Plenty of us can grow vegetables, but few of us know how to prepare them well. Regional tastes dictate steamed or boiled, crisp or soft, and cooked in animal fat or not, and cooks rarely agree on the best methods.
Luckily, we have cookbooks to guide us, though not all are equally as successful. I've tried countless vegetarian recipes from specialty cookbooks that turned out undercooked, underseasoned, pasty, tough or bland.
Two widely acknowledged masters of vegetable cooking in America are Alice Waters of the famed Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., and Edna Lewis, grande dame and ambassador of Southern cooking. A cookbook by either Waters or Lewis is a great place for any cook to begin to understand the preparation of vegetables -- preferably of the homegrown variety, and if not, at least locally grown.
Lewis' most famous book, The Taste of Country Cooking, is a lyrical memoir of a time and place that seems mythically distant in these hectic times. Born in Freetown, Vir., the granddaughter of freed slaves, Lewis grew up on a completely self-sufficient working farm before traveling the world and becoming a chef in New York City as well as a renowned food writer. The recipes in the book are simple and straightforward, born of freshness and availability, and are organized by season. The Taste of Country Cooking elegizes the plainest foods -- corn cooked in its husks, beans simmered with a piece of country ham, scallions stewed in cream. Lewis' descriptions of the aromas and habits of the family kitchen are unmatched, a treasure for anyone who cares about the flavors of fresh, wholesome foods.
Alice Waters' Vegetables offers a guide to preparation of myriad vegetables, honoring the hand-raised, just-picked variety. Freshness is key to her method -- some of her recipes are so perfectly simple that they won't cover up the age or excessive handling of overly refrigerated, dated supermarket veggies. Many of her suggestions are surprisingly simple, like her recipe for sauted cucumbers -- peeled, seeded, diced cucumbers cooked gently in butter and water, seasoned with salt and chives or chervil. But Waters' genius as a chef is best reflected in her salad recipes: avocado, grapefruit and curly endive with citrus dressing, cabbage with apple and celery root, red and golden beets with blood orange, endive and walnuts -- each a perfect combination of texture, color and flavor.
From Hillstreet Press, a small, independent publisher in Athens, Ga., home of REM and other rock luminaries, comes The Grit Restaurant Cookbook, a collection of recipes from Athens' famed restaurant featuring soups, stews, sauces and gravies, vegetables and side dishes made with fresh, farmers' market ingredients. I'd recommend the book on one count alone -- the Grit's secret technique to making collard greens and other country vegetables taste as rich as if they'd been cooked with a big ham hock. Added to the greens are Grit Yeast Gravy -- a thick sauce made with soy milk, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, flaked nutritional yeast, margarine and whole-wheat flour that makes vegetables taste better than your granny's while being good for you at the same time. Guaranteed.
Finally, no vegetable lover's cookbook collection is complete without a guide to condiments, relishes and chutneys. This year, Hillstreet has brought out in paperback a classic, the late Eugene Walter's Hints & Pinches, a "concise compendium of aromatics, chutneys, herbs, relishes, spices and other such concerns."
A native of Mobile, Ala., and a founding contributor of The Paris Review, Walter worked as a poet, novelist, essayist, artist, actor, translator, philosopher and, yes, epicurean. His food writing ranked among the best of his time and remains rich in content and style. For a taste, here's Walter on the underrated culinary herb, marjoram:
"For a superb vinegar, stuff a bottle with sweet marjoram leaves, boil up some white wine vinegar and pour over. When cool, cork. On first spring lettuce hearts, with a little pure olive oil, oh my! Or a salad of cooked first green beans. ...
One of the best picnic sandwiches I know is brown bread spread with cream cheese and a good sprinkle of chopped fresh marjoram leaves. In the garden any of the marjorams help cleanse the soil, repel pests, attract bees. Goats and sheep love marjoram, horses accept it, cows loathe it."