Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian. Clarkson Potter, $40. 758 pp.
I’m a sucker for vegetarian cookbooks. I grew up in a world of Meat, By God - even fish were somehow suspect - and canned vegetables or fresh ones cooked into sodden submission. But like a lot of St. Louisans of my generation, there was the Sunshine Inn to introduce me to the whole new world. And then, on my first trip to San Francisco, I went to Greens, which was, and is, a sort of vegetarian nirvana. I was blown away by what could be achieved in that realm. Twenty-plus years ago, though, what they did at Greens simply couldn’t be done here. The raw material wasn’t available. There was tofu, if you looked hard enough, and eggplant. Plantain and mango and red lentils and yellow beets weren’t even finding their way into restaurants, much less grocery stores. Arborio rice and dried porcinis - what were they? And who knew where to buy them?
But the miracles of air freight and consumer-savvy farmers have come, and our palates have expanded exponentially, both a cause and a result of those things. So how do we translate that into our everyday cooking?
Books like Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian make it a lot easier. This is an example of what I call Big Fat Cookbooks, or BFCs, those encyclopedic works every cook needs a few of. It combines basic reference work with more elaborate preparations. On rice, for instance, there is a background discussion - and being raised in India, her rice stories are worth listening to - as well as explanations and photos (in a separate section) of the different types of rice. And the recipes are from basic - the first is Plain Basmati Rice - to Persian pilafs, Palestinian rice with lentils and onions, a Mexican casserole with corn, Swiss chard stuffed with sweet-and-sour rice.
She isn’t a purist - canned garbanzo beans are fine with her in the swinging Spicy Eggplant Stew with Potatoes, Mushrooms and Chickpeas, a recipe that deserves a place in anyone’s permanent file. Jaffrey makes bean curd sound approachable enough that I’m going to be using it for the first time. Her general style is chatty and encouraging, and she offers a lot of substitutions and variations. (If she knew I’d omitted the cilantro from the Spicy Eggplant Stew, I have the feeling she wouldn’t have batted an eye.)
Who needs vegetarian cookbooks? These days with our general diet-consciousness, lots of people are eating meatless meals, whether from pleasure or from duty. And for entertaining, a vegetarian first course is absolutely ideal, whether it’s a soup or a non-lettuce salad or even a "made" dish like a quesadilla or zucchini fritters. And vegetarian pastas are frequently dazzling.
This isn’t an inexpensive cookbook - of course, not many are, these days - but it’s a supremely worthwhile reference that makes its mark for rookie and experienced cook alike.