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`Vegetable Harvest' by the prolific culinary expatriate journalist and leading contemporary chronicler of the French `cuisine bourgeoisie' Patricia Wells is anticipated by foodies with about as much glee as the fans awaiting the next Harry Potter installation. At least at my house, that is true. So, imagine my surprise when I discover I am not immediately impressed by the book's realization of the premise promised by the title and subtitle. In the end, I find this a typically rewarding Patricia Wells cookbook. It's just that Ms. Wells happened to hide her best light under a basket this time.
This is NOT a book all about vegetable recipes! Rather, it is a book which, like all her other books, celebrates everyday French cooking, and in doing so, underlining the fact that vegetables are central to much of what is great about French cooking, and shows us how this is so. Overall, the book covers all the bases that any typical cookbook does. It has some recipes with no vegetables in it at all, and some where the only vegetable is an herb or some garlic. But what Madame Wells does with vegetables is really a joy. The book is something like a movie where a traditionally great supporting actor such as Harvey Keitel or Joe Panteleone (Joe Pants!) steps into the leading role, with Jack Nicholson or John Travolta playing the supporting role.
The part about hiding her virtues under a basket refer to the fact that there are two facts given for almost every recipe which are enormously useful for using the recipes for good nutrition or entertaining. The amazing thing is that these features show up with no fanfare in the introduction. The first is a nutritional analysis of each dish by serving. For example, the Roasted Chickpeas, Mushrooms, Artichokes, and Tomatoes on page 146 has 235 calories, 3 g fat, 12 g protein and 47 g carbohydrates. Thus, if you are limiting your intake of total calories, fats, or carbs, you know where you stand! This eminently useful feature did not appear in her previous book, `The Provence Cookbook' or in any earlier work. The second feature is a wine suggestion for each of the more substantial dishes (Some appetizers and some desserts have no suggestion.) This feature does appear in Ms. Wells' earlier books, and like her earlier books, it is aimed at the dedicated wine connoisseur. The recommendations are extremely specific, citing particular vintners such as the Mas de la Dame from Les Baux de Provence for Guy Savoy's Tomato Coulis with Asparagus and Mint.
These wine choices are consistent with the tone of the entire book, which is clearly written for the foodie, especially the dedicated Francophile foodie. A second symptom of this targeting is the fact that Ms. Wells does an excellent job of specifying the kinds of special equipment one will need to prepare a dish, and a survey across all recipes reveals that one will be limited if you do not have a food processor, a blender, a 12 inch saute pan with lid, a good sized pasta pot with colander, a fine mesh sieve (chinoise), a food mill, an ice cream maker, and a very sharp knife (with excellent knife skills) or a good mandoline. This book is so engaging that it may even convince me to go out and buy an ice cream maker in order to try the recipes which require it (In truth, it's only a small minority of them, but they are enticing).
Since the book is all about FRENCH vegetable cooking, the stars of the show are artichokes, asparagus, eggplant (aubergines), avocado (I know, not a vegetable, but Ms. Wells treats it and tomatoes as veggies) basil, beets, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, celeriac, chickpeas, cucumber, potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, mint, olives, potatoes, pumpkins, radishes, rosemary, spinach, tomatoes, and truffles. In fact, the recipes for Brussels sprouts, radishes, and spinach are so interesting that if, like me, you are a fan of one or more of these vegetables.
Not only are the ingredients classically French, but the methods also are truly French, including braising, sautéing, and pureeing. In fact, so many dishes are pureed (hence the importance of the food mill and blender) that it reminds me of the observation that French cooking was developed to accommodate the French aristocracy's bad teeth. But, there are other valuable hints as well. My favorites are the dish where Brussels sprouts are broken down to their individual leaves before cooking, the beef pot roast with carrots (another of my favorite veggies), and the tomato sorbet (ice cream maker!). I was also very pleased to find some excellent bread recipes, most of which feature a vegetable ingredient such as pumpkin, dates, walnuts, artichokes, capers, tomatoes, and lemon. The only breads which do not incorporate vegetables within the doughs are the flatbreads coming to Paris by way of former French colonies in the Madgreb (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia) and the Levant (Lebanon).
A cursory check confirms for me that there is practically no overlap of recipes with her previous `The Provence Cookbook'. The current work appears to take its material from all over France, however it is no surprise that the most common sources are Provence and Paris.
Like `The Provence Cookbook', there are many little stories, proverbs, and `bon mots' sprinkled about the text. My favorite concerns Ms. Wells' purchase of Julia Child's oven from the Childs' Provence cottage (with the understanding that Wells' replace the appliance with a brand new unit.) This was comparable to a psychiatrist's obtaining Sigmund Freud's couch!
I must note also that not only are the photographs in the book exceptionally good and appropriate, but that the author took them all herself! All in all, this is both an excellent foodie read, education, and cooking resource.