Originally created 11/23/05

Recipe for Italian bread and cheese soup



CONCORD, N.H. - Our cup of soy milk spilleth over.

For some reason the usually placid vegetarian cookbook publishing industry has gone into overdrive this year. This is great news. Or is it? My thoughts on three more of this year's veg cooking crop.

- "Simple Suppers" by The Moosewood Collective (Clarkson Potter, 2005, $32.50)

A vegetarian friend of mine swears by just about anything Moosewood. In fact, she and her husband regularly make pilgrimages from their Virginia home to the Moosewood restaurant in Ithaca, N.Y. I suspect they own Moosewood T-shirts.

Me? I've always been oddly lukewarm about this veggie icon. When my friend has cooked for me from Moosewood's many books, I've always enjoyed the meal. I even once asked for the recipe. I just never made it.

That seems to be the case with all their recipes. Though I have many of the Moosewood cookbooks, I never take them off the shelf. I suspect it's because of the crunch factor, which is a huge part of the Moosewood mystique.

I'm just not a crunchy vegetarian. I can enjoy a good slab of tofu, but I don't want to live on it. I also don't want philosophy with my food. Especially in their early cookbooks, these folks always struck me as a little heavy on both.

With this bias I opened Moosewood's latest, billed as "fresh ideas for the weeknight table."

My first thought - this is one good-looking cookbook. Unlike earlier Moosewood books, "Simple Suppers" is beautifully printed (earlier books appear to have been printed on the paper bags the restaurant's free-range soy beans were delivered in).

It also is beautifully illustrated with lush color photography throughout, is intuitively organized and virtually philosophy-free.

As for the recipes? Still mixed for me, though I think most veggies will disagree. Some of the dishes are appealing - West Indian red beans and coconut rice, broccolini Cheddar melt sandwich, Italian bread and cheese soup.

But there's also a lot of tofu, including the dreaded tofu scramble (call it what you will, but it doesn't taste like eggs) and something called tofu croutons in a salad. The recipes that fall between these extremes look fine; they just don't tempt me.

Strict vegetarians should note there is a chapter on seafood. The shrimp and avocado salad sounds amazing. The sardine sandwich does not. And while there are some vegan recipes, dairy is found throughout the book.

- "The Real Food Daily Cookbook" by Ann Gentry (Ten Speed Press, 2005, $24.95)

Did you know Gentry used to cook for Danny DeVito? You know, Danny DeVito the star. And star Tobey Maguire likes her food. So does star Alicia Silverstone. And star Gwyneth Paltrow. Did I mention Gentry used to cook for Danny DeVito?

You've now had the same initial experience with Gentry's recent cookbook that I did - slathered in enough Hollywood references to make me think I'm covering a movie premiere instead of recipes.

A reliance on celebrity endorsements always scares me; can the food not stand on its own merit? Tobey Maguire strikes me as a perfectly nice guy. But unless I'm actually having dinner with him, do I really care about his tastes in food?

Subtitled "Really Fresh, Really Good, Really Vegetarian" (though it's REALLY vegan), Gentry's book draws recipes from her three California restaurants (called Real Food Daily), which she opened after (surprise!) trying her hand at acting.

The first 37 pages are dedicated to the story of how she came to cook for the stars, as well as a healthy dose of vegan philosophy and cooking tips, including a list of the top 20 "real foods" to always have in your kitchen.

I take issue with some items on that list, especially the mirin (Japanese cooking wine) and umeboshi plums (a Japanese pickled plum, sour in the extreme). Unless you are seriously dedicated to Japanese cooking, these will sit unused in most homes.

As for the recipes, some suffer from the same problem shared by so many restaurant-inspired cookbook recipes - fine for a professional kitchen, cumbersome at home.

Gentry's hummus, for example, calls for cooking dry chickpeas from scratch. If I have that sort of time on my hands, I can think of better uses for it than cooking chickpeas. Especially since canned chickpeas make excellent hummus in about 5 minutes.

There also is a bit too much tofu masquerading as other foods for my tastes. The tofu quiche with leeks and asparagus just looks bad. And crumbled tofu "Cheddar" just seems wrong.

That said, there are recipes to like in Gentry's book, including the white bean soup with caramelized leeks and onions, and the phyllo rolls with butternut squash, corn and cilantro. But even the bean soup calls for dried beans. Thanks, but I'll use canned.

This is a book for star-struck vegans who love to cook and don't mind spending an afternoon for a special meal.

- "The Enlightened Kitchen" by Mari Fujii (Kodansha International, $24.95, Release date: late December/early January)

Speaking of Japanese cooking, Fujii's book draws its recipes from Japan's Buddhist temple cuisine. You know, the sort of down-home Buddhist foods you grew up with, such as turnip rikyu soup, koyadofu teriyaki and mashed taro.

I'm kidding. Kind of. Fujii's book is for people seriously interested in vegetarian Japanese cooking, and we're not talking cucumber and avocado maki sushi. This is hardcore. This is miso-pickled tofu.

The book is beautifully illustrated and the recipes are mostly simple, quick and easy to follow. Longtime vegetarians, especially those with a macrobiotic background (which in America has seriously deep Japanese roots), will be familiar with many of these ingredients. Others may be at a loss. For those folks, Fujii does provide a helpful, illustrated glossary, as well as some basic how-to material for preparing staples.

Italian Bread and Cheese Soup

(Start to finish 15 minutes)

1 tablespoon olive oil

3 garlic cloves, minced or pressed

1 quart vegetable broth

4 ounces grated fontina, Gruyere or Cheddar cheese (about 2 cups)

4 slices whole-wheat bread

¼ cup chopped fresh basil or parsley

Black pepper

In a medium saucepan, heat the olive oil over a medium heat. Add the garlic and saute until just golden, but not brown. Add the broth and bring to a simmer.

Meanwhile, toast the bread. Break each slice into bite-sized chunks and arrange in 4 serving bowls. Add ½ cup of cheese to each bowl over the bread. Sprinkle with basil or parsley and pepper.

To serve, ladle 1 cup of hot broth over the bread and cheese in each bowl.

Makes 4 servings.

(Recipe from "Simple Suppers" by The Moosewood Collective, Clarkson Potter, 2005, $32.50.)