Here's a keeper for every serious food library, a reference text you'll pick up again and again -- and not just when you need it, because this 777-page tome is both invaluable in the kitchen and fun to read. Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini: The Essential Reference (William Morrow, $60) is a must-have for anyone who ever strolled through a Chinatown greengrocer or farmers' market dying to buy and try every unfamiliar leaf, root, shoot and tuber simply to find out what it tastes like. Author Elizabeth Schneider has been acting on that impulse for years, and this book, following her earlier Uncommon Fruits & Vegetables: A Commonsense Guide, is the result.
This time, however, the focus is not just on the exotic. The entries include cucumber, kale and parsnip along with curiosities such as cactus pads, chrysanthemum greens and sea bean. Some of the most ordinary vegetables -- bell pepper, cabbage and spinach, for example -- are strangely absent, because, the author said, "If I could not discover something fresh to say about a vegetable, then it's not here." But never mind that -- with some 350 others to read up on, there's a wealth of information to take in. Most are pictured, in 275 lovely, clear-eyed photos by Amos Chan.
For every vegetable, Schneider treats readers to history, a little botany, shopping and storage tips, general cooking advice and recipes -- the author's own, and scores more she has collected from top cooks all over the world, making a grand total of 500.
Schneider's chef friends (and she appears to know every cook of consequence) weigh in at the close of each entry with yet more advice. For rutabaga, for example, she enlisted veteran cookbook authors Susan Herrmann Loomis and Barbara Kafka and celebrity chefs Patrick O'Connell, Michael Romano and Odessa Piper. They manage to generate a fair amount of excitement about this oft maligned cousin of the turnip with their appetizing suggestions for warming autumn soups, an elegant galette and a newfangled rösti.
Virtually every vegetable is lavished with such affection. From esoteric marsh mallow (an edible relative of the hollyhock) to common yellow summer squash, the energetic text and creative cooking ideas will make even unadventurous readers want to experiment.
Only the oddball horned African cucumber, or kiwano, gets dissed. "I have frozen its juice, whipped it, blended it with liquor and with yogurt, made vinaigrette and other sauces with it, even microwaved and baked the whole in an attempt to discover some uses for it," Schneider wrote. "Whatever the virtues of this piggy bank—satellite gourd, edibility is not an obvious one."
Given her thoroughness throughout the book, this must be true. But Schneider is too rigorously inquisitive a foodie to ever throw in the towel. "I rest my case," she said, "for the time being."