Review: Herbivoracious

Editor’s note: Linda Avery returns with a look at a new vegetarian cookbook by noted food blogger Michael Natkin, and she comes to the conclusion that non-vegetarians will want to take a look, too. 

Herbivoracious: a flavor revolution, with 150 vibrant and original vegetarian recipes

by Michael Natkin

photos by Michael Natkin

Facts: Harvard Common Press, 367 pages, $24.95 (or Amazon $15.45)
Photos: 111
Recipes: 151
Give To: vegetarians, omnivores looking for vegetable inspiration

I had the pleasure of meeting Michael Natkin and I think of him as a quasi-Renaissance man. He is a former software engineer, writes the blog Herbivoracious and has a bi-weekly column on Serious Eats dubbed “Serious Meatless”. Natkin became a vegetarian as a teen and maintains that “vegetarian meals are good for you, tread more lightly on our planet’s resources, and are kinder to animals.”

Notice the ratio of photos to recipes? As a food blogger he had plenty of opportunity to hone his skills photographing food and chose to do his own photos for this book. He almost apologizes for the photos being “unadorned” with props. There is no need for props when he captures the essence of the food so beautifully.

After notes on ingredients (what, why and how to choose) and notes on tools and cooking equipment, the chapters begin from appetizers through desserts, then breakfast, sauces and basics. Within the main dish pages are three “planning a meal” pages “Start with a Base Ingredient,” “Start with a Culture,” and “Start with What’s Fresh,” where he guides you through building menus.

The book is quite diverse, pulling from the Mediterranean, Middle East, Southwestern, Asian, and Mexico for inspiration. One certainly doesn’t have to be a vegetarian to want this book. Have red meat as your entree, but start with an appetizer of Chèvre with Sautéed Grapes, then Fattoush (Middle Eastern bread salad), a side of potatoes and chanterelles in red wine, and end with Zabaglione with Roasted Plums.

Stuffed and Baked Polenta

©photo by Michael Natkin

I love baked dishes when I’m entertaining or busy with kids, because they mind their own business in the oven while I take care of other things. This polenta is filled with a mixture of sautéed mushrooms and kale in a creamy tarragon-enhanced béchamel sauce and just enough cheese to make it seem rich without blowing your whole week’s calorie budget.

Quick-cooking polenta will work just fine in this recipe. I particularly like the De la Estancia brand from Argentina, which has a pronounced corn flavor. But you can use any polenta that you like.

You can prepare this dish and bake it immediately or refrigerate it and bake it the next day. Just allow more time in the oven if it’s been refrigerated.

Be sure to read the recipe through before starting, as it calls for the sauce and the polenta to be pre-cooked.

Serves 8 | 1 hour 15 minutes | 45 minutes active time

For the Béchamel sauce
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups whole or 2 percent milk
Kosher salt
1 tablespoon minced fresh tarragon (in a pinch, you can use 1 generous teaspoon dried tarragon)

For the polenta
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium white onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Hot red pepper flakes
2 pounds white mushrooms, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 bunch kale, stemmed and thickly sliced (about 4 cups packed)
Grated zest of 1 lemon
9 cups cooked polenta (3 cups uncooked, prepared according to package directions)
2 cups Tarragon Béchamel
3/4 cup freshly grated Asiago Fresco or provolone
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Make the Béchamel sauce
1. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Whisk in the flour and cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes, keeping the heat low enough to prevent the flour from browning.

2. Add the milk in a thin stream, whisking continuously. It will sputter at first. The most critical part of this process is at the very beginning; you must break up any lumps that form before adding a lot of liquid, or you’ll be chasing them around the pan.

3. After all of the milk is incorporated raise the heat to medium and bring to a very slight simmer. Add a generous 1/2 teaspoon salt and the tarragon.

4. Continue to cook until the sauce easily coats the back of a spoon, about 5 minutes more. Taste and adjust the seasoning, then remove from the heat and use immediately, or refrigerate for up to 1 day. If refrigerated, whisk and reheat gently. You may need to add a little more milk.

Make the polenta
1. Preheat the oven to 400°F using convection, or 425°F without convection. Grease a 9 x 13-inch baking pan with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil.

2. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in your largest skillet over medium-high heat; add the onion and garlic and sauté until the onion is translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the salt, hot red pepper flakes, and mushrooms, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are browned and most of their liquid has cooked out (the bottom of the pan will seem dry).

3. Add the kale and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is wilted and tender, about 10 minutes. Add the lemon zest. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

4. Spread half of the polenta in the bottom of the baking dish. If the polenta has cooled and solidified, you may have the squish it into place. Top with the mushroom mixture, then the béchamel sauce, and finally the remaining polenta. Scatter the grated cheese on top.

5. Bake until hot all the way through and golden brown on top, about 30 minutes. Allow the dish to rest for 10 minutes before serving.


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