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New books on growing and eating vegetables

We've been harvesting strawberries by the bowlful every other night this past week, which tends to make the other garden offerings seem a little mundane by comparison - except, of course, for the green peas.

The bowl of delectable pisum sativum that came to the table last night was sweeter than the berries and every bit as enjoyable.

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I prefer garden-fresh peas served up with just a touch of butter and hint of pepper. Others seldom think of peas without accompanying pearl onions; while still others like them sauteed with walnuts and a little honey. Be that as it may, no fresh vegetable is worth much without a good cook to bring it to perfection, just as no good cook can shine with only a poorly grown, nutrient-starved root or two to work with.

All of which brings me to the subject of this column: Two excellent books have recently been published that together meet the growing and cooking needs of the gardening family.

It wasn't planned this way, but the two books could form a sort of salt-and-pepper partnership.

How to Grow a Thriving Vegetable Garden, by Jim Wilson and Tom Eltzroth (Countryside Books, Clearwater, Fla. 33575, $8.95), tells how to produce fresh, flavor-packed vegetables in your own backyard, while Greene on Greens, by Bert Greene (Workman Publishing, New York, $12.95), shows how to preserve and even enhance that flavor in the kitchen.

When Jim Wilson retired after 30 years in the seed industry, in which he was closely associated with both commercial growers and home gardeners, he thought he would, as he says, ''put it all down before I lost any of it.'' In particular , he saw how certain commercial growing techniques could be applied in the backyard - and that is where the book makes a significant contribution to gardening. Scientific accuracy is another hallmark of the book.

With Tom Eltzroth, a professor of horticulture and an avid home gardener, providing the charts and photographs, Mr. Wilson went back to ''ground zero'' in his research, checking facts with the original scientific work done at the universities and agricultural experiment stations. He simply wasn't prepared to take the popularly published word on anything without checking the source.

In the gardening world, he says, myth has occasionally become ''fact'' ''because it was repeated often enough in print.''

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In the Wilson book, typical subheadings under each vegetable include: description, site, soil, soil preparation, plants per person, germination, soil temperatures, direct seeding, transplanting and thinning, mulching and cultivating, supporting structures, watering, container growing, environmental problems, storage, forcing for winter use, and storing leftover seeds. Nothing appears to have been omitted.

I now turn to the Wilson-Eltzroth book first in reading up on a vegetable. Thereafter, I might look to others in my gardening library, but it's comforting to know that all of the basics and much of the substance of the crop in question is there under one title and behind one cover.

Bert Greene grew up in the '30s in an era of ''assiduous overcooking.'' As a ''tad in the kitchen,'' the nationally known chef and cooking teacher writes, ''I was instructed that cauliflower was to be boiled for one hour, and string beans, broccoli, asparagus, and cabbage not less than half that duration. They were never drained from the kettle until the cooking liquid had turned as green as Tyntex dye, while the poor vegie was a heck of a lot paler - not to mention devitaminized - in the process.''

No wonder our Mr. Greene looked on eating ''these spongy counterfeits'' of everything nature intended them to be with considerable distaste.

''A penance rather than a pleasure'' is how he describes the experience in his book. Fortunately, he later learned how to cook a vegetable properly - ''that is to say, with respect for its inalienable bite.''

By now you will realize that Mr. Greene's writing is as flavor-filled as his cooking. He once planned to write the great American novel but ended up writing a great American cookbook instead. His ''Honest American Fare'' won a Tastemaker award in 1981.

Now his latest book, a ''loveletter to the thirty or so vegetables, green and otherwise, that I prize most in this world,'' should do for vegetables what his last book did for cooking as a whole.

Mr. Greene is no vegetarian, but the vegetarians of this world should love him. While his book compliments the individual vegetables, it also complements good home gardening.

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