I have always had a nice stash of cookbooks, but lately, as they begin to spill off the shelves and all over the house, I’m beginning to admit to myself that I’ve passed the level of blithe enjoyment and moved into… dum dum dum… collecting. I counted them this afternoon: I hover around 130, even with my staunch opposition to buying anything related to Paula Deen. There are a couple of bargain bin bits, with pretty pictures and recipes whose testing process doubtful went beyond, “I think I put about a tablespoon of cumin in there.” There’s the growing pod of restaurant cookbooks – think Max and Rosie’s, not Momofuku. I have a handful of Junior League collections, which I enjoy in the same way that I enjoy community theatre: gleefully but not seriously. Many of the titles include “vegetarian” or “vegan”, which in some way is disappointing. I prefer the title the Greens Cookbook – yes, it’s vegetarian; no, it doesn’t need to trumpet it.

Yesterday I saw a statistic, very possibly made up, that the average cookbook user makes only 4-5 recipes out of each book. Honestly, my number is probably even lower than that. Cookbooks are bedtime reading and inspiration for me, and I have many cookbooks that have taught me much but that I’ve never cooked directly from.

One of these is Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything Vegetarian. (He also has great videos on the New York Times website.) It’s a fantastic resource, with plenty of tables that help explain how one dish can quickly become another. This, to me, is the best kind of general cookbook, because it provides hundreds of recipes but that number leaps to thousands by the guidance and improvisation provided by the author. I recommended it to Ethan recently before I realized that I’d never actually used it.

Well, enough of that nonsense. This morning I opened the book and this recipe immediately made itself known with all the subtlety of a neon sign. This stew is nothing short of a party in my mouth. Port pulls out amazing flavors in the ginger and prunes, the limas are lush and just barely toothsome, and the cayenne brings a brilliant finish. It shows heat but doesn’t interfere with any other flavors. Dried fruit in stew, man. Wow. I need to make more cookbook recipes.

I’m tagging this vegan, because it’s so easily made so. (I used butter but didn’t add the cream.)

Dried Fruit and Lima Stew
from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman
serves 4

8 ounces dried lima beans or 1 pound fresh or frozen
2 tablespoons butter or neutral oil, like grapeseed or corn
2 large onions, sliced
1 tablespoon peeled and minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 cup marsala, not-too-dry red wine, or water
1 cup chopped tomato (canned are fine; don’t bother to drain)
12 dried plums (prunes)
12 dried apricots
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon cayenne, or to taste (I used 1/4 teaspoon)
1/2 cup cream (optional)

If you’re using dried limas, cook them, a day or two in advance if you like. If they’re fresh or frozen, proceed to the next step.

Put the butter or oil in a casserole, Dutch oven, or similar pan over medium heat. When the butter is melted or the oil is hot, add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until very soft, at least 15 minutes. Add the ginger and garlic and cook 30 seconds. Add the port, raise the heat a bit, and cook for a minute, until some of the liquid bubbles away. Add the tomato, dried fruit, salt, pepper, sugar, cayenne, and drained limas.

Bring to a boil, lower the heat, cover, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the fruit is tender, the tomato saucy, and all the flavors combined, about 15 minutes. Raise the heat and boil off any excess liquid (you want stew, not soup); taste and adjust the seasoning. (You can make the stew in advance to this point, then reheat and proceed.) Stir in the cream if you’re using it. Cook for another 30 seconds and serve.

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