I’m lucky enough to eat out quite a lot. I love dining in great restaurants not just because the meals are amazing: They also teach me how to be a better cook, especially when it comes to vegetables. Here are a handful of those “a-ha” moments that have changed my vegetable cooking game forever. With chef’s tricks like these, getting more veggies into my diet has been a delicious breeze.
A-HA LESSON NUMBER 1: QUALITY VINEGAR IS AN IMPORTANT FLAVOR TOOL
It started with a carrot salad at Ava Gene’s in Portland, Oregon. Diners flock to the popular spot for the handmade pasta dishes, but chef Joshua McFadden is also something of a vegetable whisperer. The former farmer recently released his stunning ode to veggies, “Six Seasons, A New Way With Vegetables,” (Artisan, 2017).
One early summer evening I ordered his crisp-tender sautéed carrots, tossed with sweet dates and briny Niçoise olives and scattered with shards of salty Parmesan crisps. The carrots had a fruity, sharp flavor without being too tart, and they were cleverly set atop a some tangy crème frâiche. How did he make carrots that interesting? The chef divulged the secret was a judicious amount of KATZ vinegar from Napa, California. He uses the slightly sweet, mellow vinegars in his vegetable dishes to add what he calls “brightness and delicious tension.”
Take Away: Before that dish of carrots, I focused solely on purchasing quality oils and didn’t think much about what vinegars I was using. Now I’ve added an arsenal of artisan vinegars to my pantry and use them frequently to add oomph to veggie dishes.
READ MORE > 5 WAYS TO EAT MORE VEGGIES
A-HA LESSON NUMBER 2: ADD A POP OF PICKLED PEPPERS
The new Danny Meyer restaurant, Untitled, in the Whitney Museum was the perfect place to meet my vegetarian friend for lunch in Manhattan. The founding chef, Michael Anthony (of Gramercy Tavern fame), won a James Beard award for his book “V is for Vegetables,” (Little, Brown and Company, 2015). The restaurant is tied to the “farm-to-table” ethos and even though the pickings are slimmer in the depths of winter when I visited, I was surprised at how flavorful the dishes were.
In particular, a dish of caramelized butternut squash stood out. It featured impossibly creamy wedges of squash, earthy pumpkin seeds, currants and micro greens. But what really made the dish sing was a little piquant pop of pickled sweet-hot peppers. When I asked one of the cooks about the dish, he explained that they use house-pickled red peppers. “They give a bit of summer heat, because in winter, we all need a little glimpse of the sun.” Indeed.
Take away: I’ve been adding a little chopped Mama Lil’s peppers to roasted root vegetables and other cool-weather salads since that day. They don’t add measurable heat, but they do contribute a fresh pop of flavor that elevates the other elements on my plate.
A-HA LESSON NUMBER 3: CRISPY BITS MAKE VEGETABLE DISHES MORE EXCITING
I was expecting to get the famous challah toast with ricotta and house-made hipster jam at Sqirl in L.A. and perhaps not really “get” it. Unlike most of La-La-Land, I don’t consider carbs a rare treat and the $7 price tag had me skeptical. The toast was good, but what made standing in a long line for breakfast tenable were the savory vegetable-centric dishes.
Immediately upon digging in, I noticed how much care was paid to the textures in the dishes. My grain bowl included thin disks of crunchy-sweet eggplant chips that were so good, I wanted to dive into a swimming pool full of them. My pal’s congee was sprinkled with frizzled onions that set off the creaminess of the rice porridge perfectly. And the “kabbouleh” — crunchy deep-fried brown rice mixed with cauliflower rice, kale and currants was so fascinating texturally, it stopped all conversation.
Take away: Just like croutons in old-school lettuce salads, crunchy vegetable bits add texture and highlight other flavors. I now make eggplant chips, kale chips, garlic chips and frizzled leeks a part of every salad I eat.
A-HA LESSON NUMBER 4: HARNESS THE POWER OF KIMCHI
Star Noodle on the island of Maui, Hawaii, doesn’t look like a game changer from the outside. It’s in a utilitarian building nowhere near the ritzy beachfront resorts that dot the island. Though famous for its house-made noodle dishes, as you’ve probably already guessed, I gravitated (and fell in love with) the vegetable side dishes.
The most memorable dish was a golden brown mound of caramelized Brussels sprouts tossed with smoky lardons of house-made bacon with an alarming-looking red goop smeared on one side of the plate. That goop turned out to be kimchi puree and it changed my life. The spicy, garlicky, funky sauce boosted the Brussels sprouts in a way that made me close my eyes and moan ever so softly. It was so good, I had them bring me a bowl of un-pureed kimchi mid-meal. They make their own kimchi and ferment it for just a few days, so it’s still crunchy, with more garlic and ginger than your typical store-bought stuff. I asked for the recipe, and after conferring with the kitchen through the pass, the bartender informed me “it has like a hundred ingredients and it’s a secret, so I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.” Ha ha.
Take Away: Kimchi puree is now a staple at my table and I’ve been inspired to make my own. I still haven’t nailed Star Noodle’s incredible flavor combo, but I’m working on it. Even a purée of the store-bought stuff is like magic with a wide range of vegetable dishes.
A-HA LESSON NUMBER 5: SEAWEED, IT’S NOT JUST FOR SUSHI
It might sound strange, but I had an epiphany about seaweed in a basement restaurant in Dublin, Ireland. The restaurant in question was Chapter One and it just so happens to be a Michelin-starred bastion of elegance housed in the stylish ground floor of the Dublin Writer’s Museum. I was served a stunning dish of sous-vide oysters with smoked dulse jelly and thin ribbons of briny pickled kelp that tasted something like leaping into ocean spray on a warm spring day. Another course of sweet creamy crab and spring peas was served with crunchy pickled dulse and umami-rich sea palm strands instead of lettuce. Now that’s a salad!
Chef Ross Lewis explained that sea vegetables are a traditional Irish food collected by hand in the western part of the island and that the Irish were enjoying sea vegetables thousands of years before sushi ever made its way to the now-cosmopolitan capital.
Take away: I stock my pantry with every kind of sea vegetable I can get my hands on and only use the stash occasionally for Japanese dishes. Instead, I add it to paella for a colorful garnish, stir it to vegetable soups for an umami hit and blend it with butter to dress steamed vegetables. Added bonus: Sea vegetables are packed with nutrients and trace minerals and they’re surprisingly low in sodium.