Ever had to say "Eat your vegetables..." one too many times to your kids? No longer! Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart, the authors of the James Beard Award-winning "Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking" have brought their expertise to a vegetable cookbook that's sure to please even the pickiest eaters, with "Mastering the Art of Southern Vegetables."
Those like me who aren't full-time vegetarians but definitely eat more greens than meat will love the 120 recipes in this book, each of which takes advantage of vegetables native to the South.
The book is organized alphabetically by vegetable, with beautiful, full-page color photos punctuating the chapters. I'll admit it -- I jumped right in and made four different recipes from this cookbook before slowly perusing the intro. What I found when I got there was something that I had noticed in the selection throughout my experience with this book -- the authors state that they use the traditional "meat flavorings" used in Southern cooking -- in other words, these are not necessarily vegetarian dishes.
This was true, for example, with the corn and squash pudding. The meat of choice in this dish was both bacon and bacon grease, which added a nice seasoning aspect to the otherwise sweet zucchini and corn.
I have always wanted to try a dish like this but have never been able to tear myself away from fresh corn on the cob as-is. But this version really does bring out the best in the vegetables, with just the right amount of "pudding" holding everything together.
I can only imagine that this would be fantastic with yellow summer squash, for a more monochrome, bright yellow dish, or even without the bacon for those who would rather turn this into a vegetarian main.
This is yet another thing I appreciated about this book: the authors encourage cooks to change things up, to build upon the recipes that they provide. And these are not empty words -- the encouragement is there in the very layout of the book. Not only are the recipes preceded with a chapter offering general information and summarizing cooking terms that are used throughout the book, but at the beginning of each veggie chapter, the basic, simplest way to prepare the ingredient in question comes first: steamed asparagus, sautéed mushrooms, glazed carrots. This recipe is then followed by more technical recipes that incorporate more ingredients.
In this way, each chapter feels like a true introduction to the vegetable: from the "how do you do" of the first moments to a more complex dish, punctuated with little stories and background information about the vegetable's history, particularly as it pertains to Southern cuisine. In this way, you really get to know the vegetable by the end, and you have hopefully gleaned not only recipes but techniques that will allow you to bring out the best in the ingredient.
This was the case, for example, with the pan-charred green bean recipe I tested. Not only do the authors provide an extensive introduction to the world of beans and peas in Southern cuisine (and what distinguishes a bean from a pea), but they also offered many different ways that these charred green beans could be served.
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I opted for a tomato preserve, a sweet and vinegary tomato sauce that the authors say may be the ancestor to modern ketchup. This wasn't surprising once I'd tasted the flavors of the sauce; it balanced sweet, savory and acid perfectly and paired just right with the charred flavor of the beans, offering an incredible sensation of umami that can be hard to come by with purely vegetarian dishes.
One thing that the authors highlighted in their introduction is that these recipes are not intended to be mains, but rather side dishes to accompany a roasted or grilled meat portion of the meal. While I noticed this in the way that the recipes were presented, several caught my eye as great vegetarian main options -- one of these was the whole cauliflower in cheese sauce.
For this dish, an entire head of cauliflower is steamed and then topped with a rich mornay sauce and buttered breadcrumbs. The dish, to this point, can be made in advance (I tested this as well, and it was delicious six hours later). At this point it is merely heated and slightly gratineed in the oven.
What I loved in particular about this dish, aside from its delicious, rich flavor, is that it's an ideal "centerpiece" main for a vegetarian meal. Whereas meat eaters often have a roast as an edible centerpiece, this cauliflower is just as impressive and, in my opinion, even tastier.
Yet another option that does very well as a main were the stuffed mushrooms. I made these with the largest crimini mushroom caps I could find, stuffed with a combination of spinach and kale. Four per person was sufficient as a main, but these would also be fantastic as a smaller version for a savory accompaniment to cocktails.
All in all, I was quite impressed with "Mastering the Art of Southern Vegetables." It caters to a good variety of cooking expertises, offering simple recipes that are perfect for an everyday dinner as well as more complex ones for the experienced cook looking to change up their veggie repertoire. Many recipes are perfect for families where not everyone eats meat, as they are savory enough to stand in for a meat main and flavorful and interesting enough to convert veggie skeptics.
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Top image care of the publisher, all other images by Emily Monaco