The Vegetable Alchemist
NEW YORK—Vegetables have their secrets. The key is knowing how to coax them out.
Alana Chernila, who spent almost a decade working at the Great Barrington farmers market in Massachusetts, is a master vegetable alchemist. To marketgoers unsure about how to prepare their vegetables, she dispensed counsel, secrets gleaned over years of experimentation and conversation.
In her new book, “Eating From the Ground Up,” she provides invaluable advice for unlocking the flavors of vegetables, however mysterious or familiar.
Cauliflower, for example, is roasted, bursting with spectacular flavor, its nuttiness augmented by little earthy pops of cumin seeds. Potatoes, steamed before being roasted, are impossibly, perfectly golden and crunchy on the outside and fluffy inside.
Even radishes, whose spiciness peaks in the summertime heat, are tamed to earthy, melt-in-your-mouth tenderness, simply through roasting.
Visiting the farmers market at Tompkins Square Park in New York on a recent March afternoon, Chernila spent some time admiring the cabbages, praising them like old friends, and examining purple-white-hued turnip globes.
“I would mash these up and put them in a shepherd’s pie [along with potatoes],” she mused. “They need some fat, a little cream, and then they’re really great.” She looked at the parsnips next to them. Why not add those too?
The little fingerling potatoes are some of her favorites. Because they are so delicate, she never roasts them; it would dry them too much. Instead, she steams and serves them with a vibrant salsa verde of parsley, basil, garlic, and anchovies.
And with springtime around the corner, a slew of greens will soon beckon—spinach, dandelion greens, spring nettles. “I crave all the bitter, fresh things,” said Chernila. “It’s amazing how dairy and fat will partner with bitter vegetables, especially, to work magic.”
Take broccoli rabe, which when steamed, is bitter, spicy, and fairly unpalatable.
“But then if you braise it with a bit of butter, it gets 10 more flavors in it,” she said, praising its grassiness and sweetness. “I find a little butter, a little cream transforms all these flavors that can be really hard to take in.”
Acidity—whether from lemon or vinegar—can work the same magic. What’s key is that the transformation can happen without much work. When you get home on a weeknight with no plan in mind and random vegetables in the fridge, her advice comes in very handy.
Lessons From Vegetables
These days, vegetables are often hidden in dishes. Like some shady contraband, beets are sneaked into brownies, peas concealed in mac ‘n’ cheese, and zucchini camouflaged as noodles.
Chernila prefers her vegetables to be in plain sight.
“I like to help them be more what they are, rather than pretending they’re something else,” she said.
It’s a good rule for life, in general. “Keeping things simple” is another.
She added, “Being patient—knowing that if you wait until the right time for something, it’s going to taste so much better.”
Chernila paused, the light of the afternoon sun shining upon the vegetables at the farmers market.
“Vegetables have helped teach me to enjoy eating,” she said. “It can be so tempting with vegetables to be like, ‘It’s so healthy! I need to eat more vegetables.’ But if you really put energy into having one, two, three vegetables at each meal, you can forget [about] health. Just enjoy it! It’s a whole other kind of health.”
Try these recipes from “Eating From the Ground Up”: