How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Simple Meatless Recipes for Great Food
In my flat, most of my cookbooks live in a bookcase in the living room (or lounge, if you’re British). While I’d love to be able to have them all at arm’s reach, space restrictions call for a short dash. Three books, however, do reside in the kitchen, on a table under the window, where keys and mail get dumped unceremoniously. One of these chosen cookbooks is How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, by Mark Bittman.
Mark needs to stay in the kitchen, because quite frankly, I wouldn’t know what to do without him. (If you’re interested, the other two are Jamie at Home and Nigella Express, but they’re just there because they match the decor.)
How to Cook Everything Vegetarian is, at its simplest, an amended version of Mark’s bestselling and exhaustive How to Cook Everything. The chapters focusing on meat have been removed, and those about vegetarian staples like grains, legumes, and alternative proteins have been expanded on. As he explains in the introduction, Mark himself isn’t a vegetarian, but encourages a low-meat diet as one that is healthier for both Americans and the planet. The book seems to be aimed toward people who are looking to eat less meat for these reasons, but works equally well for strict vegetarians and vegans.
The 996-page, 4.4 lb book (I weighed it with my kitchen scale) is roughly divided into two parts. The introductory chapters cover the basics of ingredients, equipment and techniques. Mark discusses the complications of shopping for ingredients (even touching on the battle of organic vs. local), shares with us his list of pantry essentials, and goes into detail about choosing and using a variety of kitchen tools. Everything from what to look for in a good soy sauce, to proper knife skills, to how to season a cast iron pan is covered.
The second part of the book is given over to more specific information on ingredients. 11 chapters of information, starting with Salads and progressing through Soups, Vegetables, High-Protein Foods and Breads, to name just a few. Almost any type of ingredient you can think of is mentioned here, as well as information on how best to prepare it, appropriate substitutions, and of course a comprehensive collection of recipes. Recipes that range from absurdly basic (Cheese Omelet, pg. 172) to mouthwatering (Paella with Oranges, Olives and Saffron, pg. 523) to faintly ridiculous (Homemade Tofu, pg. 656). Most recipes are followed by several variations on the basic formula, with simple ways to change the flavour with different seasonings. Many also feature adjustments to make them vegan, if they aren’t already.
It is possibly for this reason that Bittman is a particularly polarizing food writer. Some find his style of providing a basic formula and umpteen variations unnecessary and annoying. Why not just give us one good recipe? they think. While I agree that six variations on Chickpea Fondue (pg. 615), might be pushing it just a little (in fact, chickpea fondue itself might be pushing it), I really like this style. It helps, I think, not to think of this book as a collection of prescribed recipes, but as a tool in learning to cook. Understanding how to combine flavours and adapt techniques is just as important as the ability to follow steps in a recipe, and besides, encouraging creative thought in the kitchen is rarely a bad thing.
It’s my belief that food writing (good food writing, at least), is divided into two types: the kind you read in the kitchen while preparing a meal, and the kind you read in bed (or the bath, or curled up on the couch, or whatever). Mark is definitely a purveyor of the former. His writing style is simple and straightforward, what I think of as a man’s food writer. He doesn’t wax poetic about the green of a savoy cabbage or the aroma of freshly baked bread, but he doesn’t need to: it isn’t his style, and his love of good food comes through all the same. Blessedly unpretentious, he seems aware of time and budget constraints, and unlike with some other writers, you have no problem thinking of him as an actual person.
Similarly, the look of How to Cook Everything Vegetarian is pared-down and modern. Perhaps predictably, the cover is green, as are the recipe titles, charts and lists inside the book. The two columns of text per page are printed with modern typefaces and simple graphic touches. There are no photos, but techniques (forming dumplings, rolling sushi) are illustrated textbook-style. Not the most beautiful cookbook you’ll come across, but the aesthetic suits the content and encyclopedia-like feel of the book.
Where I think this book could do more is in the Desserts chapter. The introduction makes the point that vegetarians usually eat the same desserts as omnivores, and bizarrely uses this as reason not to include these dishes, instead focusing on recipes which “contain more whole grains, natural sweeteners… [and] unexpected ingredients like vegetables and herbs”. Well, I don’t know about you, but I became a vegetarian because I wanted to stop eating meat, not cheesecake. Not that the desserts in the book don’t seem delicious (many do), just that they aren’t exactly what I’m looking for in a book that presents itself as a comprehensive guide to cooking, vegetarian or otherwise. I mean, the section on Brownies doesn’t even contain a recipe for a basic chocolate version.
All in all, though, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian is a great cookbook. Its comprehensive nature makes it a great buy for anyone just beginning to find their way around a kitchen. I think it would be a perfect choice for a young vegetarian going off to university or moving into their first apartment, for example. But more experienced cooks shouldn’t be quick to write it off; there are hundreds of great ideas in here, particularly for those looking to adopt healthier and more eco-friendly eating habits. Personally, I found this book an invaluable resource during my first year as a vegetarian, and rarely do I open it without being struck by the sudden urge to cook something new. So, for the foreseeable future at least, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian will remain at home in my kitchen.