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Three Great Cookbooks : Vegetarian Solution

TIMES FOOD EDITOR

In Berkeley in the early ‘70s, everyone I knew was a vegetarian. Half of them were being politically correct; the other half were just poor. The former tended to extol the virtues of millet and barley, and to cook dishes from “Diet for a Small Planet.” The latter tended to eat lots of dairy foods and to cook dishes from “The Vegetarian Epicure.”

“The Vegetarian Epicure” (Vintage Books: $14.95) was written by Anna Thomas, who later went on to produce moviee. The book had one of those hand-drawn covers that were popular in those days, and that, along with the brown ink in which it was printed, gave it a homey quality. The writing was homey too; right on the cover it said that the menus were “designed to make every meal a delight and a celebration of life.”

But the recipes were remarkably sophisticated; Thomas really knew food. How many 20-year-old cookbooks can you find with recipes for risotto, polenta, dolmades, pierogi, pizza, curries and fresh pasta? Thomas extolled the use of dried mushrooms a decade before anybody else discovered them, was an early advocate of real Parmesan cheese and talked about using “the freshest, youngest vegetables” before Alice Waters had jumped on the baby vegetable bandwagon. Thomas’ recipes were simple and good, and her book, which is still available, gave vegetarians a good name.

There’s a new book that does much the same thing for the ‘90s. Viana La Place’s “Verdura” (William Morrow: $22.95) is, on first glance, a deceptively simple compendium of Italian vegetable recipes. Look again: Her uncomplicated recipes are filled with really innovative ideas.

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La Place, who with Evan Kleiman wrote “Cucina Fresca,” “Pasta Fresca” and “Cucina Rustica,” likes rustic flavors. She thinks carefully about the way things taste and comes up with suggestions you have probably never considered. She has one recipe for a salad made of tomatoes and peaches; another tops brandy-soaked watermelon with shavings of bitter chocolate. In the recipe Perciatelli With Strong Tastes, La Place tosses pasta with anchovies, raisins, olives and toasted pine nuts, and in another recipe she makes a sort of mock risotto by simply stirring pesto into hot Arborio rice.

Although La Place never actually uses the word “vegetarian,” she does offer 17 menus that make meat seem--well, unnecessary.

The late Josephine Araldo was definitely not a vegetarian. The woman who influenced a whole generation of San Francisco Bay Area chefs (including Alice Waters and Marion Cunningham) thought of vegetables mainly as something that went with meat or fish. But she thought about vegetables all the time, and her ideas are completely inspirational.

Araldo, who was in her 90s when she died in 1989, was born in Brittany. She graduated from the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris and in 1924 went to San Francisco, where she became a legendary cook. Araldo never forgot her roots. She thought that simple cooking was the best and liked to say, “Any fool can make a roast, but it takes a genius to know what to do with leftovers.” She never lost her accent--or her connection to the earth. In her just-published book, “From a Breton Garden” (Addison-Wesley: $22.95), written with longtime friend and student Robert Reynolds, Araldo’s spirit comes shining through.

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Araldo believed that simplicity was the essence of good cooking. Her recipes are uncomplicated--but completely unique. She combined fruit and vegetables in interesting ways: beets with fresh black currants, carrots with grapes, radishes with apples, turnips with figs, red cabbage with pears. There’s a wonderful recipe for a custard made out of lettuce, and another for a pie made out of spinach. Araldo certainly liked meat--she was a cook who did not turn up her nose at any fine ingredient--but she had a special feel for the food that grows out of the dirt. Reading her book you get the sense that the vegetarian solution might make sense--not just for the poor or the politically correct, but for everybody.

The dish is quick and simple to prepare yet deeply satisfying to eat, especially when accompanied with bruschetta sprinkled with aromatic oregano. If mustard greens are not available, substitute a combination of spinach and radish leaves.

VIANNA LA PLACE’S LENTILS AND WILD GREENS (Lenticchie con Verdura Selvatica)

1 bunch mustard greens or other tender bitter greens, stems trimmed, leaves stripped from ribs

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Salt

Extra-virgin olive oil

1 small onion, peeled and finely diced

2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped

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1 celery stalk, trimmed and finely diced

1 small carrot, peeled and finely chopped

1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano leaves

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves

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2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves

2 cups lentils, washed and picked over

Freshly ground pepper

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3 small tomatoes, roasted, peeled, seeded and diced

3 tablespoons lemon juice

4 lemon wedges

Cook mustard greens in water that clings to leaves after washing. Add salt to taste. Drain in colander. Chop very coarsely and set aside.

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Combine 3 tablespoons olive oil, onion, garlic, celery and carrot in medium skillet. Cook, covered, over moderate heat until vegetables are tender.

Stir in oregano, rosemary, Italian parsley, basil and lentils. Allow lentils to absorb flavor for few minutes. Add 4 cups water and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to boil, then simmer, partially covered, until lentils are just tender, about 35 minutes. About 10 minutes before lentils are cooked, add tomatoes.

Saute greens very briefly in 1 tablespoon olive oil. Just before serving, stir greens and lemon juice into lentil-tomato mixture.

Ladle mixture into shallow soup bowls. Grind coarse pepper to taste over top and add few drops of olive oil. Serve with lemon wedges. Makes 4 servings.

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The salad is at its best made with freshly picked tomatoes and peaches from the garden. If you have a source for fine, fresh produce, preferably organic, you can achieve wonderful results. If your produce is from the supermarket, you may want to substitute nectarines for peaches, since market peaches are so often disappointing, mealy and barely fragrant.

TOMATO AND PEACH SALAD (Insalata di Pomodoro e Pesche)

4 tomatoes, ripe but firm

4 peaches or nectarines

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Extra-virgin olive or walnut oil

Lemon juice

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

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Small handful of walnut halves, thinly slivered

Core tomatoes and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Cut peaches or nectarines in half along natural division and remove pit. Slice to same thickness as tomatoes.

Arrange slices on serving dish in alternating pattern. Very lightly drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with walnuts. Makes 4 servings.

Serve this dish as a main course with steamed potatoes for a vegetarian supper, accompanied by a crisp white wine, a Chardonnay from Macon, or a French cider.

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JOSEPHINE ARALDO’S SPINACH AND RICE WITH HERBS (Epinards au Verts-Pres)

1 small onion, chopped

1 tablespoon butter

4 eggs

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Salt

1 cup creme fraiche

1/4 cup chopped parsely

2 teaspoons chopped fresh tarragon

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1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

Freshly grated nutmeg

1 1/2 pounds spinach, blanched, well-drained and chopped

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2 cups cooked rice

2 cups grated Gruyere cheese

Freshly ground pepper

Saute onion in small skillet in small amount of butter until lightly browned. Beat eggs with salt in medium bowl, then add creme fraiche, mixing well. Add sauteed onion, parsley, tarragon, oregano, thyme and nutmeg and mix well.

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Fold in spinach, rice, 1 1/2 cups cheese and salt and pepper to taste. Pour mixture into buttered 10-inch pie plate and bake at 350 degrees 15 minutes. Reduce temperature to 325 degrees and bake another 20 to 30 minutes or until cooked through.

Sprinkle remaining 1/2 cup cheese over top and put back in oven until cheese is melted, or place under broiler few minutes until browned and bubbly. Makes 6 servings.

ANNA THOMAS’ PASTA WITH FOUR CHEESES

5 ounces finely cubed Gruyere cheese

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5 ounces finely cubed Fontina cheese

1 3/4 cups finely grated Parmesan cheese

1 1/2 tablespoons flour

5 ounces coarsely shredded mozzarella cheese

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1/4 cup butter

1 cup milk or half and half

1 pound shell macaroni

Toss Gruyere, Fontina and Parmesan cheeses with flour. Reserve mozzarella.

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Heat butter and milk in large, heavy-bottomed saucepan until butter is melted. Stir in combined cheeses, bit by bit, and continue stirring gently with wooden spoon until mixture forms smooth sauce. Keep hot over very low heat, stirring occasionally.

Cook pasta in large quantity of boiling water until al dente, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and immediately transfer to large warm serving bowl. Pour cheese sauce over macaroni and stir quickly with 2 spoons. Just before serving, quickly stir in mozzarella. Do not overdo stirring as pasta cools quickly. Serve on heated plates. Makes 4 servings.


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