Thanks to the good cooking of Deborah Madison, Anna Thomas and others, vegetarian cookbooks are taken seriously by food lovers as well as by those who never eat meat or fish. The broadening of the audience for these books has led to a genre of vegetable--as opposed to vegetarian--books written by cookbook and restaurant stars who may be, or more often are not, vegetarian. Who doesn't want a good vegetable recipe these days?
But the late Karen Hubert Allison, for years a celebrity of New York's restaurant elite, has written a book, just released, that is remarkable for its blend of high foodie aesthetic and serious vegetarian philosophy. At Huberts, the restaurant Allison ran throughout the '80s with her husband, Len Allison, she would eat every dish, including those made with meat and fish. But she was primarily a vegetarian. As her husband points out in his introduction to the book, "It was her sense of vegetarian preparations that helped shape the character of each dish."
And so, in "The Vegetarian Compass: New Directions in Vegetarian Cooking" (Little, Brown; $29.95), Allison provides the recipes for some of her restaurants' best vegetarian dishes--fried grits with wild mushroom sauce, goat cheese lasagna and more. But unlike all but the most hard-core vegetarian authors, Allison is unafraid of the earthier side of vegetarianism.
She takes on tempeh and seitan, for instance, and finds them delicious. One of the best parts of the book is her description of learning to make the wheat protein seitan in the rectory hall of a Seventh-Day Adventist church and the radical questions she asks of the women demonstrating the technique. Could you, she asked, use miso or garlic or even wine to impart the gluten with flavor? You want to slap her for suggesting wine in such a setting, but the story shows how her mind was constantly considering the possibilities of new dishes and new flavors.
Another good section of the book is Allison's treatment of stocks, which some cookbooks limit to one basic vegetable stock with the advice to use whatever is on hand. Allison discusses the subtle characteristics of different vegetable stocks and provides four basic stock recipes, noting that each works in a distinct way.
Non-vegetarians will find much to like in this book, but vegetarians will be thrilled to discover a new and too short-lived voice that takes their subject seriously and isn't just giving a bunch of vegetable recipes that may or may not be eaten with meat.