Why You Should Treat Your Vegetables Like a Nice Cut of Meat
The first step to getting creative with vegetables is realizing they can be so much more than a side.
The Yellow Magnolia Café is tucked into the Eastern side of the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, just near the complex of greenhouses that afford visitors glimpses of tropical orchids and cacti throughout the long New York winter. If you're just visiting the BBG, you might walk past thinking that it's the same fare that you could find in any other tourist-oriented New York institution: pricey bottled water, lackluster hot dogs, and various kinds of sweet things to ply discontented children. But you'd be mistaken—the Yellow Magnolia Café, yes, serves a hamburger, but it's also a restaurant where you can find a delicate tangle of daikon noodles accented with fermented black beans, shiso, and cashew cream, and a pink "Caesar" salad, an Instagram temptation that also happens to be vegan, scattered with crispy garlic, black radishes, and a dressing made from aquafaba and dulse (a kind of edible seaweed).
These plant-based innovations make sense for a place that's so devoted to horticulture, and are in part thanks to chef de cuisine Morgan Jarrett, who opened Yellow Magnolia with Rob Newton in 2017. Jarrett's specialty is plant-based dishes, and her eye for centering the seasonal is all over the menu, as well as several annual events at the BBG. At the BBG, Jarrett works with horticulturists and uses some of the vegetables grown on site as inspiration for her dishes—the scale required for a restaurant would make it impossible to use only what the BBG grows, but vegetables and herbs grown there do make their way into other, one-time meals. In short, Jarrett is someone who thinks about plants a lot, and the ways that she can bring them to the plate in new and interesting ways.
How do you eat and cook more vegetables, whether that's for health reasons, environmental reasons, or just having way too much eggplant around? How do you get excited about vegetables? Jarrett has a simple answer: "Treat your vegetables like you would a nice steak," she said. What that means is that you don't need to think about vegetables as an afterthought, to be steamed or microwaved, but as the centerpiece. How? Jarrett has a few tips.
Start with the Vegetable
So often, when cooking, people begin with the protein as the centerpiece of the meal. Once you shift your lens slightly, you can start with whatever vegetable is in season, from corn to cabbage to spring onions. "You can treat your vegetables as the main event as much as a barbecue chef treats meat that way," Jarrett said. Browse the farmer's market for ideas, if you have time, and if you don't, look through the grocery store and see what looks fresh and good to you. Then build you meal out from there—add in protein as more of a supporting role than a star.
Mix Up Your Seasoning
One easy way to mix up the flavors you use with vegetables is to experiment with spices and seasoning blends. "Too many people think that the limit for vegetables is lemon and butter," Jarrett noted. But there's not reason you can't season vegetables and fruits as aggressively as you would a pork shoulder. Jarrett is particularly fond of Dukkah, an Egyptian blend of nuts and spices that's incredibly versatile, and Panch Phoron, a bengali spice mixture common in South Asian cuisine. But you can use what you have—rub a cabbage or cauliflower cut into thick slices with barbecue or cajun seasoning and grill it. Sprinkle asparagus with taco seasoning or sumac. Put your spice cabinet to work.
Don't Be Afraid of Open Flame
This is not to say that you should abandon all caution in the kitchen—the fire extinguisher still needs a spot nearby—but more that people generally don't think to, say, blister blueberries on the grill or smoke peaches outside. "Don't be afaraid of cooking your fruit," Jarrett said. "Braise it, smoke it, sautee it." It might feel off, but developing a char on the outside of vegetables that are otherwise tender and sweet gives them great textural contrast.
Use Some Tools
At this point, you're probably familiar with the spiralizer, a tool that allows cooks to shred zucchini, potatoes, and other vegetables into noodle-sized shreds. But why stop there? Jarrett recommends getting a vegetable sheeter, a tool that cuts vegetables into long, lasagna noodle-like portions. She uses it on candy cane beets which she then smokes and spices and serves as a kind of pastrami sandwich. (You can purchase them as an attachment for a stand mixer, but they're also available in handheld versions.) A smoke gun is also a tool she often uses to infuse plants with flavor.
Experiment with Using the Whole Plant, Root-to-Stem
Consider parts of the vegetables you're using that you might otherwise throw out. Garlic skins can go into a batch of stock or soup, and carrot tops can be turns into pesto. Jarett uses broccoli stems, the tougher part of the vegetable, in a soup. Consider how to use every part of the vegetable and you can find yourself in creative territory—like a watermelon soup that uses watermelon rind in the cream, as Jarrett made for an event last year.
Take Your Time
It's hard, when you just need to get food on the table, to think outside of the box. It's helpful to have set meals and ideas, and to do what you know. But when you have the chance, slowing down to taste what you're making as you're doing it, and really pay attention to what flavors are developing is a huge part of figuring out how to center plants more on your plate. Play around with them and see what you can come up with—you'd be surprised how easy it becomes to make plants a bigger part of your meal.