Master the basic recipe and you’re halfway through dinner planning, says this cookbook author.
Martha Rose Shulman wants to empower us to cook. The prolific cookbook writer has taken a novel approach with her latest, “The Simple Art of Vegetarian Cooking,” in order to do that. In this she serves as culinary instructor as she guides us through the master recipe of a dozen dishes — soups, pasta, grains, beans and more — then offers some fundamental mealtime preparation tips, which she call “building blocks” (how to make vegetable combos and tomato sauce, for example). In addition, she offers variations to build your cooking repertoire (a master recipe for Lasagna With Vegetables and Herbed Bechamel leads to Asparagus and Herb Lasagna as its variation).
Though most of her 27 books have been about vegetarian cooking, Shulman does not think of herself as following a strict regimen. She appreciates all food, she says, and notes that you don’t have to be a vegetarian to be a good vegetarian cook. Shulman is co-author of “The Art of French Pastry,” with Jacquy Pfeiffer, which won a James Beard award earlier this month, and writes the “Recipes for Health” column for the New York Times.
Now living in Los Angeles, Shulman has family roots in Minnesota, with a parent from each of the Twin Cities and a brother still here. Her late father, writer/humorist Max Shulman, wrote the short stories and screenplay for the TV series “Dobie Gillis.”
Martha Rose Shulman will be in town for a book signing and class on Saturday at Cooks of Crocus Hill in Edina.
Q: Why the focus on the vegetarian main dish and on technique?
A: We’ve had lots of wonderful vegetarian books over the years, but the one thing I think is neglected is the vegetarian main dish. I really feel like I want to emphasize that there is a language for it. When my son says, “What’s for dinner?” I say gratin or tacos, the way others say steak. For the [NYT] recipe column, I realized I was using the same template for so many dishes all the time. It seemed like a good way to tackle the concept of a vegetarian main dish.
Once you bring home vegetables from the market and have mastered the “building blocks” [the preparation and combination of the basic ingredients], you can choose what kind of main dish you want it to be. If I see beautiful chard at the market, I know that at home I will blanch and season it and have the foundation for a main dish.
Q: Do cooks have a misconception about vegetarian fare?
A: They think it’s a special kind of cuisine. In fact, there are lots of cuisines that offer many wonderful dishes without meat in them. If you go to a Middle Eastern or Greek restaurant and have a meze table, most of what you will eat does not have meat. If you have a great pasta dinner, you don’t expect it to have meat. I think that people have an obsession with protein. I always say you get protein throughout the day if you eat well. It doesn’t have to come in one big hunk of meat.
Q: What vegetable gems do cooks overlook?
A: One of my favorites is cabbage, especially in northern climates like Minnesota. It’s the one vegetable you can count on right through winter. It’s very versatile. If you cook it for a long time, it gets really sweet — but don’t boil it. You can use it in gratins, stir-fries, in savory pies. And it’s really economical. One time I found a 5-pound cabbage at my market. I got five recipes from that cabbage and it cost $2. Then there are beets with greens attached and turnips with greens attached — two vegetables for the price of one. At the farmers market, never say you want those greens taken off because they are so valuable, as tasty as chard.
Q: Which comes first, the building blocks or the templates?
A: Mastering the building blocks — or having them on hand — makes cooking so much easier. This book lends itself to weekend cooking. Do some of the building blocks on Sunday, then make the template recipes — gratin, frittata, etc. — during the week.