|From Anna's Kitchen: Plain and Fancy Vegetarian Menus by Anna Thomas|
|Reviewer: Sue Magee|
|Summary: A book of menus, rather than just recipes, concentrating on seasonal food. The writer lives in California but is of Polish descent and the recipes have a varied international flavour. The book assumes that you have access to food as available in California and most recipes cater for six people.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 496||Date: April 2000|
|Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd|
Just over two years ago, in that period just after Christmas when you know that you will explode if you eat any more rich food, I found this book. I'd been idly flicking through a few cookery books in the local bookshop when three words - Green Apple Sorbet - propelled me straight to the till, credit card in hand.
It wasn't until I got home that I had a really good look at the book and I began to wonder if I might have made a mistake. In small letters at the bottom of the front cover I read "Plain and Fancy Vegetarian Menus". I'm not a vegetarian. I'd never heard of the writer, Anna Thomas. It turned out that she writes screenplays and produces films. She lives in California. Oh, dear, this didn't sound like my kind of cookery book at all. Still, I'd bought the book, so I thought I might as well have a look through and see if there was anything I could salvage from it.
Two hours later I was half-way through the book and I had a page full of notes of recipes that I wanted to try and ideas for meals.
One of the problems I've always had when planning any sort of vegetarian meal was in getting the balance of the meal right. Normally, you see, I start with the meat or fish that we're eating, plan what's going to accompany it and then balance it out with a starter or a pudding - or even both if they're light. When I planned a vegetarian meal I didn't have a starting point. This book solved the problem instantly because it supplies menus and as there's an influence on seasonal food it starts at the beginning of the culinary year and works its way through giving meal suggestions for every occasion.
Let's take an example. I've opened the book at random and we're going to have a pasta dinner from the summer garden, starting with a mixed salad of baby lettuces, then summer vegetable pasta and a fresh peach ice cream to finish. A loaf of bread and a bottle of good red wine are recommended to accompany the meal. I've made the summer vegetable pasta. Onions are slow-cooked, aubergine and peppers are cooked for a few minutes and the tomatoes are barely heated through. There's some chilli in there and the flavour just sings. It's a meal to eat in the garden on a soft summer evening.
How about an Indian dinner for the winter? We'll start with stewed chickpeas and potatoes in Indian spices, fragrant rice pilaf with currants and almonds, yoghurt with cucumber, mint, raisins and nuts, Green chilli and mint chutney, naan bread and then fresh sliced fruit and cardamom ice cream. This looks like quite a complex meal but is really straightforward to prepare. I've used the chickpeas and potatoes with some plain boiled rice as a supper meal and it's very tasty.
I counted at least sixty different menus covering all types of formal and informal occasions and using fresh produce throughout the year. There is a slight snag here in that food which is readily available in California is not so readily available in the UK and I've come to regard this as primarily a summer book. You could, of course, buy imported vegetables, but I'm afraid I'd resent the air miles too much to do this.
Interspersed with the menus are chapters on specific foods such as tomatoes or questions which niggle at most of us, such as "What do children eat?" These are short, non-preachy and very interesting. This is a woman who cooks for her family whilst also holding down a stressful job. She's not someone who does nothing else but cook and write about what she's cooked. It's all practical food for a busy life.
It's not just "Californian" food either. Proximity produces a Mexican influence and quite a few recipes have been borrowed from other cultures. Anna Thomas has spent time in Provence and Italy, so there's a strong Mediterranean flavour, but above all she's Polish and as she says herself "the taste of wild forest mushrooms runs in my veins". There's a recipe for a ragout of wild mushrooms that so rich that unashamed carnivores enquire as which cut of beef I used.
I love the emphasis on fresh, seasonal food. I suspect that some of it will always be alien to me. Somehow I don't see myself eating napolitos - that's a cactus, if like me, you'd no idea - but it still made fascinating reading. There's an excellent piece about chilli peppers and although the names are not those I'm used to it did help me to get an idea of the relative heat of different chillies.
What comes over most though is the love not just of the food itself, but of the whole process of planning meals, buying the ingredients and preparing the food. There's the pleasure of seeing this transmitted to her children. It's an enthusiasm that's infectious and I never pick up this book without longing for the first fresh vegetables of the spring.
The book's recommended and given four stars in recognition of the fact that some of the menus are more appropriate to California than the UK and usually cater for at least six people. It's easy, enjoyable reading, packed with recipes and with very little in the way of illustration.
I still haven't got around to making the green apple sorbet though!
You can read more book reviews or buy From Anna's Kitchen: Plain and Fancy Vegetarian Menus by Anna Thomas at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy From Anna's Kitchen: Plain and Fancy Vegetarian Menus by Anna Thomas at Amazon.com.
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