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Vegetarian Cooking Moves to the Front Burner

Cookbook author Anna Thomas offers sumptuous dishes and delightful tidbits in her latest book

By M.S. MasonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 4, 1997


Anna Thomas's first cookbook, "The Vegetarian Epicure," put her through college. It was an original - one of the first to celebrate vegetarian cuisine with wonderfully inventive recipes. The sequel was likewise a hit, reflecting Ms. Thomas's travels around Europe and her own progressive "improvisations" (a term she prefers to "experiments").

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While plenty of cookbooks of the time included delicious vegetable recipes (usually as side dishes), Thomas helped popularize the vegetable as an end in itself, and she changed the way many of us looked at zucchini and spinach forever.

Delight in meal preparation

Times have changed, and Thomas's cooking style has changed, too. Her latest tome on the kitchen arts, "The New Vegetarian Epicure" (Alfred A. Knopf, 449 pp., $19.00) which came out last year, reflects her concerns.

Thomas has been raising two rambunctious boys, writing movie scripts, and producing films for the last 20 years, and now more than ever her writing reflects her very real delight in meal preparation.

Producing, she says wryly, puts you always between a rock an a hard place, so cooking cames as a relief.

"Having had kids and raising them has taken me in another direction," Thomas said in an interview. "You're a different person when you have kids. It really is a whole new world view - and way of cooking, and body of knowledge and experience.

"Kids like simple food, and you have to cook more often. At the same time I got more sophisticated - both sides were developing at once. I'm a whole different cook now than I was before. But the pleasure in cooking is what it's always been.

"This book just has a much greater range. There is still plenty of what I like to call recreational cooking for people who cook on weekends for fun, and who like to make elaborate complicated things for entertaining or whatever. But there is also a lot more basic, every day, fresh food."

And "fresh" is key. One simple and delicious recipe, Cream of Sweet Corn Soup, which is made from onions, butter, a hint of garlic, and milk (no cream) really does require the freshest possible ears of corn - right out of the field is best, but in any case, so fresh the kernels burst when you poke them with a fork. If the corn is even a day past its prime, the soup loses its raison d'tre.

Many of her simplest recipes depend on the freshness of the ingredients. The way Thomas prefers to cook is to go in the kitchen, figure out what she's in the mood for, and cook it - without recipes.

"Once you have a basic sense of ease and comfort with food then you respond to everything - the season, your circumstances, what ingredients are around and are best," she says.

Sometimes it's good to have a plan, she says, to follow a procedure that is tried and true, but she encourages readers to improvise on a basic theme, too, and never to apologize for departing from a recipe.

That's how she came up with her Wild Chocolate and Chili Torte. Her favorite Mexican mole, Mole Poblano, is made with lots of spices, chile and chocolate - its emphasis on chile makes it powerful stuff. The result is a spicy chocolate desert with a surprising kick. When she served it to guests, she says, no one could guess what gave it that extra punch.