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I was feeling feisty when I fielded a call from Jack Bishop's press agent. Bishop has just published a book called The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook (Houghton Mifflin, $35), and his publicist told me that Bishop had spent loads of time in Italy, and was coming to Minneapolis to promote his new, broadly accessible book. Right. I pictured some flutey-voiced food weenie gushing about how absolutely easy it is to dress freshly shelled fava beans with $30-an-ounce olive oil and truffle shavings. How divine fiddle-head ferns are when dressed in a simple kefir lime leaf and nutmeg-tomato coulis. It seems to me that I could create an anthology, based solely on books I've gotten in the last six months, called Unlikely or Impossible Low-Fat Meals!

So I growled, "Sure, have him meet me in Lund's." I'd show him. Then I got the cookbook in the mail, and I was hopelessly up a creek without a paddle. All the recipes rely on bread-and-butter vegetables like cauliflower, squash, broccoli, potatoes, greens, and mushrooms. Most can be done quickly on a weeknight, the techniques are explained very clearly, and each recipe comes with serving suggestions plain enough that you won't have to go through a major brain overhaul to integrate vegetarian meals into your weekly plans.

Once I did meet Bishop at Lund's, he showed me how, with a pantry stocked with olive oil, garlic, lemons, onions, capers, olives, canned tomatoes, pasta, arborio rice, polenta, Parmesan cheese, and dried spices like pepper, you could eat happily and live healthily out of the produce section at any decent supermarket. Bishop, who is a very nice guy and became even more likable once he gave me a couple of pine-nut macaroons (which are featured in the book, and are made only from almonds, sugar, egg whites, and pine nuts), explained that he thinks Americans are growing weirdly intimidated by cooking.

"People think cooking, especially vegetarian cooking, is some esoteric thing. They think, 'I'm going to have to mince an onion like that guy on TV for this to come out right,' but I'm here to say it doesn't have to be weird, it doesn't have to be hard, and you don't even have to have a long ingredient list. Besides, it's very relaxing to spend 15 minutes preparing vegetables for a pasta sauce, and then your family is like, 'Wow, you cooked.'" Fully converted, I left the supermarket with a shopping bag full of arugula, endive, Swiss chard, spinach, and squash, and, as unfeistily as possible, sat down to a wonderful meal.

Risotto with Butternut Squash and Sage

6 cups vegetable stock 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil 3 tablespoons unsalted butter 1 medium onion, minced 6 large fresh sage leaves, minced, plus 8 leaves for frying (optional) 1/2 small butternut squash (1 lb.), stringy pulp and seeds discarded, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes 1/2 cup dry white wine 1 1/2 cups arborio rice 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan-Reggiano, plus more for the table Salt and freshly ground pepper

1) Simmer stock in a medium saucepan. Keep warm. 2) Heat the oil and two tablespoons of the butter in a heavy-bottomed pot. Add the onion and sauté until translucent, about five minutes. Stir in the minced sage and cook for 30 seconds. Stir in the squash and cook for two minutes, stirring often to coat the pieces. 3) Add wine and one cup of the warm stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer until the squash is very tender, about 25 minutes. (If the pot runs dry, add more warm stock as needed.) Uncover the pot and cook off any extra liquid. 4) Using a wooden spoon, stir in the rice and cook for one minute. Add one-half cup of the warm stock and cook, stirring frequently, until the rice absorbs the liquid. Continue adding stock in one-half-cup increments, stirring, until the rice is creamy and soft but still a bit al dente, about 25 minutes (add hot water if you run out of stock). 5) Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the remaining tablespoon of butter and the one-half cup of cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with the fried sage leaves, if using. Serve immediately with more grated cheese. (To fry sage leaves, heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a small nonstick skillet until quite hot. Add eight large whole sage leaves and sauté them, turning once, until crisp. Drain on paper towels.)

 
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