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Mollie Katzen
The Vegetable Dishes I Can't Live Without
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2002

Hyperion Books
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-1-401-32232-8
Publication Date: 10-02-2007
144 Pages; $22.985
Date Reviewed: 10-30-2007
Index:  Non-Fiction

I knew it would come to this, sooner or later. I knew I would start writing about cookbooks; I just had to find the right one to wrap my brain around. That proves to be Mollie Katzen's 'The Vegetable Dishes I Can't Live Without.' I've looked at a few other cookbooks as they came into KUSP, but they were a little complex for my tastes. When I see a recipe with a long list of ingredients, most of which I don't have on hand, I tend to flick past it quickly. That's not necessary with Katzen's admirably simple cookbook. But don't take that to mean the recipes aren't top-notch.

Here's what happened. Since I'm now podcasting on a daily basis, I look for authors who are swinging into town to give things a bit of audio variety and help my phone bills. (Oh the misery the month I spoke to Peter F. Hamilton and Xiaolu Guo in the UK.) I noticed Katzen was going to be at Capitola Book Café on Monday, October 29, and set up an interview, which you'll hear later this week. But first, I wanted to report my unfiltered thoughts on the cookbook before I talked to the author.

It is, in a word, totally outstanding. Now, look. I'm a guy who thinks some of the best food on this planet can be found at the Central Texas Barbecue in Castroville, California. I am told that only I could find CTB in the home of the artichoke. (Remember that vegetable! Or as Frank Zappa would say, "Call any vegetable!") The meats they serve there are like dessert, they're so flavorful. I mention this to help readers understand that I'm not necessarily inclined to jump up and down for a vegetarian cookbook. Now, I know that Katzen's 'Moosewood Cookbook' is a big deal, but frankly, I've never seen it. Heathen am I. But Katzen's new book has a lot of things going for it beyond the great recipes. I'll talk about those later, but I do have to throw in some book geek stats.

First off, this is a book with no DJ, a nicely printed cover and it's only 144 pages. It's 8 1/2" by 11", a nice comfortable familiar format. It's easy to take it with you to the grocery store — I did so, in fact. Katzen illustrates her own book and it's printed in one of those handwriting-like fonts. The latter could prove to be precious or annoying, but it's neither because it's easy to read. The illustrations are nice, and the effect is that you've got some mom-with-nice-handwriting's notebook. It easily lays open with you're cooking or shopping. As a piece of book tech for cooking, it's just dandy.

Which would not mean doodely-ooodely if the recipes weren't both make-able and edible. Or frankly, beyond edible, that is totally delicious. Again, the recounting. So, I'm signed up to interview the cookbook author and I decide to make some of the recipes, to find out if they're any good, frankly. I've never interviewed a cookbook author before. When I interview a literary author, I read the book, in an attempt to "use" as it is supposed to be used. So I tried the same thing here, and made one recipe that sounded good to me: Stir-fried carrots, red peppers and red onions with roasted cashews, and one that my wife liked, the one that lead off the book, Artichoke Heart and Spinach gratin. The latter didn't sound so hot to me, but like the former it involved ingredients that I had or were readily available at the local (1 mile away) grocery store, Deluxe Foods of Aptos. (It's a locally owned store.) So, first I go to the store. I ended up spending $26.66. For two dishes, that's a lot. But it included raw cashew pieces ($4.99) that I used like, 1/4 of, and fresh parmesan cheese ($6.48) that I used only part of and 2 quarts of milk @$1.59. The only expensive part of the meal that was entirely consumed was the frozen box of artichoke hearts, which clocked in at $3.99. Overall, that made the whole deal not so fiscally painful.

I tend to cook way in advance, so I started early. The directions called for chopping, etc, and the prep was utterly painless. I first put together the gratin, then popped it in the oven while I prepared the stir fry. Oh wait, first, before that I roasted the cashews. But still, pretty much only 40 minutes to put the two dishes together, and damn. Just following the recipe like a chemistry experiment (well, I did add a lot more garlic than called for, tablespoons instead of teaspoons, and I threw in some cooking sherry into both recipes), but still largely, say following the recipe word for word, the results were stellar. It really tasted like restaurant food and we ate every damn bit. Both dishes were easy, required no exotic foods — and came out exactly as described. I did put in all optional ingredients (pineapple and ginger in the stir fry). We didn't heave a meat entrée for dinner and we didn't miss it. So, my totally unscientific experiment informs me that two recipes chosen at random from "just under 100" are outstanding. If you wanted to buy a cookbook you might use, even if you are a dedicated meatatarian, this cookbook will do. No CTB takeout required, damnit. Stay tuned and you'll hear my conversation with the author. We'll see how this cookbook-author interview biz goes.

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