Thursday, November 22, 2007

Super Natural Cooking (Heidi Swanson) and A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen (Jack Bishop)

I've been meaning to write a post about these two cookbooks for a long time now, and today seemed like the most appropriate day. I love Thanksgiving, and besides the friends and family (to which we are forever grateful), this day is all about the food. Yes, even for vegetarians. Jim and I both like Thanksgiving so much that we're spending today with some good friends and then tomorrow is Thanksgiving 2, The Sequel (thank you, Doug, for the official name), where we're going to fix more of our favorites to last through the weekend.

Lately I've been cooking mainly from three cookbooks: Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison, which I've written about before, Super Natural Cooking by Heidi Swanson, and A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen by Jack Bishop.

Heidi Swanson is the creator of, where she posts recipes from her many cookbooks, with her adaptations, helpful tips, and her beautiful photography. When I first picked up Super Natural Cooking at a Berkeley bookstore, I debated buying it. I had heard great things about it, but after a quick look, placed it down. At first glance, it seemed too complicated, with the ingredients too exotic. Luckily, I picked it up again at a different book store not too long after. And this time I gave it more than a glance. Once I actually looked at the recipes, I realized that they weren't that complicated, that many of the ingredients could be purchased at a natural foods store, and some were quite simple.

Super Natural Cooking is a vegetarian cookbook, but many of the recipes could easily be paired with your choice of meat or fish. It focuses on whole grains, such as quinoa, farro, brown rice, and many others. It also has an excellent section on what grains are best suited for different meals, different kinds of sweeteners (agave, brown rice syrup), and oils. The book includes my favorite preparation of quinoa (with some dry white wine, sauteed onions and mushrooms), an absolutely amazing "sushi bowl" that has a citrus-soy dressing that makes you want to eat every last grain of rice, peanut butter krispy treats, a panna cotta made with coconut milk, and many other hits. Her recipes are adaptable to each season and the vegetables you have on hand. There's a lot of room for making the recipes your own, or varying them each time you make them. For example, the raspberry curd cake can be make with any kind of fruit butter (I made it with pumpkin butter0, but you have to read the introductory text in that recipe to figure that out, so it pays to spend some quality time with the book before deciding on a recipe. My only complaint is that its organization is lacking. It's arranged by "Superfoods", "Cook by color", etc., which is not that helpful when you're trying to find an exact recipe. I find myself using the index a lot, but this has never stopped me from using the book.

A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen is arranged by season, focusing on seasonal produce. I first got this book right after Christmas last year, and I chose it because the author, Jack Bishop, is an Editor for Cook's Illustrated, which is one of my favorite magazines. I was immediately ecstatic about it. The first two recipes I made from it, carmelized onion enchiladas and a creamy tomato soup, were phenomenal. And over time, I've realized that the strongest recipes are from the winter section, with some other very good ones in the fall and spring sections. So far, I've found the summer section lacking, but I think that may have more to do with
the overall bounty of fresh produce available in the summer. There's not much you need to do to vegetables in the summer, and most of the time you don't want to spend too much time at the stove then anyway. I love the seasonal focus of this book, especially that he doesn't list fresh tomatoes as an ingredient in the winter (only cherry tomatoes, which really are your best choice this time of year). I've made some amazing meals from this book, and others have just been okay, but again, there's a lot of flexibility here, and sometimes just looking at one of his recipes will give me an idea for my own take on it.

So enjoy cooking and eating today, and eating tomorrow and throughout the weekend. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!

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