It’s that time of year when many of us vow to improve the way we eat. In this quest, “Ancient Grains for Modern Meals” and “Tender” are ideal companions. But make no mistake — these aren’t “diet” books. Neither Maria Speck (“Ancient Grains”) nor Nigel Slater (“Tender”) focus on the health aspects of a diet rich in whole grains and vegetables. These authors are all about cooking and eating delicious, even sumptuous food. Consider that both books offer a path to good-for-you eating a bonus.
“Health is the last thing on my mind when I eat,” Speck tells us in her introduction. She goes on to prove this in a paean to what has long been a maligned foodstuff. For Speck, whole grains are “sensual” and “glamorous”; corn is “uplifting”; farro, “ambrosial.” Suspicions of hyberbole are banished by her recipes.
Wheat berries, quinoa and purple rice
Speck’s mother is Greek, her father German, and she has grazed around the Mediterranean. These influences come through in a wonderfully wide-ranging yet coherent collection of dishes, like sweet-savory Lamb Stew with Wheat Berries in Red Wine Sauce, Cumin-Scented Quinoa with Red Beets, and Fettucine with Salmon, Tomatoes and Golden Raisins. She gives neither breads nor sweets short shrift, including two versions of Muesli (Dark Chocolate With Hazelnuts; and Warm With Figs, Pistachio and Anise), an irresistible Olive Bread With Bacon and Thyme, and desserts ranging from Purple Rice Pudding with Rose Water Dates, and Amaranth Walnut Cookies with Brandy.
Speck’s former life as a tech journalist shows itself in clear, precisely written recipes that — based on a test drive of the lamb dish — turn up delicious results.
Sidebars (“The Joy of Pith”) and essays (“Rye: Tangy and Surprisingly Sweet”) written in Speck’s easygoing, friendly prose drew me right in, but whole grain newbies, and even those who think they know all there is to know on the subject, will want to give some time to the introduction. There, Speck explicates the various grains called for in her recipes. She tells how to buy, store and prepare them, and advises on baking with whole grain flours. Wheat berries have become a regular on my own table since I learned from Speck that I could cook a whole batch and freeze small amounts for use later.
Tips on vegetable cooking and gardening
In “Tender,” Slater offers delicious preparations for nearly 40 vegetables (asparagus to zucchini), each of which gets its own chapter, along with “a few other good things” like fennel and radishes. But this is more than a cookbook; Slater is a passionate keeper of a smallish urban plot. “I plant seeds because I get a buzz from watching green shoots poke through the soil,” he tells us. His recipes are preceded by an ode to the vegetable in question, including information about varieties, how to keep it healthy in the garden and work with it in the kitchen.
Gardeners will get the most out of this thick, heavy volume, but that’s not to say that those of us without a piece of dirt to tend can’t derive pleasure from Slater’s endearing intimate writing on topics like the fava bean’s “kinship with ham in all its forms,” and the versatility of the mashed potato cake. His recipes, which range in complexity from dead simple (Beans in the Steamer) to slightly-more-time-consuming (Pumpkin Pangratto with Rosemary and Orange), veer toward Mediterranean (a soup-stew of beans with cavolo nero) with a healthy dose of Asian (a hot stew with tomatoes and cilantro) and Middle Eastern (grilled lamb with eggplants and za’atar) influence. In each, the vegetable shines through, deliciously.
Cooks looking for exactitude may find themselves frustrated by Slater’s sometimes blithe approach to measurements; “a little,” “a few” and “a small handful” make appearances nearly as frequent as “a tablespoon.” Soldier on. The extremely moist chocolate-beet cake with crème fraiche and poppy seeds alone justifies the effort.
Zester Daily contributor David Hagerman shoots for the New York Times, Travel+Leisure and Saveur, among other publications. To view more of his slide shows, go to davidhagerman.photoshelter.com. Robyn Eckhardt is a food and travel journalist based in Penang, Malaysia. She also is a contributor to Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia and has been published in Saveur, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal Asia. Her last article for Zester was a double book review, Veggies and Grains Deluxe.