Let’s start with Enrico Alliata’s The Duke’s Table (Melville House) and Elizabeth Andoh’s Kansha (10 Speed Press). The Duke’s Table was first published in Italy in 1930. Alliata, the Duke of Salaparuta, reimagined classic Italian dishes without the use of meat since he believed that a vegetarian diet would extend human longevity. Duke Enrico’s recipes have a casualness about them – ingredients are indicated, but measures are often left vague. These are charming, simple dishes designed for the home cook. As the introduction notes “Alchemy and ingenuity hover over every recipe.”
Eighty-five years later, and from the other side of the world, we have Kansha. Elizabeth Andoh describes in deep and fascinating detail Japan’s vegan and vegetarian traditions. The very existence of this vegan/vegetarian cuisine may come as a surprise to western readers. The book describes an incredibly wide array of recipes and techniques from traditional Japanese cookery that does not involve meat or fish. Andoh describes the vegan kitchen as “a playful place where culinary tromp l’oeil transforms vegetable matter.” Bordering on the encyclopedic, Kansha offers interesting side notes on Japanese culture. Read, for instance, the description of rectangular vs. triangular tofu cutting and you are suddenly in the world of Shinto animal spirits, with fox ears represented by triangle cuts of tofu involving the fox’s mythological role as protector of rice fields. Read also of Hijiki – a sea vegetable banned in Britain because of its high concentration of arsenic in the water used to rehydrate it. The book is beautifully produced, heavily illustrated, and very strong on the idea of thrifty cooking – where nearly every part of the vegetable is put to use, with little waste, and little heading into the compost bin.
Also from 10 Speed Press, and also something of a magnum opus, is Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy. Where to begin? This ample book – 400 pages – is a beauty to behold. It is divided into 12 chapters, each dealing with a separate vegetable “family” and offers some 300 recipes. Just the groupings of vegetables by family is an education. The carrot family includes carrots, celery, fennel, parsnips, cilantro, dill and parsley, among others. Oakland’s Camino restaurant hosted a special dinner last month to celebrate the publication of Vegetable Literacy. Several recipes from the book were prepared – all delicious. Here’s one recipe we look forward to cooking at home:
A fine dice of Chioggia beets and red endive with Meyer lemon and shallot vinaigrette
1 Meyer lemon
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 lb Chioggia beets
2 teaspoons finely chopped tarragon and parsley
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
3 red endive chicons
For the vinaigrette: Put one shallot, finely diced, grated zest of a Meyer lemon, 1-1/2 tablespoons of Meyer lemon juice, and 1/4 teaspoon sea salt in a bowl. Let it stand for 10 minutes, and then whisk in 1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard and 5 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil.
Steam the beets. When cool, either slip off the skins with your hands or peel them neatly with a knife. Slice the beets into 1/4-inch rounds, then into 1/4-inch strips, and finally crosswise into 1/4-inch dice. A little larger is fine, too. Put the diced beets into a bowl. Toss with most of the vinaigrette and the tarragon. Taste for salt, season with pepper, and refrigerate until serving.
Separate the endive leaves at the base, leaving each leaf whole. Toss them with the remaining vinaigrette, then arrange the leaves loosely on individual plates. Pile the beets in and among the leaves and serve.
For spring and summer reading, cooking and eating – it doesn’t get any better than this.
-- Stan Sobolewski