The New Vegetarian Epicure
by Anna Thomas
Knopf, 1996. 449 pages, 325 recipes.
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"I live with reality like everyone else, and there are times when I will gladly settle just for the sight of my kids eating a green vegetable."
Sweet Potato and Corn Soup
Fast Yeast Buttermilk Rolls
Lemon Cheesecake Ice Creamp;
Cinnamon Ice Cream
Look of the Book
If you were to judge this book by its cover, an unexceptional photo of a vegetable still life, you might think this was a run-of-the-mill vegetarian cookbook. Which it definitely isn't. Once you get past the cover, the book is well thought out: recipes are organized both by menus and by recipe categories. There are nice line drawings and borders throughout the book. (Still, I miss the wonderful illustrator from her first two books). Since I use this book so much, I wish I had bought the hard-cover version. For a book this big (over 400 pages), paper-back just doesn't seem strong enough and I'm sure the spine will split sooner or later.
I've been waiting twenty years for this book to be written. In the 1970's Anna Thomas wrote two Vegetarian Epicure cookbooks. Those of us who were re-thinking our meat-centric habits welcomed them as the first collections of truly delicious vegetarian recipes. I kept hoping she would follow up with a third cookbook. So last spring when I came across the just-publishedThe New Vegetarian Epicure, I felt the same excitement you feel when you run into a long-lost friend.
What I loved about Thomas then remains unchanged: her sensual, sophisticated recipes and her warm, intelligent writing style. In her introduction she says, "I talk frequently about the importance of using good ingredients, but the truly essential ingredient of all my food is the pleasure I take in preparing it."
Still, neither Thomas nor her cooking has remained static; she uses fewer rich ingredients and concentrates on fresh, seasonal ones. Footloose and single twenty years ago, she now juggles career (she's in the independent film business) and family which, she admits, includes two picky eaters. In response, many of her recipes "are simpler than ever". Her Broccoli Soup, an easy but deliciously subtle dish, received rave reviews from my own somewhat picky eater. And the wonderful summery Cantaloupe and Nectarine Soup with Raspberry Puree only required the few minutes it took to put everything in the blender. I have yet to run across any duds and only a few that I just didn't care for (Penne with Oyster Mushrooms and Chinese Broccoli was one).
She has plenty of recipes that are mostly moderate or low in fat. Yet she understands there are some dishes in which all-out richness is well worth the indulgence and that a low-fat version would be a poor second; her exquisite Cinnamon Ice Cream and the deeply flavored Torta di Polenta with Three Cheeses and Roasted Tomato Sauce are good examples of this.
In the introduction Thomas writes, "This is a personal book about the flavors I love, the places I've been, and the way I cook now." You feel as if she's invited you into her homey California kitchen as she shares her thoughts on food and family. (Mothers will appreciate her section titled, "What do Children Eat?") Her tastes range from down-home (tasty Fast Buttermilk Yeast Rolls) to uptown (Chocolate Spongecake with Raspberry Coulis) with frequent forays to Mediterranean and Mexican cuisines. (She inspired me to go out and get a tortilla press, but I have yet to get my tortillas to be any bigger than coasters.)
The book is organized by menus and themes such as "Little Dinner Parties for Spring and Summer" and "Celebrations and Feasts". I spend most of my time in the section "Soup Suppers", "Pasta Dinners and Other Easy Family Meals". Thomas is a genius at composing exciting menus. I can't imagine tackling any of the extensive menus in their labor-intensive entirety but I do, as she suggests, use them "to inspire creative inspiration".
This is the cookbook I cook from most often. I just hope I won't have to wait another twenty years for her next one.