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Martha Rose Shulman on Recipe Writing and Good Food -- Plus a Giveaway!

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We're sitting down with our favorite writers and cooks to talk about their upcoming cookbooks, their best food memories, and just about anything else.

Today: We talk recipe writing, turnips, and inspiration with Martha Rose Shulman, author of The Simple Art of Vegetarian Cooking. And we're giving away two copies of her book!


Martha Rose Shulman has written over 20 cookbooks, many of them vegetarian, all of them explicitly for the home cook; they are meant for your kitchen counter, not your coffee table. Her latest, The Simple Art of Vegetarian Cooking, is both an extremely practical tool for creating everyday meals and a friendly reminder of all the ways you can arrange the ingredients in your kitchen.

Each chapter of the book features a different template: pasta, polenta, risotto, soups, each with specific variations as well as an encouragement to mix and match whatever produce you have on hand, and plug it into Martha's handy formula. She explains basic recipes -- pesto, omelets, perfectly cooked rice, well-executed stir-fries -- with authority and clarity, such that you are grateful that she took the time but don't feel patronized. 

When you're overwhelmend by cookbook overload, or weary of weeknight cooking, this book will come to the rescue. Read it once, and you'll feel prepared for a week's worth of meals; grab it when you're feeling desperate, and you'll come out on the other end, with dinner in hand.

One-Pot Meals on Food52

Where did you get your start with recipe writing?
I began my career, in Austin, Texas, as a passionate cook who was determined to make good vegetarian dishes -- in the ‘70s, when there was a lot of bad vegetarian cooking going on. I taught vegetarian cooking classes, had a supper club before that was even a concept, and had a vegetarian catering service. As soon as I began teaching, I began writing recipes for my classes -- I was always a writer in search of a subject. When I had enough recipes, I sat down and wrote a cookbook that was published by Harper & Row in 1979: The Vegetarian Feast. (It took me 2 years to sell it, but the rest is history.) That first experience of working with my editor, Frances McCullough, taught me so much about writing recipes.

What are the most important things to remember when writing a recipe? What are your recipe writing pet peeves?
It’s essential that you empathize with the cook when you write a recipe. You have to be the cook, looking at the recipe for the first time, and forget about everything you know so well that you might take for granted. This can be a balancing act, because you want to give the cook enough information, but you also don’t want to write so much that the recipe seems complicated.

Recipes have a few components. There’s the instruction manual aspect -- they should be clear and tell the cook how to cook the dish step by step, in such a way that the cook will succeed with the recipe. The details about how the ingredients should be prepared should be accurate -- they should be exactly the way you, the recipe writer, prepared them to get the recipe to work. Then there’s the prose. You want to make the reader want to cook the recipe. But even if recipes have no headnotes at all, the important thing is that they work -- and this means they must be tested.

I guess if I have one pet peeve, it is insufficient testing. I don’t mean that you have to test over and over again, but you have to be sure that a recipe works before you publish it.

More: Learn how to write a headnote

Your new book is divided into templates -- which template is your favorite for spring vegetables? 
You can’t go wrong when you use pasta to show off spring vegetables, so I’d use the pasta and vegetables without the tomato sauce template. A risotto is also a great vehicle for spring vegetables. In the book, there are templates for classic risotto and mixed grain risottos, where you stir cooked whole grains into classic risotto to get a mix of textures and colors in the grains.

Are there any underappreciated vegetables that we should be paying more attention to right now?
In springtime I always keep my eye out for baby turnips with the greens attached. The turnips are so sweet. I developed a real appreciation of them when I lived in France, but they are not really part of the conversation here. And I will always be a champion of cabbage, one of the most versatile of vegetables.

More: Learn how to make roasted baby turnips with dijon-shallot vinaigrette and tarragon.

There are a lot of politics and emotional weight that comes along with vegetarianism. How do you manage to write about it without feeling preachy or pushy? 
I’ve never been on a soapbox about vegetarian cooking and eating. I’m not vegetarian, even though that’s the way I eat most of the time, and even when I was, when I began my career, it was never for idealistic reasons; I always had more of a health focus.

As I wrote in my first book, “If I have a soapbox, it’s my kitchen.” I’m interested in empowering people to cook good food, and it happens that the food that I am passionate about is vegetarian. The message shouldn’t be “this is meatless” or “this is healthy,” but “this is good!” And isn’t it a nice coincidence that this is such a pleasurable way to eat, and it’s such a healthy way to live. 

Which cookbooks have influenced you the most?
As far as learning to cook is concerned, Julia Child was my first mentor and influenced my recipe writing the most. She always told you what could go wrong, and how to fix it, and displayed the kind of empathy for the cook that I have striven for.

As for the books that influenced my cooking, Anna Thomas was very important in the early ‘70s. The Vegetarian Epicure was the first vegetarian book that was really about pleasure and good food, based on real cuisines by somebody who really knew how to cook. Deborah Madison has always been a tremendous inspiration: everything she writes, every one of her books. Most of the other cookbooks that have been important have not been vegetarian -- books by Richard Olney, Elizabeth David, Clifford A. Wright, Grace Young -- just to name a few. The food writers who have reach, who explore cuisines in depth, are the ones that I turn to time and again for ideas. 

We're giving away two copies of The Simple Art of Vegetarian Cooking! To win, tell us in the comments: What, in your opinion, makes for a great recipe? We'll choose two winners at random this Sunday, May 11th -- just in time for Mother's Day.

Tags: Vegetarian, Lists, Ingredients, Interviews