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OUR ANNUAL COOKBOOK SPECIAL

The Vegetarian Solution

December 12, 1996|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Yes, there are too many cookbooks being published. Too many recycled low-fat ideas, too many cute books, too many recipes and not enough real writing, too much packaging and not enough passion. Still, it wasn't easy for each writer on the Times Food staff to choose just one favorite book from the year. Many worthy cookbooks are not mentioned--though we will describe several notable ones in next week's issue. What follows on the next few pages is a highly subjective list of the cookbooks that pleased us most this year.

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I am not a vegetarian, but more and more of my friends are, and cooking good meals for them is always a challenge. While I have no trouble cooking vegetables or cheese-based dishes, my difficulty has always been in planning an interesting, tasty meal of any size without the easy focus on meat. So Anna Thomas' third cookbook has recently been of inestimable value.

"The New Vegetarian Epicure" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996, $16, $19 paper) is a series of menus arranged by season and concept. There's everything from an early spring family dinner to a summer buffet for a crowd; from dinners built around soups to salad lunches to a fancy tea and an assortment of large and small feasts.

Thomas, a screenwriter living in Ojai, was one of the first cookbook authors to expand the vegetarian repertoire beyond stir-fry, brown rice and industrial-strength tamari. Her first book, "The Vegetarian Epicure," was the bible of many vegetarians in the '70s, but its wanton demand for cream, butter and cheese, cheese, cheese eventually rendered it an anachronism.

In keeping with today's lighter tastes, Thomas' new book exercises far more restraint: She'll thin her cream with yogurt, use milk in a cream soup and allow for personal discretion in the administration of olive oil. Oh, she'll still put cream cheese in a tart crust, but she only occasionally and self-consciously advocates a serious spree.

She makes a large batch of pierogi at Christmas, for example, and says, "When I go to the store with my shopping list in hand, I always feel I should be getting a license and have a five-day waiting period before taking home that amount of butter and cream cheese."

Thomas is exclusively a home cook and reading her book, you can practically see the bustle and smell the aromas in her kitchen. Her confidential and essayistic style somehow hits the exact tone of a friendly, knowledgeable, generous cook chatting as she works. Her recipes are leisurely, pleasantly exhaustive rambles. ("Remember," she tells us when explaining how to make homemade tortillas, "all this takes much longer to explain than to do.")

Just by listening--or in this case, reading--you painlessly learn the countless small attentions that make the difference between a decent cook and a fabulous one. Instead of the standard cookbook shorthand, "Dress salad," she'll write. "Drizzle on the olive oil and toss gently until every leaf glistens. Add a splash of balsamic vinegar and a little salt and pepper, toss again, and serve."

Thomas embraces both her own Polish heritage and the Mexican roots of her husband, film director Gregory Nava. Other regional culinary influences are personal, eclectic, yet surprisingly consistent. She likes deeply flavored food, is partial to the slow-cooked and thus is naturally inclined toward Italian, Provencal, Indian, Greek and Middle Eastern dishes as well. Although she writes for American cooks, her new book is especially well-suited to Southern California's kitchens; anyone who shops in the Southland farmers markets will find her seasonal palates utterly familiar and easy to work with.

Like the best, most devoted home cooks, Thomas clearly goes on kicks--she has love affairs with certain ingredients and preparations. White beans, wild mushrooms, flan and focaccia, polenta and cranberries have all been imagined and re-imagined here in many different forms and contexts: consider cranberry chutney, cranberry couscous, cranberry-jalapen~o sauce, cranberry tart, etc.

Interspersed throughout the book are brief essayistic asides on various subjects: how to pick and prepare nopalitos (cactus paddles), which includes clues on what to substitute when there's no cactus to be had.

She also writes a section on wild mushrooms, and another entitled What Do Children Eat? ("Why will a child who categorically refuses to touch anything green suddenly eat watercress sandwiches? Or Japanese seaweed?") I was personally grateful for the concise descriptions of seven chiles by Thomas's friend Guillermina--I should have known--but didn't--that chipotles are smoked jalapen~os.

Thomas is a flexible, generous mentor. So flexible, in fact, she'll suggest the use of chicken stock in some soups, and even includes her husband's own instructions for spit-roasting . . . a turkey!

SALAD OF ARUGULA AND PERSIMMONS

Fuyu persimmons are abundant in Southland farmers markets, along with peppery arugula and good sweet onions. This salad, with its peppers and fruit, is a dazzler.

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