"The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook," Brill's third following "Shoots and Greens of Early Spring" (1986) and "Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places' (1994) is the definitive cookbook for those interested in foraging for and cooking wild dishes. The book is a pleasure to read with Brill's offbeat humor apparent throughout its 484 pages. The book supplies both new and experienced natural food enthusiasts with techniques and advice culled from Brill's 20 years in the wild foods forefront. But it's the way the natural world opens to us after reading the book that makes it so valuable.
In the introduction, Brill, a former professional chess player and self-described "authority on edible and medicinal wild plants," describes his evolution from health food novice to wild foods enthusiast.
"I took a crucial step toward becoming hooked on wild foods when, while riding my bicycle in a local park in Hollis, Queens, I saw Greek women in traditional black garb who were busily foraging for plants. I stopped to ask them what they were doing, but their answers were all Greek to me."
After that experience, Brill began studying field guides to help identify and choose edible plants, and started adding wild plants to his diet. Cookbook authors, to whom Brill turned for wild, edible plant recipes, proved to be a disappointment. What was lacking in their books, Brill found, were recipes that preserved the nutritional value of the plants and actually tasted good.
"The authors," he explained, "were botanists who wouldn't recognize a kitchen if one fell on their heads. And wild food cookbooks offered recipes for death: Boil the nutrition out of your greens or cook them in enough bacon fat to induce cardiac arrest."
"The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook" fills the void in the market for a wild food cookbook that offers instruction on healthy cooking techniques and recipes that produce tasty meatless and dairy-free dishes. His experience is evident throughout the book, with a thorough introduction broken into sections with titles such as "Foraging and You," that warns readers to "Use only those wild foods that you've identified with 100-percent certainty."
Interested foragers will need to refer to Brill's "Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants" or other field guides for illustrations and descriptions of plants. He goes on to a discussion of "What Makes Wild Food Special" that describes the benefits of a high-fiber diet and the ills of modem diets, so often based on refined foods rich in fat and carbohydrates and devoid of nutrition. Other areas covered in the book are food preparation methods, an herb and spice user's guide and a "how-to" guide for turning tofu into an assortment of dairy-free cheeses.
Many of the recipes that feature wild, edible plants offer suggestions for cultivated plant substitutions making the book accessible to those who will only forage as far as their supermarkets or green markets.
One recipe for a mock coq au vin (chicken cooked in red wine with mushrooms) substitutes wild chicken mushrooms for the usual chicken. The success of many of the recipes lies in Brill's ability to season dishes with spices that can sometimes mimic the flavors of traditional meat or cheese-based dishes. A Spanish sausage recipe uses bread crumbs, lima beans and spicy seasonings such as hot paprika and chili paste to imitate the taste and texture of a standard meat sausage. A recipe for coconut rice calls for coconut milk, tamari soy sauce and the unexpected addition of vanilla extract. The rice tastes surprisingly beefy, and the coconut milk gives it a creamy consistency.