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The Vegetarian Epicure Turns 40

This was taken from my personal copy of The Vegetarian Epicure complete with food stains and dog ears.

For reasons I have not always understood, The Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas has always held a certain enchantment for me. More than a collection of recipes, there is something downright magical about it. If you are unfamiliar with it, it’s hard to comprehend. But open up a copy and spend some time with it. Cook from it, and soon it will work its charms on you.

Pea soup with butter dumplings, little vegetable tarts and chestnut soufflés sound like dishes from a children’s poem. A slice of milk-and-honey bread with a little butter or jam could romance even the most steeled pragmatist. Julie Maas’s whimsical illustrations of barefooted cookery lend an air of innocence. Like a novel written for its generation, it is a confluence of ideologies that defined the era in which it came to be. It is hippie meets Diet for a Small Planet meets California naturalist meets Gourmet magazine.

I first discovered The Vegetarian Epicure shortly after I decided to give up meat. I was in my twenties, and although it was the eighties, people still looked at you a little funny when you said you were a vegetarian. There weren’t a lot of options of convenience back in those days. There were no Whole Foods and nary a vegetarian entrée to be found in the freezer section of the local supermarket. Even tofu could be a little difficult to track down. Unless I was content with a diet of rice, beans and the occasional incarnation of a rubbery substance known fondly among veg heads as TVP (textured vegetable protein), I was going to have to learn to cook.

At that time, I was a culinary babe in the woods. I had never heard of Gruyere cheese. I didn’t know how to pronounce béchamel sauce much less how to make it. The extent of my culinary wisdom was my mother’s Betty Crocker recipe card library. (You know, the one that came in the two-tone plastic green box.) The Vegetarian Epicure was not only my introduction to vegetarian cuisine, but it was my first true gourmet cookbook. So instead of settling for veggie burgers from a box or cooking the customary lasagna made with said TVP, I was making things like honey wheat berry bread, gazpacho, ratatouille and zabaglione.

It is not surprising that the necessity that led me to this magical tome was the very same necessity that led to its creation. Anna Thomas was a struggling film student in the early seventies when she wrote the collection of more than 260 recipes. “I had to learn to cook,” she told me in an interview from her home in California. “I was on my own, broke and becoming a vegetarian. There wasn’t a lot around. I wanted to have wonderful, delicious food.” We spoke by telephone one Saturday afternoon last April. Her voice was warmly familiar, like that of an old friend.

Anna was barely out of her teens when she wrote VE (as she shorthands it in emails). So I was curious how she was able to amass so many delicious recipes at such a young age. “It was just natural evolution and youthful craziness,” she explains. Given the dearth of good vegetarian cookbooks at the time, Anna steeped herself in the ideas and values of the epicures of the time – Julia Child, James Beard and Elizabeth David – and applied them to vegetarian cookery.

She would often road test her recipes with friends. “They were equally penniless and happy to be invited over for dinner. They would tell me, ‘Anna you should write a cookbook.’ Of course, they were all hungry. They would have said that to anyone who had just fed them.” Spurred on by her friends’ encouragement, and a bit of youthful audacity, Anna packaged up her recipes and sent them off to a publisher.

Julie Maas

The Vegetarian Epicure quickly found its audience, and it was a large and hungry one at that. “It was amazing how it all happened, just astounding,” she recalls. “It was in its moment. It was needed. I wanted to be a vegetarian and eat good food, and it turned out that I was not the only one who wanted that.”

Deborah Madison, chef and author of several renowned vegetarian cookbooks, echoes Anna’s sentiment. “I was already cooking at the Zen Center for a few years when Anna’s first book came out,” she tells me. “I was trying to break out of the ‘60s vegetarian mold — brown, stodgy food, mostly poorly cooked — and feeling somewhat alone in that pursuit. So I was delighted with The Vegetarian Epicure, because here was someone who was having fun cooking interesting, colorful and delicious food, too! It was a great boost to my spirits to see that book”

Anna infused the chapters with the ideals of her good food influences and encouraged readers to avoid “meat analogs” and meals centered around the standard meat entrée:

“The first thing to do in considering the vegetarian cuisine is to get free of these stereotyped ideas. Otherwise, you may find yourself falling into the trap of ‘substitutions.’ Many vegetarian cookbooks have done this, imposing the old structure onto the vegetarian diet trying to find “meat substitutes.” …Vegetarian cookery is not a substitute for anything.”

Anna was making the case to bring vegetarian cooking out of the closet and recognize it as a legitimate cuisine in and of itself, eschewing the confines of a meat-based cuisines without abandoning the principles of fine cooking.

Another important aspect of the book is its emphasis on entertaining, which imbued it with a strong communal sense. These are recipes meant to be shared, and to that end, there are plenty of of menu suggestions – a hallmark of all of Anna’s books – along with a chapter on creating vegetarian holiday traditions. (Her pineapple-glazed yams are standard Thanksgiving fare in my house.) The sharing of food was a large part of Anna’s upbringing. The daughter of Polish immigrants, she grew up in Michigan in a home where family events centered around home cooking. “We never went out to eat to a restaurant. It was a very tight immigrant community. We celebrated by eating at home. It might be very festive, but it was always at someone’s house.”

Anna believes that the book’s openness also played a part in its success, the veritable icing on the cake. “I’m saying this now in retrospect,” she explains. “I think because my emphasis was on good food, which anyone can eat, I didn’t moralize. That put it over the top; the fact that it wasn’t taking an ‘us and them’ position. It wasn’t divisive.”

Next year, The Vegetarian Epicure will turn 40, and although Saveur magazine named it one of the “most original and essential vegetarian cookbooks” of the 20th century, you might have a little difficulty locating a copy. You won’t find one on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, and Amazon is completely sold out. After 35+ years, the publisher, Knopf, discontinued printing the book just a few years ago along with Anna’s 1978 follow-up, The Vegetarian Epicure Book Two. A recent search on Bookfinder.com yielded several “new” copies, but the price can run as high as $170. Used copies of varying condition are still fairly plentiful and reasonably priced. Anna also told me that she has had offers for re-publication. Hopefully, both books will be back on the shelves some day soon.

In 1996, Anna released The New Vegetarian Epicure, a collection of 325 new recipes tailored for a more health-conscious mindset, which is still in print. More recently she published Love Soup, a collection of 160 vegetarian and vegan soup recipes. It received a 2010 James Beard Foundation Book Award and has proven quite popular with Anna’s devoted fans. She also informed me that she is already at work on a fifth book that promises to be as interesting as it is delicious.

As our conversation neared to an end, I recognized that familiarity in her voice again. Chat with Anna Thomas for more than a minute or two, and you can’t help but feel a connection. Here is a woman who loves people, loves cooking, and loves to cook for people. Afterwards, I realized that people cannot be that passionate about cooking without instilling a little of it in others, and that’s when it hit me. That’s when I figured out the secret ingredient of The Vegetarian Epicure – the source of my enchantment all these many years: It is the passion of Anna Thomas. Now I understand. My own passion for cooking is intrinsically connected to hers through that book; that one, very special cookbook.

Let’s eat.

Savory and delicious, Asparagus Pastry will satisfy vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike.

Asparagus Pastry

Being that it’s spring, I thought I’d include Anna’s recipe for asparagus pastry from page 126. It’s a lot like an eggless quiche. Anna recommends using either a flaky pastry or her pastry brisee (p. 286). Both are good choices, but I prefer a basic flaky pastry. I’ve also included Anna’s recipe for béchamel sauce (p. 84), which melds perfectly with the asparagus and some good quality Gruyere cheese. For best results, try to get young tender asparagus.

Vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike will enjoy this dish. Anna recommends serving it fresh out of the oven. Serve the leftovers for breakfast with some scrambled eggs. It’s just as delicious the next day.

Ingredients:

  • Flaky pastry, enough for a 12 inch pastry dish (recipe follows)
  • 2 lbs. asparagus
  • 1½ -2 cups sauce béchamel
  • 2-3 ounces Swiss or Gruyere cheese, grated

Preparation:

Prepare the pastry as described below, allowing enough time for the dough to refrigerate. Preheat the oven to 425° F. Roll the dough out, working quickly so as not to melt the butter. Line a 12-inch quiche or pastry dish with the dough and cut off any excess. Prick the bottom several times with a fork. This will allow steam to vent. Fill the dish with pie weights. If you don’t have any, you can line the inside of the shell with aluminum foil and cover the bottom with dried beans. These extra steps will ensure that the crust stays flat. Bake the crust for about 15 minutes.

Reduce the oven to about 375° F. Clean the asparagus well and discard the hard ends. Cut the stalks into 1-inch pieces. Steam until the piece are fork tender. This should take about 10 minutes for very young asparagus, longer for older ones. The only way to be certain is to taste them. This is a good time to prepare the béchamel sauce.

Spread the asparagus even into the pre-baked pastry shell. Pour the béchamel sauce over the asparagus. Shake the pastry pan along the surface of a counter top will help to distribute the sauce evenly. Sprinkle the cheese over the top surface, and bake for 15-18 minutes or until the top starts to brown and the sauce is bubbly.

Allow the dish to cool briefly, and serve hot.

Adapted from The Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas


Asparagus are a flowering perennial that are native to Europe, north Africa and west Asia

Flaky Pastry

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups (10 ounces) all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • 6 ounces (1½ sticks), diced and very cold
  • 1-4 tablespoons iced water

Preparation:

Place the flour, salt and sugar into the bowl of a food processor fitted with a blade, and give it a few pulses to mix the ingredients well. Add the butter and pulse several times until the butter is broken up into small pieces and the mixture looks like a crumb topping or course sand.

Turn on the processor and add the iced water one tablespoon at a time until the dough just starts to come together. Be careful not to add too much water. The dough should look like a shaggy loose clump.

Pour the dough onto a floured surface and knead it just enough to finish pulling the dough together into a ball. Wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour before using.

Pie weights will help keep the crust flat; a foil lining and some dried beans will also do the trick

Sauce Béchamel

In the original recipe, Anna doesn’t specify the exact quantity of seasonings to use, allowing you to tweak them to your own taste. I have used what I think will give you a good starting point for a first try. After that, you can make this dish your own.

Ingredients:

  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • ½ onion finely minced
  • 2½ cups hot milk
  • 5 peppercorns
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped
  • 1 tiny bay leaf or part of a whole bay leaf
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Preparation:

In the top of a double boiler, or with a heavy clad saucepan over a very low heat, melt the butter until bubbly. Add the onion and let it cook for 3 or 4 minutes until translucent. Stir in the flour and continue cooking a few minutes more. Begin adding the milk slowly, stirring with a whisk while you do. The sauce will begin to thicken after a few minutes. Add the peppercorns, thyme, bay leaf and nutmeg and stir thoroughly. Let it cook slowly for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Strain through a sieve.

Adapted from The Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas


If you have an old copy of The Vegetarian Epicure…

we want to see it! Take a picture of your time worn, food stained, tattered copy and email me the picture along with your first name and hometown. If you want to get in on the act, send along a photo of you holding up that treasured copy of VE. I’ll put together a special page and post all the pictures along with the many wonderful comments we’ve received as a sort of birthday card and send it to Anna!

Notes:
The Vegetarian Epicure is copyright 1972 by Anna Thomas. Reprinted with permission. If you would like to know more about Anna Thomas, check out her website at www.vegetarianepicure.com. Her latest book, Love Soup, is a collection of 160 vegetarian and vegan soup recipes.

If you are having difficulty locating copies of The Vegetarian Epicure, leave a comment here, and perhaps I can help you locate one.


Special thanks to Patricia Parmalee for her help with this post.

{ 39 comments… add one }

  • Gylla May 18, 2011, 12:13 pm

    You have peaked my interest in vegetarian cuisine. Looking forward to trying these recipes.

    • David Ellis May 18, 2011, 12:28 pm

      Thanks Gylla. It’s true. You don’t have to have meat to have a really satisfying meal. That’s what made VE such an important book.

  • Lisa Martinez May 18, 2011, 12:24 pm

    David, you seducer! Lured by your images of “pea soup with butter dumplings”, passionate vegetarian cooking, barefoot cooking and meals shared with friends , you inform me that the Anna Thomas book is practically unavailable.

    You can redeem yourself by please providing more of your adaptations to her recipes. With thanks ,

    Lisa

    • David Ellis May 18, 2011, 11:44 pm

      Lisa, the books is full of great recipes. You might find some more on Anna’s website, http://www.vegetarianepicure.com. I’ll check with Anna, and maybe we can feature another one soon. Thanks for your comment.

  • Hillary Stewart May 18, 2011, 3:55 pm

    David – That mouthwatering Asparagus Pastry is enough to convert any part-time carnivore into a full-time vegetarian. Thank you! I look forward to more great recipes.

    • David Ellis May 18, 2011, 11:43 pm

      Thanks Hillary! Maybe we can talk our favorite brunch spot, Leopold’s, into adding it to their menu. ;)

  • Patty May 19, 2011, 8:33 am

    I have not heard of this lady nor her cookbook BUT the asparagus dish looks fabulous (and menacing but that’s a therapy issue). When I see you next, would love to peruse the book. Sorry to hear it is hard (or expensive!) to come by.

  • Merlin May 19, 2011, 8:44 am

    Asparagus pastry looks so appetizing!! Love what I’ve seen so far – I am interested in getting a copy of VE and the second book – where can I get them? I can sense that there’s a “secret ingredient” in The Vegetarian Epicure, which is as you put it, “…the passion of Anna Thomas”.

    • David Ellis May 19, 2011, 9:07 am

      Merlin, thanks for the post. I just found several paperback copies of VE in “good” condition at http://www.alibris.com for a dollar. Alibris specializes in hard to find books. They also had copies of book two. Let me know if you find one.

  • Julius May 20, 2011, 1:45 am

    Hey Dave,

    this seems like a great recipe ;) I will definitely have to try it some time. Keep writing, it’s always great to read your posts :)

  • Kris May 20, 2011, 12:49 pm

    The Vegetarian Epicure sounds like exactly the kind of cookbook I’ve been trying to locate for years. Even now, most of the best cookbooks have a fairly meat-heavy focus. Vegetable recipes are relegated to side-dishes. I’m not a strict vegetarian, but good meat is expensive. It’s cheaper (and probably healthier) to limit the meat to once every week or so.

    Thanks for bringing my attention to Anna’s books! I’ll be looking around for a used copy of VE.

    • David Ellis May 20, 2011, 1:00 pm

      Kris,

      Thanks for your excellent comments. I always say, if you want to know how to make great vegetable dishes, consult an expert — a vegetarian. The New Vegetarian Epicure is still in print and readily available and in includes even lighter, healthier recipes. You might take a look at that. I also recommend “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone” by Deborah Madison and lately, I’ve been exploring a book by Simon Hopkinson titled “The Vegetarian Option”.

      - Dave

  • Moira Hill May 20, 2011, 2:35 pm

    As a young cook in my twenties, Vegetarian Epicure was one of my first cookbooks. It was a delightful, exploratory time for vegetarian cooking (I also cooked frequently from the Moosewood cookbook). VE has excellent recipes and the illustrations are charming. My dog-eared favorite recipes are: the Cranberry-Cumberland sauce (THE only cranberry sauce for the holidays), the entire Curries chapter (especially the Spiced Dal – oh my goodness!), and the Soybean Croquettes (I will also use almonds or garbonzo beans instead of soybeans).

    • David Ellis May 20, 2011, 3:03 pm

      Moira,

      I really appreciate your comments here. It’s interesting how we both discovered VE in our twenties, which is the same age Anna was when she wrote it. It would be nice if all of us with our dog-eared copies could come together with Anna and get her to sign them all. Mine copy is one of the oldest books in my collection. I wouldn’t trade it for anything! Thanks – Dave

  • Connie May 20, 2011, 4:45 pm

    This cookbook sounds like quite a gem. I’ve been a lifelong omnivore, but of late I’ve preferred the flavors of vegetables, fruits and grains more so, making any meat part of a dish “the side.” In general, I try to eat vegetarian meals during the majority of the week, and that tart will make a beautiful addition!

    • David Ellis May 20, 2011, 8:17 pm

      Connie,
      Thanks for your comment. I am no longer a vegetarian, but I have dramatically reduced the amount of meat I eat. Still to this day, I feel far more creative cooking with vegetables than with meat. I think that comes from having learned to cook as a vegetarian and with VE. By the way, for those who don’t know Connie, she has a fantastic blog that I have just recently discovered. You’ll find it at http://ouichefcook.com/ Do yourself a favor and check it out.

  • LunaCafe May 20, 2011, 6:29 pm

    WOW, this is amazing. I found your post through Anna’s Love Soup Facebook post just now. I cooked and entertained my way through The Vegetarian Epicure multiple times while in college (way back when). Everyone loved the dishes. We weren’t even vegetarians. I still have my very abused first addition copy of the book, while most of the other cookbooks I collected back then have been donated to the less fortunate. Ginger Cheesecake anyone?

    • David Ellis May 20, 2011, 8:57 pm

      LunaCafe, I can’t believe I failed to mention ginger cheesecake in the post. I’m so glad you mentioned it here. I could SO go for a slice of it right now. Take a pic of that poor abused first edition (we won’t judge) and email it to myvepic@davidstable.com. I’ll post it here along with the others I get.

  • Nicola Stratford May 20, 2011, 8:23 pm

    My parents bought both VE books when they first came out, and I have them still, in my bookcase. Both parents had become vegetarian independently of each other, at the age of 19, before they even met, back in the 1940s. They told of being invited to dinner parties with groups of friends, and the ‘jokes’ played on them by the host as everyone else was served their meals and my parents were presented with plates of grass, or bowls of uncooked wheat. Vegetarianism was so fringe in that era that you were suspected of atheism, communism or naturism! Not so today, and thanks in large part to such books as those by Anna Thomas. What a richer culinary world we have today because of these recipes and her passion for them.

    • David Ellis May 20, 2011, 9:03 pm

      Nicola,

      Thank you SO much for your awesome comments. What a great story! I’ll share it with Anna. I think she’ll truly enjoy it. Take a pic of those two copies of VE & VE2 and send it along to me. I’ll post it with the others I receive.

      Regards,
      Dave

  • Doris DeVore May 20, 2011, 8:28 pm

    I love asparagus, and I love quiche. This sounds really interesting without any eggs…I think I am going to have to make this!

    • David Ellis May 20, 2011, 10:35 pm

      Hi Doris,
      Thanks for your comments. This is a great dish. Very filling. Serve it with a nice soup and salad, and you’ve got a filling meal. The béchamel sauce is perfect with asparagus.

      -Dave

  • Anna Thomas May 21, 2011, 12:51 am

    Dave, this is too much fun! I am so touched by the comments, and I can’t wait to see some pictures of old copies of the VE. Thank you for celebrating this book’s birthday. — Anna

  • GGinny May 21, 2011, 8:55 am

    this is, without a doubt, my favorite cookbook. it’s the only one that’s survived my many moves (several across the country) from the ’70s on. for the december holidays, the spinach lasagne is a tradition. some of the pages have broken free from the binding. but still, this classic is dear to me.

    • David Ellis May 21, 2011, 10:03 am

      GGinny,

      I know exactly how you feel. I wouldn’t trade my time tarnished, food stained, dog-eared copy of VE for 20 new ones. Why don’t you send me a picture of you and your copy. I’m hoping to get several and publish them on a page along with people’s comments about the book as a sort of happy 40th birthday card!

      Thanks for your comments.
      -Dave

  • cannedam May 21, 2011, 9:45 am

    There are numerous copies on Amazon for less than $1.

    • David Ellis May 21, 2011, 10:02 am

      Cannedam, thanks for the tip. I’ve also found several in good condition at bookfinder.com and alibris.com at about the same price. I saw a few “very good-excellent” copies a couple days ago for @ $10, but this morning they are gone. Do you think the word is getting out?

  • Catriona Moriarty May 21, 2011, 5:10 pm

    Dave – Great piece and recipe! I truly enjoyed…Can’t wait to make the savory asparagus tart with my farmer’s market asparagus!!!
    Especially love the pie weights pic…such an elegant, understated detail (one I’ve never actually included in my crust process!) Now I’m going to reconsider buying the frozen Whole Foods crusts I typically use, dive in, get my rolling pin on, and master the fine art of savory tart-itecture!
    Keep the killer articles and recipes coming, my friend!
    Catriona

    • David Ellis May 21, 2011, 6:52 pm

      Hey Catriona! Thanks for the great comment & kind words. I think I went a little overboard with the pie weights. You really don’t need that many, but I thought it would make a funny picture. Getting that many back out is a tricky proposition. They also make pie chains in which the beads are all connected like a string of pearls. When you pull one bead out, they all follow, but there’s something old school about mine that I really like. Let me know how that pastry turns out. – Dave

  • Beth Rickman May 22, 2011, 2:41 am

    So glad you have rallied around one of American’s epicurean treasures. I am NOT a vegetarian, but am a fan of Anna Thomas and her book, “Vegetarian Epicure.” Having children who are Vegans, Vegetarians , etc., she has been an inspiration! When her book, “Love Soup” came out, I was in Africa, but sent my daughter, with a list of names for Anna to sign her book to. She went to the book signing and I gave, one of the best loved presents, to my family and friends, all over the world, for Christmas that year. I just read a cookbook from a friend’s grandson, sold to raise money, and one of the recipes was from my friend’s son’s other grandma. It was a recipe that her Grandma had made for them from her favorite cookbook….she gave credit to growing up, with he Grandma cooking from Anna Thomas’ “Vegetarian Epicure.” So she is truly a treasure and a gift we are all blessed with.

    Thank you!

    • David Ellis May 22, 2011, 7:37 am

      Beth, what a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing it with us. -Dave

  • Correen May 23, 2011, 5:29 pm

    David thank you for getting in touch about one of my fave all time cookbooks…I’ve dropped you a note with pictures of my copy and a little note for Anna. ;)

    Earlier this year I wrote up a page about Anna’s cookbook…I was thrilled to pieces when she stopped by with a comment. Over the holidays I even sold a couple of copies off the page…a few more people enjoying the treasures bound in this cookbook…that made me so darn happy!

    • David Ellis May 23, 2011, 5:46 pm

      Thanks Correen! I received your awesome pictures and will let you know when they are all posted. Your copy looks like it was put to some heavy use!!

  • Katy August 11, 2012, 1:16 pm

    As per your offer to try and locate a copy – a friend of mine loves her volumen II of VE, and has been bemoaning the fact that it is falling apart. I have been trying to search for a new copy as a present, but they are either impossibly expensive or have statements like “no dust cover”. Can you help me find a reasonably-priced copy, either in Canada or which will ship for less-than-arm-and-leg?
    Thank you.

    • David Ellis September 25, 2012, 7:39 am

      Hi Katy-Sorry not to get back to you sooner. Somehow I missed your comments here on David’s Table. Let me know if you are still in. The market for a used copy of The Vegetarian Epicure Book 2. I found mine through http://www.bookfinder.com. The seller was based in Detroit, and the price was under $20. A recent search turned up a copy in good condition from a seller in Toledo, OH for only $5. Let me know if you need more details. Regards, Dave

  • Fern hall August 24, 2012, 6:09 pm

    I have both of VE cookbooks and have owned and used them for forty years. Mine are stained and back is broken ! I found one for my daughter at the thrift shop and she uses it regularly. Love the zucchini quiche,gnocchi and the soups. I will have to get the soup book if I see one! Was a vegetarian for 9-10 years and still only eat poultry on occasion. Thanks for the very informative books of that time!

  • Ziva Sahl October 19, 2012, 8:59 pm

    I have my original VE purchased in 1973 as a young newlywed. I also have another less worn copy I found on Ebay a number of years ago. Some of the recipes have become our family favorites, now enjoyed by our granddaughter. It was fun reading through these comments.

  • Linda Webster August 2, 2013, 7:33 pm

    I would so love to locate and buy a copy of this book. My old one has been destroyed and I miss it terribly. Linda Webster

    • David Ellis September 20, 2013, 2:22 pm

      Wonder Books in Frederick, MD has a copy reported to be in “good” condition for only .65. Let me know if you need me to connect you with them, and thanks for reading.

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