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

May  6, 2014

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!


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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.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Marian Bull

Written by: Marian Bull



Nikki May 11, 2014
I love it when a recipe suggests good foods to pair with so that I can plan a whole menu quickly when I'm feeling uninspired. I also love to read the background of a recipe, a story about where the author encountered it of the origins of that particular dish, and suggestions for variations to dress it up or simplify it when needed.
Hilla May 11, 2014
It's hard to say one thing about what makes for a great recipe - since there are different recipes for different moods. But I would say usually "enticing without bring intimidating."
Tamara D. May 11, 2014
What makes a great recipe? One that turns out the same time and time again, and mostly, one that makes your mouth and stomach happy!
breadknits May 11, 2014
Being able to substitute veggies, or different herbs in a recipe. The ability to adapt your own ingredients and still pull it off
Julie B. May 11, 2014
I think a great recipe is one that helps one to make a core dish but also includes a few ways to vary it to get different flavors. Additionally, I look for recipes that have contrasting textures. I like to have a bit of crunch with softer foods.
POlySammo May 11, 2014
Familiar but with something new I can get excited about
Green M. May 11, 2014
Fresh ingredients that're elevated by the preparation to deliciousness. Simple and streamlined is a plus, but not necessary.
Katie May 11, 2014
Bonnie Y. May 11, 2014
Things that make for a great recipe are: Recipe does not have too many ingredients, has easy to understand instructions, does not take too much time to make, tastes delicous.
Brad A. May 11, 2014
After the obvious, good instructions, accurate instructions and a great picture, I love recipes that make me want to cook right then and there. Excellent stories tied to the motivation for the creation is really appreciated.
MMR May 11, 2014
Recipes that have clear instructions about what to look, smell or feel for at each stage in cooking, pictures don't hurt either. It's also nice when ingredients are simple or substitutions are offered for harder to find items. This cookbook looks delish!!
Halutznik May 11, 2014
There are so many recipes out there to choose from. For me, a photo together with a sentence or two (or more) by the author describing the dish helps to personalize the recipe.
Boom S. May 10, 2014
I feel like a good base of spices and herbs makes for a great recipe.
Boom S. May 10, 2014
I am always looking for new vegetarian dishes as I find my own ideas get stale after a while.
frolicandetour May 10, 2014
A good recipe, to me, is one that transforms the same ol' same ol' ingredients into something that I can't stop eating!
Herlinda H. May 10, 2014
This is so
Timely and great! I have so many people asking for my recipes and I' am
Working on putting my Italian/Spanish/Mexican mom's recipes down for my daughters. Thank you, Marian!
Christine May 10, 2014
I think a great recipes is made from whole foods that can be found locally. Clear concise instructions and recipes which have been tested and are not missing ingredients or steps!
Jesse May 10, 2014
Clear and concise writing that's kind of like a familiar voice that feels like an old friend guiding you along but also allowing for creative license. Flavor profiles that inspire meals to come. Metric measurements as well as US standard ones, especially appreciated in baking. Those that become regulars at our tables, not just reserved for fancy occasions.
Sarah W. May 10, 2014
Great recipes are flexible and good to eat. I love cookbooks that have photos, so I have an idea of what the final product should look like.
michaelcochise May 10, 2014
I favor recipes that are self-contained (I.e. each ingredient doesn't require a recipe of its own); that suggests substitutions for hard-to-find ingredients; that describes stages off cooking by aroma and texture as well as time. That have been thoroughly tested, with an account of what's most likely to go wrong and how to avoid that. That lets each ingredient have something to day and no be buried under to many layers of complexity. That's a joy to cook and serve and eat. That I'll want to repeat--and my friends will ask me to