Little about “Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch” (Ten Speed Press, 2011; $40), British writer Nigel Slater’s quietly epic cookbook about preparing vegetables, feels designed for the American consumer. The author’s preoccupations are so personal, so drawn from the quotidian pleasures of tending his small garden in London, that they feel far removed from the celebrity-penned, diet-driven, ego-tripping cookbooks that dominate U.S. bestseller lists.
“Perhaps because I was brought up on frozen peas — they were virtually the only vegetable that passed my lips until I was in double figures — I have a curiosity and an appetite for vegetables that extends far beyond any other ingredients,” writes the longtime Observer columnist, in the introduction to the U.S. edition. “Shopping at the market on a Saturday morning, I will spend four or five times as long choosing my beans, tomatoes or lettuces than I will buying anything else. Vegetables beckon and intrigue in a way no fish or piece of meat ever could.”
Slater’s love of the Earth’s bounty doesn’t read like a veganista’s harangue, either, designed to shame us into eating our vegetables for the sake of our bodies or the planet (though he does — briefly — mention both benefits). “I plant seeds because I get a buzz from watching green shoots poke through the soil, from looking after them as something precious and vital, protecting them from the pigeons and foxes and clumsy feet that roam the modern city garden, from feeding them and watching them bloom.”
Slater, in other words, is an obsessive, but one whose obsession seems to stop in the kitchen. His recipes tend to be loose and open-ended, in ingredient quantities (he regularly calls for a “handful” of this or that) and cooking times or temperatures (his Warm Chicken With Green Beans and Chard recommends that you “grill or roast until cooked right through and the skin is golden”). Slater seems to take the measure of his readers and assumes they know how to cook.
For reasons that deserve deeper scrutiny, American cookbooks clearly prize an elementary, step-by-step breakdown of the preparation and cooking process, a “Dummies” guide buried in every publication. Slater has too much respect for all involved — the ingredient, the reader, the joy of discovery in the kitchen — to want to serve as your nanny. He’d rather play your mentor, the kind who wants you to love the messy process, not just the finished dish, which, come to think of it, you’ll love, too. These easy-to-execute dishes go down just as easy. It all makes you look forward to Slater’s second “Tender” volume, dedicated to fruits, due to arrive stateside next spring.
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