In no way I have been compensated for my review of this cookbook. I was given a galley copy of the book to review. All opinions are my own.
Kashrus Note: This is a vegetarian cookbook. There are recipes that on occasion call for different types of cheese. Some of the cheeses listed are considered “aged” or “hard” and usually require a 6 hr waiting period between their consumption and eating meat.
In many of cases, the cheese can be omitted in what is called a “vegan option.” It is the responsibility of the reader to ensure, as with any recipe I list here, that the ingredients they use conforms with their level of kashrus. This is not a “carte-blanche” for people to change their level of kashrus, nor to use product that they may have not used until now. In any and all cases regarding questions regarding the use of unfamiliar ingredients one should consult their local Orthodox authority.
I am not a vegetarian. Not even close. My coffee is not complete without a healthy pour of milk, I eat fish as many as 3 meals a day during the week, and snacks include cheese sticks. (For health reasons, I am on a very high protein diet.) For the Sabbath, there is nothing like a freshly roasted chicken for Friday night, and cholent with beef neck meat for Sabbath day.
I grew up in the 80′s and 90′s, where vegetarians were “crunchy-granola”, wore Birkenstocks, smelled funny, were far too intense about the planet for my liking, and were similar to hippies. I tried tofu once (probably in the late 90′s) and it was like eating a sponge. I even tried the vegetarian-protein-faux-meat. Apparently, it didn’t like me, and the feeling was mutual.
In cooking school, we acknowledged that vegetarianism was a trend, and as such we had to at least “try to understand” the philosophy behind it-all the while quietly rolling our eyes and then getting on to what we considered “normal cooking.” In the restaurants I worked in at the time, vegetarian options were usually salads. Rabbit food, if you will.
In 2012, I understand a little more about vegetarianism, but always saw it as for people who perhaps were a little more liberal, more “into nature”, more “green” than myself. Perhaps they needed eat this way for health reasons. Just like people who eat non-kosher, or halal – all fine and well- but not for me, thank you.
Michael Natkin saw my theory taken and turned ever so gently upside down. A computer engineer from a young age, Michael began cooking healthy, vegetarian food for his mother, (of blessed memory) who was suffering from cancer. His mother had wanted to try to eat a macrobiotic diet, but was unable at that point to cook for herself. So he and a good friend of his decided to cook for her. The love of the writer for his mother, and for his cooking is palpable. His passion for the land, respect of food, of traditional ways of eating, of all good, green growing things resonates long after you put the book down. He states in his introduction that he “ate his way” through many countries, such as Japan, Holland, Spain, India, and the Czech Republic.
I believe him. I may have been a skeptic when I picked up the book, and while I am not convinced that a completely vegetarian lifestyle is for me, I can sincerely say this book has given me a lot to consider. I will definitely be considering alternate sources of protein for my diet, to start. I thought the book would try to “convert” or try to push upon me why I should become vegetarian, to give up meat and fish. I was never more wrong. From first page to last, Michael simply presents the dishes, with many helpful hints, backgrounds of where the dishes came from, and even little tidbits about his friends and family. What ultimately won my respect: he plates his dishes very simply, he never preaches, he does his own photography. The defining point: nearly every recipe leaves room for changes. For someone who can follow a recipe, but hates being confined (I always want to go my own way, with some basic foundations to keep me somewhat grounded) this aspect is what finally won me over. Page 96 even has a whole half-page devoted to the topic “Don’t Stick to the Recipe”!
The recipes come from across the globe: Ethiopia, Spain, Mexico, Italy, the Middle East, Japan, Korea. The recipes range from classics redone with a modern riff, to completely traditional dishes from the various regions.
Being taught how to cook in the classical (French) style, my eyes were drawn to the more European recipes initially, as these contain more ingredients I felt I understood. Grilled treviso radiccho, white bean and kale soup, potato and green bean salad with arugula pesto- all things I could understand. Another aspect of this book that I love- there is something in here for everyone! No matter what cooking style, no matter where you fall cooking wise (traditional, modern, a trained chef, a home cook) it doesn’t matter- there are recipes (yes, I deliberately use the plural, and gleefully!) for you.
For me, I spent the most time studying the pastas, and the lentil dishes. Spanish lentil and mushroom stew, linguine with mushrooms, mujadara, and Sicilian spaghetti with pan roasted cauiflower will definently find their way onto my menu, as well as many other recipes as well. From small plates to dessert, whether you considery yourself a cook or baker, more into savory or sweet-there is something here for you.
Michael Natkin’s book is available on amazon.com His blog is http://herbivoracious.com/ and he is on Twitter @michaelnatkin
A special Thank You to Jackie Gordon @divathatateny for connecting me with Michael and his team at Harvard Common Press, and making it possible for me to get my hands on this fantastic cookbook!