Actually, it's great for us seasoned cooks, too. Shaw inspired me to give nori-making a try, and with her hand-holding directions, my first efforts were solidly-crafted and delicious.

I can't stand it when a cookbook breezily encourages us to "be creative" with recipes but doesn't give any specific ideas to get us started. (Maybe this bothers me because it took me so long to have the confidence not to be a slavish recipe follower.) I applaud Shaw's "Make It Your Own" sidebars that appear throughout the book giving improvisation suggestions for different dishes; they really do inspire creativity.

More often than not, I have been impelled to employ her "Make It Your Own" strategy when using Essential Vegetarian because I  find many of her recipes too bland for my tastes. The flavor of Mild Miso Soup was virtually invisible. Some recipes are too scrupulously low-fat. Maybe if she had allowed more than a miserly 1/4 cup of Swiss cheese for six servings of the Asparagus-Potato Puffs, they wouldn't have been so dry and  dull. Sometimes the recipes had preparation glitches. The proportions of water to broccoli in the Cold Broccoli Soup was so off it must have been a typo. The Potato Leek Pie was too liquid for the springform pan called for and became a "leak" pie as it dripped and burned on the oven floor.

OK, enough griping. I preferred the dishes with more colorful flavors like her Peanut Curry with Sweet Potatoes and Collards. My favorite recipe in the whole book was her Fig Glace. I've never seen or tasted anything quite like it. Made in an ice cream maker with low fat buttermilk and nonfat dried milk, it is voluptuous, refreshing, and beautifully fig-gy. I made this almost twice a week throughout fig season this year.

This is a book I value for its information rather than its recipes. This is where I turn when I forget how long to cook barley, when I want a taste/ preparation profile of a legume I haven't tried before, when I'm stuck for menu ideas, or when I want a refresher course in making tender crepes, flaky phyllo dishes, or creamy risotto. I don't think The Essential Vegetarian Cookbook is the essential vegetarian cookbook, but it definitely qualifies as an essential vegetarian source book.