The Vegetable Whisperer: are you listening to the courgettes?
If we think of the vegetables as just an afterthought, a bit player, then we are doomed
‘If I could see this carrot as something very costly and precious, it would change the way I treated it,’ says Rene Redzepi
We need to talk about vegetables. Every year, around about this time, an awful lot of us promise to marginalise the meat on our plates, and to give diva status to the vegetables.
We are going to big up the carrots and the broccoli, and cut back on the chops. We know that it’s good for our health, and it’s good for the planet as well.
But the truth about good intentions is that they don’t taste good. You can wish for all the vegetable courses you want, but, if those courses consist of boiled carrots, boiled potatoes, boiled broccoli, boiled cauliflower and boiled cabbage, then who can blame you when your resolve breaks down in, like, two weeks’ time.
But don’t think you are alone with this problem.
Back in 2010, Rene Redzepi, of Copenhagen’s Noma restaurant, was having the same problem. His restaurant had just been voted the best in the world. But he was worried about carrots. Every new angle he tried with carrots wasn’t working.
Then, as he wrote in his journal: I held up one of the misshapen things in front of me with both hands and said: “This is not a carrot: this is the best, most marbled and expensive piece of côte de boeuf I’ve ever laid hands on.”
His team all laughed. But then they got it.
My point was that if I could see this carrot as something very costly and precious, it would change the way I treated it. Eventually, we did cook the carrot like a steak, with the same care and dedication as a perfect cut of beef.
I’ve done much the same ever since I read Redzepi’s journal, first steaming and then sautéing the carrots, either in butter or in beef fat.
So, the secret to making a turnip into a diva is imagination. If we think of the vegetables as just an afterthought, a bit player, then we are doomed. Divas need attention. They need love, and care, and time. You have to whisper sweet nothings in their ear; you have to become a vegetable whisperer.
In her recipe for stewed courgettes with basil, British chef April Bloomfield instructs us to, cook, stirring occasionally, for five minutes or so. Now, take a listen: if you hear the courgette frying in oil rather than simmering in a little liquid, then add two tablespoons of water.
Got that? You need to listen to the courgettes. Who knew?
Actually, one guy who knows is the chef Joshua McFadden. He cooked in leading restaurants, but then took a sabbatical to farm at Four Season’s Farm, in Maine, US. The understanding of growing and cooking with vegetables that he learnt there is the subject of his book, Six Seasons: A New Way with Vegetables.
McFadden wants to transform every single vegetable into a diva. His aim, he writes: Is to present the vegetables in a context of complexity. I make sure that every dish has more than just balance – it must have tension, a dance between sweet, sour, spicy, salty, creamy, crunchy.
To do this, he uses breadcrumbs, nuts, croutons, vinegars, pickles, citrus juices, whatever it takes.
The other night I cooked his recipe for Cauliflower steak with Provolone and pickled peppers, in which you bake slices of cauliflower, then anoint them with various ingredients and bake them again. It was a beaut. It wasn’t like a vegetable. It was a diva.
John McKenna is editor at guides.ie.