Michael Natkin, author of the new cookbook Herbivoracious, and blog of the same name, spent much of his professional life in front of a computer screen, instead of a kitchen line. Yet his passion for the flavors and foods he's tasted around the world helped him create a career in food nevertheless. The former software engineer is on a mission: to create vegetarian recipes so full of flavor, and so satisfying that even an omnivore won't miss the meat. And I think he's succeeded.
Natkin draws upon the flavors of Japan, Italy, India, Mexico, and around the United States to create dishes as familiar as enchiladas and as unique as tofu baked in parchment. All have a unique twist yet most use ingredients easily found at a well-stocked supermarket, with the occasional stop at a tienda, Indian market or Asian grocer.
Recipe headnotes include Natkin's inspiration for a recipe, like the first time he tried crispy Vietnamese crepes (banh xeo), or background about a traditional dish or unique ingredient. Headnotes often are two to three paragraphs in length, worthwhile reads for the hidden kitchen wisdom that can be found within. Natkin also gives credit to other bloggers, chefs and his blog readers for their feedback, inspiration or other knowledge he's applied to various dishes.
Sidebars and footnotes throughout this cookbook give tips for kitchen equipment to seek out (like an immersion blender or Benriner mandoline slicer) and tips for using ingredients such as lemongrass, long peppers, vermouth, and ricotta. There are also little gems like how to make your own balsamic reduction, cut citrus supremes, and advice for improvising recipes. Cooking times are given for each recipe, but since some recipes include a sauce or crust from an additional recipe, be sure to tack on that time as well.
While Herbivoracious includes recipes for familiar vegetarian dishes like chili, white bean and kale soup, a handful of pasta dishes, and Brussels sprouts gratin, there's more to this book than pasta and cheese. There's chana masala--an Indian chickpea dish, Ethiopian ful medames--mashed fava beans with the Ethiopian spice mixture berbere, and chiang mai curry noodles. Even recipes like roast cauliflower and a potato tart use the purple variety of those vegetables for a dish that is as visually pleasing as it is delicious.
There are some cutting-edge techniques woven into this book too--like cryo-pickling onions in your freezer and adding xantham gum to a tempura batter for onion rings. But Natkin continues to remind you to adlib as you wish, and gives outlines for building recipes of your own by picking a culture or base grain or pasta and improvising from there.
Meet Michael Natkin on June 19 at Book Larder in Fremont from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. for a free book signing and cooking demonstration.