Monday, June 11, 2012

14 years later, a new look at a classic: 'Vegetables' by James Peterson

It's that most wonderful time of the year when tables at farmer's markets overflow with the rainbow beauty of summer produce. There are squash of every shape and color; strawberries, blueberries and plump blackberries; sweet onions and even sweeter corn, and, oh my, at long last, tomatoes that actually taste like tomatoes.

But wait. There also are some very odd-looking roots, a peck of unfamiliar peppers and confusing assortment cabbages, greens and herbs. You might find yourself wondering: Where the heck did all this come from? And, more importantly, how in the world do I cook it?

"A lot more vegetables are available now than when Vegetables was first published 14 years ago," said James Peterson, whose classic James Beard Award-winning book had gone out of print. "One of the book’s main purposes is to serve as a sort of reference guide: what a vegetable looks like, how it can or should be cooked, how to trim it."

In the handsomely illustrated new Ten Speed Press edition, Peterson provides step-by-step instructions on, for example, how to minimize waste while trimming intimidatingly bumpy Jerusalem artichokes, how to whittle what looks like dirty sticks onto slivers of stir-fry-ready burdock root, and how to dramatically carve a roasted rutabaga like a roast beef. He also offers new perspective on a comprehensive array of vegetables familiar to most home cooks.

Peterson, who has earned a revered status for a series of intensely researched single-topic cookbooks, wrote the revised Vegetables over a yearlong season of shopping and cooking at New York's bountiful green markets, which serve as an urban oasis for everyone from top chefs to home cooks and those trying to recreate the distinct tastes of distant homelands.

While the first edition of Vegetables impressed critics as comprehensive, Peterson has lushly expanded what he confidently calls "the most authoritative guide" with a staggering array of "new" vegetables, many of which have deep but threatened heirloom roots. While decidedly not a cookbook for vegetarians, it is a desirable addition to the collection of anyone who loves vegetables.

One of the many additions that was new to Peterson was long beans, the aptly-named 12-18 inch green beans that are often used in Asian cooking. His Long Beans with Peanuts and Garlic is one of the more than 300 recipes in the collection.

Peterson cited the giant beans as an example of how even those confident cooking with green beans might be stumped by a long bean, which is relatively tough and needs a longer cooking time. The trick is to cut them into manageable, faster-cooking segments.

 "The Chinese are superstitious cooking some long foods - you'd never break up long noodles, which signify long life - but these are best cut small," said Peterson, acknowledging that wok guru Grace Young (whose recipe for Candied Lotus Root is featured) deploys a similar technique. "If you just steam or boil them, you might be disappointed."

A sizable chunk of the new volume is dedicated to Asian vegetables, especially the many bok choy and seaweed varieties that have made their way from small specialty markets to mega-mart shelves. It also recognizes the impact of Latino consumers, who have created a demand for, among other things, cactus pads (nopales), heritage chiles and delicate zucchini flowers.

While some untried vegetables may poke home cooks outside of their comfort zone, Peterson said there are plenty of unfamiliar options that can be cooked in very familiar ways. Since he doesn't expect even the most ardent fan to tote the nearly 400-page book to the market, he recommends talking to growers and summoning the courage to try new things.

James Peterson
He also urges a light touch in the kitchen to take full advantage of a farmer's hard work without overcooking or masking a vegetable's inherent flavor with too many ingredients.

"People do tend to overcook, and it’s not just applying too much heat over time. They just overdo it," Peterson said. "Culinary students especially tend to over-complicate things. You can see it coming then they all get out the red bell peppers. I think it’s a general insecurity that it’s just not enough on its own."

Peterson concedes that not everything he tested and tasted in the name of culinary completeness is something he'd eat on a regular basis.

“Ugh, taro root,” he said with an unmistakable shiver. “I can’t really say in all honestly that I would go home and cook that. It’s kind of starchy, gooey, nondescript. I thought it should be in there because its become common but a lot of people don’t know what to do with it.”

While some dishes may not be repeated, Peterson was not shy about pointing out some of his favorites. "The onion tart is really very good," he said. “Another one I love, with is somewhat a bit of work, is the potted stuffed cabbage (see related story).”

Onion Tart
Reprinted with permission from Vegetables by James Peterson, copyright © 2012. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 medium onions, very thinly sliced
1 (10-inch) Tart Shell, baked
2 cups milk
4 large eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Tiny pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

Makes 8 first-course servings.

Preheat the oven to 300˚F.

Melt the butter in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat and add the onions. Stir the onions every few minutes until they soften and begin to turn pale brown, about 30 minutes. If the onions start to brown sooner, turn down the heat.

Spread the cooked onions in an even layer in the tart shell. Whisk together the milk, eggs, salt, pepper, and nutmeg and pour this mixture into the tart shell. Bake until the liquids set—you can see this by gently moving the tart back and forth and verifying that the liquid does not move—in 45 to 60 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes. Serve in wedges.

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