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Plant Eater's Paradise: 2012's Best Summer Cookbooks

Harriet Russell

This summer, cookbooks are going for the low-hanging fruit. And the low-growing vegetables, the high-hanging nutmeats, and the free-standing grains. Out of orchards, farms and gardens, food you don't have to chase or butcher is taking center stage in some of the season's best recipes.

Summer is, after all, so often a time of accidental vegetarianism. It's when even carnivorous folk (myself among them) are seduced by fields and farm stands, lured in by lettuce and tempted by tomatoes. We don't necessarily set out to go meatless. But a couple of fruit smoothies and several bowls of baby greens later in the lazy heat of a stove-avoiding afternoon, that's just what happens. And so, to help you make the most of summer's bounty, here are 10 cookbooks that take their inspiration from that most peaceful of kingdoms — the plant kingdom.

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Summer 2012 Is A Plant Eater's Paradise

The Fresh & Green Table

by Susie Middleton

Middleton's Fast, Fresh & Green was a sleeper summer hit a couple years ago, with its well-crafted emphasis on technique. The new book is bigger, and it focuses on produce at the center of the plate. It's a virtual dictionary of vegetable mains, from soups and salads to tarts and gratins. Besides being an author, Middleton is a market gardener, which is obvious when you see the care with which she treats her homegrown produce. You'll need your glasses for the small print in this otherwise spaciously designed book. But persevere — Middleton's instructions are carefully described rather than fussy, and they'll pay off to the degree that you follow them. You may even forget (as in the case ofwarm wheat berries with roasted Brussels sprouts, toasted walnuts and dried cranberries) they're good for you.

Asian Tofu

by Andrea Nguyen and Maren Caruso

If you're the kind of person who has only one, or two, or three ways to prepare tofu — or is just plain mystified by the whole world of bean curd — Asian Tofu is a godsend. There's plenty of information in here for the tofu geek who wants to grind their own beans, cook their own soy milk, and set their own curd. There's plenty of simple recipes (like pan-fried tofu with mushroom and spicy sesame sauce) for the cook who just wants a fast weeknight stir-fry that actually tastes like something. There are recipes for everyone in between as well, and recipes for all the different firmnesses of tofu you can buy. They're scrupulously tested, so even if you're venturing out of your comfort zone, you can do so with firm, medium or silken confidence.

Sunset Edible Garden Cookbook

by Sunset

So often, when it comes to gardening, we're either too early or too late — too late to plant tomatoes, say, and too early to harvest them or buy them at the farmers market. But for the moment, never mind how you get your hands on those fresh radishes, berries or tomatoes. What this book offers is an abundance of crop-specific recipes that will help you make the most of what's in season. It's less anecdotal than many recent eat-local cookbooks and more informational, with a cultivation page for each fruit or vegetable. Those growing tips may not seem to the point when you've just driven in to the beach house with a sack of summer squash to use up. But they might provide inspiration for next spring, which is, after all, only nine months away. Meanwhile, you won't be at a loss when it comes to disposing of those squash (eat it alongside some pasta with parsley mint pistachio pesto).

Ripe

by Nigel Slater and Jonathan Lovekin

This time, it's all about the fruit. Slater's ode to vegetables, Tender, won my heart a couple of years ago with its visions of greenery worthy of Mr. McGregor's garden. This one does the same for the sweet offspring of tree and bush (with some nuts thrown in for good measure). These are savory recipes (roast leg of pork with spiced rhubarb), as well as simple, rustic sweets of stewed fruits and simple pastry (e.g., strawberry tarts), custards and puddings. Not every fruit can be easily found on these shores — white currants, gooseberries, damsons and sloes among them. But Slater is so vivid and surefooted in his manner — "A June crumble will generally need more sugar than one baked in late July" — that you can almost taste them anyway.

Ripe

by Cheryl Sternman Rule and Paulette Phlipot

I know! Two books of the same name in a single top 10 list! What are the odds? This Ripe, unlike the previous one, treats of both fruits and vegetables. It's arranged, of all things, by color — with a looong "Green" section. For each type of produce, you get a glamour close-up, an evocative description and one illustrated recipe — four pages. Yes, it's a bit of a gimmick, but your visually inclined friends will ooh and aah over its rainbow eye candy. The recipes are well-chosen representatives that make the most of their featured ingredient, and most — like warm fava shallot couscous — deliver high flavor with an absolute minimum of stress. It makes a lovely gift for your hosts at lazy summer parties — one that neither assumes or demands anything.

The Fresh Egg Cookbook

by Jennifer Trainer Thompson

I call them "chicken romances." Part memoirs, part cookbooks, they're the stories of backyard chickens raised by amateurs like you and me. This year's is an easy one to love — especially since the recipes are centered on the eggs, not the chickens. Although these egg-based dishes — egg salads, quiches, omelets, frittatas, custards — are familiar, many offer interesting multicultural tweaks (like Cajun pickled eggs, Turkish pizza, and the cuminy, tomatoey Indian-Style Scrambled Eggs), and all are tasty. Do have a care, though. If you notice your spouse silently reading this book instead of cooking from it, you're probably in for a flock of your own.

Herbivoracious

by Michael Natkin

Outstanding vegan and vegetarian cookbooks are so abundant these days that choosing the best one is a near impossibility. But if you embrace a certain globe-trotting ethos of meatlessness, Herbivoracious (from the blog of the same name) is an easy choice. Just when you think "Oh, this is an Asian sort of vegetarian book" (otsu noodles, tempeh gyoza), suddenly you stumble on red pozole and chili borracho. Maybe it's a Latino book? Except for the fattoush and the blintzes and the couscous. The photographs are colorful, the headnotes informative, and the attitude more flavor-forward than right-minded.

United States of Pie

by Adrienne Kane

It's not a particularly flashy book, and it's not this summer's only pie book, but United States of Pie has an understated, practical charm that will make it easy to figure out what to do with summer's bounty of fruit. There's a thoughtful review of the how's and why's behind basic crust-making: when you can and can't work the dough, what proportions of which fat to use, different fluting methods. Although there are no photographs, Kane's descriptions are visual and very clear. Best of all is her foray into the regional idiosyncrasies of pie: rhubarb, cheddar apple, and Concord grape pie in the Northeast; peanut pie in the South; olallieberry pie in the West. You could eat a pie every day this summer — not that you should — and still not finish this book.

Humphry Slocombe Ice Cream Book

by Jake Godby, Sean Vahey, Paolo Lucchesi and Frankie Frankeny

This summer abounds in ice cream books, and all of them delight in one way or another. But the Humphry Slocombe Ice Cream Book — billing itself as "the ice cream counterculture revolution" — is for the jaded palate in search of fresh adventure. Here's where to find Bacon Peanut Brittle ice cream and Strawberry Candied Jalapeno ice cream, as well as the slightly more sedate Balsamic Caramel. As an occasional traveler myself in the world of weird ice cream, I find it reassuring to know that there are people out there whose sweet tooths are more twisted — way more twisted — than my own.

Pasta Italiana

by Gino D'acampo and Kate Whitaker

A pasta book? I hear you asking. What is this, the '70s? Of all the hundreds of once and future pasta books in print, why single out one? The short answer, I think, is design. With its bold colors and process photos, Pasta Italiana is a joy to look at and use, and it's full of accessible recipes that are nevertheless not overly familiar. It's linguine with crab, fresh chili and lemon zest rather than white clam sauce. It's rigatoni with asparagus, peas and porcini. These are fast, vegetable-friendly pastas for a summer night when you've got better things to do than sweat over your bolognese for three hours.

T. Susan Chang
T. Susan Chang regularly writes about food and reviews cookbooks for The Boston Globe, NPR.org and the Washington Post. She's the author of A Spoonful of Promises: Recipes and Stories From a Well-Tempered Table (2011). She lives in western Massachusetts, where she also teaches food writing at Bay Path College and Smith College. She blogs at Cookbooks for Dinner.