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Saturday, August 4th, 2007
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Fresh Food Fast: Delicious, Seasonal Vegetarian Meals in Under an Hour

by Peter Berley and Melissa Clark

The Weeknight Cook

A review by Jill Owens

Generally speaking, I find cooking to be an all or nothing affair. I'll either spend a pretty long time -- at least a couple of hours, at most the better part of the day -- cooking an elaborate four- or five-course meal; or, I won't cook at all, and fall back on my staple vegetarian fast food -- salads, meat substitutes, or pasta (if I'm ambitious). I've always been a bit embarrassed that I'm so chained to recipes; I never quite got the hang of improvising -- creating a decent, healthy meal out of whatever I happened to have in the fridge and the cupboard.

So this summer, confronted with what seems like an unusual bounty of produce even by Oregon standards, I'm determined to learn how to stop relying so much on processed food when I'm in a hurry, and I've happened upon the perfect book to get me started. Peter Berley's Fresh Food Fast: Delicious Vegetarian Meals in under an Hour is not intentionally written as a guide to creativity in the kitchen (in contrast with, for example, Sally Schneider's The Improvisational Cook). But the more you use it -- and you will use it; I've rarely seen such a marriage of flavor and convenience in a cookbook -- the more you'll understand that availability, simplicity, and flexibility are the weeknight cook's secret weapons.

Peter Berley, the author of the classic vegetarian cookbook The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen, was the executive chef of Angelica Kitchen in New York City, a much-praised vegan restaurant. (This cookbook is decidedly not vegan; there are plenty of recipes that include cheese or eggs, though many could be made vegan fairly easily.) He also teaches at the Institute of Culinary Education and the Natural Gourmet Institute for Food and Health. Fresh Food Fast is a collection of the kinds of recipes he likes to cook for himself and his family when he gets home -- after cooking for everyone else all day, spending unnecessary time over the stove seems particularly unappealing, yet the craving for good food remains, especially with a chef's palate.

Fresh Food Fast is a somewhat unusual cookbook in that it isn't comprehensive; there are no breakfast recipes, though any of these menus could easily work for either lunch or dinner. Most are two-dish meals, with a few suggesting a third addition; there are twelve meals for each season, accompanied by several seasonal desserts (most of which involve fruit and are both quick and scrumptious; one of my favorite isn't a recipe at all, but extols a slice of watermelon sprinkled with fleur de sel as "the simplest and best dessert I know.")

The remarkable thing about the recipes in this book is that they are incredibly easy to execute and yet somehow create complex, nuanced flavor -- with what still seems to me to be a remarkable simplicity of seasoning. Looking at the short ingredient lists, I was worried that the first three dishes I made would be bland, since there were very few spices included. But they were gorgeously, even surprisingly full-flavored. ("How much would you pay for this in a restaurant? I'd say at least 25 to 30 bucks," my dining partner mused about one meal.) They're often comfort food for grown-ups with a nod to the gourmet, emphasizing seasonal fruit, vegetables, and whole grains.

Fresh Food Fast lives up to its title, and, although Berley doesn't draw much attention to this aspect of his recipes, they're also good for you, hearty without being too heavy and restrained in their use of salt and fat. They're pretty inexpensive to make, too, in part because they lead into each other: I bought some fresh okra, and made Three Sisters Stew with Okra and Leeks; then to use up the leftover coriander, made Garlic Soup with Avocado, Tortillas, and Lime; and, while picking up the avocado, I found yellow wax beans, which I'd noticed another of his dishes included...And so forth. One small caveat: I don't know if the produce in Oregon this summer is unusually large, but I'd lean towards the more precise measurements in the recipes when both precise and general measurements are listed (i.e., 2 large leeks sliced, or 1 1/2 cups -- 2 large leeks for me were more like 2 1/2 or 2 2/3 cups). That minor quibble aside, Fresh Food Fast is an addictive addition to my kitchen library that's also retraining my brain to cook more creatively.

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