Book-Off

The #1 Book for All Things Vegetable

It gets right to the heart of the matter.

by:
October 12, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten

This review is part of our community-driven book tournament, The Big Community Book-Off. With your help, we’re finding the best books across categories (from bread to pasta, one-bowl to weeknight-friendly, and cake to cookies, to name a few), and putting them through a series of rigorous reviews—considered, tested, and written by none other than you. And so, let’s hand it off to our community members Erin, Ruth, and Shereen. Here are their reviews of your five favorite vegetable-forward books—and their nail-biting verdict on which one reigned supreme.


When a Food52 editor connected the three of us over email, we quickly figured out what we had in common. Nope, we’re not vegetarians, not one of us. But we’re all obsessed with fresh produce and cook vegetarian much of the time.

Erin and Ruth both belong to CSAs (community-supported agriculture), and Shereen’s garden yields tremendous bounty. We did all our recipe testing in September, and what better time of year to review vegetable-forward cookbooks, with corn and tomatoes still in season, along with early fall delights like delicata squash and newly harvested garlic?

While we were impatiently checking our mail for the cookbooks, we worked out a framework for judging them. For each book, we all cooked a master recipe, and each tried at least two additional recipes, faithfully following the author’s directions and thinking about the following:

Audience. Who is the book aimed at? Experienced cooks or novices? Vegetarians, vegans, or omnivores? Is there guidance for those new to vegetarian cooking?

Education. Is the author a good teacher? Do the headnotes give enough guidance, including cultural and nutritional information? Do the techniques work across a range of recipes and stand up to improvisation?

Organization & Accessibility. How is the book organized: by season, technique, ingredient, or some combination? Does it emphasize fresh, local ingredients? Is there a balance of main and side dishes, easier and more complicated recipes? How much does the author rely on specialty ingredients, and would we use them again?

Inspiration. Is the book inviting? Did we want to try the recipes, and are the ideas fresh and exciting? Does the book introduce us to new vegetables or ones we thought we wouldn’t like? Do the recipes work well, and would we cook from them again? If we could have just one vegetable-forward book on our shelves, would this be it?

But as we began the recipe testing process, and we started talking about—hey, surprise!—vegetables, a few more questions popped up. Is there anything more annoying than being told a recipe takes exactly 2 cups of grated zucchini, leaving a little 2-inch stub to die in the back of the fridge? Is the author clear about quantities, spelling out what is meant by a bundle of herbs or a medium onion? Are the recipes flexible if something is out of season?

We also found ourselves talking about authors, and how their personality can come across, even in recipe directions. We fantasized about which writer we’d like to have over for make us lunch (spoiler: all of them!).

And we talked about how cooks and authors influence one another (look at the blurbs on the back if you don’t believe us!). In the end, we decided to write our reviews in order of publication, highlighting a sea change in how cookbooks are designed, organized, and published.

Finally, dear Food52 community, we talked about you! After all, you nominated these books, and your enthusiasm inspired us to look for the best in them. As a reminder, the five books are:

  • Deborah Madison's The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
  • Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty: Vibrant Vegetable Recipes
  • Joshua McFadden's Six Seasons: A New Way With Vegetables
  • Anna Jones' The Modern Cook’s Year: More Than 250 Vibrant Vegetarian Recipes to See You Through the Seasons
  • Bryant Terry's Vegetable Kingdom: The Abundant World of Vegan Recipes

In the end, there can be only one best vegetable-forward cookbook. But first, our reviews...


Your 5 Coolest Vegetable Books—Reviewed

1. Deborah Madison’s The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

Photo by Penguin Random House

When Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone was published in 1997, it became mile marker one on the long road of vegetable-forward cookbooks published since then. It served as both a comprehensive reference guide and an outstanding cookbook for all things vegetarian. A beautifully revised edition, The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, was published in 2014. This is the edition we reviewed.

As the title makes clear, Madison writes for everyone, from those just learning their way around the kitchen to experienced cooks, and from the newly vegetable-curious to seasoned vegetarians and vegans. Vegan recipes, and those that can easily be adapted, are clearly marked. She also provides extensive practical guidance for vegetarian cooking in the first chapter, “Becoming a Cook.” Chapters are organized by categories, like soups, gratins, pasta, and desserts. Plus the chapter on specific vegetables is a classic. The enormous repertoire of recipes includes a full range of recipes, from simple to challenging. Her headnotes are brief but informative, and she draws from a broad palette of cultural traditions. Her humility, despite having immense knowledge, is evident right from the beginning and continues throughout the book.

We all have the original edition on our shelves, so we agreed to cook only new-to-us recipes. Corn was in season on both coasts that week, and we chose Corn & Mushroom Ragout With Sage & Roasted Garlic as our common recipe. This ragout showcased summer vegetables, and we were enamored with the stock that came together with the corncob and vegetable trimmings. There were plenty of steps, but the final result was like a distillation of September, showcasing the flavors of the season with the promise of darker, smokier flavors to come. While each of us thoroughly enjoyed this dish, we all had little tweaks we’d make next time.

The Roasted Eggplant & Tomato Tart With Savory Tart Crust was a challenge to make on a 90°F day, but the result was a delicious interplay between the eggplant, tomato, and hint of nutmeg. The Tomato & Red Pepper Tart With Yeasted Tart Dough With Olive Oil was a big hit in Shereen’s home, served both hot and cold. Ruth found the simpler Zucchini Pizza With Cherry Tomatoes & Goat Cheese a pretty-close-to-perfect marriage of two late-summer icons: corn and zucchini.

Moving on from pastry-based recipes, Erin tried the Mixed Greens With Cumin & Paprika and proclaimed it would immediately go into frequent rotation in her kitchen thanks to its simplicity, utter deliciousness, and adaptability. Erin was impressed that with less than half a page of instructions, Madison had her making a Corn Pudding Soufflé (maybe better described as a corn cloud!). Shereen made Tomatoes Glazed With Balsamic Vinegar, using grape tomatoes instead of wedges of larger tomatoes, and declared them little flavor bombs.

Madison is a master of two crafts: cooking and writing. Her recipes are not only vibrant, but economically and clearly written. We often felt like she was in the kitchen with us, helping us along as we happily cooked our way through her recipes.


2. Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty

Photo by Amazon

This book made a big splash when it was published 10 years ago and became the new standard by which vegetable-forward cookbooks were measured. Ottolenghi’s influence is seen in many cookbooks that came after Plenty, including some in this review. He draws you into an entire food culture, showing you techniques and seasonings that are authentic to his European and Middle Eastern background. It’s a little bit like learning to cook from a grandma who doesn't use recipes. If you stick with him, you start to just get it. Recipes range from simple to more complex, and from side dishes to whole meals.

This was the first book we cooked from, and we quickly chose Quinoa & Grilled Sourdough Salad as our common recipe. This salad is summer in a bowl! We all appreciated the reminder of how the simplest recipes can be spectacularly good if the ingredients are fresh and in season. The unusual addition of quinoa added lovely texture and little bursts of earthy flavor.

While Erin found the Leek Fritters a little bland and sweet for her taste, she loved the accompanying yogurt sauce. The recipe made much more than was needed for the fritters, so she enjoyed it on everything that week. This was an instance where we found a possible issue with converting the recipe’s original measurement from metric to imperial. Ruth liked the smokiness of the Broiled Vegetable Soup, but felt other soups in Jerusalem, another Ottolenghi cookbook, to be better seasoned. Shereen liked all the components of the Roasted Butternut Squash With Sweet Spices, Lime & Green Chile, but once combined, found the lime overpowered the other flavors.

Once the starters had been made, we moved on to main courses. What Shereen liked most about the Lentils With Broiled Eggplant was the lovely contrast between the silky, smoky, acidic eggplant and the juicy bits of sweet roasted tomato folded into the warm lentil salad. Erin really dug the quick and easy Baked Eggs With Yogurt & Chile. She noted that the beautiful photograph is a bit misleading, as it shows a cute dollop of yogurt and demure dribble of chile butter—as opposed to the recipe’s instructions to drown the eggs with the two. Ruth declared the Grape Leaf, Herb & Yogurt Pie emblematic of Ottolenghi: bursting with flavor, and original yet grounded in traditional foodways, in this case Turkish. Some of the ingredients and steps felt a bit unnecessary; but at the same time, the dish was flexible enough to be adapted to whatever the cook has on hand.

The gorgeous photos alone of raw ingredients and finished dishes will have you wanting to run, not walk, into your kitchen and get cooking. This is a great book to look to for inspiration. Ottolenghi does not hold your hand consistently, so there are times when you will need to rely on your own experience and knowledge. It is the sheer originality of his approach to cooking vegetables that got us all excited to cook from Plenty.


3. Joshua McFadden’s Six Seasons: A New Way with Vegetables

Photo by Amazon

Joshua McFadden loves vegetables, but cooks without exclusions. Many of the recipes in Six Seasons: A New Way With Vegetables use small amounts of seafood, meat, and dairy, making it a good choice for omnivores wanting to embrace a more vegetable-forward approach in the kitchen.

McFadden’s book is hyperseasonal (for example, summer gets divided into three micro-seasons), with each section organized around peak produce, making the book easily navigable. An array of sauces, dressings, and other staple recipes are mixed-and-matched across seasons. The gorgeous photos of the finished dishes are inviting and unpretentious.

McFadden’s passion for ingredients, and the people who produce them, shines through in his introduction. While a few recipes nod to the flavor profiles of the Middle and Far East, McFadden is clearly smitten with Italian cuisine. His focus is on techniques to develop the flavor of vegetables to their fullest potential.

McFadden maintains an approachable “you’ve got this” tone for all his recipes, from the easiest to the most challenging. He’s a good teacher, telling you how long something should take and how it should look, smell, taste, and sound. Clear, well-tested recipes yield satisfying results, allowing the cook to relax a bit and truly enjoy the sensory experience of cooking.

For our common recipe we made the Cauliflower Ragu. This classic pasta dish is a rib-sticking concoction enhanced with copious amounts of butter, lemon, Parmesan cheese, salt, and pepper. It relies on common pantry ingredients and is the kind of meal one could have on the table quickly and inexpensively for a crowd. That being said, we found the sauce to be a bit watery, and it would benefit from a few additions to boost the flavor and texture.

Shereen used lovingly homegrown, perfectly ripe tomatoes to make Israeli-Spiced Tomatoes, Yogurt Sauce & Chickpeas with the suggested accompaniment of Slightly Tangy Flatbreads. She loved the contrast of tomatoes marinated in bright sumac, earthy cumin, fresh garlic, and dried chile flakes; a cooling yogurt salad with cucumbers and fresh herbs; and chickpeas perked up with red onion and red wine vinegar. The three components tasted as fabulous as they looked. She also raved about the Peperonata, a lovely combination of sweet peppers, tomatoes, scallions, garlic, and dried chile flakes cooked down to a rich, delicious mess.

Ruth put the Roasted Squash With Yogurt, Walnuts & Spiced Green Sauce to the improvisation test, using delicata squash and potatoes rather than butternut. She would have gladly eaten the Roasted String Beans & Scallions straight from the roasting pan with no sauce, but tried them with the suggested Pine Nut Vinaigrette, and also with Tonnato. She found that the vinaigrette overpowered the vegetables, but the tonnato was just right.

Erin has made many hearty salads in this book for her extended family, which includes vegetarians and vegans, and has found the recipes just as successful with the dairy left out. For this review, she focused on richer dishes. She was dismayed that she truly disliked the Roasted Fennel With Apples, Taleggio Cheese & Almonds. She had issues with the texture of both the fennel (mushy) and the almonds (tough) and felt the sausage and cheese overpowered the vegetables. The Winter Squash & Leek Risotto, however, was sublime. As a first-time risotto maker, she appreciated the step-by-step directions. An impressive variety of techniques were used to develop the flavor of each component, and the result was complex and ultra satisfying.

This is a well-organized, clearly written cookbook powered by a deep passion for seasonal vegetables. These are not wildly original recipes, but the flavors are big and bold. Strict vegetarians may be put off by the amount of animal products used, but the strongest recipes here are the more vegetable-centric ones.


Anna Jones’ The Modern Cook’s Year

Photo by Amazon

This is a stunning book, a pleasure to hold and page through. The unified design is echoed in the author’s approach to food and life. The London-based Jones divides the growing year into six seasons, saying, “There is something so joyful about eating food at its very best.” She calls for cooking with grace, mindfulness, and meditation. She suggests the cook eschew music and other distractions, to concentrate on food with all one’s senses.

Jones is vegetarian, and her recipes often contain vegan options. Her headnotes show deep knowledge of cultural and food traditions, and she frequently suggests alternate seasonings and ingredients. Within each section, she includes not only main and side dishes but breakfast and dessert. Her two-page “flavor maps” lay out a universal approach to a particular dish (like fritters or salads) that starts with a base vegetable or two, then switches up the seasonings and garnishes. Especially useful for beginning cooks, these teach common improvisational techniques that yield endless variety. The flavor maps are printed on bright yellow paper, which is fortunate, as they’re not marked in the table of contents and minimally mentioned in the index.

Unfortunately, we found that although Jones’ recipes highlight fresh ingredients in intriguing combinations, they often contain inconsistencies and organizational problems. We all struggled with our common recipe, Figs, Ricotta, Cannellini Beans & Almonds Topped With Radicchio & Herb-Infused Oil. Ruth called it “a great idea that fell apart in the execution.” Shereen chopped the almonds before roasting, “so I wouldn’t be chasing hot nuts around my cutting board,” and Erin increased the quantities of figs, oil, lemon zest, and thyme—“all things that add flavor.” We agreed the cooking time seemed unnecessarily long. Ruth’s ricotta spread out on the sheet pan, and she and Erin thought goat cheese or a mix of cheeses might be more flavorful than ricotta. We all found the end result satisfying, but we did not get there by following the recipe.

A few other recipes offered similar frustrations: In the Summer Taco Salad, Shereen found a conversion error involving cups and grams. There were directions for roasting tomatoes, “but to avoid tomato skins sticking to your baking sheet, you need to know to use parchment paper, as they’re roasted without oil.” And then, once roasted, there is no mention of adding them to the dish.

As the directions specified vegetable pieces too big to fit on a spoon, Shereen puréed the Not-Chicken Soup, then turned to Deborah Madison (!) for ideas on improving the flavors. Erin loved the Miso-Roasted Squash & Potatoes With Almonds & Kale; she also liked the Sri Lankan Green Bean & Tomato Curry, but thought it under-seasoned. Ruth appreciated the fresh ingredients in Corn, Zucchini & Cilantro Soup but was frustrated at having to grate zucchini then purée it, as well as puréeing corn in a separate step. The Buttery Eggplant With Couscous was quite good, but the eggplant’s roasting time was inaccurate.

Jones’ lifestyle-based approach seems to cater to a younger audience that may be setting up a household for the first time. Her recipes, unfortunately, require an experienced cook’s judgment to rectify errors that, whatever their cause, occur far too frequently.


Bryant Terry’s Vegetable Kingdom

Photo by Amazon

Vegetable Kingdom: The Abundant World of Vegan Recipes is a love letter to the author’s two daughters. Terry writes:

“Educating my girls about and introducing them to foods and flavors of the African Diaspora allows me to teach history and share memories with them: it helps them learn about and take pride in the contributions of their ancestors, culinary and otherwise; and it celebrates foods of the African Diaspora in a world where European cuisine is at the center and Black food is often at the margins.”

In each headnote, Terry describes the place, people, or produce that inspired the dish and how he transformed it to make it his own. He even offers a musical playlist to cook with. Terry is a master educator: Novice cooks receive the guidance they need, while experienced cooks will find fresh ideas. The recipes in Vegetable Kingdom are totally vegan, but this is a great book for anyone trying to move toward a more plant-based diet. Terry’s food is about abundance, not denial, and the flavors are bold and tasty.

Unlike many other vegan cookbooks, Vegetable Kingdom does not rely on processed foods, instead offering excellent recipes for homemade stocks, sauces, and seasonings for stocking the home cook’s vegan larder. Specialty ingredients are called for, but we all managed to find what we needed and appreciated Terry’s permission to improvise with what we had. The recipes are organized by the part of the plant (seeds, stems, leaves) with photographs of the raw ingredients and finished dishes. Menu suggestions weave multiple recipes into complete meals.

We all cooked Roasted Delicata Squash, Black-Eyed Peas & Mustard Greens. Terry’s clear directions produced a healthful meal with a beautiful balance of sweet squash, earthy greens, and mildly spicy beans. We each felt that we would make this entire recipe, or its individual components, again.

Erin raved about the Taro Fire Fries, which she made two nights in a row. This healthy, in-your-face snack food begs to be enjoyed with beer or cocktails. She was excited to learn how to make a crisp taro fry in the oven and became obsessed with the pili pili sauce, a perfect balance of sweet, hot, and zip. The Citrus & Garlic-Herb Braised Fennel was unlike any fennel dish Erin had ever eaten. The punchy flavors of the citrus braise come together with sweet plantain powder to highlight the fennel's fragrant earthiness.

Ruth was impressed by the flavor and texture contrasts in Sautéed Cabbage & Roasted Potatoes With Carrot Purée & Habanero Vinegar. The sweet-tart carrot purée worked well with the crisp roasted potatoes and the slightly funky cabbage. She imagined she could use the same techniques and flavor profiles with a variety of vegetables, but would personally add some protein. She also made the Creamy Carrot-Coconut Soup with Almond Dukkah, appreciating the fresh, light carrot flavor.

Shereen made the lively All-Green Everything Salad With Creamy Sage Dressing multiple times with various greens from her garden. The balance between sweet and sour was perfect, and the use of fresh sage in the dressing kept people guessing what they were eating. She was just as excited about the Brown Stew With Root Vegetables and Farro & Kidney Beans With Burnt Scallions. As a huge fan of Guinness stout, which appears in the stew, Shereen assures skeptics that the stout enhances, not overtakes, the other big flavors in this dish.

In Vegetable Kingdom, Bryant Terry offers an inspiring, novel approach, a trove of original ideas and confidence-building guidance to the home cook, including those who are intimidated by vegan recipes. This is the newest book that we reviewed and a surprise favorite. We expect its influence to carry forward to many other vegetable-focused books in the future.


The Winner: 'The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone"

We have spent a lot of time with these cookbooks over the past several weeks and have enjoyed all of them! Plenty is pure inspiration. Six Seasons is full of passion. The Modern Cook’s Year is beautifully designed. Vegetable Kingdom is an original breath of fresh air. Each of these books checks a number of our guiding questions and themes, but it is The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone that impressed us the most.

Audience. Madison writes for the broadest audience. Novice cooks and experienced ones alike will feel at home with this book, as will omnivores, vegetarians, and vegans. Vegan recipes, and those that can easily be adapted, are clearly marked. For those recipes that require a little tweaking, Madison provides solid suggestions for how to make them vegan. The first chapter, "Becoming a Cook," is an excellent primer on vegetarian cooking and is worthwhile reading for anyone wanting to up their veggie game.

Education. Madison is an excellent, calm, and encouraging teacher. In the middle of the book, her classic chapter "Vegetables: The Heart of the Matter" acts as a mini-handbook on vegetable varieties, what to look for, how to store and use, special handling, quantity, good partners, and sauces and seasonings. This edition includes updated information on vegetarian and vegan ingredients, and her headnotes are still concise and helpful. For recipes drawn from a variety of cultural traditions, she makes sure to provide the appropriate context. General nutritional information about ingredients is included in introductory sections. Basic recipes are ready to be riffed, and Madison frequently provides substitution or variations to get you started.

Organization & Accessibility. The book is organized into 19 chapters, mostly by recipe type: "Salads for All Seasons," "Beans Plain and Fancy," and "Breakfast Any Time," to name a few. Madison also includes recipes in the chapter about specific vegetables. The book is not organized seasonally, but the thorough index will help you find a range of recipes for the vegetables you have on hand. Main dishes, sides, easy weeknight meals, and more complex dishes are all represented in this book. Some recipes call for specialty or harder to find ingredients, but with more than 1,600 in this volume, you can always find something to cook that makes use of exactly what you have in your fridge and pantry.

Inspiration This book invites you in, like a close friend who can really cook and who wants to spend time with you in your kitchen. The original edition had a handful of photos and some drawings, while this new edition does not have any. We didn’t find that to be an issue, as Madison is so clear with her instructions that we really didn’t need any photos to refer to. There is no doubt this is a classic and beloved cookbook, and it wasn’t a surprise to see back-cover blurbs on the new edition from both Yotam Ottolenghi and Bryant Terry.

Do we want to try Madison's recipes? Yes. Are the ideas fresh and exciting, and does the book introduce us to new vegetables or ones we thought we didn’t like? Yes and yes. Do the recipes work? Yes. Would we buy this book and cook from it again? Yes. If we could have just one vegetable-forward book on our shelves, would this be it? Yes!

Have a favorite Deborah Madison recipe? Share it with us in the comments!
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1 Comment

Lazyretirementgirl October 18, 2020
Great article! I own all of these, except the Anna Jones book, and I can’t say the article made me want to buy it. It did, however, inspire me to check out new recipes in the books I do own. My favorite Deborah Madison recipe is from The Savory Way, an artichoke and flageolet gratin, which shows up one or two weekends every month at our house. In fact, we ate it last night! I have tweaked it over the years to make it easier and it never disappoints.