Food & Drink

V is for versatility: A chef preaches the possibilities of produce

The Washington Post

Michael Anthony wants vegetables to be pigs. OK, not exactly: But as he writes in his new cookbook, he wants home cooks to be able to look at a box of produce and envision a delicious meal just as easily as they could see a pig and envision bacon. With “V Is for Vegetables,” the New York City chef aims to help home cooks easily capture the seasonal bounty of markets in their kitchens.

This is not a cheffy tome or a vanity project. Anthony created the recipes in a home kitchen, not at Untitled or Gramercy Tavern. They’re short and mostly quick, but he adds a smart technique here and a surprising ingredient there in the hopes of creating a unique but accessible result. I interviewed Anthony last week about his work; edited excerpts follow.

Q. How do you get cooks who are unfamiliar with vegetables to the point where they can look at that basket of produce, as you write, and imagine all the things they can do with it?

A. I think it’s about trying to drive home the story that when you eat something that’s grown close to home and is connected to you culturally and seasonally, there’s an added appeal. Buy high-quality food from someone you know who grows it close by, get it to the kitchen, and eat it quickly. That’s what makes it delicious. I don’t know why we would look at that as some kind of luxury. It’s the essence of what any good eating is about.

Q. I find your recipes’ breezy approach to be so refreshing. I just made the caramelized cauliflower, which I loved, and was struck by how you call for the cauliflower to be just “chopped,” not “cut into 1/2-inch pieces” or the florets separated just so. You focus on explaining that the smaller the pieces, the better the browning. Why did you go that route?

A. I am really enamored with the idea that people would read the book, feel a sense of inspiration, gather some essential ingredients, and then close the book and cook from their own intuition. I realize that’s a little scary for some people, and maybe it doesn’t happen on the first time, but I would hope that in time, people would feel that sense of confidence.

Whether you cut the cauliflower three-quarters of an inch, or you decide that it tastes better in bigger pieces, that’s a very personal decision and it’s not up to me. It’s up to the person making the recipe. People get hung up on those fine details, but that’s not the essence of the dish. The essence is that you brown that cauliflower, throw in some colorful, fresh peppers of your choice, and then eat it quickly while it’s still warm.

The actual browning of the cauliflower is kind of steeped in my own history. When I met my wife, she grew up eating in a wide variety at great restaurants all over the world. But one of the few things she didn’t love eating was cauliflower. I was so mesmerized by that. I couldn’t imagine life without cauliflower. I cooked it a whole bunch of ways trying to find the solution, so she and cauliflower could exist in the same house. This was it.

Q. Besides cauliflower, what are some other vegetables you find particularly inspiring this time of year?

A. Jerusalem artichokes are so underestimated and this under-recognized vegetable that grows so well, especially on the East Coast. I love their versatility and sweet flavor.

There’s Hakurei turnips, sometimes called Tokyo turnips. Think back 10, 15 years. If you said turnip, the only vision that any American would have is a giant woody plant that was mostly dirty and looked like an old, tattered softball. Tokyo turnips seem almost more fruit than vegetable. They’re sweet, crunchy and really amazing.

Cabbage fits into the same category for me. When you treat yourself to the pleasure of eating local foods, you also open your possibilities up to experiencing a complexity of flavors that, quite frankly, can’t survive time and supermarket shelves. Food starts to change from the moment that it’s cut from the ground.

Q. What are your favorite techniques for getting the most out of vegetables?

A. I like the simple techniques of canning, infusing in oils, salting and pickling in vinegar. All of those basic natural methods of preservation were inherent to our culture. If you dial back the clock before World War II, it was common knowledge in any American home how to put up vegetables from the garden. Everyone did it.

Here’s another simple one. I know that not everyone has super-duper appliances at home, but most everybody has a bar blender or some means of pureeing soups. I think that you can really take things like beans and most vegetables for a ride by offering them in a couple of different forms. Let’s just say I roast a squash half in the oven, and then I’ve got something simple to eat that’s hardy and delicious, lightly seasoning it. But don’t just roast one. Do eight. Then some can get folded into a stew with any number of other ingredients connected to it.

The third utilization of it is turning it into a soup. That way, you’re not eating the same thing day after day after day, yet you didn’t waste your time.

Q. It’s about planning and prioritizing, right?

A. Nobody has enough time to walk into the kitchen and cook from-scratch original recipes every day, no matter how sharp they are – unless you’re not working; then more power to you. For the average American cook, we lead busy lives. We have such a utilitarian outlook on food that sometimes if it can’t happen in 20 or 30 minutes, people are just not willing to slow down.

Maybe their lives don’t revolve around food. I understand that. I’m not making fun of anyone. I’m not saying you have to turn back the clock. I’m just saying that no matter what your lifestyle is, cooking can be manageable.

Caramelized Cauliflower With Peppers and Onion

4 servings

Serve with bulgur, barley, quinoa or another grain of your choice. Adapted from “V Is for Vegetables: Inspired Recipes & Techniques for Home Cooks, From Artichokes to Zucchini,” by Michael Anthony (Little, Brown, 2015).

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 small head white cauliflower (about 1 1/2 pounds), cored and coarsely chopped

1 small head yellow or purple cauliflower or Romanesco (about 1 1/2 pounds), cored and coarsely chopped

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more as needed

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1/2 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and sliced

1/2 small red onion, halved and sliced

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Pour the oil into a large, ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the white and purple cauliflower and cook, stirring occasionally, until well browned in places, about 4 minutes. Season with the 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and black pepper. Transfer the skillet to the oven and roast the cauliflower until tender, about 6 minutes.

Return the skillet to the stove top over high heat. Add the butter, red bell pepper, onion and nutmeg. Taste, add salt and pepper as needed, and cook, stirring frequently, until the pepper and onion soften, about 5 minutes.

Stir in the parsley and serve.

Nutrition per serving: 210 calories, 7 g protein, 19 g carbohydrates, 15 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 10 mg cholesterol, 370 mg sodium, 8 g dietary fiber, 8 g sugar