Ten must-have cookbooks for vegetarians (and their friends)

Chickpeas, creamy yoghurt, tahini garlic and roasted almonds from Moroccan Soup Bar.
Chickpeas, creamy yoghurt, tahini garlic and roasted almonds from Moroccan Soup Bar. Photo: Marina Oliphant

It wasn't very long ago that you could get away with feeding the vego at your dinner party a bowl of lettuce leaves and carrot shavings. But those same vegetarians are getting the lion's share of the smartest, coolest, and most beautiful cookbooks – leaving the rest of us to step up our meat-free game. Let these 10 titles show you the way to better living through healthy, ethical, and frankly quite handsome cuisine.

Moroccan Soup Bar: Recipes of a Spoken Menu and a Little Bit of Spice

Moroccan Soup Bar. Recipes of a spoken menu and a little bit of spice by Hana Assafiri.
Moroccan Soup Bar. Recipes of a spoken menu and a little bit of spice by Hana Assafiri. 

Hana Assafiri, Melbourne Books, $44.95

Every week-old brunch joint claims to be a "Melbourne institution", but these jokers have nothing on Hana Assafiri's Moroccan Soup Bar. It's been serving up its banquets for 16 years now, and still manages to feel human, rich, and warm. This lush cookbook does justice to the simplest offerings. But it reserves top billing for the famous chickpea bake, a bravura dish that merits its own five-paragraph introduction. Add lots of photos of diners mingling around communal tables and you've got a book-length monument to a truly special place.

I made: Harissa artichoke bake. Simple enough to trick guests into thinking you invented it but of course it's much, much better.

Maggie Beer's Autumn Harvest.
Maggie Beer's Autumn Harvest. 

Good for: That Melbourne friend who just let you sleep on the couch for two weeks. A better thank you than a bottle of wine.

I loved: Learning the best tricks of a restaurant that's always felt a bit secretive.

Maggie Beer's Autumn Harvest Recipes 

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Maggie Beer, Penguin, $29.99

A compilation of the autumn recipes from a giant, classic cookbook that your friends and relatives own, but that you definitely don't. Even if you did, who cares? It's orange, brown, and red – like autumn itself, one might venture – so what better way to ring in the season. Maggie Beer's vast knowledge of all things food is conveyed through long, fascinating screeds about the uses of ingredients and their regional histories. There's plenty of meat here, but enough veg that you could put together three-course dinners all season long.

I made: the entire olive section: Baked olives; green olive gnocchi with green olive sauce; and Aileen's olive bread. The secret ingredient is olives.

Raw: Recipes for a Modern Vegetarian Lifestyle.
Raw: Recipes for a Modern Vegetarian Lifestyle. 

Good for: Anyone who's admired people who cook seasonal cuisine, but never actually tried it.

I loved: The chapters – which are arranged alphabetically by ingredient, so it's granted instant kitchen bible status without being a massive tome.

Raw: Recipes for a modern vegetarian lifestyle

The Middle Eastern Vegetarian Cookbook by Salma Hage.
The Middle Eastern Vegetarian Cookbook by Salma Hage. 

Solla Eiriksdottir, Phaidon, $49.95

If any cookbook can be a truly personal document, it's this one. According to the introduction, the author wished to share her fascination with the enchanting cycle of the seasons. You believe her. This book is all about bowls-on-the-go and healthy "shots" (highly concentrated smoothies). Recipes are divided seasonally, and aren't strictly limited to recipes. The chapters come with suggested guides for seasonal activities – sometimes it's about growing food in small urban spaces; sometimes it's about using turmeric to dye cloth yellow. This is cooking as Lifestyle with a capital L.

I made: Pistachio and kale hummus. You probably have a go-to hummus recipe already. Scrap it. This one's good.

Nom Yourself by Mary Mattern.
Nom Yourself by Mary Mattern. 

Good for: Anyone who wishes they'd kept their healthy, crafty New Year's resolutions. It's not too late.

I loved: The photographs of goats next to icy-looking rivers. It's all very Nordic.

The Middle Eastern Vegetarian Cookbook

A Modern Way to Cook by Anna Jones.
A Modern Way to Cook by Anna Jones. 

Salma Hage, Phaidon, $49.95

You'll remember The Lebanese Kitchen, the smash-hit cookbook of Christmas 2012 – that nice big volume with the green and red cover, every bookstore had lots of them. From the same author comes a viable contender for the fun-yet-sensible, go-to encyclopaedia for anytime you want to get your mezze on. It's comprehensive enough to feel like the only cookbook you should own, but it's bright, glossy, open, and quite easy to browse. The recipes are interesting enough to make you feel like you're ambitious, but never so complicated that you actually cry.

I made: Green lentil and spinach stew. "I can't get excited about stew," my friend said. How very wrong. This was dense, salty, and delicious.

Ruth Reichl's My Kitchen Year.
Ruth Reichl's My Kitchen Year. 

Good for: Hangovers, colds, flus, and existential crises – anything involving a need for good old-fashioned heartiness combined with a general sense of wellbeing.

I loved: The photography, which is simple, straightforward, and clean – pretty and accessible; 

asparagus and feta quiche. So creamy you could drink it.

Near and Far by Heidi Swanson.
Near and Far by Heidi Swanson. Photo: supplied

A Modern Way to Cook

Anna Jones, HarperCollins, $49.99

Anna Jones's last book, A Modern Way to Eat, was a quiet hit in circles of sympathetic meat-eaters who were sick of cooking tasty meals for their plant-based friends only to have them sigh knowingly and say, "Ahh… Ottolenghi." A Modern Way to Cook is more of the same, but that's what we're after: Anna Jones's recipes make so much sense it's like they've been there all along. Nearly every cookbook on this list has a recipe for buckwheat pancakes – but these ones have beetroot and hazelnuts, and you serve them at dinnertime.

Thug Kitchen.
Thug Kitchen. 

I made: The "Goodness Bowls", which you build from a handy chart – a grain or pulse, a flavour booster, a killer dressing, then a finishing touch. How good are these Goodness Bowls? Really very good.

Good for: Busy people with little time and big imaginations.

I loved: The honest cooking times. Even the "40-minute feasts" take 40 minutes, no more, no less.

Cornersmith by Alex Elliott-Howery and James Grant.
Cornersmith by Alex Elliott-Howery and James Grant. 

Nom Yourself

Mary Mattern, Penguin, $49.99

Most of us don't have the nerve to deep-fry guacamole, so it's a good thing we have Mary Mattern to show us how easy it is. This is a fun book with bigger food than its size and shape suggests – it's portable and durable, as though the publishers knew it was going to get a workout in your kitchen. Mattern may be vegan, but she's a cultural omnivore, drawing deeply on The Great American Cookbook ("buffalo wings", lots of corn) but dousing it in sour-sweet flavours from around the globe.

Crossroads by Tal Ronnen with Scot Jones.
Crossroads by Tal Ronnen with Scot Jones. 

I made: Mushroom cauliflower harissa paella. Say this six times fast.

Good for: Reluctant vegans who need a little dash of extra street cred (Mattern has been a personal chef for Ellie Goulding and Moby).

I loved: The emphasis on seafood seasoning. You'll never believe me, but seafood seasoning makes cauliflower taste like prawns. Oh, and Mushroom pie wheels ... in the author's words: "the savoury version of a frosted cinnamon roll".

My Kitchen Year

Ruth Reichl, Murdoch, $45

The subtitle is 136 recipes that saved my life – it's about the year that Gourmet magazine folded, and with it, Reichl's job. This is a full-blown book-length version of the author's incredible Twitter account, which chops together reports of meals with little bites of memory: "Foggy, foggy, foggy. Eating sunshine: tomatoes whirled with cucumbers, onions, capsicums. Splash of vinegar. Crunch of crouton. Better weather." In My Kitchen Year, these tweets are employed as pull quotes. If you've ever wondered whether these appetising alliterative ambrosias taste that good – they do. The whole thing is interesting and moving.

I made: The Diva of Grilled Cheese. I don't want to give away its secrets, but this will cure what ails you.

Good for: anyone who worships at the Reichl shrine, or new converts.

I loved: Jim Lahey's no-knead bread. "This bread, with some cold, sweet butter, will be one of the best things you have ever tasted," writes Reichl. True.

Crossroads

Tal Ronnen, Scot Jones and Serafina Magnussen, Artisan, $69.95

With endorsements from former president Bill Clinton, Sir Paul McCartney, and Jay-Z, this is the fancy vegan cookbook people will be talking about for years. You can tell by the paper stock (each page is Kodak quality) and the clean, sparse font – the designer's paid attention to the kerning. These are the kinds of recipes that require three or four sub-recipes before you get anywhere near achieving the sumptuous-looking creation in the picture. Luckily, the results are always worth the time. A cookbook to put away with the good china.

I made: Grilled garden vegetable lasagna with puttanesca sauce. You could enter this in a lasagna competition and you would win.

Good for: Impressing presidents.

I loved: The photo of acorn squash ravioli on the cover that I'm too scared to make.

Near and Far: Recipes Inspired by Home and Travel

Heidi Swanson, Hardie Grant, $39.95

If you need to add some wildcards to your vegetarian repertoire, you could do worse than pillage this cookbook from Heidi Swanson – who's compiled it from years of scrapbooks, notebooks, and travels 'round the world. Turn one page and she suggests mixing a French aperitif you've never heard of with a bunch of frozen cherries for colour and bite; turn another and suddenly you're off to Japan, where they feed you miso soup blended with turmeric. Most of these recipes are appealing basics with just the right amount of weirdo spin to keep things interesting.

I made: Selections from the tartine section – three riffs on open-faced sandwiches, each one picture-perfect.

Good for: Anyone who drools over other people's travel blogs, but wishes they were a bit more practical.

I loved: The inclusive attitude. Swanson is not afraid of oddness (carrot and sake salad!) – the quality here speaks for itself.

Thug Kitchen: Party Grub

Thug Kitchen, Little, Brown, $39.99

Thug Kitchen is the first link people send you when you say you're going vegan – and this book, their second, is a rare case where the cookbook is better than what you can get for free. The authors call this "party grub" but it's really weeknight standards – or maybe it's weeknight standards for people who eat irresponsibly. It's packed with breads, dips and salads, normally with a kick. They swear in every sentence in a huge black font, and the recipes are full of cheats, because they know you're lazy.

I made: Tex-Mex enchiladas. Sloppy tortillas drenched in spicy sauce and stuffed with pinto beans – all the guilt of cheesy food with none of the cheese.

Good for: Vegans who don't want their diet to wreck their sense of humour.

I loved: The page of tips on how to deal with vegan haters: "No preaching or soapbox required, just DOPE FOOD and a GOOD ATTITUDE."

Bonus mention: Cornersmith by Alex Elliott-Howery and James Grant, Murdoch, $49.99. Got a spare Sunday up your sleeve and an inventive feeling? Learn to preserve from the masters at this Sydney picklery. Bake those pickles in some pastry and slather the results in chutney. You'll be ready to write your own cookbook in no time.