The Flexitarian Table, Inspired, Flexible Meals for Vegetarians, Meat Lovers, and Everyone in Between, By Peter Berley with Zoe Singer, Houghton Mifflin, 352 pp., $30
Until now, Peter Berley has been a champion mainly in the vegetarian arena. Angelica Kitchen, the New York restaurant where he used to cook, was a veggie beachhead. His last two books won critical acclaim and established him as a minor guru of fruit, vegetables, and grains. His new book, "The Flexitarian Table," takes a big stride away from those virtuous roots. I have to confess I nearly didn't get past the title, which I feared was fronting yet another euphemistic prescription for living 100 years by walking a mile a day and restricting your protein calories to trimmed chicken breast and white fish.
Not so, I happily discovered. Although the book is produce-centric, its ethos is inclusive. Seasoned, perhaps, from years of trying to bring flavor to seitan and tempeh, Berley will do anything to amp up flavor -- infusing oils, brining, using fistfuls of herbs. Under these conditions, I found it very easy to bring his book to our unrepentantly omnivorous table.
Berley is a fan of the seasonal-menu school of eating. I found his spring and summer sections full of good things. Spring greens in dill vinaigrette was really just a dressing recipe. I have what could charitably be described as a limited repertoire of salad dressings, and I was enchanted to stumble on this lively combination of lemon, shallots, honey, and dill. In fact, I've had it every day for a week and haven't tired of it yet.
Chilled asparagus salad with sherry vinaigrette was refreshing in the same way. After blanching and shocking the spears, Berley advises chilling them in dressing for an hour so they can absorb it and, amazingly, they do. There's none of this business of trying to soak up sauce by dragging a spear through it, clearly the long stalk is the wrong shape for the job. I had never known you could eat radish greens, but Berley's recipe for butter-braised radishes with their greens turned them into a warm, vinegary treat, reminiscent of the way you might prepare collards or mustard greens. Alas, the radishes lost much of their sass and spice in the cooking. Roasted spring carrots with cumin and lime were bracingly tart, unlike the sweet glazed carrots that send kids packing. (Still, a word to the wise: Don't serve them to your kindergartner.)
We found the chilled curried red lentil and peach soup sweet yet filling in the way some Indian dal dishes are. It was fruity and appealing, if a bit monotonous after a while. Everyone at my table fell for the fresh corn polenta with sauteed cherry tomatoes: the smooth, golden uniformity of the polenta punctuated by fresh kernels, the herbed tomatoes charred and savory.
I couldn't believe how much flavor grilled shrimp in harissa had, even though it was simply marinated for 15 minutes in lemon, garlic, and warm spices, then skewered and grilled. Berley's technique of weighting chicken thighs under a skillet and a brick made all the difference to crispy pressed chicken/tofu with garlic and mint. The author offers an alternative main course in many recipes, as he does here, with the idea that you can serve two people chicken and two tofu, using the same marinade. The weight made the skin of the chicken thighs crisp, and squeezed out water so the meat cooked quickly. Slabs of tofu got a nice crust, too, though of course it didn't express the effects of marinade as well as the meat.
Berley occasionally skips a step, a typical pitfall for veteran cooks. In the pressed chicken and tofu, for instance, he doesn't tell you to oil the pan (though he tells you to pour off the oil after), and there's no oil for the pan listed in the recipe. He doesn't warn you that red lentils turn to mush when they're cooked, so you wouldn't want to try and drain them. Anyone who's been around the stove a few years wouldn't mind these omissions, but they could trip up a novice cook.
What's nice about "Flexitarian" is that it's unpredictable. Berley has a true believer's soul, but he's not going to rehash the sprouts and tofu of the '70s, or try to pull off an "Asian lite," or put us on a deprivation diet of black beans and brown rice. This is the work of someone who has been thinking long enough about his ingredients that he's not afraid to mix it up with them. Let the jalapeno party with the hijiki! Curried soup in the same meal as eggplant-stuffed feta. Why not? Having a diet with a little flex never hurt anybody.