Vegetarian Cooking Moves to the Front Burner

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

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").

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.

Thomas emphasizes cooking in the family and with friends. She likes to relate family stories - learning to bake special Polish breads at her mother's elbow, making a scrumptious Bing cherry pie with her sons, gathering wild mushrooms with her husband, film director Gregory Nava.

An elegant formal dinner

Once she volunteered to cook an elegant formal dinner for 120 people as a charity fund-raiser. One of the dishes she decided to prepare was "Cornmeal Griddlecakes with Sweet Chipotle Sauce," which includes crme frache, pine nuts, and hearty helpings of a young cactus paddle called nopalitos. Widely available in Mexico and southern California (and other arid climes), the tender young leaves of the nopal cactus make an exceptional delicacy when picked at the right time in early spring. (Thomas warns against buying nopalitos in a jar.) Again she emphasizes fresh.

Picking nopalitos

For the spring fund-raiser, Thomas organized friends and family, donned appropriate protective clothing, and went hunting for the nopalitos in every neighbor's yard and every open area near her Ojai, Calif. home. "We were all over the valley, walking up people's driveways, asking them if they'd mind if we took their cactus. They are very popular in Mexico, but not that many people in our area eat them, so they didn't mind. You can get nopalitos at farmers' markets, but they are much better if you pick them yourself - you can take only the very best, bright green paddles."

Thomas's spirit of adventure is limitless, and she is always in pursuit of the best tasting vegetable or fruit. She experiments freely with new varieties of vegetables and fruits wherever they spring up. Her improvisations with squash are sometimes simple and yet just delicious. One of her favorites is a large sweet round squash called Kabocha, which shows up in several recipes - soups, a roasted vegetable medley, even in a pasta sauce.

The charm of this book lies in the graceful, witty introductions to each section. Organized in menus for holidays, special occasions, small parties, and family evenings, it's meant to reflect Thomas's lively perspective. "Food is not a chore, it's a gift," she offers. "You're participating in something that is part of nature, and nature is always alive and changing."

Cream of Sweet Corn Soup

9-10 freshly picked ears of corn (7 cups kernels)

1 large sweet onion

1 large clove garlic

3 tbs. butter

4 cups milk

1 tsp. salt, more to taste.

garnish: chopped chives or cilantro leaves

Husk and clean the corn, and slice the kernels off into a big bowl with a sharp knife. Scrape the cobs to release as much juice as you can. You need at least 7 cups of corn kernels.

Chop the onion and garlic, and cook them in 2 tablespoons of the butter until they are soft and golden, about 10 minutes. Combine the corn kernels, the onions and garlic, and about a cup of the milk. Pure in a blender or food processor in batches.

Combine the pure with the rest of the milk in a soup pot, add the salt and the remaining butter, and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Taste and correct the seasoning if needed.

The soup can be run through the blender again at this point if the texture feels too rough for you. For an absolutely silky texture, you can go a step further and press it all through a sieve, which will reduce the quantity a bit.

Serve the soup hot and sprinkle each serving with chopped chives or cilantro.

Serves 6 to 8.

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