Simple Vegetarian Pleasures
by Jeanne Lemlin
1998. 200 recipes;315 pages.
-Tortellini with Kale and Garlicky Bread Crumbs
-Mixed Pepper Calzone
-Penne and Cauliflower Gratin in Tomato-Cream Sauce
I mistrust a cookbook whose cover is plastered with the author's picture. At this moment in time - I hope it's just a moment - of superstar-chef cookbooks with unfairly hefty promotional budgets it's easy for a low-key book such as Simple Vegetarian Pleasures to be shoved to the side lines. Author Jeanne Lemlin is not a Big Name, although her previous three books have earned her respect and a loyal following.
Lemlin's picture (tucked in the back flap where a cookbook author's photo belongs), shows a warm, friendly woman looking like someone who I would imagine is both a good friend and a good cook. She is a good cook: her recipes are readable, do-able, and eminently edible. She is health-minded, but not evangelically so. (She does, however, plead the case of tofu and tempeh with a special section of recipes; I remain unconvinced.) Lemlin doesn't try to make us believe that simmering onions and garlic in vegetable broth is a satisfying substitute for sauting them in olive oil. She free but not profligate with eggs and dairy.
Lemlin opens Simple Vegetarian Pleasures with suggestions for enhancing the simplicity and pleasure of cooking. She writes, "Everyday cooking is most successful and enjoyable when it arises out of some organization." She follows up with a few pages of sound, if not unique, tips such as keeping an updated list of quick recipes you've tried and liked tacked inside a cupboard where you won't lose it. Where other cookbook authors tell us glibly that we should arrive at the market without a list and let the produce inspire on-the-spot menu planning (easier said than done for most of us), Lemlin suggests making a list based on some recipes you want to make in the week ahead before you hit the market. However, I felt she missed the opportunity to illustrate this concept in action in the menu section of the book (which is simply a conventional collection of three-course menus). Here was her chance to give examples of advanced planning: choosing menus with interdependent ingredients and making shopping lists accordingly. For example, A batch of white beans cooked up on Monday could be the basis of White Bean Soup with Red Pepper Puree that night (served with a green salad and her Weekly Batch of Dressing) and reappear in the Mediterranean White Bean Salad a few days later. (And the leftover beans could be frozen for White Bean Pate you might want to make in the next couple of weeks.)
Lemlin beams in on the kind of dishes which can either be done in a flash (quesadillas, sandwiches, omelettes, and stove-top dinners) or done ahead such as casseroles, gratins, and "substantial soups". While her emphasis is on fresh foods (no surprise there), she occasionally enlists frozen foods to cut down prep time without compromising quality. The Mixed Pepper Calzone made with frozen pizza dough is a good case in point. My family's only complaint with this dish was that the recipe only yielded four modest-sized calzone and we all wanted seconds. (Peppers and goat cheese are the book's over- represented ingredients, but she does use them well.)
Many of Lemlin's recipes look deceptively ordinary. The one for Spinach Balls with Honey-Yogurt Dip seemed like it would yield a decent but unexceptional appetizer. I made the recipe one night when a good friend came over for an impromptu dinner. (Good friends don't hold it against me when recipes flop.) We sat around the coffee table, each taking that first polite, tentative bite. One taste was all it took to turn us into shifty-eyed characters out of Treasure of the Sierra Madre. With greedy self-interest we hastily counted the number of remaining spinach balls to make sure no one got more than their share. (It was not easy for me to be gracious about offering our friend the one left over.)
Lemlin is better off when she stays in the Western hemisphere of food. The two Asian-esque dishes I tried, the Baked Thai Tofu and her Potato and Vegetable Curry were fine but not great. After tasting her Calzone and her Totellini with Kale I'm convinced her talents are at their peak when the Mediterranean is her inspiration. She has some good takes on Americana as well. Her Nantucket Cranberry Cake, a wonderful dessert easy enough to make for a week night dinner, special enough for company. The Penne and Cauliflower Gratin was a flavorful, homey number. (Speaking of numbers, she says this dish serves four. Four sumo wrestlers maybe.)
It's totally heartening when the success of a book or movie has more to do with good word-of-mouth than a garganutan publicity campaign. Simple Vegetarian Pleasures is a good word-of-mouth kind of book. (I found out about it when a friend mentioned it to me as one of her favorites.) I'm glad to have Simple Vegetarian Pleasures in my kitchen. Lemlin's cuisine is good company, both comfortable and comforting.