Cookbook Review: Vegetable Harvest
Turning Vegetables Into The Star of a Meal
From the editor: I first cooked from and reviewed this amazing cookbook by Patricia Wells in 2007 when it was published. All these years later, I still cook from it happily and often, and agree with every word I wrote about it 15 years ago.
I'm suffering from serious vegetable envy. And there's nothing I can do about it. That's because I'm envying Patricia Wells her garden in Provence that has inspired her to write her outstanding new cookbook, Vegetable Harvest (William Morrow, $34.95). I would love nothing better than to cook her recipes with ingredients from her garden.
In this her tenth cookbook, Ms. Wells helps us fall in love with ordinary vegetables with an inspiring new look at them as the main event. Despite its title, this book is not only about vegetables. Instead, as the "Vegetables at the Center of the Plate" subtitle suggests, Ms. Wells makes the case for dishes inspired by seasonal fruits and vegetables. Some recipes are totally vegetables. In others, the vegetables are combined with grain or rice, and in still others, she makes the perfect combination with meat, game, fish or shellfish.
One of the core messages of Ms. Wells' book is that cooking begins and ends with our ingredients. Although we city cooks are thousands of miles away from Provencal gardens and Parisian markets, we can still find great vegetables at our own best produce markets and year-round greenmarkets. Guided by Ms. Wells' recipes, advice, tips on tools and wine, her decades of cooking wisdom and her respect for great ingredients, we can take a fresh look at how to turn whatever is in season into something special.
Most of the recipes do not require fancy tools or complicated technique. While one calls for cooking in parchment paper and another roasts for 7 hours, and others require an ice cream maker or food processor, most of the methods are very ordinary -- slicing, roasting, puréeing, and sautéing. The recipes include classics, like "Pea and Mint Risotto," as well as more inventive ones like "Tomato and Strawberry Gazpacho." Although the title of the book refers to a harvest, in fact Ms. Wells gives us recipes that use vegetables that are in season throughout the year, from winter squash to late summer tomatoes.
The ingredients will be very familiar to city cooks, perhaps with the exception of piment d'Espellete, a smoky Basque red pepper often used interchangeably with black pepper (click on the link at the left for our article about it). Ms. Wells clearly loves this mild pepper and it's in a number of her recipes. The good news is that while it was once rare to buy outside of France, it's now easily available in New York markets.
Vegetable Harvest is organized into 12 sections, with recipes for every part of a meal:
- Appetizers, Starters and First Courses
- Fish and Shellfish
- Poultry and Meats
- Pasta, Rice, Beans and Gratins
- Eggs, Cheese and Friends
- Desserts (she includes fruits and nuts that grow in Provence, e.g., apples, pears and cherries)
- The Pantry (e.g., stock, salad dressings, sauces, pestos)
In a not so subtle message about vegetables and nutrition, each recipe has a per-serving calculation of calories and grams of fat, protein and carbohydrates. Most include small items about wine matches, tips on tools, or tales of history and folklore. Each also starts with a charming anecdote about the recipe: why she loves it, how she eats it, or its inspiration. Some of these tales are so alluring you may go from vegetable envy to downright jealousy.
My only complaint about the book is with the photographs. They are beautiful color close-ups of the vegetables themselves, raw and often stacked for sale in a market. While these still-life images add to the message of great ingredients, I still wished for the occasional picture of a finished dish because I always like to know what I'm heading for, especially the first time I cook something.
Consistent with her previous books, especially Patricia Wells At Home in Provence (originally published in 1996), Ms. Wells once again shows that she is a home, and homey, cook. She also shows her respect for the remarkable ingredients that she, as a French home cook, is able to count on. Lucky her.
Test Driving the Recipes
I began with one of the book's simplest dishes, "Oven-Roasted Red Peppers in Olive Oil." Thin strips of red peppers (skins left on) are roasted with olive oil and salt in a covered casserole (I used foil to top a small ceramic roaster), in a hot 425F oven, and finished with a tablespoon of vinegar. Sublime. I can see this stack of red jewels on a platter alongside a seared tuna steak, or added to a couscous salad, or puréed and put through a fine strainer and used to dress steamed vegetables.
Next I made her "Cumin-Scented Chickpeas with Roasted Eggplant and Rustic Tomato Sauce." In this simple but perfectly balanced recipe, canned chickpeas are combined with a sauce made of puréed roasted tomatoes (they must be flavorful and bright because aside from salt and a little dried oregano, the only ingredient in this sauce are the tomatoes), plus tender Asian-type eggplant that's been separately roasted in the oven. What makes this more than a riff on ratatouille is the addition of cumin but Wells has us toast and then crush whole seeds into a powder, thus adding complexity without variety. The final brilliance is her advice to serve this at room temperature. It makes an ideal companion to lamb or a white fish like tilapia or cod.
Because much of the book showcases a vegetable with fish, seafood or meat, I wanted to try one of Ms. Wells' less rustic combinations and selected her "Celeric Salad with Fresh Crabmeat." I'm a huge fan of celeri remoulade, the French slaw-type salad made with celeriac, sometimes called celery root, and a robust mustard-mayonnaise. Here Ms. Wells uses the same shredded celeriac (easy to do with the shredding disc of a food processor or on a mandoline; it's a tiresome task to cut it by hand) as in the more familiar remoulade, but instead combines it with her "Creamy Lemon-Chive Dressing," itself a triumph of flavor (a mix of light cream, lemon juice, salt and fresh chives). The shredded celeriac sits in the lemony-creamy dressing, taking in the slight onion-tang of the minced chives, then draining off the excess dressing just before serving and adding it to fresh crab meat. She describes this as a winter dish since in France, crab is in season during the cold months. But New Yorkers have access year-round, thanks to Maryland and Maine, making this salad a brilliant choice for a picnic lunch or summer supper.
The next recipes that will tempt me include her "Garlic-Rich Seven-Hour Leg of Lamb," "Roasted Chickpeas, Mushrooms, Artichokes and Tomatoes" (which she makes with canned artichoke hearts), and for my husband who loves fresh sardines, "Sardines in Parchment with Tomatoes and Onions." Come next winter I predict her "Braised Beef with Carrots" is going to be a favorite.
If you want to eat more vegetables and want new inspiration for how to cook them, Ms. Wells' book is a motivating and satisfying answer. You may wish you were one of her friends, invited to sit at her kitchen table in Provence, sharing in that day's garden bounty. But the next best thing is to have this very good book, the latest offering of real kitchen wisdom from someone we know is at heart, like us. A home cook.