Alicia Walter not only wants us to eat more vegetables. She wants us to eat the ones we don’t recognize. The woody root vegetables. The thick skinned squashes. The ones we don’t know how to pronounce, much less take home and cook. Luckily for fans of Meatless Monday, Alicia has the ideal platform to demonstrate how easy and delicious it is to cook vegetable-centric meals. As the Chef and Lead Instructor of La Scuola at Eataly NY, Alicia is closing out the year with three upcoming plant-based cooking classes: “Meatless Monday in Le Marche with The Italian Garden Project” on Monday, October 21, “Meatless Monday in Umbria” on November 18, and “Meatless Monday in the Veneto” on December 16. We met Alicia at Pranzo, Eataly’s open-kitchen lunch restaurant in La Scuola Grande, where we enjoyed several vegetables we couldn’t quite recognize.
Meatless Monday: So, what exactly is this? It looks like a small purple carrot.
Alicia Walter: They’re breakfast radishes. I went to Union Square Greenmarket this morning and picked them up. We toss them with olive oil, salt and pepper, cover the greens with foil and then roast them. Then we drizzle just a bit of acacia honey on them. Isn’t it delicious?
MM: It is. I’ve never seen a radish like this.
AW: Well, there’s two pieces of advice I share with all my classes. First, I tell everyone: buy whatever you don’t recognize. For example, you’re at Eataly or the Greenmarket, and you see one of those black turnips. And you say, ‘what am I going to do with that?’ My answer is, ‘just take it home.’ Take it home, chop it up, try a piece. If it tastes good raw, eat it raw. If it doesn’t, toss it with olive oil, salt and pepper and throw it in the oven.
MM: And the second piece of advice?
AW: Treat yourself to a Knife Skills class. Especially at this time of year. We’re tucked inside all winter, it’s a great time to commit yourself to improving your chopping skills. That way prepping food and cooking is a lot more enjoyable.
MM: You’ve been teaching Meatless Monday cooking classes for a few years.
AW: Yes, I first heard about Meatless Monday about three years ago when I read about (Eataly co-owner) Mario Batali’s support. When I started working in the La Scuola, I pitched the idea of having an ongoing series to our Education Director. The first one was a hit and we’ve been doing them once a month since then.
MM: So Meatless Monday fans are good cooking students?
AW: Absolutely. We host folks who really want to learn how to amp up the creativity of their vegetable dishes. We also host vegetarians who just love cooking classes and this is one they can come to and eat everything. Some people love being guided through a recipe. They want to know, ‘here’s how you clean a squash, here’s the temperature you put your oven on, here’s how you cook it, here’s how you know it’s done.’ And others want to know how to break free of recipes. I’ll ask, ‘do you want to learn how to make extraordinary vinaigrette?’ And I’ll explain: ‘the cooking technique is braising. Here’s how you braise something. Now, really taste that braising liquid, because we’re going to build a sauce from that.’ I probably go a little overboard in each class. I just love these classes, they’re very near and dear to my heart.
MM: So what can we expect on October 21st?
AW: This next class will be very exciting. I have a guest, Mary Menniti, who heads up The Italian Garden Project. She finds secret gardens—in people’s backyards, on their stoops, in their windowsills— Italian Americans who are growing fruits and vegetables from seeds that have been brought over from Italy or from seeds that have been passed down. The campaign is a way of preserving traditional Italian-American flavors, heritage and gardening wisdom.
MM: And the menu?
AW: Every Meatless Monday class over the last two years has been different, which is ridiculously ambitious! For each class, we pick a region, we look into the flavor profiles and meatless specialties of that region, what’s in season and then we create the dishes around that information. We buy everything fresh, do a great menu for that one class, and then we move on. The menu for The Italian Garden Project class is inspired by produce from the gardens and also the region of Le Marche. We will be enjoying fried olives, a plate of small bites from the Greenmarket, farotto with black truffles and cauliflower and Day of the Dead almond cookies.
MM: These are very timely classes. There is a lot of discussion around Meatless Monday, there is such a variety of produce now, in farmers’ markets, in CSAs. Are vegetables having their moment?
AW: Absolutely! Vegetables are definitely finding their way back to the center of the plate. People are excited about trying the incredible variety of colors, shapes and textures that vegetables have to offer , eating more “vegetable-centered” or “plant-focused” diets. Those are the terms I use to describe the cuisine springing up around the vegetable movement.
MM: So we’ll buy veggies we don’t recognize. We’ll take a knife class. Is there one last professional tip that we could all do at home?
AW: I’ll leave you with a few tips. A really easy way to make any vegetable elegant–and easier to eat–is to slice it on a mandolin. When using a mandolin, put a towel over the vegetable so it is easier to hold and you don’t slice your fingers. Once you have a lacey pile, toss it with olive oil, something acidic like lemon juice, salt and pepper. You can even slice winter squash this way and eat it raw! Another tip: when you come home from the market, wash and chop everything all at once. That way, when you’re cooking, you can reach into the refrigerator and pull out your prepped ingredients instead of starting from the chopping block each time. I have a CSA share, which always includes several bunches of dark leafy greens. I wash them all, then dry everything really well. You don’t want anything to be damp or it will spoil quicker. I’ll even use my salad spinner for storage. After everything is washed and dried, put your greens back into the spinner and store in the refrigerator. The greens stay dry in the basket and can still breathe.
MM: I saw a picture of your refrigerator. You also took out the bottom drawers. I love that.
AW: Yeah, I took them out. They take up so much space! I like to keep my grains and flour in the refrigerator and now I have plenty of room for them. My prepped greens are stored above them. Then I keep leftovers and prepped veggies at eye level, so that they are the first thing that I reach for when I’m famished. I love being able to see all of my options before I start cooking a meal.