All about vegetables, familiar and strange


May 01, 2002|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Elizabeth Schneider was researching her first compendium of unusual fruits and vegetables in the early 1980s, a "green salad" almost always meant iceberg lettuce. Now, no restaurant with upscale aspirations would dare not offer "mixed greens" - the more unusual the better.

Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables: A Commonsense Guide appeared in 1986, but lapsed from print after a few years. The good news is twofold: Not only did that volume return in 1998 (William Morrow and Co., $28), but Schneider has also produced a second volume, The Essential Reference: Vegetables From Amaranth to Zucchini (William Morrow, 2001, $60), which contains 500 recipes and 275 photographs.

The 5-pound reference book takes us beyond our now familiar friends, arugula, cilantro and radicchio.

Way beyond. How about a cactus pad? Schneider says it has long been "part of the pharmacopeia of traditional medicine, and recent studies suggest that it provides short-term reduction of blood sugar in diabetics and also lowers LDL (`bad') cholesterol." Schneider tells us cactus pads are also "quick and easy to cook and most forgiving." The adventurous may try sauteing bite-size pieces in butter or oil for a few minutes.

Rest assured, there are plenty of pages devoted to more familiar fare, from snap beans to squash. Organized in alphabetical order, the entries include the common names, the botanical or Latin name, photos, a profile, including a brief history, and recipes and other suggestions for use. A handy index lists the recipes by category - from appetizers to side dishes and condiments, sauces and seasonings.

It's an essential resource for any serious kitchen scientist and delightful browsing for those eager to expand their horizons.

There are also some terrific recipes. Schneider's suggestion for cauliflower, a common vegetable, elicited highly uncommon praise, even from a vegetable-wary child.

Cauliflower Salad With Raisins, Pine Nuts and Peppercorns

Serves 4

1 medium cauliflower (about 2 pounds)

2 tablespoons pine nuts

1/4 cup golden raisins

1/4 cup fruit vinegar such as raspberry, strawberry or pear

1/4 cup diced red onion

1/2 teaspoon pink peppercorns

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons capers (preferably tiny nonpareil type)

1/2 teaspoon cornstarch

2 tablespoons water

Trim large leaves only from cauliflower. Cut off heavy stem base. Cut a large conical plug from remaining stem base to hollow it. Set cauliflower in 3/4 inch boiling salted water in heavy pot that holds it closely. Cover and cook over moderate heat until tender, about 8 minutes. Let stand a few minutes before uncovering.

Meanwhile, toast pine nuts, stirring in small heavy pan over fairly low heat until golden. Spread out to cool. In same pan, combine raisins, vinegar, onion, peppercorns, salt, oil and capers. Cover and bring to a simmer over low heat. Stir together cornstarch and water. Add to pan, stirring constantly until mixture thickens and turns clear. Remove from heat.

Cut hot cauliflower into 8 wedges. Spoon sauce over, distributing it evenly. Serve warm.

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