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Reading Between the Leaves

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As a species, humans are omnivores. As individuals, we often display quirky, complex and closely held food preferences. More and more, in fact, this seems to be an age of personal dietary law, and cookbook publishers are having a heyday targeting each new proclivity.

The recent crop of vegetarian cookbooks alone reveals the variables and range in appetite of those who, for one reason or another, refuse to eat meat. There are cookbooks for vegans, for raw-food vegetarians and for the less-strict ovo, lacto and ovo-lacto vegetarians who want quick food, low-fat food, spicy food and various ethnic and celebratory foods. There are even cookbooks for those who want guidance in raising vegetarian children.

In reading so many vegetarian cookbooks, I discovered that I am, in fact, a demi-veg, because much of my diet is vegetarian. I’m sympathetic to vegetarianism, and there is hope in some quarters that one day I might make a whole-hog commitment to meatless meals. We’ll see. In the meantime, it’s nice to know that even I have a niche, albeit way to the left and slightly out of bounds, on the vegetarian spectrum.

On the opposite end of this spectrum are the raw vegetarians, the uncooked vegans; they might want to take a look at Imar Hutchins’ “Delights of the Garden,” a “cook” book full of raw food recipes from Hutchins’ Atlanta restaurant of the same name. Some basic so-called “delights” are kush (bulgur wheat soaked in water) with nutmeat (a combination of sunflower seeds) and kush with a barbecue sauce made of honey, vinegar, molasses, sun-dried tomatoes and chili powder.

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A friend of mine who was a raw vegetarian for three years explained both the attraction and the setbacks. “Eventually, I did feel high all the time,” he said, “but eating that way was too much like a religion, and it became a full-time occupation.”

Indeed, Hutchins writes his introductory essays with fearless, missionary zeal. “To be honest,” he says, “we find the notion of eating a dead, mutilated animal quite disgusting.” Later he insists: “ ‘Steak’ just sounds better than ‘carcass’ ” and asks: “With all the death that we consume daily, is it any wonder so many of us develop cancers and other terminal diseases?” (Can raw vegetarianism, then, ensure immortality?)

Many evils, Hutchins claims, can be attributed not only to meat-eating but to cooking. Cooking food, he claims, destroys nutrients and “should actually be called killing.”

He argues that humans are neither carnivores nor omnivores but herbivores because our teeth and nails are incapable of “tearing through the thick hide of animals.” Our use of “extensions” like guns and spears is merely evidence of our inability to “coexist with the natural order of things.” He may not like to eat flesh, but Hutchins is quite fond of beating a dead horse.

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Of the dehydrators, juicers, blenders and food processors whose use his recipes require, Hutchins has no equivalent opinion.

If you really do not want to eat cooked food, this book may help you come up with amusing new ways to reconfigure raw food. Many of these recipes do not seem to be recipes for food, but instructions for simulacra--approximations of cooked dishes. The main ingredient of “Veggie Tuna” is carrot pulp scraped from a juicer. Room-temperature “chili” is formulated out of the kush and barbecue sauce mentioned earlier. “Jambalaya” is made of alfalfa sprouts, raw okra, zucchini, celery and more kush. Soups are made with raw vegetables and hot spring water.

Such recipes, obviously, will not taste like food as most of us know it. I imagine that after some time without cooked food, a different aesthetic kicks in and these dishes can actually taste good, just as I imagine that if you became a forager, cattails might be delicious after a steady diet of skunk cabbage.

Moving cold into the “Delights of the Garden” recipes is, I learned, a bit of a shock. The crust of the book’s blueberry pie was made of banana chips ground with dried pineapple and dates. If you didn’t look too closely, it looked like a well-browned pie crust. The filling was blueberries and dried pineapple pieces whirled in a food processor until the blueberries released their natural pectin and set. In short, this pie looked like a pie but did not taste or feel like a pie; it was incredibly sweet and a little brackish, and the texture was downright odd. I think you have to have been eating uncooked food for a long time to have that pie reveal its pleasures.

A more familiar conservative brand of vegetarianism can be glimpsed in the reprinting of Annabel Perkins’ “Vegetarian Food for All, Zesty International Dishes From One of the World’s Most Celebrated Natural Foods Restaurants.” Food for All was a vegetarian restaurant in Liverpool, England, and the first edition of this cookbook came out in the late 1970s.

This dated book promulgates what I consider to be an old-fashioned health-food vegetarianism whose staples include whole grains, beans, tofu, seitan, carob, miso, tahineh and seaweed. The aggressive spicing reflects the “gourmet” trend at the time, away from the blandness of refined and processed foods.

Many of Perkins’ recipes (buckwheat vegetable crumble, tofu and eggplant, arame broccoli salad) remind me of food I ate in the ‘70s in co-ops and communes; to me, the book’s greatest virtue is, perhaps, nostalgic. Perkins subscribes to a “yoga philosophy,” which, when applied to diet, eschews the use of eggs, onion and garlic (“These foods have a slightly irritating effect on the body, which also affects one’s mental state”), and mushrooms (“It is not yet determined whether fungi are animals or vegetables. They have all the properties of animal foods and must be considered as such”).

“I hope that, like me, you will experiment liberally with a wide variety of herbs and spices and gain the confidence to move away from the inevitable onion and garlic that swamp every subtle flavor in Western vegetarian food,” writes Perkins. I, in turn, hope that Perkins finds her followers, but I won’t be among them.

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A newer kind of vegetarian cookery is something I call supermarket vegetarianism, since all its ingredients can be found at the nearest grocery store. One example is “Vegetarian Celebrations” by Nava Atlas, an updated edition of a 1990 cookbook featuring holiday menus composed of easy low-fat recipes that can be adapted for vegans and lactose-free vegetarians. Many menus include timetables and dishes that can be made ahead of time. Nava uses low-fat versions of cheese, milk and yogurt, very little hard cheese, few eggs and always margarine instead of butter.

Unlike Perkins, Nava finds the “slightly irritating” effects of garlic and onion desirable and intentionally works them into her Valentine’s Day menus, precisely because of their stimulating qualities (three-onion pie with feta). The margins include notes on holiday lore and ingredients: “Could the humble carrot,” she asks, “really be an aphrodisiac?” This is a secular interfaith cookbook, with menus for Easter and Passover, Christmas and Hanukkah, Japanese New Year and, under “Small Celebrations,” afternoon tea.

The apex of the supermarket vegetarian cookbooks I’ve found is “Skinny Vegetarian Entrees,” one more drop in the steady stream of hastily assembled, not particularly attractive “Skinny” cookbooks from Surrey Books.

It was bound to happen, of course, that some low-fat fanatics would embrace vegetarianism and that at least some vegetarians would catch low-fat fever to such a degree that they’d turn to highly processed foods rather than ingest one stray gram of fat. This cookbook seems aimed at cooks who have never seen a growers’ market or produce stand: You’ll find everything you need in the produce section, the frozen food case and the dried-spice rack at the supermarket.

Authors Phyllis Magida and Sue Spitler make their “store-bought,” packaged sensibility clear: “The recipes in this book are much like the food you’ve always eaten. You’ll find no weird ingredients or strange textures or flavors.” I don’t know about food anybody else has always eaten, but I happen to think that reduced-calorie margarine, cholesterol-free egg substitute, vegetable spray, fat-free cheese and mayonnaise are some of the weirder ingredients and flavors around.

“Pressure Cooking the Meatless Way,” by nutritionists Maureen B. Keane and Daniella Chace, is mostly supermarket vegetarian, with a bit of health-food vegetarianism thrown in for good measure. Recipes might call for quinoa, spelt, kamut and teff. (Mail-order sources are provided for these less-than-common grains.) Although it can’t compete in either design or recipe content with Lorna Sass’ comprehensive “Great Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure,” this is still a handy, easy-to-use book with good, clear instructions and tips for quick and nonexplosive pressure cooking, handy charts and many basic recipes that are easily adapted to individual tastes.

Differing from both the health-food and the supermarket vegetarian cookbooks, in that they take the art of cooking a step further, are what I call the gourmet vegetarian cookbooks. These boks present preparations that are more sophisticated and complicated than the average home cook might attempt night after night, unless he or she is dedicated to haute vegetarian cuisine.

Rose Elliot’s recently reissued 1988 text “The Complete Vegetarian Cuisine,” a visually stunning volume full of color photographs, actually straddles the line between supermarket and gourmet cookbooks. Being comprehensive, it includes basics (baked potatoes), old standbys (lentil loaf) and haute cuisine (terrines, timbales, roulades, vegetables en crou^te, etc).

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The front half of this attractive book is given over to a discussion of ingredients and nutrition and may prove an indispensable reference for many vegetarians who want an even-handed, levelheaded, nondogmatic vegetarian bible. Elliot is an Englishwoman, however, and if her selection of ingredients seems a bit arcane or obscure, it might be because of the faintest cultural discrepancies. I’ve never before heard of a squash (or white pumpkin) called a doody or a seaweed called laver or heard a cherimoya called a custard apple.

Her recipes are clear, uncluttered and occasionally inspired. There’s an eggplant “charlotte” in which a pan is lined with eggplant slices, then stuffed with tubular pasta. This makes an elegant “drum” that looks equally pretty on the serving platter and the plate. And her vegetable turnovers seem like child’s play compared to some others I will mention. Do, however, think twice about making Elliot’s celery and Stilton cheese soup. While a pleasing celadon color, it’s grainy, odoriferous and burns the back of the throat.

Vegetarians come in all ages these days, including infants. Vegetarian parents who wish to raise healthy, vegetarian children might want to read Elliot’s book on the subject, “The Vegetarian Mother and Baby Book,” another tasteful, clear and levelheaded guide, which has been simultaneously reissued with the larger book. With a basic knowledge of nutrition (which she supplies), Ms. Elliot contends that child and parents alike can end up healthier and more full of energy than many meat eaters.

The book covers everything from diets for pregnancy and breastfeeding to toddler lunch and dinner menus, with daily nutrients guides, charts, menus and recipes that are particularly appealing to children--and easy for busy mothers.

Elliot also offers an astrological service which will help parents know in advance the way their child’s character is likely to evolve. Perhaps this is the key to mealtime equanimity: If you know ahead of time your child is going to turn out steadfast and robust, why worry about a few rejected carrot sticks?

Cookbook author Jennifer Trainer Thompson likes it hot. She is the creator of the Jump Up and Kiss Me brand hot sauces and has co-written a book on nuclear power. Her latest book, “Jump Up and Kiss Me, Spicy Vegetarian Cooking,” came out last spring and is an exemplar of gourmet ovo-lacto vegetarianism. Her recipes have all the complication and complexity of upscale restaurant cooking, which is to say that you’ll be a lot happier with this cookbook if you have a couple of sous-chefs and dishwashers hanging out in your kitchen. Thompson’s recipe for baba ghannouj calls for 14 ingredients, as opposed to Atlas’ eight; Thompson’s ratatouille has 23 ingredients, while Perkins and Elliot each call for nine.

But if you’re looking for flavor, you won’t go wrong. Thompson’s hand with spices and chiles is no-nonsense; she favors curries, salsas, salads and sides that combine the savory, the spicy-hot and often the sweet (fried rice with bananas; focaccia with pears, walnuts and Gorgonzola; jalapen~o ice).

This is not a cookbook for the faint of palate or the faint of heart. It took me an afternoon to make the roasted winter vegetable turnovers, another recipe with 23 ingredients. It’s a good thing I’ve learned to read through recipes before making them. Otherwise, halfway through these turnovers, I would have discovered I should have made the pastry dough three hours before.

The result thrilled my guests--although nobody quite went to the lengths of praise suggested by the book’s title. Despite the turnover’s terrific flaky dough and spirited, spicy filling, I wasn’t able to get over a lingering resentment for the amount of time and complication involved: In addition to making the pastry, I had to cook a batch of brown rice, toast pine nuts, grate cheese, clip some fresh rosemary, peel and chop and roast an assortment of vegetables, not the least of which was a hard-as-stone winter squash. All this, and I didn’t get kissed.

My new favorite vegetarian cookbook is another gourmet vegetarian offering: Diane Kochilas’ “The Greek Vegetarian,” with gorgeous photographs by Constantine Pittas. This book seems as easy to cook from as some of the supermarket and health-food vegetarian cookbooks, yet it packs the clarion flavors and fine balances of the best gourmet vegetarians. The recipes are concisely written, easy to follow and deceptively good. Who knew a simple eggplant and chickpea salad would be the most delicious and lively dish at a vegetarian dinner party? The key, I think, is in Kochilas’ infallible sense of proportions--or maybe any salad would taste good with 3/4 cup of olive oil.

In the last few decades, Greece has established itself as one of the greatest meat-eating countries in Europe, but before that, meat was a luxury, and for complete nutrition, cooks relied on the Greek repertoire of legumes, grains and cheeses. Of course, olives, wild greens, figs, nuts, capers, herbs and the naughty, ever-present onions and garlic flavor the cuisine. (“Probably the single most important flavor in the vegetarian pot,” writes Kochilas, “is that of the humble onion.” Take that, Perkins.)

Following clearly written and fact-filled introductory material on ingredients (with especially good sections on cheeses and breads), Kochilas presents a tempting mix of classic recipes (spanakopita, or spinach pie), a “few obscure agrarian dishes” (a pumpkin-chestnut-olive puree) and some dishes re-imagined by contemporary Greek chefs (goat cheese-stuffed onions). I haven’t mustered the nerve to try making my own filo dough, but Kochilas at least makes it sound easy. In fact, here is the rare cookbook I’d like to cook my way through, front to back.

EGGPLANT AND PASTA CHARLOTTE

TOMATO SAUCE

1 onion, chopped

1 stalk celery, finely chopped

1 carrot, finely chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 cloves garlic, crushed

2 (14-ounce) cans tomatoes

1/2 teaspoon dried basil

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1 bay leaf

1/2 cup red wine, vegetable stock or water

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

CHARLOTTE

2 eggplants (about 1 pound total)

Salt

Olive oil

14 ounces rigatoni

6 tablespoons butter

1/2 pound mozzarella cheese, grated

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1/4 cup grated aged Cheddar cheese

1 tablespoon dried oregano

Freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons fine dry bread crumbs

This is from Rose Elliot’s “The Complete Vegetarian Cuisine.”

TOMATO SAUCE

Saute onion, celery and carrot in oil in medium saucepan until soft but not browned, about 10 minutes. Add garlic, tomatoes, basil, oregano, bay leaf and wine.

Cook gently, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes have reduced to puree, about 20 minutes.

Remove bay leaf, then puree sauce in blender or food processor. Season to taste with salt and pepper. More liquid can be added if thinner sauce is desired.

CHARLOTTE

Slice eggplants diagonally into 1/4-inch slices. Place eggplant in colander and sprinkle each layer generously with salt. Place weight (like pot cover) over eggplant and let drain 30 minutes. Rinse and drain well, squeezing gently to remove excess liquid, and pat dry.

Saute eggplant slices in skillet with little olive oil until soft and lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes on each side. Drain well on paper towels.

Cook rigatoni in large pot of boiling water until almost done; it should be a bit undercooked. Drain well, then return pasta to pot with 2 tablespoons Tomato Sauce and mix well.

Melt butter in remaining Tomato Sauce. Pour sauce over rigatoni and mix together with mozzarella, Parmesan and Cheddar cheeses. Add oregano and salt and pepper to taste.

Arrange eggplant slices over base and sides of 8-inch-round springform pan brushed with olive oil. Make sure slices in base of pan radiate attractively from center and that all gaps are filled.

Spoon pasta mixture into pan, press down lightly and sprinkle with bread crumbs. Bake at 375 degrees 20 minutes.

Remove from oven and let charlotte stand 15 minutes to settle and allow flavors to develop. Slip knife around edges of pan and turn charlotte out onto warmed serving dish. Press any fallen eggplant slices back in place and serve immediately.

6 main-course, 8 appetizer servings. Each appetizer serving:

532 calories; 534 mg sodium; 52 mg cholesterol; 28 grams fat; 53 grams carbohydrates; 17 grams protein; 1.96 grams fiber.

ROASTED EGGPLANT AND GARBANZO BEAN SALAD (Melitzana Psiti me Revithia)

2 eggplants (about 2 pounds total)

Salt

3/4 cup olive oil

1 cup cooked or canned garbanzo beans

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 large, firm tomato, peeled, seeded, and diced

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese, optional

Freshly ground pepper

2 to 3 tablespoons lemon juice

“In parts of northern Greece,” writes Diane Kochilas in the headnote to her recipe, “eggplants stewed or baked for hours in a clay pot with chickpeas is a common dish. Here, the basic ingredients are the same, only the recipe is lighter, easier and quicker to make.”

Trim stems and bottoms from eggplants. Cut in half lengthwise and dice into 3/4-inch cubes. Place eggplant in colander and sprinkle each layer generously with salt. Place weight (like a pot cover) over eggplant and let drain 30 minutes. Rinse and drain well, squeezing gently to remove excess liquid, and pat dry.

Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in large skillet and saute half of eggplant, tossing gently, over medium heat until lightly browned and tender, but not mushy. Remove, cool slightly and repeat with remaining eggplant and additional 1/4 cup of oil.

Combine eggplant in large bowl with garbanzo beans, garlic, tomato, oregano and feta cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add lemon juice and remaining 1/4 cup olive oil and toss well. Cover salad and set aside to marinate at room temperature at least 1 hour before serving.

4 servings. Each serving, without feta:

495 calories; 163 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 42 grams fat; 28 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 3.49 grams fiber.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

VEGETARIAN BOOKSHELF

“Delights of the Garden” by Imar Hutchins, (Doubleday: 1996, $15.95).

“Vegetarian Food for All” by Annabel Perkins (New World Library: 1996, $13.95).

“Vegetarian Celebrations” by Nava Atlas (Little, Brown: 1996, $15.95).

“Skinny Vegetarian Entrees” by Phyllis Magida and Sue Spitler (Surrey Books: 1996, $12.95)

“Pressure Cooking the Meatless Way” by Maureen B. Keane and Daniella Chace (Prima: 1996, $14.95).

(Going to add “Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure” (PUB/YEAR TK) kg?)

‘The Complete Vegetarian Cuisine” by Rose Elliot (Pantheon: 1996, $29.95).

“The Vegetarian Mother and Baby Book” by Rose Elliot (Pantheon: 1996, $17.95).

“Jump up and Kiss Me, Spicy Vegetarian Cooking” by Jennifer Trainer Thompson (Ten Speed Press: 1996, $19.95).

“The Greek Vegetarian” by Diane Kochilas (St. Martin’s Press: 1996, $24.95).

* Ole Ink plate from Giorgio, Beberly Hills.


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