|Marie Simmons has been a cooking teacher and food columnist for years, with an international approach to her ingredients.|
Doing nutty wonders with vegetables
Author uses flavors from various cuisines to spruce up the repertoire
In the cookbook world, love stories about vegetables abound this time of year. There are high-end, dramatic productions like Nigel Slater’s “Tender,’’ or Yotam Ottolenghi’s “Plenty.’’ There are farmers’ market cookbooks, with their inspirational tales of family farm harvests. And then there are books like “Fresh & Fast Vegetarian,’’ practical, un-showy volumes with a lot of good recipes. Guess which ones actually make it into the kitchen?
Cookbook author Marie Simmons has for many years been a popular cooking teacher and food columnist. Her subjects have been various - from rice to cookies to figs to holiday cooking and diet books - but they share a certain international approach. You can always expect Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors, with ingredients lightly filched from the cuisines of South Asia and Japan. It’s an approach that grows on you, once you have gotten used to it.
Simmons has a penchant for strong flavors. When she finds a vivid element that works, she uses it repeatedly, like an artist going through a turquoise period. In this book, she makes liberal use of seasoned nuts, which can bring to life even the drabbest of dishes. One taste of nutty red rice salad with edamame, tamari walnuts, and ginger is enough to convince me that tamari walnuts are in my life to stay. They are also the crowning touch in a stir-fry of broccoli and red onion, which has since become our house-standard way to prepare broccoli. And the dependable but uninspiring green bean gets shaken awake with a crunch, in twice-cooked green beans with curried pecans.
This maximalist approach works like a charm on bland bases such as tofu. There’s a lot going on in stir-fried curried tofu with coconut green rice and cashews, with its hefty dose of cilantro, jalapeno, scallion, lime, red peppers, and nuts. The tofu is really only the messenger for a powerful yet harmonious statement. On the other end of the spectrum is a spare, cold soba noodle salad with snow peas, just right for a midsummer day when you scarcely feel like eating, never mind cooking. Shredded cucumbers and carrots and scallions add that detached, instantly cooling quality that pairs so well with ginger and rice vinegar.
There is an argument for buying this book merely to spruce up your vegetable repertoire. Simmons does wonders with the broccoli and cabbage family (as in the aforementioned broccoli with walnuts and onions). Shredded Tuscan kale salad - it’s raw! - with tamari and sesame comes together easily and delivers highly-accessible flavor, while stir-fried broccolini with sesame and orange has a brightness and sweetness almost never found in brassica dishes.
The author has a confident manner in the kitchen that sometimes leads her to do things in a backward, yet strangely logical, order. If you toast the nuts and glaze them, then steam the vegetables till they are half-cooked, and then add the oil and aromatics to spread the flavor and finish the dish, you can cook the dish all in one pan at a go. Who cares that you would normally start with the oil? Or cook the nuts separately? Simmons knows enough to a) spare herself extra dishes and b) force the flavors to mingle without waste, which makes her my kind of cook.
I have a strange sense of something missing at the end of the book. It turns out to be dessert, which is simply not there, sort of like a noodle salad that almost feels like a complete meal, except it has no protein. So it may not be the answer to life, the universe, and everything, but that doesn’t mean this loose, innovative book isn’t satisfying.
As my saxophone teacher used to say, it’s good enough for jazz.
T. Susan Chang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.