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COOKBOOK REVIEW

Out of the garden with just the right touch

Vegetable Harvest, By Patricia Wells, William Morrow, 324 pp., $34.95

Oh, to be Patricia Wells. For 25 years, she has made a life and living introducing English speakers to the pleasures of French food. She writes and teaches in her home in Provence, in the south of France, with its 8-month growing season and perpetually sun-drenched hillsides. And she has her own little winery there, too. I'll have the greens-with-envy special, please, with a side of sour grapes.

"Vegetable Harvest" is Wells's 10th book. After spending a week with it, I have to conclude (reluctantly) that she deserves every last ounce of her success. Wells orchestrates an ensemble of vividly contrasting tastes with her vegetables, using a series of fresh herbal gestures. Maybe this is what comes of living in a place where vegetables are recognized for their own intrinsic taste. Alas, our own growing season is coming right up, so you can put this book to your test, too.

I was glad to discover that I can make a light but satisfying meal out of two vegetable dishes, an expedient formula for cool summer dining. Wells likes flavors that tease or attack the palate; soothing elements like cream always turn up hand in hand with something bracingly acidic or penetratingly sour. I like the simplicity of asparagus braised with fresh rosemary and bay leaves; the spears first steam and then sizzle on their damp bed of herbs. Steamed eggplant with buttermilk-thyme dressing is a mushy comfort food, paired with a garlic wake-up call so loud nobody could forget about it for hours afterward. Spicy sweet potato "fries" combine crisp and soft textures with a suggestion of chili. Swiss chard gratin with pine nuts and Parmesan bubbles and seethes enticingly; if the chard ribs do not add much in the way of character, they are entirely competent as a vehicle for the cheese.

Cooler dishes are equally inventive: a potato salad with spring onions, capers, and mint has a vinegary, sweetly herbal lift. Zucchini carpaccio with avocado and lemon thyme took me completely by surprise. I never dreamed that raw squash could be so refreshing. Baby spinach, radish and mint salad jumps with bright notes and crisp texture; creamy lemon-chive dressing smooths the edges without dulling them.

Though I didn't study them as closely, Wells does not neglect the other courses like pasta, proteins, and soups. Spaghetti with green olives and garlic mint looks and feels like a heavier-bodied pesto, good for a cool night. I felt like cheering when I tasted the subdued fire of a simply grilled chicken dredged in a generous walnut oil-lemon-shallot vinaigrette. Both times I made it, however, the chicken took 15 minutes longer than specified. Mussels with Swiss chard and saffron cream are a bit of a pain -- you have to shell a big batch of mussels for a tiny appetizer -- but they're decidedly luscious.

All in all, "Vegetable Harvest" achieves a fine balance by offering ways to prepare widely available produce using a range of flavors that are fresh and inventive without being fussy. For the most part, Wells takes it easy with the specialty ingredients. There are a few -- fresh bay leaves, piment d'Espelette -- but they don't predominate. Even though Wells calls for fine sea salt, coarse sea salt, and fleur de sel in her recipes, I used ordinary kosher salt for everything and no one was the wiser.

Maybe we can't all have Wells's life in Provence. But fortunately, summer's just around the bend. For a little while, we, too, can live the good life.

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