Thursday, July 25, 2013

Mr. Wilkinson's Vegetables: A Cookbook to Celebrate the Garden

Mr. Wilkinson's Vegetables: A Cookbook to Celebrate the Garden
Author: Matt Wilkinson
Publisher: Black Dog & Leventhal (2012)

When the growing season comes around, there’s nothing I love more than coming into the kitchen with an armful of vegetables. Whether it’s from one of the local farmers’ markets or right outside my back door, fresh vegetables in season are at their peak of flavour, nutrition and economy. More and more chefs are embracing dishes and menus developed based on the seasonality of ingredients, rather than importing from far and wide, and Matt Wilkinson is no exception. Wilkinson is the chef at Pope Joan, known for its use of seasonal produce, in Melbourne, Australia as well as an ambassador of the Victorian Farmers’ Markets Association, and thrives on partnering with producers to provide accessibility to the tastiest food for communities. His passion translates into the cookbook world now, with Mr. Wilkinson's Vegetables: A Cookbook to Celebrate the Garden.

Mr. Wilkinson's Vegetables is more than a simple cookbook in that it incorporates not just recipes, but facts about the 24 vegetables he includes. A preamble of 2 or so pages precedes each chapter, which is dedicated to one particular vegetable – providing insight as to the Latin (“official”) name, native origin, history and even how to grow and harvest. This is fascinating for the trivia fan or gardener, but unfortunately this wealth of extra information inhibits the volume and variety of recipes Wilkinson includes. In the 300 pages of Mr. Wilkinson's Vegetables, there are slightly over 80 recipes (approximately 3 per vegetable) – and some of the “produce specific” offerings (such as Simple Roast Potatoes (p. 217), Irene’s Tzatziki (p. 117) and Heirloom Radishes in a Salad (p. 244) are overly simple and better suited for the “Basics” section at the back or simply omitted entirely. Wilkinson also ignores the now-popular class of Asian produce – likely due to it’s limited locality and season.

That said, Mr. Wilkinson's Vegetables does promote vegetables as a main element in the diet and not simply a side. The recipes respect the foods for themselves, making them the stars of the dinner plate. While the book is useful to vegetarians looking for new twists on their meals, many recipes use meat in an accompanying role – and in most cases it can be omitted without much consequence. This book is refreshing in that while Wilkinson’s passion is evident in his food, it also doesn’t come across as a vegetarian, organic or health food manifesto.

Sweet n' Spicy Baked Beans
Baked Beans (p. 14)
One thing that this book has no shortage of is dishes worthy of a four-star restaurant. Some of them (like Spinach, Mustard Greens, & Baked Ricotta Cheese (p. 176), Baked Beans (p. 14), and Horseradish Wafers (p. 162)), are easy and accessible enough for most home cooks to recreate, and are relatively “safe” to attempt in terms of taste expectations. Others in Mr. Wilkinson's Vegetables sound delicious but intimidating, requiring specialty ingredients (truffle oil, certain spices and meats like goat neck) or processes like stovetop smoking. I’m looking forward to trying variations on some of these, however, namely the deceptively simple Sautéed Tuscan Cabbage & Matsutake Mushroom Pasta (p. 63) (though I’d have to substitute shiitakes for the Matsutake or Saffron Milk Caps called for), and the exotic, spicy Tomato Kasundi (p. 263) (using far less oil than the ¾ cup indicated for toasting the array of spices). I’m bookmarking the rich-looking Carrot Cake (p. 80) as well as the Foil Roasted Big Beets with Ricotta & Mint (p. 32) for Fall, when my backyard veggies come to fruition.
For those looking to expand their vegetable-cooking horizons, impress honoured guests or simply use what you grow or buy locally, you can certainly do a lot worse than Mr. Wilkinson's Vegetables: A Cookbook to Celebrate the Garden. While not an exhaustive resource, Matt Wilkinson tempts and inspires with his recipes, and the collection brings to light the need to embrace vegetables in more than a fleeting embrace. From simple to gourmet, the seasons determine the supper as it has always been – what will be on your plate tonight?
 
Available on Amazon

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