Power Vegetables! — Peter Meehan

Lucky Peach—the best food magazine out there—has announced it will be closing. Little reason or explanation was given for this upsetting news, although speculation points to a fallout between Peter Meehan (editor) and Dave Chang (majority owner).

In a world of overly polished food writing and photography, Lucky Peach was a glass of cool water on a hot day. It has style, personality and something to say. It was not perfect: it sometimes could not escape its bros talking about sriracha and kewpie mayo vibe. But it was (and for a little while longer, is) a blessed relief from the same generic content.

My favourite part of the Lucky Peach brand was, of course, the cookbooks! My review of 101 Easy Asian Recipes dives deep into my love of Lucky Peach’s flavour-driven approach to food.  It’s not authentic food (whatever that is, anyway) but it is delicious, easy and memorable food. It is food that I want to eat and cook and share.

Given the sad news, and given how much I liked their first book, it was an obvious choice to review their 3rd book: Power Vegetables! This book is a spiritual successor to 101 Easy Asian Recipes (101EARs) in focus, tone and execution.

Structure and Design

Harcover. No ribbon.

272 pages split across the following chapters:

  1. Starters
  2. Salads
  3. Pies & The Like
  4. Soups/Soupy
  5. Ensemble Players
  6. Mains
  7. Mainly Potatoes
  8. Bread & Cake

Like 101EARs, PV! starts with a useful guide to ingredients (called, appropriately enough, POWER PANTRY). Therein are meditations on capers, shiitakes, kombu and a recipe for miso butterscotch which is incredibly compelling when you stop and think about it.

It is interesting to see the development of the format: 101EARs was, more or less, a straight recipe book. However PV! borrows more from the magazine’s format, which is to say a handful of interviews with au currant chefs are scattered throughout the book. While these are not the difference between night or dark, they are nonetheless pleasant inclusions in that they help explain the thinking and context of the book.

As I said in my review of 101EARs, I really like the over-the-top kitschy design. It remains as refreshing as when they first attempted it, although they pleasingly have made a few different art direction decisions. This helps things feel free fresh as opposed to simply more of the same. One example is that they’ve generally scaled back on the use of props and backdrops so when they are used it is to much greater effect. It is not high concept, but I cannot help but smile at the Mexican wrestler holding the corn on page 154–55.

The book is polished: recipes are well written, photography is well executed (do not confuse style with technical proficiency!). The book is a tight and compelling physical package. The design and writing team deserve points for making sure each recipe fits within a page (and is presented in a usable and helpful format to boot!)

Thoughts

The book starts with a manifesto, of sorts. Here, Meehan declares, there will be no pasta recipes or grain bowls. There will be the use of both dairy and fish (mostly fish sauce or anchovies).

It is smart cooking with vegetables, in other words. It is an approach I admire so much. Let’s not get bound up with an argument on is it or is it not vegetarian food, and let’s not fall in the trap of a lot of other vegetable-driven books where one slaps a vegetable on a grain and calls it done.

The rule about no pasta is a really good creative limitation and stops the book from taking some easy outs. Necessity is the mother of all invention, and the book is stronger for adopting this as a principle.

The approach is essentially similar to that in 101EARs and it is what makes Lucky Peach so important in the world of food writing. It shows how joyful food is when seen through the lens of flavour rather than arbitrary rules.

The food we made from this book was, as a rule, delicious and enjoyable. It was fun food to make and fun food to eat. Perhaps it leans slightly in the direction of overly aggressive flavours and seasoning (the vegetarian chili was a knock out punch of umami) but I so favour this approach over more insipid fare.

Here is what we have cooked:

  • Saucy Fried Tofu or Vaguely Korean Watercress-Apple Salad (The recipe suggest a choice but you need to ignore that and make both together. Excellent textures and a prize winner of a salad. That said, I’m a sucker for apple in salads, so consider my obvious bias.)
  • Nam prik hed cabbage cups (Gosh this was good. A punchy assertive mushroom-y condiment is almost the essence of Thailand served simply on wombok leaves. It would be a sin against taste not to make this and make it again with rice and then again with noodles and then with some grilled meat.)
  • Chopped Cauliflower Salad (A very good chopped salad with an exceptionally good yoghurt-y garlic-y dressing. One that I think about whenever I am eating a bland salad.)
  • Pappa al pomodoro (How do the words ‘pizza soup’ sound to you? If you jump up and down with irrepressible excitement at the mere mention of it then it will be that good. If you roll your eyes and perhaps insert a finger under the neck of your cashmere turtleneck, move right along.)
  • Vichyssoise (Another example of the clever way Meehan et al approach creating recipes. A familiar if not much beloved soup is greatly improved through using dashi stock. Although the recipe suggests you serve it cold, it is of course delicious served hot. In any event, the chives and creme fraiche are mandatory.)
  • Elote (Indecently good: corn and mayonnaise and lime juice and chili powder.)
  • Roasted vegetables with fish sauce vinaigrette (I first cooked this recipe in the Momofuku cookbook. About a million times. I then cooked it from Food52’s Genius Recipes a few million times. This permutation—the most simple—is very good if only for legitimising using essentially any vegetable instead of the more common brussels sprouts.)
  • Zuni Spicy Broccoli and Cauliflower (Perhaps a victim of the ‘no pasta rule.’ The original Zuni recipe, which the headnote acknowledges, serves the vegetable mess with pasta. We had this dish both ways—as a salad, per the recipe instructions, and with pasta per the original—and with pasta was clearly better.)
  • Memelitas with Vegetable Peeler Salad (We ate this three meals in a row, not because it was exceptional and amazing but it was so simply tasty and enjoyable as to provoke a state of sustained bemused desire that we could not stop eating it).
  • Roasted cabbage with banana blossom dressing (Odd but remarkable: the dressing, an enticing slurry of red curry paste, lime juice, coconut milk and fish sauce was compelling. The final dish was a masterful combination of textures. Plus I am quite bullish on any recipes that feature cabbage as the hero, as opposed to a sad supporting role.)
  • Kung Pao Celeries (This did not succeed. It was good, but clearly inferior to a chicken/prawn kung pao. It was the first, and only time, in cooking from this book that I thought the results would be much better with meat.)
  • McAloo Tikki Sandwich (Get inside me again, sweet excellent Indian potato burger).

Why this book?

  • You want to eat more exciting plant-based food
  • You love Lucky Peach or are at least Peach curious
  • For what it’s worth, you want to support Lucky Peach

Score

Nigella ░░░ Donna Hay Attractive, evocative writing versus simple and direct?
Ottolenghi ░░░░ Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus quick and easy?
Mark Bittman ░░░ Ferran Adrià Can you cook the food every night or is it more specialist or obscure?
Gwyneth Paltrow ░░░ Nigel Slater Do you see photos of the author or photos of the food?
#KonMarie ░░░ Rising damp And does it just spark joy?

PV! does not aim to change the world. It aims to apply the signature Lucky Peach magic to vegetable-based recipes. It succeeds more often than it fails.

I do not think I want to become a permanent resident in the world of Lucky Peach. Yet to visit is a treat and I encourage you to make the journey.

World of Books: May Update

I have returned from my mid-year retreat. While sad to be no longer on holidays, I am nonetheless delighted to dust off my apron and get back to reviewing cookbooks.

Reviews for these titles are coming over the next few weeks:

  • Power Vegetables! Lucky Peach / Peter Meehan
  • Everyday Cook — Alton Brown
  • Molly on the Range — Molly Yeh (which is delightfully pronounced ‘Yay’)

Beyond those planned reviews, I am at somewhat of a loose end. The cookbook releases of 2017 had not grabbed my attention at all.

Do you have a title you would like to see reviewed? Please let me know.

See you later this week!