We’ve all heard the news by now: Eat more vegetables! They’re good for your heart, good for your waistline, good for your immune system and good for you in just about every other way science can measure. Yet, just because you’ve heard the good news about vegetables doesn’t mean you have any idea how to make the healthy changes that would put them at the center of your diet.
Too bad you’re not a world-famous restaurant critic, cook and cooking teacher with nine highly respected cookbooks to your credit, right? Because, then, plant-centered cooking would be easy as pie, wouldn’t it? Maybe not, says author Patricia Wells.
“I remember once I was in the produce market and I thought, ‘Oh no, what am I going to cook for dinner tonight?’ And then I thought, ‘I’m Patricia Wells, I should know that!’” Wells laughed at the memory during a recent phone conversation from her home in Provence, France, but she admitted that sometimes deciding to make healthy changes can present challenges – even for food experts.
To help her, and the rest of us, move vegetables out of the margins and into the mainstream, Wells wrote Vegetable Harvest: Vegetables at the Center of the Plate (William Morrow Cookbooks, 2007). “When I started the book, these old cultural habits I didn’t even know I had suddenly became so vivid to me,” Wells told me. “And I realized, ‘Oh my God, I only have two ways of cooking zucchini! I only have two ways of cooking asparagus. That can’t be enough.’ Something comes into season and we do the same-old same-old with it – but we forget about all the combinations that are possible.”
The possible combinations Wells has set out in her book have the funny effect of seeming both completely surprising and, in the way that good recipes do, completely natural and right. Pumpkin is baked in a gratin with pistachios (see below). Brussels sprouts are sauteed with garlic and olive oil, asparagus is braised with rosemary, cauliflower is pureed into a smooth and light mixture, and fresh veggies are chopped into a delicious and colorful salad.
I asked Wells whether working with all of these vegetables changed her own day-to-day eating. “Oh, definitely,” she said. First, she realized that too many recipe writers present vegetables as marginal foods – something only vegetarians eat, or something secondary to the primary focus of the plate, meat. Second, she realized that the best way to work vegetables into your life is to cook backward: Start with what looks best at your market, and then come up with a recipe; don’t approach things vice versa. If that means you end up toting a recipe book with you on a few market runs, so be it!
“Don’t think of vegetables as penance, think of them as a creative adventure and a cheap thrill,” Wells suggests. “In my classes, we always challenge two students to make a salad out of something from the garden,” she said of the cooking classes she hosts at her home. “Sometimes it’s something with lettuce, but sometimes it’s a salad made entirely of green beans. They make up the recipe on the spot, and it becomes very funny, very competitive; it opens up a whole new way of thinking about food. It’s not, ‘What recipe do I have?’ Instead it’s, ‘What’s here?’”
But what if, I ask, the salad you invent is a flop? “That’s one of the things I love about vegetables,”responds Wells. “They’re such a cheap thrill: If something really doesn’t work, you can toss it; it’s not like you’re working with foie gras”
If the idea of spontaneous vegetable cooking appeals to you, you might even think of sending off for some seed catalogs. “Before I put in my garden, I had never really seen how eggplant grew,” Wells said. “It really helps when you go out and see what vegetables look like when they’re growing. Although, even supermarket vegetables today are so much better than what they were just a few years ago. I’ve been watching some old Julia Child shows lately, and some of the ingredients she had were just so horrific. I was watching one show where she had the most shriveled, awful potatoes, and I thought, ‘Who would use those potatoes?’”
Certainly not someone dedicated to moving vegetables to the center of her plate. It seems the good news about vegetables doesn’t end with their myriad health benefits – not only are the vegetables today better than they’ve ever been, but the recipes are, too.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a celebrated food and wine critic. Nominated seven times for James Beard Awards - the Oscars of the food world she received four awards for her restaurant and wine columns. Since 2001, her work has been regularly featured in the Best Food Writing anthologies.