So, it’s possible that I went to Paris as a pescetarian (fish plus vegetables, check) and came back a bit of flexitarian (meat isn’t a main part of my diet, but if I have to eat it occasionally, I’ll put it under consideration). The truth is, in Paris they aren’t friendly to us vegetable-loving types; there are too many baguettes and croissants that need eating. We spent our days looking for salads only to find some lettuce and a rare tomato poking around on the plate like it was meant to go on top of a burger.
I rushed home and bowed before my vegetarian bible, Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.” This book is part of Bittman’s James Beard award-winning series on How to Cook Everything, and it ain’t for the faint of heart — this hefty tome is 996 pages of meatless recipes with great flavor.
You may remember Bittman from his New York Times column, “The Minimalist,” where he wrote brilliantly easy guides such as this and this. Last year, however, Mark Bittman retired from “The Minimalist” to pursue a more active commentary on the state of food and American nutrition. Today he writes thoughtful op-eds on our appetite for soda, and global warming by way of meat consumption.
“How to Cook Everything Vegetarian” is a staple for two reasons: first, it’s about real food that vegetarians eat every day and it offers suggestions on how to spice up a sandwich (the most difficult vegetarian meal, in my opinion) or create a complete dinner. Second, the book is scattered with excellent tips for preparing vegetables correctly and in a way that maximizes both flavor and nutrition.
One of my favorite things about Bittman’s style is the offer of variations for every base dish; his suggestions for adding a sauce to spice up plain rice or a gravy that will make leftovers seem like a second meal. He offers careful instructions on preparing meat substitutes like tofu and tempeh. Further, the thing I love most is that the book is indexed by ingredient — extra raspberries in my fridge? Tell me what I can make with them, Mark.
Not vegetarian? You can’t go wrong with Bittman’s original “How to Cook Everything,” which includes beautiful descriptions of food preparations including meat; his explanation of dish origins and his personal tips make this a cookbook series you’ll come back to again and again.
Bittman wrote “this is a beauty,” about the recipe below. Enjoy.
- Makes: 6 to 8 servings
- Time: About 1 hour
- Oil or butter for the baking dish
- 3 lbs ripe tomatoes (8 to 10 medium) and cut into wedges
- 1 Tbsp cornstarch
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 cup all-purpose flour, plus more if needed
- 1 cup cornmeal
- 1 ½ tsp baking powder
- ¼ tsp baking power
- 4 Tbsp (1/2 stick) butter, cut into large pieces and refrigerated until very cold
- 1 egg, beaten
- ¾ cup buttermilk, plus more if needed
- Grease a square baking dish or a deep pie plate with butter or oil. Preheat the oven to 375 F.
- Put the tomato wedges in a large bowl and sprinkle with the cornstarch and some salt and pepper. Toss gently to combine.
- Put the flour, cornmeal, baking powder and baking soda in a food processor along with a teaspoon of salt. Add the butter and pulse a few times until the mixture looks like coarse bread crumbs. Add the egg and buttermilk and pulse a few times more, until the mixture comes together in a ball. If the mixture doesn’t come together, add a spoonful or two of flour.
- Gently toss the tomato mixture again and spread it in the bottom of the prepared baking dish. Droop spoonfuls of the batter on the top and smooth a bit with a knife. Bake for 40-50 minutes, until golden on top and bubbly underneath. Cool to just barley warm or room temperature.
Bittman offers seven additional variations — from adding a cheesy Asiago topping to a leek version, to a cobbler with a piecrust topping, but you’ll have to get the book to check them out!