A few years ago, I decided that it was time to move beyond my six favourite vegetables, and accordingly, I arranged to have a box of fruit and vegetables delivered each week. The vegetables were whatever happened to be in season, and there were a lot of them – in fact, I quickly realised that the only way we could eat all these vegetables was by skipping the meat several times a week. Which, as it turned out, also made me feel healthier. Bonus!
Still, one can only eat so many vegetable risottos and tuna-pasta-bakes-without-the-tuna, and beyond that, my vegetarian repertoire was fairly scant. Also, I wasn’t really sure how one should balance a vegetarian meal to make it nutritious. So I began looking for vegetarian cookbook that would have the sort of food I like to eat in it, preferably one which would give me some ideas of how to plan a vegetarian menu. Ideally, a vegetarian menu that involved cauliflower, cabbage or broccoli, since by this time it was winter and my veggie box was turning into a brassicas box with depressing regularity.
This book hit the nail on the head – so much so that I think I cooked from it three or four nights a week for two months straight. (Then I remembered that I had several hundred other cookbooks that were languishing for attention, and calmed down a bit.) Part of me would still like to do a Julie/Julia with this cookbook, as there isn’t a single thing in there that I wouldn’t be willing to eat. (But then all my other cookbooks would get lonely…)
Do you know what the really fun thing about this book is? Yes, that’s probably a silly question, really. But you can play a game with it! Every recipe in the book comes with serving suggestions, which lead you to other recipes in the book – but if you go to those recipes, they hardly ever lead you back to the one you came from. So you can go skipping through the book from recipe to recipe and see how long it takes to reach a dead end: polenta with cauliflower and onions (which is so much nicer than it sounds) can lead you to tender green salad with pine nuts and yellow raisins, which contrasts beautifully with the richness of baked shells with fontina and parmesan bread crumbs, which is also rather nice with tender greens and vegetables with blood orange vinaigrette, which would be great with polenta with mascarpone, rosemary and walnuts, which leads you to red leaf lettuce, arugula and fennel salad, which in turn will go with any main course containing cheese, eggs, cream and/ or butter.
Yes, I have spent far, far too much time skipping around the book in this fashion. Bishop also provides a set of more extensive menus at the front of the book, but honestly, his practice of suggesting other recipes which will balance out a meal both nutritionally and flavour-wise is one of the best things about this book, especially for someone new to vegetarian cooking. He’s also sensible about being seasonal – he won’t give you a recipe full of broad beans and asparagus and suggest you serve it with porcini mushrooms and cauliflower (actually, I’m not sure you should serve anything with porcini mushrooms and cauliflower, but I think you know what I’m getting at here); the side dishes use things that are likely to be in season and tasty at the same time as the ingredients of the main courses.
In terms of flavour, these recipes are astonishingly good. I think I’ve spent the most time with the polenta recipes and the vegetable sides and salads (largely because I already know what to do with pasta, and I’m usually looking for something non-pasta based because we had pasta yesterday), and can recommend his general polenta cooking method as well as the polenta with cauliflower and onion sauce, polenta with corn and basil, polenta with lentils and tomato, and most especially polenta with garlicky greens. Actually, I think I’ve tried all his cauliflower recipes, too, because for a while there we were getting cauliflower in our box every week and I was trying to find things to do with it! So I can also speak well of the cauliflower pasta with saffron, the cauliflower in green sauce, the cauliflower frittata, and the spicy cauliflower in red wine (though that one is strictly to be eaten in small doses – it reminds me more of a pickle than anything else). There are also a lot of good zucchini recipes, which was also useful.
The pasta dishes in this book are a lot of fun, and range from filled pastas one can make oneself and from scratch over a period of hours to really quick pantry pastas that you can make in ten minutes after you get home. I can particularly recommend the fusilli with a tomato and porcini sauce, a wonderful, rich vegetarian ragout that takes about half an hour from start to end. I also like his lasagna with carrots and broccoli – a really unexpected set of vegetables to find in lasagne, but delicious nonetheless.
The really eye opening dish in this book for me was the spring vegetable stew with fennel, carrots, asparagus and peas – it was just a simple stew containing olive oil, vegetables and a little stock, with a little butter and parmesan stirred in at the end, but the flavour was delicate and vibrant at once. I had no idea you could get so much flavour just with vegetables and stock in a pan.
I want to go through and talk about every recipe I’ve tried from this book (especially the ricotta mixed with basil and mint and spread on bread – so simple, but absolutely perfect in summer), but I’ve been writing this post in odd moments for two days already, and it’s really about time I finished it. I will say that the salads are fantastic, great for kicking you out of the habit of lettuce, tomato, cucumber and maybe a capsicum or some onion. The green salad with pine nuts and raisins is a favourite of mine, and the marinated yellow beans with summer tomatoes is just beautiful to look at as well as delicious to eat.
I have cooked exactly one recipe from this book that wasn’t inspiring, and that was the pumpkin soup. Mine is better. But I can easily forgive an insipid soup for the sake of all that wonderful polenta, nd those excellent salads.
In terms of ingredients, Bishop has pretty much stuck to fresh vegetables that can be found readily in the US and Italy – no wild greens or cardoons here, but that’s actually not a bad thing for an everyday cookbook. No tofu, either, nor are these recipes about making vegetarian versions of normally meaty dishes. They are just nice, Italian or Italian-inspired dishes that happen not to have meat in them. I’d say about half the recipes in this book are gluten-free – there are a lot of polenta and risotto dishes, and of course a lot of vegetable dishes, frittatas, soups and salads that don’t contain any grains at all; as for the pizzas and pastas, if you like the look of the flavours, most of them look as though they would work on your preferred gluten-free pizza or pasta base.
Vegans might find less to work with, at least among the mains – Bishop does love his parmesan, and it finds its way into most of the pasta, polenta and rice dishes that make up about half the book. There are, however, some good vegan legume and vegetable main dishes, and if you are accustomed to working with Italian recipes, and either leaving out parmesan or substituting it for a different flavour-enhancer, you may find you can do quite a bit with the pastas and polentas after all. The innovative salads make it worth a look for anyone, I think.