[Update 2008: I have now eaten out of this book for many years, and have moved from the sticks to a culinary center of the world, and I still turn to Pasta e Verdura more than once a week. Without this book my life would be significantly poorer. And now, back to 2003.]
A while back I reviewed The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook by Jack Bishop, a book which I credited with teaching me some of the fundamentals of cooking while not possessing too many actual recipes that I was crazy about. At the time I wrote TCIVC up I had just purchased Pasta E Verdura, and mentioned it in passing as an extension of the former book.
It's not. There's a bit of overlap, in that TCIVC has a pasta chapter with a handful of pasta sauce recipes in it, but in emphasizing the breadth of possibilities within vegetarian Italian cooking, Bishop came up with the culinary equivalent of a mix tape. Pasta e Verdura is more like a boxed set of one band's work, taking one topic (pasta sauces) and exploring it in depth — there are 140 recipes in here, of which I've tried about a quarter. And while my verdict on TCIVC was that while I was extremely pleased with the cooking skills it had taught me I wasn't really crazy about the actual recipes, the same cannot be said for Pasta e Verdura. With the local restaurant pickings as slim as they are, I've been eating out of this book for months.
The phrase "pasta sauces" probably gives the wrong impression — this isn't twelve dozen ways to make Prego. The title translates to "pasta and vegetables," and the recipes described within are more like saucy vegetable dishes than something you'd conceivably put in a jar. Someone I know recently averred that he couldn't think of vegetables as anything other than a side dish; I found this rather alien, since I tend to have no truck with the Middle American default dinner plate with a slab of this, a scoop of that and a slice of the other thing. When I cook, I throw a bunch of stuff into a wok, and then eat it out of the wok, and that's dinner. Our "dinner table" is a stool that's just barely big enough around to balance the wok on. "Side dishes" would end up on the floor. So if I buy a bag of green beans, that's no garnish; that's dinner.
And if I prepare it following the instructions in Pasta e Verdura, it will likely be delicious. In fact, there are a handful of recipes in here that match or surpass any unbaked pasta dish I've ever had in a restaurant: the broccoli in hot pink sauce, the squash and sage... even something as basic as roasted garlic with tomatoes and basil turns out to be a revelation. And the recipes stay amazing pretty much all the way down; I've reached the point that I'm now trying pages that sound eminently skippable (avocado and cold tomatoes with capers?) only to find that they're every bit as tasty as the ones that sounded great from the get-go. There's also a little thrill that comes from throwing perfectly ordinary ingredients into a pan on your own stove and having them turn into magic. Thanks to Pasta e Verdura, my kitchen is now my favorite local eatery. The only drawback is that the dishes don't wash themselves.
Recently I decided to try Bishop's older mini-cookbook on lasagna, titled, creatively, Lasagna. This is somewhat less successful, or at least my attempts to work with it have been. The "lasagna margherita" was fine, but other recipes have had problems with oiliness, texture mismatches and so forth. And half the book is given over to meaty lasagnas that are of no use to me, so I don't see myself making much more use of this one. C'est la vie. I mean, quella è vita.