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FOOD DAY / WEDNESDAY / A La Carter / A Passion For Vegetarian Cooking And A Rich Life

If there is one book that will encourage you to stay home

and cook this winter, it is "Passionate Vegetarian" by Crescent Dragonwagon.

Partly, that is because it is stuffed with more than 1,000 recipes, most of

them enticing to vegetarians and carnivores alike.

Partly, that is because the book is a Herculean 1,120 pages, and it is too

heavy to carry around for reading on the train.

Partly, it is because "Passionate Vegetarian" (Workman Publishing Co.,

$24.95) is so beautifully written. It seems like a direct and logical result of

a life lived richly and fully. (Crescent Dragonwagon, who changed her name

from Ellen Zolotow in the '70s, which, of course, was really "the '60s," was

living that way long before Citibank put up billboards urging us to do so.) It

is a cookbook seasoned by a story. The story is of shared food memories, love

and loss, joy and renewal.

Dragonwagon, also the author of 40 children's books, is a New York native

who, with her husband, Ned Shank, owned Dairy Hollow House, an acclaimed

country inn in Eureka Springs, Ark., that is now the nonprofit Writers' Colony

at Dairy Hollow. Most of the book was written while Shank was still alive, and

after he died it became a kind of scrapbook of the couple's life together, as

well as a recipe book. Dragonwagon ("a children's book name," she has said,

"like Dr. Seuss") decided to go ahead and dedicate the book to him anyway, as

she had planned.

"What a feast we had," Dragonwagon writes. She means that on several levels.

Shank and Dragonwagon met over an apple crisp at a potluck dinner in Little

Rock in 1977. As she set her warm dessert on the table, she writes, she looked

"straight into the large blue eyes of Ned Shank, with whom I would share the

next 23 years." It was "Some Enchanted Evening," she writes, except that over

the aromas of buttery oatmeal and brown sugar, "it was earthier."

For his contribution to the supper, Shank, who threw pottery, had brought

salad in a handmade blue and gray bowl that Dragonwagon still sets great store

by. "Ridged rings, still visible and tactile, climbed its side," she writes,

"left by his long, confident fingers, which had coaxed the once-pliable clay up

and out as his long legs kicked and turned the pottery wheel."

A man of many "side talents," as Dragonwagon describes it, Shank was a

music preservationist and played banjo, fiddle and harmonica. He was a champion

packer; he once packed an antique tea set of paper-thin bone china in such a

way that it journeyed from Portland, Ore., to Eureka Springs, Ark., and arrived

without a single broken teacup. He could "fix almost anything out of

anything," and "once made a very elegant light fixture for my mother out of a

tuna can spray-painted black." He was a handy man to have around a kitchen.

Shank sketched, too, and in the last year of his life made 500 drawings. His

only children's book, "The Sanyasin's First Day," was published that year.

And then there were their meals together - in Alaska, in Paris, in Kerala,

India, and at home.

Sometimes, Dragonwagon writes, they shared "the overall experience: not

just the first bite of the apple pie made from the first Arkansas apples of the

season, but having driven to the farmer's market in Berryville on the first

fall morning cold enough to wear sweaters," and later, "Ned sitting on the

kitchen step-stool reading aloud to me as I peeled and sliced the fruit, then

mixed and rolled the crust he would later scrape remnants of from the bread

board as he brought the kitchen back to order again."

One November day in 2000, Shank rode his bicycle not to the Conoco station

he called "Canoe-Co," because folks rented canoes there, but "into eternity."

For a while after that, grieving, Dragonwagon barely ate. When she began to

say yes to food again, she writes, she also was saying "yes to life on its own

inherently high-risk terms, which offer no guarantees.

"What we eat is part of the way we are rooted to our very temporary home in

the world," she continues in the introduction. "Eating well honors life. For

me it means honoring Ned and the feast we had together, too."

Over the years, the bowl held strawberries, green salads, bean stews, corn

bread. It is still here.

"That bowl seems to me radiant," writes Dragonwagon. "It ... contains not

just food and personal history, but the nonnegotiable fact that one lover

outlasts another, that objects outlast those who make and use them, and love

itself goes on, despite its fragility and our knowledge of this."

To any of us who think about how we could survive without our life's

companion, or about how he or she would go on without us, these are words of

wisdom and comfort.

Who has not thought of such matters?

"Have you talked to Crescent Dragonwagon?" my editor asked.

"I don't think I need to," I replied. "She's said it all."

The book's subtitle, "More Than 1,000 Robust Recipes With Notes on Cooking,

Eating, Loving, and Living Fearlessly," is, it turns out, true and right. You

get more than recipes here.

Cook from it and make memories of golden summer corn soup decorated with

edible maroon-red nasturtiums; beans baked with coffee, brown sugar, chili

powder and chipotle peppers; Thai- Malaysian curry-ginger marinade for tofu;

soy-scalloped potatoes with pesto; spaghetti "pancake" of eggs, pasta, cheese,

peppers, garlic.

Of the recipe below, Dragonwagon writes, "No matter how many of these you

make, you'll wish there'd been more." (A lot of life is like that, isn't it?)

If you increase the quantity, don't double the oil.

This one's for Ned.

Ned's Fiery Oven French-Bakes

Cooking spray (optional)

3 to 4 medium-large red- or white-skinned boiling potatoes, washed, eyes

removed, peel left on, sliced into 1/4-inch-wide French fry strips

4 to 5 cloves garlic, pressed (or smashed)

2 teaspoons olive oil

2 tablespoons tamari or shoyu soy sauce, or to taste

1 to 3 teaspoons Tabasco sauce, or to taste

2 tablespoons rice wine or other unseasoned vinegar

6 to 8 grinds black pepper

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place rack on highest position in oven.

2. Spray a baking sheet with cooking spray. Set aside.

3. Place potatoes in a bowl. Add garlic and oil, tossing to coat potatoes

well with oil. Sprinkle with tamari, Tabasco and vinegar and toss again.

4. Transfer potatoes to prepared baking sheet, spreading them out so they

are in a single layer. Grind on the pepper.

5. Bake, removing from oven to shake and turn potatoes about every 10

minutes, for 25 to 30 minutes. Test for doneness and continue baking until

browned, cooked through and starting to crisp up on the skinny ends. Serve hot.

Makes 2 servings.

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