Martha Rose Shulman wants to empower us to cook. The prolific cookbook writer has taken a novel approach with her latest, “The Simple Art of Vegetarian Cooking,” to do that. In this she serves as culinary instructor as she guides us through the master recipe of a dozen dishes — soups, pasta, grains, beans and more — then offers some fundamental mealtime preparation tips, which she calls “building blocks” (how to make vegetable combos and tomato sauce, for example). In addition, she offers variations to build your cooking repertoire (a master recipe for Lasagna With Vegetables and Herbed Bechamel leads to Asparagus and Herb Lasagna as its variation).
Though most of her 27 books have been about vegetarian cooking, Shulman does not follow a strict regimen. She appreciates all food, she says, and notes that you don’t have to be a vegetarian to be a good vegetarian cook. Shulman co-wrote “The Art of French Pastry,” with Jacquy Pfeiffer, which won a James Beard award earlier this month, and writes the “Recipes for Health” column for The New York Times.
Now living in Los Angeles, Shulman has family roots in Minnesota. And her late father, writer/humorist Max Shulman, wrote the short stories and screenplay for the TV series “Dobie Gillis.”
Q: Why the focus on the vegetarian main dish and on technique?
A: We’ve had lots of wonderful vegetarian books over the years, but the one thing I think is neglected is the vegetarian main dish. I really feel like I want to emphasize that there is a language for it. When my son says, “What’s for dinner?” I say gratin or tacos the way others say steak. For the recipe column, I realized I was using the same template for so many dishes all the time. It seemed like a good way to tackle the concept of a vegetarian main dish.
Once you bring home vegetables from the market and have mastered the “building blocks” (the preparation and combination of the basic ingredients), you can choose what kind of main dish you want it to be. If I see beautiful chard at the market, I know that at home I will blanch and season it and have the foundation for a main dish.
Q: Do cooks have a misconception about vegetarian fare?
A: They think it’s a special kind of cuisine. In fact, there are lots of cuisines that offer many wonderful dishes without meat in them. If you go to a Middle Eastern or Greek restaurant and have a meze table, most of what you will eat does not have meat. If you have a great pasta dinner, you don’t expect it to have meat. I think that people have an obsession with protein. I always say you get protein throughout the day if you eat well. It doesn’t have to come in one big hunk of meat.
Q: What vegetable gems do cooks overlook?
A: One of my favorites is cabbage, especially in northern climates like Minnesota. It’s the one vegetable you can count on right through winter. It’s very versatile. If you cook it for a long time, it gets really sweet — but don’t boil it. You can use it in gratins, stir-fries, in savory pies. And it’s really economical. One time I found a 5-pound cabbage at my market. I got five recipes from that cabbage and it cost $2. Then there are beets with greens attached and turnips with greens attached — two vegetables for the price of one. At the farmers market, never say you want those greens taken off because they are so valuable, as tasty as chard.
Q: Which comes first, the building blocks or the templates?
A: Mastering the building blocks — or having them on hand — makes cooking so much easier. This book lends itself to weekend cooking. Do some of the building blocks on Sunday, then make the template recipes — gratin, frittata, etc. — during the week.
Q: What’s your favorite vegetable?
A: The spring ones that are here such a short time. But then, there’s nothing that beats a summer tomato.
Lasagna with Asparagus and Herbs • 2 pounds asparagus
• 4 large garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
• 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (or 1 tbsp. olive oil and 1 tbsp. unsalted butter), plus 1 tbsp. olive oil for drizzling, optional
• 2 tablespoons minced shallot or onion
• 2 tablespoons sifted flour
• 2 cups milk (see note)
• Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
• Freshly ground pepper
• 4 ounces Parmesan, grated (1 cup), divided
• 1/2 cups finely chopped fresh herbs, such as parsley, tarragon, chives
• 1/2 pound (more or less) no-boil lasagna noodles
Note: Plan ahead, as the bechamel is made from asparagus stock that you need to prepare first. (If you don’t want to make asparagus sauce, use 3 cups milk, rather than 2 cups.) You can assemble this a day or two before you bake it; wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate until time to bake.
To prepare asparagus stock and asparagus: Trim the asparagus by breaking off the woody ends. Place the trimmings and the garlic in a medium saucepan and add 2 quarts water. Bring to a boil, add 1 teaspoon salt, reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for 30 minutes. Discard stems and garlic; reserve liquid.
Fill a bowl with ice and water. Bring the saucepan of cooking liquid back to a boil and add the asparagus stalks. Blanch until tender but not mushy. Thick asparagus stalks will take 4 to 5 minutes, medium and thin asparagus about 3 minutes. Transfer, using tongs, to the bowl of ice water. Do not discard the cooking water.
Cool asparagus, then drain it and dry it on a clean dish towel. If the asparagus stalks are thick, cut in half lengthwise first, then cut all the asparagus into 3/4-inch lengths. Set aside.
To make bechamel sauce: Heat oil (or oil and butter) over medium heat in a heavy medium saucepan. Add shallot or onion and cook, stirring, until softened, about 3 minutes. Stir in flour and cook, stirring, until smooth and bubbling, but not browned, about 3 minutes. Whisk in the milk and 1 cup asparagus stock (the reserved cooking liquid) all at once and bring to a simmer. Whisking all the while, simmer until the mixture begins to thicken. Turn heat to very low and simmer, stirring often with a whisk and scraping bottom and edges of pan with a heatproof spatula, until sauce is thick and has lost its raw flour taste, 10 to 15 minutes. Season with nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste. Strain while hot into a large measuring cup or medium bowl. Stir in 1/4 cup Parmesan and the fresh herbs.
To assemble the lasagna: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Oil or butter a rectangular baking dish that has a capacity of at least 2 quarts. Spread a thin layer (about cup) bechamel over the bottom. Top with layer of lasagna noodles. Add asparagus to remaining bechamel. Spoon about cup bechamel over the noodles. Sprinkle with about cup Parmesan.
Repeat layers in pan, ending with a layer of lasagna noodles topped with bechamel and Parmesan. Make sure the noodles are well coated with bechamel so they will be sure to soften during baking. If desired, drizzle 1 tablespoon olive oil over the top.
Cover the baking dish tightly with foil. It’s important to crimp the foil tightly against pan edges so the dish is sealed and the lasagna noodles steam and don’t dry out. Bake until noodles are tender and the mixture is bubbling, 30 to 40 minutes. Uncover and, if you wish, bake until the top begins to brown, another 5 to 10 minutes, but make sure that the noodles are completely covered with bechamel. Remove from heat and allow to sit for 5 minutes before serving.
Nutrition information per serving: Calories 322; Fat 12 g; Sodium 430 mg; Carbohydrates 38 g; Saturated fat 5 g; Calcium 356 mg; Protein 17 g; Cholesterol 54 mg; Dietary fiber 4 g.Yield: Serves 6 From “The Simple Art of Vegetarian Cooking,” by Martha Rose Shulman.