simple ways to make vegetables special, with alana chernila
THE VEGETABLE GARDEN is starting to provide in earnest. But before we all dish out the same old side of steamed broccoli or green beans or kale every night from here to the first freeze, it’s time to get some recipe ideas that are as fresh as those veggies.
What do you say we all make this the year of the more inspired approach to eating our vegetables? To that end, I called friend and cookbook author Alana Chernila, whose latest volume is “Eating from the Ground Up: Recipes for Simple, Perfect Vegetables.”
We talked about a range of topics from how to roast a potato (no, not by just tossing it on a roasting pan with some oil) or a beet to perfection (ditto), to ingredients you may not be using that can make even a simple side dish into something special. And she shared recipes for vegetables you may not know exactly what to do with, like radishes (Roasted Radishes with Feta Mint Sauce) and celery and cabbage (Hot Sesame Celery with Ruby Cabbage).
Plus: Enter to win a copy of the new cookbook in the comments box at the very bottom of this page.
Read along as you listen to the June 4, 2018 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
inspired vegetable recipes, with alana chernila
Q. Inspiration, we’re looking for inspiration.
A. Don’t we all need it?
Q. If I steam one more side of some kind of green thing… I’ve got that mastered. But, I kind of smiled when I read in the book, I believe, that you say how on your computer—oh, no, maybe it was on your blog, on eatingfromthegroundup.com that I read it. I think you said that you refer to the book on your computer hard drive as “the vegetable book.” So this is indeed the vegetable book right? [Laughter.]
A. That was my hope. I’ve been waiting to write this one for years, so I’m excited that the vegetable book is finally here.
Q. Yes, and it was your 10 years working at a farmers’ market in the Berkshires of Massachusetts where we both kind of live—I live adjacent to that in New York State. That sort of germinated the idea for this book, didn’t it?
A. Yes. It was really my time at the farmers’ market that got me started writing about food in the first place. And this is my third book. It was over 10 years ago, I started working at the market and I was just working as … I started as a working member [of the CSA] for Indian Line Farm in South Egremont, Massachusetts.
I was at the market, needing to figure out how to talk with people about what they would do with what they were buying. So it was like, well, “what do you do with broccoli raab?” and “how would you deal with this radish?” And that was really the moment when I realized by then all of the different things I was doing in my life, talking about vegetables and talking about recipes, was like making me all buzzy.
It was a real revelation, and I didn’t really know what to do with it. But I started writing a blog, which I called “Eating From the Ground Up,” and that was back in 2008. And those writings turned into my first book, “The Homemade Pantry.” But really what I wanted to write all along was a book about simple vegetable recipes, because that was really the most exciting thing for me. So, it just took me a couple of books to get there, but now I’m here. [Laughter.]
Q. I think in the book it also explains that your sort of provenance, your family history, goes back even further with vegetables in the sense that I think your grandparents owned a vegetarian B&B. Did I make that up?
A. They did. That was how my family came to the Berkshires in the first place. They bought this amazing old, totally disheveled building in Great Barrington. I want to say it was maybe 1976.
It was back when natural foods was really beginning to have its heyday, and they renovated the building and opened a vegetarian bed and breakfast. They called it The Turning Point Inn. And that was where I got my start in the kitchen, because I would come up and spend the weekends with them, and help my grandmother make the zucchini bread, or this or that.
They had a huge garden out back, and that was where they sourced a lot of the food for their breakfasts. And people would come from all over the country because it was such a rare thing. So, yes, that was definitely a big part of what made me who I am, although I’m not a vegetarian, but I have been at certain times. But I do love vegetables.
Q. Right around the same time as they did that, I stopped eating meat and fish and chicken and all that kind of stuff, and so I’ve been a vegetarian that long. So, I love vegetables, obviously, I eat a lot of them, but I think a lot of people sort of crinkle their nose at the idea still. Actually, I have a niece that isn’t crazy about vegetables, even though she’s a grown woman now. I am surprised because the rest of my family does.
A lot of people seem to just sort of have this habit of suffering through them. I feel like this book is about almost like saying, “No, no, you don’t have to suffer through them, they can be special, but they don’t have to be complicated.”
A. Yes, exactly. I mean I think, I do feel … I agree with you. I think, it’s sort of just a cultural habit that we suffer through vegetables, like all of those things that are good for us. We suffer through meditation, we suffer through exercise. [Laughter.]
Q. Good point, good point.
A. It’s like, all the things that are great and can be wonderful in themselves, we’re sort of like, “Oh no, I have to put down the ice cream and do that.” So it’s funny, I think it’s a bit of a cultural habit. I also feel like a lot of it also has come about through the cookbook and food-media world constantly talking about how to hide vegetables, how to blend them into smoothies, how to pretend they’re noodles.
Just assuming that nobody actually wants to enjoy a cabbage for a cabbage sake.
A. The fact that these foods are really, really delicious and, sure, maybe if you had canned green beans your whole childhood, maybe you think a green bean is not delicious. But all you need to do is just eat some fresh green beans that have just been steamed or sauteed with some toasted almonds and brown brother, and then you can see what a green bean can really be.
So I think that a lot of it is learning the ways to really make the beauty in that vegetable sing, simply. Not in a way that has to be super-chefy or complicated, but there are ways to bring out the best in vegetables.
I feel like also, every person has their few recipes that they do really well. Someone might be really great at roasting cauliflower. Or you have those things that you fall back on the weeknight and you know you can do it, and you can serve it along with anything. But, most people don’t have all of the tricks at once, you just have a few and then maybe you’ll go to someone’s house and say, “How did you roast these potatoes, this is amazing.”
Q. Yes. One of the funny anecdotes in the book, and I should say to people, this is a cookbook that you can cook from of course, but, I like to dip into, and this is true with all of your work, because you love to write and I love your writing. I love to dip into the head notes as we would call them at the beginning, a little preface to each recipe. Yours is sort of like these little stories, and I love that. So we can just dip in and read in this cookbook, too. There are some anecdotes there, that are just what you just said, like, what is the secret to the best roasted potatoes-
You know, who’s got it? Who’s got it and where can we get it?
A. [Laughter.] It should be accessible for everyone. The answer to that question is my friend Flavio, who actually owns Six Depot Coffee here in the Berkshires, and he’s the one who taught me how to really roast a potato.
Q. O.K., let us know because we need it. [Laughter.]
A. Yes. It’s amazing. I mean in that case, the trick which I’ll give you the little secret that’s in the book, which is that, you steam them first and then you roast them.
Q. You steam them first. So we have a potato and it’s sort of like a new potato kind of a potato or a ‘Yukon Gold’ or any kind of a potato?
A. Sure, yes, that’s delicious, or new potato—whatever you have, and you prepare it. So you cut it up like you would want it, and then you steam it in a steamer basket. So you’re cooking it through, and then you lay those steamed potatoes on your roasting pan, then you add your olive oil and your salt. And then you roast them on high heat.
So, you don’t have to … that roast doesn’t have to cook the potato all the way through, it’s just giving it that amazing golden deliciousness, but it’s already cooked. So you’ve got that creamy inside, roasted deliciousness. The texture, it totally changes when you do those two steps. And took me years to ask him like, “Why do I love your roasted potatoes so much more than I love anybody else’s, or my own?” you know?
Q. In one of the, as I said, headnotes of the recipes, there’s one for beets, and I love beets. And there’s one that I think is like the perfect way to roast a beet, right?
A. Yes, oh yes, that’s a story. That’s the one moment where Julia Child makes a little entrance into my story. [Laughter.]
Q. A guest appearance.
A. Not on a personal level. But I love that recipe, but I also love how I came to it, which is that my friend Jane, who lives here in the Berkshires, and she is an amazing gardener, and also an incredible cook, so I’ve learned a lot from her.
She told me a story years ago that she was out in her garden, and a car drives up and who gets out of the car but Julia Child? She’s in her gardening clothes and she’s digging in the garden and, it turns out, that … she’s the kind of gardener that, you know how this is, people really want to stop by and see her garden. Julia Child had been visiting friends who had said, “Julia, you’ve got to see this woman’s garden.” It’s a pretty humble little vegetable garden, but it-
Q. It’s very productive, yes.
A. So productive, and just so kind of enchanted. You know when you walk into a garden that’s really been producing for so many years, you can feel it, and it just feels like a magical place, so I totally understand.
And so she gets out and James working on the beets and Julia says, “Well I’ll tell you the only way to make a beet…” and proceeds to give her her recipe, which Jane shared with me and I was really excited to be able to put in this book, just because it’s such a great story.
Q. And how do we roast a beet?
A. So, the instructions that she gave were to go high heat in a covered container. So really what that means is to that you can do it with the skins on, and you just put them in any kind of container that you can top with a lid or you can top with foil.
But the key is that add some balsamic vinegar on the beets. And you can also add a little red wine if you have some open, and that acidity just like deepens the flavor of that roasted beet. And you roast –of course it varies depending on the size of the beet, they can be so little or so big—but you roast it anywhere, I think it’s between half an hour and an hour, and then the skin should come right off, and then you have these really rich and sweet wonderful roasted beets. Yes, so good.
Q. In this book, I mean, there’s everything from like how to eat a radish—that was one of the first things I think that you were asked in the infancy of your career at the farmers’ market, what do I do with these radishes. Because, in recent years, there are these very unusual, fleshy, beautiful big radishes like the … what’s the one?
A. There’s like the ‘Watermelon’ radishes.
Q. ‘Watermelon,’ right.
A. So beautiful.
Q. They have all these beautiful names and beautiful colors inside, and yet what do I do with that thing? I think you have a roasted radish recipe in the book.
A. Yes, and I have several radish recipes because I love radishes.
Q. But I think a lot of people are like: well a radish, you know you get a slice of it in a salad, or you dip it in a dip and that’s Radish 101 for most of us. But that’s not the case right?
A. It’s true, and I think especially now that so many people have farmers’ markets available to them, people get seduced by the beauty of those big piles of radishes. And then they bring them home and it’s like, O.K., as you said, you slice up one in a salad and then what are you going to do?
But, my favorite thing to do with radishes—I have a few different pathways in the book—but my favorite is to chop it up and to stir it into butter.
Q. Of course.
A. Who can blame me?
Q. One of the four food groups, butter. [Laughter.]
A. Exactly. And if it gets chopped up and stirred into softened butter with maybe a few fresh herbs, you can sprinkle a few chives or a little parsley and a little lemon zest, it’s really quite amazing.
Q. So that’s compound butter to use as like a spread?
A. Exactly. And the nice thing about a compound butter is that when you’re stirring things into it, you have no choice but to just layer it on thick. So, there’s like nothing like a slice of good bread with radish butter on it. And it’s also a decent way to preserve radishes, because you could freeze it. You can make a compound butter and roll it up into a little roll, and then put it in the freezer. And, that’s a nice thing to do and be able to pull it out later on.
Q. For a party, for instance.
A. Yes. Putting anything in it. I like to put edible flowers, or any sort of herb, into compound butter. So, that is a lovely thing to do with radishes.
But I also do love to roast them, and I have a recipe in the book where I roast them and then I create a sauce, a really simple sauce of mint and feta and some lemon. And I like to puddle that sauce on the plate [as in the photo on the book cover], and then just put the roasted radishes over it, which I think turns them into something totally different. You get this kind of juicy inside and caramelized outside-
Q. Quite the opposite of a fresh radish, which can be sharp and crunchy, right?
A. Yes, there is no bitterness or sharpness or usually any heat to it either, right? So I just … what I often suggest that for people who feel like radishes are just too much for them, is to try that because it’s like a totally different vegetable, it’s really lovely.
Q. The first sort of full chapter after the introduction, I think it’s called “Barely Recipes,” is that right, did I make that up?
A. [Laughter.] No, that’s totally right.
Q. And it’s full of such ideas, so where again, it’s not as title of the book says, this is not complicated stuff, but this makes all the difference. These little twists and turns make all the difference. So there’s sort of the joys of … you’re sort of extolling the virtues of taking those extra few minutes to make like the sauce or the dressing.
Or you just talked about the feta and mint one for those roasted radishes
A. No it’s really still a very new ingredient for people which is … I was raised on nutritional yeast, because it was a big food in that sort of hippie scene.
Q. It was a hippie thing, honey. [Laughter.]
A. Yes. And it’s really, you know it’s high end B vitamins and all those things, so it has all sorts of virtues. But, it’s really a fantastic popcorn topping, which is really how I came to know it; that was what we put on our popcorn when I was a kid.
And so, yes nutritional yeast: People put it in smoothies, people do all sorts of weird things with it. When you stir it into a sauce, Yummy Sauce, which is actually comes from a little cookbook that my mother and her co-workers created in maybe like 1981 or something, working in a New Age-center kitchen.
They made all these recipes which I think were really just Mollie Katzen ripoffs, but, this recipe they called Yummy Sauce. So I can’t take credit for that name, but I had to pass it along because it’s so simple. It’s just nutritional yeast, butter, tamari or soy sauce, and garlic, all sort of just boiled together for a minute.
Q. And, yes, exactly.
A. And it makes this like salty almost like gravy, cheesy thing.
Q. But it has this sort of umami thing.
A. Super umami.
Q. Yes, an umami thing going on. That’s the thing about nutritional yeast, if people don’t know about it, you can buy usually in the bulk department, where you get your rice and your beans and stuff like in a food co-op, that part of the market where you get beans and rice. And you can just buy a small amount for a small amount of money and taste it, you don’t have to get like a giant massive amount.
A. I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like it when they taste it. It kind of tastes like cheese; it’s delicious.
Q. Yes, so there’s Yummy Sauce and nutritional yeast and what that does to the flavor. And then you mentioned before like a little brown butter maybe and some chopped nuts—I think, maybe you mentioned that about green beans, or I read about that.
A. Yes, green beans. You know, I have a greens recipe where it’s sort of your standard quick-braised sauteed greens, but then I stir in miso at the end.
Q. Well then that’s what I was going to say, miso’s another thing that … so which one? I haven’t been using miso in a million years since the old hippie days. So should I get the sort of yellowish-blond looking ones or the real, real dark, dark, dark?
A. Well, the nice thing about these recipes that use miso … because I do have miso coming up a few times in the book. I think it’s a really useful thing to have in the kitchen. And also, it’s so versatile and it lasts forever in your fridge. And the nice thing is that all these recipes will work with any of those different kinds of misos. You just have to learn about how essentially with miso, the darker it is the more intense the flavor.
A. So a white miso is going to have the sort of mellowness to it. And then the darker you get, the more flavor you have. But, there is actually a local miso around here, it’s called South River Miso, I think. So it comes out of Conway, Massachusetts. And I think it’s available through a lot of the country at this point because it’s really a phenomenal product. And they are doing all these beautiful things like dandelion leek miso, and they’re really stretching the boundaries of what’s going in there.
And, the nice thing about when you add miso to something like simple greens is that, if you’re using a good miso, if you’re using something that has other flavors in, those are also going to come through in your dish and really embellish it. So it’s nice to play. I mean, I can use … you can get sort of the most basic, inexpensive miso that’s just … often I’ll get miso at the Asian market, and that works wonderfully, too.
But it’s a nice moment to sort of search out other products and make use of them there, because you really going to be able to taste it, and it’s just lovely. Miso in vegetables, it’s such a nice combination.
Q. If I’m going to try to spice up my life [laughter], to enliven my vegetables a little bit, we’ve talked about a couple of ingredients that you use again and again. And then mint for instance, I think dill is something that you advocate in a number of places.
Q. What else do we want to bring into the kitchen and try with some of our vegetables? Any other pairings you want to shout out?
A. You know, acid and fat are just magic with vegetables. But I think it’s really nice to think outside the box with both of those categories. So with acid we think about vinegar, we think about lemon, and those are really good tools to have. There are very few vegetables which don’t benefit from a nice little squeeze of lemon.
But in addition you can have other things that have acid qualities, like buttermilk or even like Parmesan cheese, which has a real acidity to it. It sort of adds a funkiness to what you’re making. And often even if it’s not something that you think about putting cheese in, a good grating of Parmesan right at the end—you won’t even know that that’s what’s there, but it’s going to deepen the flavor and give you that loveliness.
And so I think having a good hunk of real Parmigiano-Reggiano, which is available pretty much everywhere these days, it’s a really worthwhile ingredient to invest in, and you don’t need much, because it’s so good.
So I think, thinking beyond those bounds when you’re thinking about fat, so often we use olive oil, but really using butter which can coat greens in a different way-
Q. It does really, doesn’t it? I tend to use a little bit of it, but it changes the whole thing.
A. Exactly. It adds the silkiness.
Q. It does.
A. So it’s just good to just play around and mix them. Use a little olive oil, use a little butter. Play around with coconut oil, which I use some in the book, too, when coconut flavor is welcome there. Because all these fats, they’re really going to give different textures and qualities.
I think vegetables, they just have so much to say when you give them the right tools and sort of prop them up. So having that right fat and acid, it takes it from that sort of regular Tuesday night broccoli to something really amazing.
Q. Well, I love the book, and you mentioned it real briefly earlier that you’re a cabbage lover, you alluded to it, and you have this crazy recipe where you not only get cabbage in it—red cabbage in this case—but also celery, another overlooked vegetable. [Above: Hot Sesame Celery with Ruby Cabbage; recipe just below.]
A. Oh yes, I love it—that’s a nice, simple one.
hot sesame celery with ruby cabbage
CELERY IS AN excellent supporting character. It’s easy to find, cheap to buy, and always reliable. But giving it a chance to shine can be hard. This quick little side dish changes that, putting the celery at the front and shoving the cabbage into the background. It’s spicy and salty and has all the great flavors of a spring roll without the wrapper. I love this over rice with a little grilled chicken or tofu— with mellower foods, the celery and cabbage become almost a condiment. This is also a great filling for crepes. It uses two kinds of sesame oil: Asian sesame oil and spicy sesame oil, which is often available in a small bottle from specialty stores. If you can’t find the spicy oil, just omit it and add a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes to the dish instead. Serves 6.
- ¼ cup sesame seeds
- 1½ tablespoons Asian sesame oil
- 3 stalks celery, thinly sliced
- ¹⁄³ small head of purple cabbage (8 to 10 ounces), halved and thinly sliced
- 1½ teaspoons tamari or soy sauce
- ¼ teaspoon spicy sesame oil
- Heat a large, dry skillet over medium heat. Toast the sesame seeds in the skillet, shuffling them to keep them from burning, until they color slightly, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer the seeds to a small bowl and return the pan to the heat.
- Heat the sesame oil in the pan over medium heat until it shimmers, about 20 seconds. Add the celery and cook, stirring often, until it’s soft, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the cabbage to the pan and toss with the celery. Cook, stirring often, until the cabbage is wilted and tender, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, and transfer the celery and cabbage to a serving bowl. Toss with the tamari, spicy sesame oil, and toasted sesame seeds.
roasted radishes with feta mint sauce
ROASTED RADISHES are surprising–they get very juicy in the middle and sweet on the outside. Cooking radishes brings out an entirely different side of the vegetable, much mellower than the punchy bite of a raw radish. This is wonderful with standard ‘Cherry Belle’ or ‘French Breakfast’ radishes, but it’s also a great way to work with mixed bunches of all different colors. ‘Amethyst,’ a bright purple variety, is especially beautiful roasted. This recipe makes more sauce than you need, but you’ll be happy for the extra. Use it as a salad dressing, on other roasted vegetables, or on grilled beef or lamb. Serves 4.
ingredients for the radishes:
- 1½ tablespoons olive oil
- 3 bunches radishes (about 1½ pounds), greens removed, halved lengthwise
- ¾ teaspoon kosher salt
ingredients for the sauce:
- 6 ounces cubed or crumbled feta
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- ½ cup (packed) fresh mint leaves
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Chicken or vegetable stock or water
- Preheat the oven to 425°F.
- Roast the radishes: Pour the oil onto a rimmed baking sheet, tilting the sheet to spread it evenly. Place the radishes in the oil, turning to coat them, and then arrange each radish, cut-side down, on the sheet. Sprinkle with salt. Roast until the radishes are deeply golden on the cut side, 25 to 30 minutes.
- While the radishes roast, make the sauce: Combine the feta, olive oil, lemon juice, vinegar, mint, and several grinds of pepper in a blender. Blend until smooth, adding up to 3 tablespoons stock to make the sauce pourable.
- To serve, puddle the sauce on a platter or four individual plates. Top with the radishes.
enter to win the cookbook
I’LL BUY A COPY of “Eating from the Ground Up” for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page:
Do you have any vegetable-prep ingredients or tricks to share? Are ingredients like nutritional yeast and miso regulars in your kitchen, or if not, what do you use?
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but an answer is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday June 12; good luck to all (US and Canada only).
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its ninth year in March 2018. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the June 4, 2018 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).