FAST FRESH & GREEN: More Than 90 Delicious Recipes for Veggie Lovers. By Susie Middleton, photographs by Ben Fink. Chronicle Books, April 2010. $24.95 in softcover.
Susie Middleton spikes the reader’s appetite in her opening words: “I start thinking about dinner when I wake up in the morning. I know — I’m crazy like that. Fortunately I usually get distracted by breakfast . . . today I stuffed my butter-broiled English muffin with some really sharp Vermont cheddar cheese, one of my roasted tomatoes (page 41), and an egg from a farm.”
Be still my heart! How many people on that same morning were busy scarfing doughnuts or over-scrambled eggs or factory-made granola over heavily fruited yogurt?
Vineyarder and cookbook author Susie Middleton in her beyond-yummy book of more than 90 recipes, Fast, Fresh & Green, with photographs by Ben Fink (Chronicle Books, $24.95), combines ingredients in such a way that you feel a life-transforming experience coming on. And it makes you wicked hungry!
As an example, consider the roasted tomatoes just waiting for the ravenous hoards on the aforementioned page 41. Dig the title: Caramelized Plum Tomatoes in an Olive Oil Bath. You take 10 plum tomatoes, slice them in half, scoop out the seeds, dip them in oil, then spread them on a parchment sheet laid over a heavy metal roasting pan. Season the cavity of each tomato with a sprinkle of salt, a generous pinch of sugar, thyme leaves, balsamic vinegar, super-thin sliced garlic, and a teaspoon of oil per tomato. Roast for 30 or 40 minutes in a 425-degree oven and prepare to savor life with all the richness that caramelized tomatoes have to offer.
Ms. Middleton, former editor and now editor-at-large for Fine Cooking Magazine, writes with wit and flair. She also leads the reader into a new reverence for vegetables. Don’t be afraid is her subtext: Vegies needn’t be boring or tasteless or something you hide under a cabbage leaf after you devour the fried chicken. “I almost always keep meats simple on weeknights and let my vegetable side dishes bring the interest and the excitement to the plate,” she writes.
In reading — or salivating over — Fast, Fresh & Green, there’s a sense of being taken by the hand. In the first section devoted to roasted vegetables, Ms. Middleton urges the student cook to invest in parchment paper (because nothing sticks to the pan), a heavy metal baking sheet for the even distribution of heat, and an oven thermometer, as oven temps vary widely.
“There is one more secret to quick roasting,” she offers, initiating us into the mysteries. “Cut your vegetables quite thinly or into small pieces, and they will cook quickly. (No big chunks, please).” And, delicious as perfectly roasted vegies will taste on their own, Ms. Middleton supplies formulas for herb-flavored butter with such accoutrements as citrus zest, maple syrup, cumin, coriander or smoked paprika. She dresses cauliflower with an orange-olive sauce; roasted beet, orange and mache salad with goat cheese and toasted walnuts; and roasted green beans and cremini mushrooms with rosemary-garlic oil.
This meticulous chef takes you through the prep work, grocery shopping, pantry must-haves, storing and cooking. The plan of attack is broken down into Roasting, Braising, Sautéeing, Two-Stepping (no, it’s not a ballroom dance, but a quickie boil preparatory to a roll in the sauté pan), No Cooking, Stir-Frying, and Grilling. In each segment, the patient and good-humored Ms. Middleton is at your elbow making sure you understand each critical step along the way.
Yet Fast, Fresh & Green is more than a series of lesson plans. Ms. Middleton has a positive libido for throwing together foods that surprise you at the same time that an “Eureka!” goes off in your head.
Her titles read like poetry: Double-Lemon Ginger Carrot Salad, Sautéed Asparagus with Pancetta and Parmigiano for Two, and Vanilla and Cardamon Glazed Acorn Squash Rings.
Few of these recipes are waist-whittlers, as many of the vegetables serve as delivery systems for olive oil and butter, although the chef urges her acolytes to go easy on the fats if they so desire. The bottom line is that adding vegies to the dinner plate is bound to convey more health and nutrition than the extra poundage that accrues from empty calories. And besides, Ms. Middleton is herself perfectly slim, so it’s safe to go ahead and eat that whole bowl of Spicy Mustard Greens with Ginger-Garlic Cream.
Fast, Fresh & Green inevitably preaches to the choir: Home cooks already devoted to vegetables will be instantly enamored of these delicious ways to prepare them. But it’s guaranteed that purveyors of vegies, with Ms. Middleton’s book, will convert their most green-aversive family and friends to the joys of the healthful side dish.
Many of us come from a tradition of Mom opening a can of peas or green beans to accompany the pot roast and mashed potatoes. We’ve come a long way, starting back in the 70s with Alice Waters exhorting us to plant our own gardens and discover the tastiness of just-picked corn, lettuce and zucchini. Many cooks since then have contributed to a culture of exquisitely prepared vegetables. Susie Middleton has just ratcheted up the vegie bliss-out meter, and this reporter is ready to join the author in waking up in the morning to thoughts of dinner, thanks to Fast, Fresh & Green making its way from bed table to kitchen counter and back again.