JOPLIN, Mo. — This year's extended winter had me spending much time in the kitchen making soup, soup and more soup. Now that temperatures are climbing again and the farmers markets are starting to offer beautiful, colorful vegetables, I'm ready to break out of my culinary rut. I turned to some of the Joplin Public Library's many cookbooks for inspiration.
"The Karma Chow Ultimate Cookbook," by Melissa Costello: In the nearly 20 years I've been a vegetarian, I've made several attempts to go vegan but never lasted more than a few weeks. There's just too much good cheese out there!
But after reading "The Karma Chow Ultimate Cookbook," I might seriously reconsider.
Many vegan cookbooks feature dishes that seem impossibly bland or unappealing, or are made with difficult-to-acquire ingredients. However, that's not the case with "Karma Chow." The recipes feature excellent instructions and ingredients that can mostly be found in local specialty or regular grocery stores.
One Sunday evening I prepared an amazing veggie loaf with tomato glaze. I have tried for years to convert my mom's meatloaf recipe to a meatless version, and this recipe is as close as I've come. It features French lentils for the protein, as well as brown rice, numerous vegetables and seasoning galore.
I made a couple substitutions -- regular eggs for flax-seed eggs, zucchini for celery, regular bread crumbs instead of gluten free -- and added toasted walnuts and tomato sauce.
It. Was. Delicious -- savory and filling, with a texture meaty enough to satisfy my palate but not so much that it grossed me out.
I also prepared the Thai-style tempeh lettuce wraps. I've attempted lettuce wraps before with tofu instead of tempeh and wasn't overly impressed.
But the tempeh has a dense, nutty texture that nicely complements the crispness of the lettuce and holds onto the marinade. It was also easy to throw together for a quick weeknight meal, with plenty of leftovers for a mid-afternoon snack the next day.
Other "Karma Chow" recipes -- vegan Caesar salad, karma burgers and creamy tahini kale -- have been flagged for future menus. I'm salivating already.
"Lidia's Favorite Recipes," by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich: If you love Italian cuisine, you are most likely familiar with Lidia Bastianich, a chef, restaurateur and cookbook author, as well as television star, thanks to PBS. Forget the boisterous, Crocs-wearing Mario Batali; I prefer Lidia, who is more like a beloved nonna.
I've read some of her other cookbooks and, while I found them lovely, I never got much from them, because they were heavy on the meat and featured somewhat complex recipes and inaccessible ingredients.
But "Lidia's Favorite Recipes" is a cookbook that everyone can enjoy. There are plenty of vegetarian options, the recipes aren't too complicated and most ingredients are readily available. Pasta is featured prominently, but there is more than enough to satisfy fans of seafood, meats, desserts, sauces, salads and soups.
It's not fancy, frou-frou food; it's family cooking. I've already made one dish -- ziti with roasted eggplant and ricotta -- twice.
So good, plus it was easy and fast to prepare. This one will impress dinner guests without too much effort on your part, so my friends need to beware: It might make an appearance at my next dinner party!
"Herbivoracious," by Michael Natkin: Maybe I should start calling myself an "herbivore" instead of a vegetarian. Perhaps by switching labels I will stop encountering people who get defensive and offended when they learn I don't eat meat, and ask with more hostility than curiosity, "Well, what do you eat for protein?"
Anyway, whether you consider yourself an herbivore, carnivore or omnivore, you should check out this cookbook. Based on an acclaimed blog of the same name, "Herbivore" is chock-full of vibrant photographs and scrumptious recipes. Instructions are clear and accompanied by additional information that might be helpful, such as how to make a balsamic reduction or properly store herbs and spices.
Some of the recipes might seem kind of fussy -- roasted maitake mushrooms in a smoky tea broth, anyone? -- but many are hearty and easily made.
Dinner last night was tempeh-filled potstickers. I'm an experienced spring-roll maker, but potstickers were new to me. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy they are to make, particularly the "Herbivoracious" version.
Whether you prefer stir-frying vegetables or throwing meat on the grill, it's time to try something new. Grow some vegetables and herbs this summer. Visit local farmers markets and specialty grocery stores.
And don't forget to peruse the rich cookbook collection at the Joplin Public Library for inspiration. I think you'll like what you find -- and taste.
Lisa E. Brown is the administrative assistant at the Joplin Public Library.