Cookbook of the Month: Passionate Vegetarian by Crescent Dragonwagon

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Cookbook of the Month: Passionate Vegetarian by Crescent Dragonwagon

Your senses are reeling before you get to the first recipe. It's the writing that does it. Sensual, aromatic, visually stimulating -- Crescent Dragonwagon's prose in her newest cookbook, Passionate Vegetarian (Workman, October 2002), whisks readers off on a storytelling journey of great food and wondrous living.

The Story

Dragonwagon's incredible undertaking is monumental -- Passionate Vegetarian contains more than 1,000 recipes. Surely, it will be the most comprehensive resource for both vegetarians and gourmet home chefs alike as it speaks not only to a specific cooking style, but also to a gourmet lifestyle.

"Many people think that if it's good for you, it has to be medicinal," Dragonwagon explained. "I am here to expand their horizons and show them how to taste the incredible amount of flavors that are out there. You don't have to be vegetarian. It just becomes another option."

Dragonwagon, whose name comes from her career as a children's book author, exposes the home chef to numerous exotic and unique ingredients, such as tepary beans, broccoli rabe, plaintain, cashew butter, arame, seitan, and umeboshi plum paste. Her writing is soulful; her recipes, passionate. For Dragonwagon, the book is not simply a cookbook -- it's a tribute to her life with her late husband, an unveiling of a lifestyle she's passionate about, and a love story.

Besides authoring more than 30 books of all genres from children's books to novels to cookbooks, Dragonwagon also ran an inn -- The Dairy Hollow House -- with her late husband, cooking every night for big groups. Now she helps run a writer's colony she cofounded and teaches cooking and writing around the country. This fall, she'll launch a 20-city tour to promote the book.

"I am a writer. I have written all my life. I got interested in cooking fairly young, so one large strand of my life has been bringing those two together. It was also very much the life that I shared with my husband until he died, so there's something very elegiac about it because it was written in the present tense. Going through the book's proofs, I was so glad that I had written down so many goofy things that he said," she explained. "I believe what we take in is mental and spiritual food. I love good writing -- it lets you go deep and lets you go inside. Where else can you live a million lives in one unless you are a reader?"

Readers will be thrilled she relayed these sentiments and anecdotes. Aside from the verse within the recipes, Dragonwagon's introduction to the book, her life, and her husband is heart-warming and captivating. After the first sentence, the reader is both hungry for more of her story and more of her cooking.

The Meal

From soups and starters to salads and satisfying stews, Dragonwagon raises vegetarian cooking to an art form. Passionate Vegetarian also educates readers about ingredients, fresh produce, oils, and spices. Dragonwagon promotes the use of great gourmet spices and details pantry items. Her "Quick-Fix Pantry" list includes dehydrated instant bean flakes, aseptically packaged silken tofu, polenta in a tube, instant tabbouleh, instant soups, chickpea flour, oriental rice paper wrappers, and a wide assortment of durum wheat and seasoned pastas.

"Until fairly recently, people believed you could not be a serious, sensual, and devoted food person if you did not eat meat. For many years, I had a restaurant and cooked and served meat, so while I held that role, I was a `closet vegetarian' of sorts," Dragonwagon explained. "At that time, people thought organic was disgusting, brown, and boring, and for the fringe. Now, that line is so blurred that the best restaurants in America are making sure to note their salads are served with organic greens. It's crossed over from the health food box to gourmet."

While Dragonwagon serves up recipes for Mushroom-Lentil Pate, Stuffed Grape Leaves, Pasta with Pumpkin, and Sweet & Sour Pineapple-Tofu Couscous, the focus of the book is not providing a health-conscious diet --these foods are healthy due to their initial ingredients.

She encourages readers to shop in supermarkets, natural food stores, farmer's markets, and specialty ethnic shops. Adding to the mix are Dragonwagon's endless time-saving techniques and tips, such as stocking frozen tamales, broiled tempeh, vegetarian burgers, and branded natural food frozen vegetables.

"There's ever greater acceptance of foods of different ethnicities and vegetarian cooking fits well into these. This is not the healthy diet du jour; it's a way of eating. The lines have been erased between healthy and satisfying. There are a lot of things that I think I am, but I wouldn't say I am a vegetarian. It may be the way that I eat, but it's not who I am," Dragonwagon said. "Vegetarian cooking pushes you to be inventive and try new flavors. As I see it, the world of vegetarian cooking is very inventive and takes in lots of new spices and flavors. You get to experiment with wonderful spices like tamarind and umeboshi paste."

One of my own favorites from the book is a garlic-lover's dream -- The Great One-and-Only Garlic Spaghetti. It's neither low fat or completely vegan, but it's a dish that is now a staple in my own home. Dragonwagon describes it as "raw, audacious, easy wonderfulness from the first inhalation -- that it seems to know no boundaries or categories."

This description could be applied to Passionate Vegetarian itself. While it's a must-have staple for any vegetarian bookshelf, it travels well beyond the vegetarian category and crosses the boundaries right into gourmet.