Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A World of Vegetables

I own an embarrassingly large number of cookbooks, but like many things, I have a few favorites that I find myself reaching for time after time...my desert island cookbooks if you will. This is a series of posts that will describe these books that make up my core collection. I hope that you find them and the recipes they contain as enjoyable and useful as I do.

Now I am certainly no vegetarian. I'm not a fanatic carnivore, but I do have a deep appreciation for a beautiful cut of meat. And insipid cuts of meat just make me angry (such a waste of the animal's life, don't you think?).

So that said, Vegetarian Cooking For Everyone by Deborah Madison may seem like a bit of an odd choice for one of my frequent flyer cookbooks.

But the fact of the matter is that I have never made anything from this book that has not been perfectly delicious. And not delicious in a "oh it's a good vegetable side dish" way. No, it is just delicious. Period. You don't even miss the meat.

I find that Deborah Madison excels particularly with baked goods...cakes, breads, souffles, pastries, tarts, pies, gratins...pretty much anything that goes in the oven, come to think of it. Her strictly vegetable dishes are of course great as well (would you expect anything less from the one-time owner of the legendary vegetarian restaurant Greens?) but I find the baked stuff to be the most transcendent.

The best recipes in Vegetarian Cooking have a certain elegance. They're familiar and yet all have a novel twist. You have to think a bit while you're eating...you wonder what makes something so...normal, I suppose, so good. No disrespect to the gentleman, but as soon as you taste one of her dishes you just know that a woman is behind it. They're not flashy or aggressive in any way, just graceful and uncomplicated.

Yeasted Sugar Cake
From Vegetarian Cooking For Everyone by Deborah Madison

Serves 10-12

The Cake

2 1/4 teaspoons (1 envelope) active dry yeast
1/4 cup sugar
2 cups flour, plus extra for the counter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup warm milk
2 eggs, at room temperature
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

The Topping

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup light brown sugar or white sugar

Stir the yeast and 1 teaspoon of the sugar into 1/4 cup warm water in a small bowl and let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes. Combine the flour, remaining sugar, and salt in a mixing bowl. Add the yeast, milk and eggs and beat until smooth. Add the butter and beat vigorously until the batter is silky. Scrape down the sides, then cover and let rise until doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes.

Lightly butter a 9-inch tart pan or cake pan. Stir down the down, turn it onto a lightly floured counter, and gently shape it into a disk. Set it in the pan and flatten it with your hands. Rub the softened butter all over the top, then cover with the sugar, using all of it. Let rise for 30 minutes. During the last 15 minutes, preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Bake the cake in the center of the oven until well-risen and the sugar has begun to melt and brown, about 25 minutes. The surface should be covered with cracks. When done, let it cool briefly, then unmold and serve, still a little warm, with fruit and softly whipped cream.

Variations: Add 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest to the batter along with 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract or 1/2 teaspoon crushed anise seeds. A half cup of finely ground almonds and a drop of almond extract are also good additions.

Spinach Souffle
From Vegetarian Cooking For Everyone by Deborah Madison

Serves 4

Unsalted butter, plus 2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan, for the dish
1 large bunch of spinach, washed very well
1 1/4 cups milk or cream
Aromatics: 1 bay leaf, several thyme springs, 2 thin onion slices
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 diced shallot
3 tablespoons flour
salt and freshly milled pepper
Pinch cayenne
4 egg yolks
1 cup grated strong flavored cheese (I use Gruyere, but goat cheese or Fontina would also work well here)
6 egg whites
Several plump thyme springs, leaves only.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Butter a 6-cup souffle dish or an 8-cup gratin dish and coat it with Parmesan. Heat the milk with the aromatics until it boils. Set it aside to steep for 15 minutes, then strain.

Cook the spinach leaves with the water clinging to them until tender, then finely chop and season with salt, pepper, and a pinch of nutmeg.

Melt the butter in a saucepan. When foamy, add the shallot and saute gently for a few minutes, until translucent. Stir in the flour and cook over low heat for several minutes. Whisk in the milk all at once and stir vigorously for a minute or so as it thickens, then add 1/4 teaspoon salt, a few twists of pepper, and the cayenne. Remove from heat. Beat in the egg yolks one at a time until well blended, then stir in the cheese. Don't worry about getting it smooth.

Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until they form firm peaks, the stir a quarter of them into the base to lighten the mixture. Fold in the rest, transfer to the prepared dish, then put in the center of the oven and lower the heat to 375 degrees. Bake for 30 minutes or until golden and just a bit wobbly in the center. Remove, scatter the thyme over the top, and serve immediately.


Terry B said...

Wow. The spinach souffle sounds amazing. I'm very much the carnivore, but am trying to explore more vegetarian options. Not that you'll ever hear me say, "Tofu. It's what's for dinner." But this souffle sounds like a wonderful meatless meal.

One question. recipe says to cook the spinach leaves until tender. In what kind of pan? Is any butter or oil involved? Okay, technically that's two questions. Sorry.

wambalus said...

Ah yes, Laura's spinach souffle was a family favourite.

I love Deborah Madison, and agree her baking recipes are some of the best around.

Laura said...

You essentially want to steam it. So I would suggest putting a little water in the bottom of a large saute pan (or just throwing in some very wet spinach to a warm pan) and stir it around until limp. If it's taking too long, I would just cover the pan to get the steam going.

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