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Vegetarian cooking, minus the crunchy persona

Associated Press | 7/1/2009, 5:10 a.m.

Vegetarian cooking outgrew its Birkenstocks long ago, but as Americans combat obesity and even financial strain, meatless meals are becoming mainstream. Several excellent new cookbooks explore the complexities of vegetarian cuisine in ways that will tempt even the most devout carnivores.

Chef Maria Elia’s “The Modern Vegetarian” (Kyle Books, 2009) is the book for home cooks who remain unmoved by cauliflower soup and lentil loaf. Lush photography in saturated hues — jewel-like tomatoes in gold, green and red; a nearly emerald watermelon set against aquamarine — offers a vision of vegetarian cooking that is rich, silky and deeply textured. And the recipes deliver.

Indian, Asian and Middle Eastern flavors inspire many of the guide’s more than 120 recipes, but each is distinct and highly original.

Dukkah-rolled soft-boiled eggs riff on an Egyptian seasoning of chopped nuts, seeds and spices for an appetizer or light meal layered with intensity. Coconut-braised Chinese cabbage leaves offer a creamy, ginger-spiked alternative to your average stir-fry. And the Capri lemon pasta with peas, fava beans and asparagus remains bright, lemony and beautiful to look at, even when edamame are substituted for the fava beans.

Which points to the book’s greatest strength: flexibility. Elia, a staple of food television in Britain, eagerly encourages substitutions and flavor exploration. Her recipes are decidedly short on strict directives and on health-food store ingredients. Instead, she aims to make ordinary cooks comfortable with the power of meatless dishes, and with their own ability to coax them to their full potential.

Incomplete instructions hamper a few of the recipes. But Elia cheers her readers so passionately toward improvisation that winging it should be a breeze.

Also worth considering:

•    “Short-Cut Vegan” by Lorna Sass (William Morrow, 2009). This straightforward book skips the diatribes and mushy dissertations of many vegan cookbooks and goes right to the stove. What the workaday recipes sometimes lack in inventiveness, they make up for with ease of preparation, an excellent tutorial on healthful short-cuts and tips for a properly stocked pantry.

•    “Vegan Soul Kitchen: Fresh, Healthy, and Creative African-American Cuisine” by Bryant Terry (Da Capo, 2009). With 150 catchy and creative recipes for dishes like succotash, zesty collards and fried green tomatoes, author Bryant Terry almost makes you believe it can be done without the bacon grease.

•    “Babycakes” by Erin McKenna (Clarkson Potter, 2009). A new Bible for vegan dessert lovers from the bakery that won New York Magazine’s “Best Cupcake” award. The book requires commitment: you’ll have to track down coconut oil, evaporated cane juice, xanthan gum, special flours, agave nectar and other exotic ingredients. But the sweet payoff — muffins, cakes, brownies, and of course, cupcakes — will benefit vegans and people who struggle with food allergies.

(Associated Press)