On Friday, February 14, one day after a storm dropped a foot of snow on New York City, Meatless Monday and Alicia Walter, Resident Chef of La Scuola at Eataly NY, pulled on their boots and headed to the Union Square Greenmarket. Our mission was to discover what vegetables are in the market right now, and to discuss the incredible range of colors, textures, flavors and menu options for the home cook. For all of us who participate in Meatless Monday and are interested in cooking more plant-based meals, here is a window into the mind of a chef, as Alicia shares her thoughts, preparation tips, and a dozen recipe ideas using these incredibly versatile vegetables.
Meatless Monday: Alicia, thanks for bundling up and joining us today. As we come to our first vendor, I’m seeing a lot of potatoes, onions, fresh thyme. Any ideas come to mind?
Alicia Walter: This is perfect, look at this. Right next to each other. Baked onions with fresh thyme is a perfect contorno. And with these potatoes, my favorite wintertime Italian dish is called Pizzoccheri, from the region of Lombardia. It’s essentially buckwheat pasta, potatoes and cabbage. Check, check, check. We sauté some onions and cabbage, then cook the potatoes in garlic and milk, cook them way down until they’re soft and then puree them. You can use a floury potato or a waxy potato, either of these will work. We mix the onions and cabbage into the potato puree as well as buckwheat pasta that’s just been cooked just a few minutes. In the summer, you don’t bake the dish. But in winter, you bake it all together with some grated Bitto or Fontina cheese and breadcrumbs on top. We add caraway and poppy seeds to our breadcrumbs, as well.
Blue Hubbard is a drier, starchier squash. People are intimidated by it because it’s so huge. The best way to open it is by putting the squash into a strong plastic bag, tying the bag and then drop it on the ground! It’s perfect for baking or to replace some of the potato in your gnocchi dough.
Celeriac is nice when you want to make a fresh salad in the winter. Just shave it thin, add olive oil, salt, pepper, lemon juice, done. With parsnips, check the core. See, this one has a bit of a tough core in it? So I would be less inclined to roast this. But you could make an amazing puree out of this. Or you can put it in a soup, so it’s cooking a long time and gets really soft in the middle.
Right. But this time of year, all of the greens are really special. They’ve battled their way through a couple of hard frosts, so they’re actually sweeter in the winter. Kale is getting all of the attention, but it is well-deserved! It’s delicious. For a quick dinner, when I get home late from work, I’ll make a kale salad with a tahini lemon dressing, golden raisins and nuts. I mean, what else could you want? If you want to get fancy, you put a hard boiled egg in there. I also love to make a pasta sauce with garlic, lots of toasted walnuts, a dark leafy green, and dried blueberries. I mix this with a short dry pasta like vesuvio or fusilli.
This is Ruby Red Streak. This is my new kale. It gets the same treatment, except I wouldn’t cook it, ever. I always eat this raw. It’s just so good, it’s very tender and one of the more mild members of the mustard family. The feathery leaves get coated with dressing but don’t get soggy so it still feels very nice in your mouth. Toss it with my tahini lemon dressing.
Again with tahini dressing. Is that a new love of yours?
No, that’s an ongoing relationship. Decades long!
These are scapes, kind of the shoot of a garlic bulb. When you cook it, the stalk will taste like a garlicky asparagus. But the white head is really intense; one of these blooms is equivalent to a full head of garlic. The stalks need to get cooked, but the head you can eat raw. Crumble it up just a little bit and throw it in a salad, or sauté, and it’s really nice.
Of course in the winter market, we see a lot of apples that are kept in storage. Is there anything new we can do with apples?
I really like to use things in opposite ways. For example, I like to make beets sweet. And I like to make fruits savory. We recently made a contorno that was sautéed cabbage, really thinly sliced apples, pomegranate seeds, and caraway. And a little bit of red wine vinegar, too. It was incredible.
That’s the second cabbage recipe of the day. I see a theme here. What other things can a home cook do with cabbage?
Here’s something we’ve been doing recently, and I thought it was going to be horrible. I was a complete skeptic until the very end. We made a cabbage puree. Steam it with a little salt, then puree it, get it nice and smooth. And now, we use it to either bind other ingredients that need some creaminess or add it to anything that needs a puddle of flavor underneath it. The taste stays really clean. So for home cooks, if you want to add a little variation to your last run of winter menus, substitute cabbage puree for potatoes or squash purees.
We’re coming up to rutabaga. I have to confess: I’ve never cooked a rutabaga. Other than roasting, I need professional advice.
I can tell you that rutabagas and apples are besties. You can either add rutabagas to sweet apple dishes, like crisps and pies. Or pull the apples over to the savory side and add them to contorni with rutabaga and caramelized onions and such. They’d also be great raw in the celeriac salad that we talked about a few booths ago. I’m still working on cracking the rutabaga code!
Speaking of apples, we love cooking with apple cider. So we take cider and boil it down to half or even 75%. It hasn’t been strained or manipulated or pasteurized, so it will get gelatinous. It’s almost like a vegetarian thickening agent, like an agar. So you can add that to whatever you want, a fruit that’s already cooking down, add it to blueberries, it’ll make them a little more tight—it’ll tighten up the juices in the background. You can cook any vegetable in apple cider, so maybe that’s another answer to the rutabaga question: cook it in apple cider and salt until it the pan is dry. You’ll have some very delicious rutabaga. Oh! Or add maple syrup instead of salt. Now we’re back in dessert territory.
Cooking in cider sounds like a delicious way for someone to reduce their intake of oil, too. Where do you stand on the oil debate? Olive oil used to be “the healthy oil,” but recently a lot of voices are saying the less oil you use, the better.
I think about it differently. When I started at Eataly, I was completely vegan. Gluten-free, no oil, that kind of thing. I thought that was the right way to do things. But then I started to think more about ingredients in terms of quality. It’s very different to use an oil that’s been sitting on a shelf for years, the label says it’s olive oil, but maybe it’s canola or grapeseed or who knows what. That’s a very different product than when someone presses their own oil from olives that were grown on their land, and they are sharing that product with you. I trust the quality of that product and am thrilled to taste and use it. It’s like when people say: I hate vegetables. How can you say that? There’s so much variety. So that’s how I feel about oil.
You teach the same thing at Eataly. I’ve taken two of your Meatless Monday classes and the emphasis is always on finding quality ingredients. How are those classes doing and what do you have planned in the months ahead?
The classes are going really well! The last one sold out before I’d even posted the menu! Folks are definitely interested in learning how to make delicious meatless meals. For the class in March, I invited Mary Menniti, the founder of The Italian Garden Project, to co-teach the class with me. We’ll be cooking her family recipes from the region of Molise with ingredients from some of the backyard gardeners featured in her project. I can’t wait!
Okay, I’m ready to go shopping. I’m getting the scapes, for sure. Winter salads are a treat, so I’m taking your advice about the Ruby Red Streak and I’ll pick up some celeriac. And I am definitely making Pizzoccheri, so I need cabbage and onions and potatoes. Is this basically how chefs shop? You see what’s here and build your menu?
I’m actually coming back here this afternoon. I keep my cart up at Eataly. But yes, that’s exactly how I shop.
So what will you be buying and cooking this afternoon?
We’re picking up some staples like potatoes and carrots. I’ll race you to the scapes. We’re going to get parsley root, cabbage, a couple of Hubbard squash and some sexy microgreens. The microcelery and Bull’s Blood caught my eye. And tonight’s menu has Pizzoccheri on it. This must be why cabbage is on my mind!