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GOOD FOR YOU - AND JUST PLAIN GOOD

Three new cookbooks tell how to fix and serve veggies that even a meat lover might like.

The best of the latest crop of vegetable-focused cookbooks aren't by vegetarians.

Time and again, the best books about eating vegetables, and many times vegetarianism, are by authors who have either abandoned the vegetarian ship or never got on board to begin with.

Vegetarian cookbooks by vegetarian writers generally seem to suffer a number of maladies, including being dull, preachy and often unattractive. Thankfully, we can enjoy the inspiration of the writers who don't mind mingling a little meat with their produce.

As former chef at New York's vegan Angelica Kitchen restaurant and author of the excellent The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen, Peter Berley has serious veg street cred. And now he gives us The Flexitarian Table.

The title is a reference to the term coined several years ago to refer to people who eat mostly vegetarian diets with a smattering of animal products. In this book, Berley demonstrates you really can have it both ways.

The book is aimed at the many families who struggle to put dinner on the table after a child announces they are vegetarian, or when the vegan friend or relative comes for dinner. The solution: Cook two versions of the same dish, one with meat, one without.

It's easier than it sounds, and Berley's recipes walk readers through it so in most cases they really are cooking just one meal.

Many entrees call for both vegetarian and animal ingredients. A recipe explains how to prepare one dish, such as spanakopita-style turnovers, two ways using the different ingredients. In this case, both lamb and seitan, a vegetarian "meat."

Of the latest vegetarian books, this is the one to buy. It is the one that most reflects the way we eat.

Also wonderful is Patricia Wells' Vegetable Harvest, in which the author continues her culinary adventure through Paris and Provence, this time via the vegetable bin at the market and her backyard garden.

Wells takes a refreshing approach - making the vegetables the center of the meal and treating the protein or meat as the side. It may seem backward to many Americans, but Wells' recipes are so evocative it's easy to give them centerpiece treatment.

The recipes are delightfully simple and straightforward, such as the spring onion, tomato, avocado and basil salad with basil-lemon dressing. All that in about 10 ingredients, including the dressing.

For a more tutorial approach, check out the latest in the Culinary Institute of America's cookbook series, Vegetables.

Like the other books noted here, this one is not vegetarian, but is focused on vegetable-based recipes. It's hard to imagine not wanting to make a meal of many of the book's recipes, such as baked tomatoes with goat cheese (just add bread and wine).

The book opens with an introduction to the vegetable world (grouping them by kind and offering selection tips and best cooking methods), a basic glossary, a helpful storage chart, special techniques for specific produce and general cooking tips.

The easy-to-follow recipes are a blend of traditional and innovative takes, such as corn chowder with chilies and Monterey Jack cheese, the tomato sampler with pan-fried calamari and the cheddar corn fritters.

And finally, one vegetarian book to put on your radar. This fall will see the release of consummate minimalist Mark Bittman's latest book, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.

ENTREE

Portobello Mushrooms or Steak With Bread Crumb Salsa

For the bread crumb salsa:

1/3 cup finely chopped red onion

1 small garlic clove, finely chopped

3/4 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt

Red wine vinegar

1 1/2 cups packed bread crumbs made from fresh or day-old bread

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/3 cup packed chopped mixed fresh herbs, such as flat-leaf parsley, thyme, tarragon, cilantro, basil and/or mint

For the mushrooms:

2 large portobello mushroom caps, wiped clean with a damp towel

Extra-virgin olive oil, for brushing

Sea salt or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the steak:

1 (14- to 16-ounce) strip steak, 1 inch thick

2 teaspoons sea salt or kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil (if pan-roasting)

- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Preheat the grill if grilling the mushrooms and steak.

- To make the salsa, in a small bowl combine the onion, garlic and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt. Pour in red wine vinegar to barely cover the onion.

- Spread the bread crumbs on a rimmed baking sheet and drizzle the olive oil over them, tossing to coat. Bake, tossing halfway through, until the crumbs are golden brown and crisp, about 12 minutes. Use a rubber spatula to scrape the crumbs onto a plate and let cool. Leave the oven on if you are not going to grill the mushroom and steak.

- To prepare the mushrooms, brush them generously with olive oil and season them on both sides with salt and pepper.

- To grill, place the mushrooms on the hot grill and cook, turning once, until they are cooked through and slightly charred, about 15 minutes. To roast, place the mushrooms gill side down in a baking dish and roast until cooked through, about 15 minutes.

- To prepare the steak, pat the steak dry with paper towels. In a small dish, combine the salt and pepper. Season the meat on both sides with this mixture.

- To grill, place the steak on a medium-hot grill and cook, turning once, until done to taste, about 4 minutes per side for medium-rare.

-To pan-roast, heat a large heavy skillet, preferably cast iron, over high heat for several minutes. Add the olive oil, and when it just begins to smoke, add the steak. Cook until well browned on the first side, about 3 minutes. Flip the steak and sear for another 2 minutes. Transfer the pan to the oven and roast until done to taste, about 2 minutes for medium-rare. Transfer to a cutting board and let rest 5 to 10 minutes.

To finish the salsa, drain the onion mixture well. In a medium bowl, toss the onion with the bread crumbs, herbs and the remaining -1/2 teaspoon salt. Slice the mushrooms and steak and serve sprinkled with the salsa.

Makes 4 servings (2 with mushrooms and 2 with steak).

Source: Peter Berley's The Flexitarian Table (Houghton Mifflin, 2007)

SAUCE

Tzatziki Sauce

1/2 cup plain yogurt

1/2 cup sour cream

1/2 cup grated cucumber, squeezed dry

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon minced fresh mint or dill

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon lemon zest

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

- In a food processor, combine the yogurt, sour cream, cucumber and garlic. Puree until smooth. Transfer to a bowl and fold in the olive oil, mint or dill, lemon juice and zest. Stir until combined and season with salt and pepper. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Makes 1 1/2 cups.

Source: Culinary Institute of America's Vegetables (Lebhar-Friedman, 2007)

BREAKFAST ENTREE

Zucchini Pancakes

3 cups coarsely grated zucchini

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, as needed

2 cups chopped scallions

4 eggs, lightly beaten

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/3 cup chopped fresh dill

1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley

2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon

1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese

2/3 cup chopped walnuts

Olive oil for pan frying

1 cup tzatziki sauce (see accompanying recipe)

- Place the grated zucchini in a colander. Sprinkle with salt and let stand for 30 minutes. Squeeze the zucchini to remove as much liquid as possible. Dry the zucchini by pressing it between several layers of paper towels.

- In a large bowl, combine the zucchini, scallions, eggs, flour, dill, parsley, tarragon and salt and pepper to taste. Fold in the feta cheese. At this point, the pancake mixture can be covered and refrigerated up to 3 hours before cooking.

- When ready to cook, fold in the walnuts.

- Preheat the oven to 300 degrees to keep the pancakes warm while you cook them in batches. Place a baking sheet in the oven.

- Add enough olive oil to a large skillet to come to a depth of about 1/8 inch. Heat the oil over medium-high heat until the surface shimmers. Working in batches, drop heaping tablespoons of the zucchini mixture into the oil, leaving enough room for the pancakes to spread as they cook.

- Fry until the pancakes are golden brown and cooked through, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer each batch to the baking sheet in the oven to keep warm. Serve immediately with tzatziki sauce.

Serves 6 to 8.

Source: Culinary Institute of America's Vegetables (Lebhar-Friedman, 2007)

SOUP

Tomato and Strawberry Gazpacho

1 pound fresh tomatoes, cored and quartered (do not peel)

1 pound fresh strawberries, stems removed

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

- In a food processor or blender, puree the tomatoes and strawberries. Add the vinegar and blend again. Chill thoroughly before serving, at least an hour. Serve in small, clear glasses.

Makes 8 servings.

Source: Patricia Well's Vegetable Harvest (William Morrow, 2007)

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