Moving the veggies to the center of the plate
Everyone gets into a vegetable rut from time to time. We steam broccoli. We butter peas. We saute greens with garlic. And then, when our kids act bored with their vegetables, we wonder why.
Fortunately, every couple of years you can count on a really good new vegetable book to shake up this ho-hum cycle. This season’s rut-buster comes from Fine Cooking’s Susie Middleton. Like other vegetable books I have loved, “Fast, Fresh & Green’’ shows a certain economy of gesture. In each recipe, Middleton somehow manages to celebrate two or three flavors that flatter or amplify the starring produce in interesting new ways.
This time of year, you may be eating some of your harvest raw, but Middleton has a number of intriguing alternatives. Boring peas pick up brightness and luster with fine increments of lemon, mint, and scallions. Fava beans with shallots and mint start with nearly the same profile, yet take on a savory dimension from the Parmesan, which completely alters the equation. Quick-braised green beans with pomegranate-balsamic sauce showcases a dramatic sequence that goes slap-kiss-crunch (vinegar and ginger, syrup and butter, nuts) and which I find hard to resist.
Greens recipes are constructed with careful attention to texture. Collard greens are a far cry from the long-cooked, softened collards you may know. These are rapidly wilted and lightly dressed, but still offer some resistance to the tooth. Stir-fried Swiss chard with pine nuts and balsamic butter hides a surprise. The butter is swirled in at the end, yielding a velvety emulsion (like a beurre blanc) that contrasts with the pine nuts. And Middleton shows you how to crisp and crumble pancetta onto Tuscan kale, sweetening it with maple and ginger (if you’ve ever dragged ham on the breakfast plate through a puddle of syrup, you know just how good this is).
Be sure to try grilled baby potatoes. You boil the potatoes first, coat them in a mustard marinade, grill them, then serve with creamy, lemony mustard dressing. Sesame-ginger shiitakes, which demand nothing more than a bath in a simple marinade before grilling, are the perfect, fuss-free complement to any kind of meat you’ve chosen to put on the fire.
If there was any slight letdown in the book, I’d have to say it was brown butter summer squash “linguine,’’ which is julienned and sauteed squash. Even with brown butter and chopped nuts, it’s just hard to galvanize squash, and this one’s no exception.
If you’ve been reading attentively, it won’t come as a surprise when I say that this is not a vegetable book for vegans. Middleton is fond of the small, rich gesture, whether it comes from butter, cream, or mayonnaise. Still, some 75 percent of the recipes are vegetarian, so the book remains a bargain for the meatless.
After several weeks with “Fast, Fresh & Green’’ I remain puzzled by the ripe teaser on the back cover: “Learn the three secrets of cooking delicious, quick vegetables.’’ Maybe I’m a sloppy reader, but nowhere do I find any three secrets. I’ll have to make do with just the one. What is it, you ask breathlessly? What is the one secret to cooking delicious, quick vegetables? Simple: Buy the book.
T. Susan Chang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org