Vegetarian Cookbooks Sprout More Than Tofu

THE COMPLETE ITALIAN VEGETARIAN COOKBOOK

By Jack Bishop

Houghton Mifflin

568 pp., $35

VEGETABLE HEAVEN

By Mollie Katzen

Hyperion

224 pp., $27.50

INVITATION TO MEDITERRANEAN COOKING

By Claudia Roden

Rizzoli

224 pp., $30

VEGETARIAN COOKING FOR EVERYONE

By Deborah Madison

Broadway Books

742 pp., $35

My mother quit eating meat years before it was the trendy, '90s thing to do. Her only problem: The rest of us flatly refused to give up our hamburgers. As anyone who's ever cooked for a family knows, there is no pleasing four different palates. It gets even trickier when the chef is trying to cook with her conscience, and the rest of the family wants to eat with their taste buds.

Mom basically had two options: Cook two separate dinners, or come up with meals so tempting we (hopefully) wouldn't moan about the lack of meat.

Making matters worse, most of her cookbooks regarded vegetables merely as a side dish to be prepared roughly the same way: boiled to mush and swimming in butter. Which meant my mother had to put on her thinking cap before she could don her chef's hat.

The results ranged from the delicious (vegetarian moussaka) to the wildly creative lentil pancakes - (don't ask).

I eventually came around to Mom's way of thinking, as a starving student whose college frequently served steamed broccoli as the vegetarian "entree." (It was also in college that I realized that a cheese pizza qualifies as a vegetarian meal.)

Vegetarian cookbooks have come a long way since my mom's heroic efforts, as the latest batch shows. Rather than acting as apologists by dressing up meat substitutes, these books revel in the flavors and freshness of vegetables. And in all, the emphasis is on flavor rather than the low-fat, nutritional tomes that fill the vegetarian cooking shelves. The result: recipes that will have even the most red-blooded carnivore salivating.

Gorgeous, with recipes heavy on the garlic and mushrooms, and sprinkled liberally with cheese, Jack Bishop's The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook is a feast of ideas. There are plenty of pasta and pizza recipes, complete with twists such as Potato and Arugula Pizza and Shells With Fontina and Parmesan Breadcrumbs (macaroni and cheese to us laymen). Mr. Bishop also makes delicious forays into polenta, risottos, and frittatas, such as Asparagus Frittata With Shallots and Basil. Plus, the Mediterranean emphasis on robust flavors and simple ingredients means many of these recipes are perfect for a busy weeknight or for those for whom opening a can of green beans equals preparing a vegetable.

That is a virtue shared by Vegetable Heaven, the latest book from Mollie Katzen (of Moosewood fame) featuring some 200 recipes from her TV series "Mollie Katzen's Cooking Show: Vegetable Heaven." For a long time the main word on vegetarian cooking, Katzen's latest is a slim, attractive book that manages to be unthreatening, informative, and tempting. Recipes range from the Asian-inspired Coconut Rice With Ginger, Chiles, and Lime, to comforting Mushroom Popovers, to unusual desserts such as Cherry Upside-Down Gingerbread and Amaretto-Peach Crunch.

Not-so-strict vegetarians will want to check out Claudia Roden's Invitation to Mediterranean Cooking. As Roden points out in her introduction, meat never played a starring role in traditional Mediterranean cooking, making it "an Eden for vegetarians." Beautifully illustrated, it features tempting vegetable dishes from Greece, Provence, Italy, and Tunisia, as well as seafood recipes such as Fish Soup With Saffron and Cream; Roast Pepper, Tomato, Tuna, and Bread Salad; and Romesco, a roast-pepper and almond sauce that makes a delicious accompaniment to vegetables as well as fish.

If you're looking for a definitive cookbook incorporating many different cultures and flavors, pick up Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, by Deborah Madison ("The Greens"). Definitely authoritative - it's sweepingly subtitled "The 1,400 recipes ... that I like to cook." (Madison is one up on me: I can't think of 1,400 things I like to eat.) What makes this book so helpful is that she's designed the recipes so most can be prepared with meat - crucial when dealing with varied appetites.

While many of today's busy cooks aren't likely to trot out her recipe for Braised Kohlrabi to impress the kids, Madison includes recipes for all tastes and levels of cooks. So don't be intimidated if you open to the homemade crepe section or the Jerusalem artichoke recipes. With everything from wonderful Thai-inspired dishes to savory ragouts, there truly is something here for everyone.

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