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The Edgy Veggie: 3 new cookbooks put vegetables at the center of our plates

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Posted at 6:02 PM, Jan 06, 2015
and last updated 2015-01-07 09:53:14-05

We all know fresh fruits and vegetables are good for us. What we don't always know is how to prepare them. And frankly, some of you (and you know who you are) haven't wanted to learn. Naughty, naughty.

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That's no longer an excuse, not with three new, opulent cookbooks that reveal produce in all its splendor. Whether you're clueless in the kitchen, upping your culinary game or looking to channel (or locate) your inner earth goddess, there's a veg-friendly cookbook for you.

As we transition from the season of gift-giving and overindulgent eating to the season of renewal and resolution, any one of these books is a sure delight and betters the odds you'll actually eat your vegetables.

— Yotam Ottolenghi remade (and rocked) British cuisine when he set up shop in London a dozen years ago. London's now his empire, with four Ottolenghi restaurants, three cookbooks, including "Plenty" and the award-winning "Jerusalem" (his birthplace), plus a weekly vegetarian column in The Guardian.

His secret? He's banned the bland by lavishing vegetables with the bold Mediterranean flavors, like labneh (thick, tangy yogurt), harissa (Moroccan chile paste), tahini, lemon, garlic and olives. Ottolenghi's new cookbook, "Plenty More," serves up a generous helping of the same.

Do not be put off by the idea of cauliflower cake. Essentially a tarted-up version of that humble Brit comfort food, cauliflower cheese, it's easy to make, mostly with items you'll have on hand. Here's what closed the deal for me — cauli-wary tasters had second helpings. Unprecedented.

Ottolenghi arranges his recipes here not by course but by kitchen technique — tossed, steamed, blanched, simmered, braised, grilled, fried, roasted and so on. His creativity is as boundless as his enthusiasm. However, he has a clean-up crew, a ready fleet of purveyors and a team of line cooks. You may not. Dishes like grilled ziti with feta are simple to prepare but require a long list of ingredients. Others involve significant cooking time. Five-hour chickpeas are no doubt sumptuous, but the recipe is unlikely to be the one people grab first.

The recipes and images (by fabulous food photographer Jonathan Lovekin) give vegetables, whole grains and beans the star treatment. That these foods are good for you is never even mentioned.

— For the goodness part, look no further than Amy Chaplin's "At Home in the Whole Food Kitchen." Chaplin, former executive chef at New York eco-eatery Angelica Kitchen, enriches her dishes with bod-supporting foods like kombu, kale, quinoa, coconut, spelt and spirulina.

Where Ottolenghi is bold, Chaplin is gentle. That's how she's made. "I was raised in a remote area of rural South Wales, Australia, by vegetarian parents who grew and cooked everything we ate," she writes in the introduction. Chaplin's recipes reflect that ethos. They're seasonal (spring miso soup and winter miso soup) and wholesome in the true sense of the word. Black-bean stew starts with dried beans, not canned.

Chaplin would have you steam and puree your own pumpkin for her pumpkin bread recipe. It's not so hard, really, but no harm will be done by going with the canned stuff instead. Either way, the pumpkin bread bakes up tender, tawny, not too sweet and not too spicy. It's so mild, I miss Ottolenghi's wild ways with spice. Yet Chaplin's food is no ways austere (Hello, dark chocolate truffle tart with Brazil nut crust).

If you weren't raised like Chaplin (and few of us are), "At Home in the Whole Food Kitchen" means at least you can eat like her. Johnny Miller's photography casts Chaplin's dishes in a pearly light, all fitting for food that aims to make you as radiant as Chaplin herself.

— "The Vegetarian Flavor Bible" offers no recipes and not much in the way of food porn. Instead, it's a solid-gold resource with an out-of-the-box approach. As with her 2008 bestselling predecessor, The Flavor Bible, author Karen Page reverse-engineers food by flavor. A two-time James Beard Award winner and a true flavor geek, she touches on food's bitter-sour-salty-sweet-umami notes but also equates each food's flavor with sound level _ oats are quiet, lemons are loud.

The book's subtitle, "The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity with Vegetables, Fruit, Grains, Legumes, Nuts, Seeds, and More, Based on the Wisdom of Leading American Chefs" is long, its contents encyclopedic. Armed with The Vegetarian Flavor Bible, you can demystify any arcane farmers market find, from acai to zucchini, and find the flavors that enhance it best.

Even produce you think you hate presents new possibilities. Take beets. Moderately loud, they can provoke an equally loud antipathy. But would you say no to chocolate beet cake, a standout at New York's famed Dirt Candy? Beets are in season now in South Florida and in addition to chocolate, love to team with fennel, oranges, nuts and cheeses.

Page offers insights and techniques from the greats, including chef Jose Andres of South Beach's The Bazaar. "I believe the future is vegetables and fruits," he says. "They are so much sexier than a piece of chicken."

THE BOOKS
"Plenty More"
Author: Yotam Ottolenghi
Photographer: Jonathan Lovekin
Publisher: Ten Speed
Price: $35

"At Home in the Whole Food Kitchen"
Author: Amy Chaplin
Photographer: Johnny Miller
Publisher: Roost Books
Price: $35

"The Vegetarian Flavor Bible"
Author: Karen Page
Photographer: Andrew Dornenburg
Publisher: Little, Brown
Price: $40

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(Ellen Kanner is the author of "Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith and What to Eat for Dinner.")
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