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Cooking vegetarian at home: Not (just) your mother's Moosewood

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"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." —Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food

When Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation reached the public a few years ago, rumor had it that a wave of overnight conversions to vegetarianism took place. Whether this is a passing panic, an enduring movement or even true, is debatable, but forms of vegetarianism are ever more mainstream. Yet, as we've seen ("Slim pickin's," page 23), our own food-savvy Triangle has very few dedicated veggie-only restaurants to choose from. So the next best thing—and sometimes the only option—is to cook at home. Even conscientious carnivores can benefit from centering meals on plants (especially in-season, locally grown plants) and reducing their meat intake.

There are as many ways to be a vegetarian as there are vegetables, grains and meatless proteins. Take the religious approach, for example, as in Zen vegetarianism, or Hindu vegan cooking. How about the uniquely Asian or original Mediterannean and African (East, West, North and South) approach? Or the "locavore" angle, in which we don't eat anything that isn't produced within a 100-mile radius. Whatever form, a little help is always welcome.

To newcomers and seasoned cooks alike, vegetarian cooking can seem like an overwhelming full-time job, especially the notion of complementary proteins. So where to begin? Below is a sampling of handbooks and cookbooks to get started or help along the way. The choices reflect a mostly American core (recipes built from ingredients that are both familiar and available), with plenty of global flavors, an emphasis on simplicity, and can-do, how-to information. For people who like to read cookbooks even before they plunge into trying out recipes, all the titles make good reading. Some address the history, some the current state of vegetarianism. The titles come to me by way of experience (as a vegetarian wannabe and via my history of sowing bigger gardens than I can maintain) and recommendations from expert home cooks who are full-time vegetarians (and also have jobs, like the rest of us).

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How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Simple Meatless Recipes for Great Food by Mark Bittman(John Wiley and Sons, $35)

My friend Daun, an avid, skilled cook, owner of an enormous cookbook library, and a longtime vegetarian, says: "This is the best and most significant cookbook I've bought in years." I can see why. Bittman, who writes "The Minimalist" column for The New York Times, has authored many cookbooks. This one is very friendly to beginner cooks and new vegetarians. In this 1,000-page collection of 2,000 recipes that "just happen to exclude meat, poultry and fish," he also gives guidelines for converting to veganism. Informative sections on getting started (equipment, terms, techniques, ingredients, substitutions) remind me of the reference work-with-recipes scope of the Joy of Cooking. "Fast Tomato Sauce" can be made fresh in the time it takes the pasta water to boil; his suggestions on varying vegetables used in quiche injects this mainstay with new color and life.

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Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison(Broadway Books, $40)

Madison's books seem wildly popular with semi-vegetarians, vegans and everyone in between. The tome is encyclopedic, with 1,400 recipes. Her authoritative experience as chef (founder of Greens vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco), home cook and local produce activist is present throughout her writing. See also Madison's The Vegetarian Table: America (Chronicle Books, $23). This second small volume is great for beginners who are visual learners: Inspiring food styling is lushly photographed. Savory "Corn Pudding" makes a hearty winter (you froze corn last summer, from the farmers' market bumper crop, right?) or summer (right off the cob) main dish.

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Laurel's Kitchen: A Handbook to Vegetarian Cookery and Nutrition by Laurel Robertson, Carol Flinders, Bronwen Godfrey and new edition contributor Brian Ruppenthal (Ten Speed Press, $22)

This classic is philosophical, influenced by Robertson's spirituality (Quaker by birth, Hindu by choice) and commitment to eating with earth-minded integrity. This thorough guide has been in print since the mid-'70s, valued not only for its recipes, but for its researched nutritional tables (backed up by a Berkeley professor), and entries on "Purchasing Whole Foods," "Politics of Transition" and "Nutrition for a Meatless Diet." The section on introductory bread baking is excellent for beginners.

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Simple Vegetarian Pleasures by Jeanne Lemlin (HarperCollins, $24)

In this sunny cookbook, the author streamlines techniques and equipment use and pep-talks us through time-saving tricks. The layout is reader-friendly: uncluttered pages, bold large-type headings to recipes. (One of six Lemlin has written; Quick Vegetarian Pleasures is also popular). Her signature style is simple, fast and low-fat. The homemade vegetable stocks are worth a copy of this book alone, but there's much more, including cheerful chapters on breakfast.

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Skinny Bitch in the Kitch: Kick-Ass Recipes for Hungry Girls Who Want to Stop Cooking Crap (and Start Looking Hot!) by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin (Running Press, $15)

A "Generation Y" call to culinary arms? This vegan-recipe collection grew out of the surprise bestseller Skinny Bitch. As part of their animal rights activism, the authors decided to put their message where their mouths are in their daily eating habits. Now, they urge their vision on others. As the title suggests, the tone is not for the easily offended, nor is the information and vision just for women. The recipes are heavily dependent on vegan "chicken," "burgers" and "sausages."

But for women (and men) on the run, the slim paperback volume, sound advice, and straightforward, mostly easy menus and combos could be very liberating.

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Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant and all the Moosewood Restaurant Series by Mollie Katzen and the Moosewood Collective (Fireside, $24)

Especially popular for the Sunday brunch world menu focus, Katzen has quite a following for her take on all things vegetarian. Even people (in my informal survey) who weren't yet born when this series was launched claim it as their standby. An enduring collection that speaks for itself in 30-plus years of sales.

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The Vegetarian Epicure I & II (originally Vintage, $19) and The New Vegetarian Epicure (Knopf, $20) by Anna Thomas

This is another set of classics. The attitude throughout the Epicure series is one of celebrating life around the communal table. The neighborly, often humorous tone and anecdotes make this comfort reading. Thomas' recipe for cream scones is one of the best American versions of the British classic (they should always be eaten fresh-hot from the oven) that I've come across, and has graced many a rainy afternoon at our house, accompanied by a brown betty pot of steaming tea. Her entries on (and recipes for) turkey-less traditional holidays are timeless: Serve stunning combos of local produce in several relaxed-paced courses.

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