Some of the best cookbooks, in our opinion, are ones that inspire beyond their specific recipes. They offer readers a fresh look at familiar ingredients as well as new ones, teach new ways of approaching cooking, and encourage improvisation. Maria Elia's The Modern Vegetarian is one of these.
Although I've had my eye on The Modern Vegetarian since its release last spring, I finally purchased this book about a month ago and it has been wonderfully inspiring for the start of the new year. In the words and pictures, both myself (a long-time vegetarian) and my partner (a meat-loving omnivore) have found a wealth of ideas for weeknight suppers and dinner parties.
Title & Publisher: The Modern Vegetarian: Food Adventures for the Contemporary Palate, by Maria Elia, photography by Jonathan Gregson. Published by Kyle Books, 2009.
First impressions: Hardcover with clean, modern design and stunning color photographs throughout the book. Comfortable to hold and lies flat when open.
Number of recipes: About 120, arranged into Sophisticated Starters, Sensational Mains, Sofa Suppers, Stylish Sides, Stunningly Sweet, Simple Staples, and Stocks. There are also three special ingredient explorations called Textures of Peas, Textures of Beetroot, and Textures of Coffee.
The angle: In Elia's words, this is "a book where the vegetables are the heroes," celebrated for their versatility and brought together to stimulate the senses with their flavors, colors, and textures. Although The Modern Vegetarian is not explicitly about seasonal cooking, the joy of working with seasonal ingredients infuses the book. The ingredients and techniques have also been inspired by Elia's diverse influences, including her Anglo-Greek heritage and experience working in Italy, Spain, Thailand, Australia, and America.
Strengths: Elia's recipes are not only inventive and elegant but also very doable. Her writing conveys passion and fun and the recipes are clear to understand with just the right balance of conciseness and detail. Many recipes also include notes about adaptation and experimentation. The food styling and photography are equally superb. The absence of meat really becomes a non-issue.
The other stuff: A regular on British cooking programs and food publications, Elia is also head chef at London's Whitechapel Gallery and spent 10 years as head chef at the acclaimed Delfina Studio Café. Yet this doesn't have the feel of a celebrity chef cookbook – a plus in our opinion. The depth of Elia's experience is evident, but the focus of the writing and photography is squarely on the food, not herself.
Recipes for right now: Jerusalem Artichoke Blinis Topped with Blue Cheese; Spiced Red Lentil, Orange and Ginger Soup; Mushroom, Beet, Mozzarella with a Lentil Cartouche; Chestnut Pasta Rags with Brussels Sprouts and Wild Mushrooms; Spiced Swiss Chard with Butter Beans and Couscous; Rosemary and Butternut Squash Polenta Chips; Orange, Lavender and Almond Syrup Cake. For the warmer months, the books is laden with recipes featuring ingredients like watermelon, tomatoes, and figs.
Recommended? Yes, whether you are a vegetarian or an omnivore.
• Buy the book: The Modern Vegetarian, $16.47 at Amazon
(Image: Kyle Cathie)