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Marie Simmons
“I’m a homecook not a chef,” says Marie Simmons, author of “Fast & Fresh Vegetarian, Recipes that Make a Meal.” Simmons is former director of culinary programs at Copia, the American Center for Food, Wine and the Arts in Napa. Simmons, who has written or collaborated on more than 20 cookbooks, says her newest is her “most joyful.” Submitted photos

Marie Simmons’ great-grandmother had a favorite saying: “I’d rather spend money on good food than on the doctor.” Her mother, too, believed “food was the medicine we needed.

“And to Mom that mean lots of vegetables,” Simmons writes in her newest cookbook  “Fresh and Fast Vegetarian,” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $17.95) “Vegetables, she claimed, had magical powers that would make us big and strong give us bright eyes and shining hair and ward off that dreaded visit to the doctor. I believed her.”

Simmons, former director of culinary programs at Copia, the American Center for Food, Wine and the Arts in Napa, has written or collaborated on more than 20 cookbooks, this is her first, however, devoted solely to vegetarian dishes that can “make a meal.”

“Fast and Fresh Vegetarian”  was “inspired by a couple of things,” Simmons told the Register. One is “my own almost meatless diet.”

Another is requests from students in her cooking classes, like those she teaches at Rancho La Puerto, a well-known Mexican health spa.

“People want to know how to cook vegetarian dishes, and they want to know how to plan meals with them.”

And they want to cook vegetarian dishes that people want to eat.

“I came to the vegetarian table as a person who loves food, loves to cook and loves big bold flavors,” Simmons noted. “Although I care deeply about the health of the planet, the treatment of the animals we eat and how our food is grown, there was nothing sudden or militant about my choosing vegetarian meals. The simple fact is I eat plant-based foods because they taste good and they make me feel better.”

Simmons said, who grew up enjoying an abundance of fresh produce grown in New York’s Hudson Valley, said she already knew how how satisfying and attractive plant-based dishes can be.  “As my repertoire of ingredients and techniques and knowledge of cooking grow, I find myself cooking meat less and less.”

Describing herself as a “home cook not a chef,” she sets out to share that knowledge with others who want to incorporate more vegetarian meals into their homecooking.

“Simplicity is my key,” she said. “I hope that shines through. I don’t want people to have to go to a gourmet market to cook these dishes.” To avoid the frustration of not having one ingredient or another, she includes substitutions and options as well as shortcuts for recipes.

“I worked,” she added, “with a great editor who was really really conscious about that. She kept saying, ‘Don’t get too ‘chefy’ — that was the word she used.”

Simmons also noted that another obstacle to cooking vegetarian dishes is often prep time.  “A friend who was attempting to transition into cooking more vegetarian meals complained, ‘Gosh, I spend a log of time chopping,’ she writes. “It’s true that when you’re dealing with fresh produce there can be a lot of trimming, rinsing and chopping.”

Over the years, she added, she’s compiled ways to streamline her cooking,  which she incorporates into the recipes.

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“In this book ‘fast’ means 30 to 45 minutes,” she noted, “depending on your skills and styles.”

“My passion is Meditteranean,” Simmons said, but her varied recipes include Asian and Mexican inspired creations as well. Curried Potato Shirtake and Broccoli Stir-Fry is followed by Twice-Baked Potatoes with Roasted Poblano Chiles and Queso Fresco.

She also adds tips for combing recipes to create meals. Vegetable Paella, she suggests, is good preceded by a soup, like Tomato and White Bean with Spinach Pesto or White Bean and Fennel Soup.”

The book includes a section on “Soups that Make a Meal,” as well as “Grains and Beans that Make a Meal” —with recipes incorporating lesser known whole grains, like Quinoa Pilaf with Apples and Curried Walnuts” or Farro with Basil and Parsley Pesto.

The result is a book that’s both accessible and inspiring, with color illustrations of many of the dishes recreate her own sense of adventure in exploring the world of vegetables — recipes you’ll want to cook — and eat.

“Of all my cookbooks,” Simmons concluded, “this one is my most joyful. I really had fun writing it.”

More information about Simmons’ books and classes, which she teaches locally  as well as in Mexico, is available at mariesimmons.com.

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