`Vegetable Love' is by Barbara Kafka (assisted by chef and culinary show producer, Christopher Styler), one of the two premier `special subject' cookbook authors, along with James Peterson, writing in the U.S. today. Her credentials go all the way back to early collaborations with James Beard as an instructor at his school, although she was not, strictly speaking, a student or apostle of Beard's. She was more of a Beard employee who brought her expertise with her.
Kafka has already done excellent books on soups, roasting, and microwave cookery. With fellow Beard alum, Marion Cunningham and Jean Anderson, she is one of the leading `old school' American cookbook authors.
This book enters a very crowded field. Good modern books on vegetable cookery are pretty common, by both vegetarian and mainstream culinary writers. Leading the vegetarian camp is Deborah Madison, whose `Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone', `The Greens Cookbook', and `The Savory Way' are masterpieces on cooking techniques with vegetables and on cooking in general. She is joined in the veggie camp by Mollie Katzen / Moosewood Café clan, Peter Berley (`The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen'), and Jack Bishop (`Vegetables Every Day', `A Year in the Vegetarian Kitchen', and `The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook'). Among mainstream writers, Peterson has the book `Vegetables' and there is the indispensable reference by Elizabeth Schneider, `Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini'. Not to be forgotten should be Alice Waters' books `Chez Panisse Fruits' and `Chez Panisse Vegetables'. Aside from the Moosewood efforts, I have reviewed all these books and found them all to be very good to excellent. So where does Madame Kafka's book fit in?
My first thought is that this is much more a book for the library armchair or the bedtime reading than it is a kitchen reference for quick recipes. That is not to say that it does not have excellent recipes. It's just that it's main aim is to educate us as a good friend (rather than a scholar like Schneider) on the mysteries of vegetables common to European and American cooking.
The first clue to the way to best use the book is in the organization of material. First, information on all vegetables is divided up into two main sections. The first is divided into four chapters covering three major geographical vegetable terroirs (the New World, the Mediterranean, Europe, and the Arab World, and Asia and Africa) plus `Citizens of the World' covering alliums (onions, leeks, scallions, and ramps), mushrooms, `odd roots', lettuces, and `weeds and odd leaves'. The second is the 140 page `Cook's Guide' which contains articles or references for all the plants cited in the previous chapters, but approaches each subject from a general and somewhat more technical point of view. It is here that you will find rules on how long to cook foodstuffs by various cooking methods and equivalencies between vegetable weights and approximate volumes of diced material.
This organization seems very queer on the face of it, yet it makes the book much easier and more interesting to read through, in that a lot of the technical details are relegated to the back of the book and do not interrupt a smooth passing from one culinary subject to the next. One may also argue that the book would have been even more interesting if there were more different regions with fewer species covered in each region. I am certain that the flora of Scandinavia is a lot different from the commonly available flora in Jordan. I suspect the same can be said of a comparison of the flora of Senegal and Korea. I would also argue that ramps are definitely not `citizens of the world', as they are native to northeastern United States, and not even easily available there, where I live and shop. On the other hand, insights and understanding arise from this organization, as Ms. Kafka commonly doesn't cover a single species in each article, but groups of related species in such a way that one recipe can be seen as being a good treatment for several different plants.
But, whatever arguments I bring against this book, I cannot deny the fact that it is a great pleasure to read and to use as a reference when I am just mulling over general notions for what to cook when Spring rolls around again. There is a wealth of uncommon ideas. I discovered at least three just in the section on peas alone.
This is NOT a vegetarian, and certainly not a vegan book, as animal products such as cheese, milk, eggs, seafood and bacon are used liberally throughout as a source of flavorings and fat. It IS a good source of healthy recipes that are relatively low in fat and high in fiber. It also gives very good coverage of several unusual plants such as borage, fiddlehead ferns, burdock, and cardoons. The coverage is broader than that available in Waters or Peterson and at least as good as you will find in Bishop.
Since Madame Kafka has already done books on soups and microwaving, these two subjects are well covered in this volume. It is even a bit surprising to see the microwave used as commonly as it is in such a mainstream cookbook.
Since there are so many other excellent vegetable cookbooks around, Ms. Kafka leaves all very common dishes to these other books and concentrates on interesting variations, as when she gives us a recipe for a sauerkraut stuffing for turkey. She also gives us good in-depth treatments of some very common vegetable cooking techniques, such as stuffing peppers, cabbages, tomatoes, or what-have-you with everything from lamb to bulgar.
This is an excellent addition to the writing on vegetable cooking aimed more at widening your appreciation of the subject rather than being a quick reference. Excellent second book on vegetables or as a supplement to your `Joy of Cooking'.