Cooking tips from the vegetable ‘butcher’

Many people wanted to cook vegetables more often but didn’t know the basics of preparing them.

'The vegetable Butcher’ by Cara Mangini (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
'The vegetable Butcher’ by Cara Mangini
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
I never considered that butchering is what we do to our vegetables.
Yet “vegetable butcher” was the job title of Cara Mangini at Eataly, a large, trendy Italian market in New York City. She peeled and cut vegetables for the shoppers so that they were ready to be cooked.
Mangini found that many people wanted to cook vegetables more often but didn’t know the basics of preparing them. “My favorite part of the job was teaching these techniques... It was always a thrill to see such amazement from people over the simplest preparations.” This motivated Mangini to write her cookbook The Vegetable Butcher.
At her recent demonstration in Los Angeles, Mangini emphasized that cutting and trimming vegetables is not complicated. You just need a few sharp knives that are comfortable for you to handle and a good cutting board. Once you’ve trimmed and cut a vegetable, making a delicious dish from it is a breeze.
Some hesitate when a recipe calls for shaving the kernels from an ear of corn, but Mangini demonstrated how simple this is to do. She showed how to cut a bell pepper without getting seeds all over the place, and how to easily cut a cauliflower into thick slices, which can be roasted to make cauliflower steaks. (See recipe.) There is value in vegetable scraps, too. As Mangini cut the corn kernels, she saved the cobs to make corn stock for soup. Pepper tops and bottoms and onion skins can also be added to vegetable stock, she said.
In order to enjoy using vegetables, it’s important to know how to select and store them. Carrots, for example, are best if they have bright greens still attached to show that they are fresh; you should trim them off right away so the carrots will keep better. If you want to use the carrot greens in pesto or in other dishes, wrap them in barely damp paper towels, store them in a sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator, and use them within two days.
At Mangini’s presentation, our favorite dishes were her Turkish carrot yogurt dip with sautéed pine nuts (see recipe), her creamy corn soup garnished with feta cheese and toasted pumpkin seeds (see recipe), and her potato salad dressed with yogurt, fresh dill and mint.
To add pizzazz to panzanella (Italian bread salad), Mangini combines heirloom summer tomatoes with cherry tomatoes, red onion slivers, cucumber slices and olive-oil-toasted bread cubes, and adds fresh mozzarella cheese, fresh basil, parsley, olive oil, wine vinegar, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.
These dishes have Mediterranean flair for a good reason. Many of Mangini’s recipes are inspired by her Italian heritage and by what she ate during her travels in France, Italy and Turkey. There she learned “from talented chefs and home cooks who effortlessly handled vegetables. Without much advance planning...they made seasonal, local produce a significant part of every meal.”
Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning cookbooks Fresh from France: Vegetable Creations and Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.
Cara Mangini recommends serving this easy-to-make dip with triangles of pita bread or with pita chips seasoned with sea salt, and with vegetables – raw baby carrots, whole or halved radishes and briefly blanched cauliflower, or a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and feta.
To add heat, drizzle the salad with chili oil instead of olive oil. (See Note.) When summer squash is in season, you can substitute one small zucchini for one carrot. The dip keeps, refrigerated in an airtight container, for up to 5 days.
Makes about 2½ cups
■ ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for finishing
■ 3 medium-to-large carrots (285 to 340 gr. or 10 to 12 oz. total), peeled, shredded on the large holes of a box grater
■ ¹⁄3 cup pine nuts (or finely chopped walnuts)
■ ¾ tsp. fine sea salt, plus extra as needed
■ 1 to 2 garlic cloves, finely grated on a Microplane, pressed, or crushed into a paste
■ 2 cups low-fat or full-fat plain Greek yogurt
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium- high heat. To test, add pinch of grated carrots; oil is ready if carrots sizzle. Add remaining carrots and cook, stirring frequently, until they begin to soften, about 6 minutes.
Add pine nuts and salt. Continue cooking over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until carrots are completely soft and browning and pine nuts are golden, another 5 to 6 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until it is incorporated and fragrant, another 30 to 60 seconds.
Let cool briefly to warm.
Spoon yogurt into a medium-size bowl. Lightly stir in warm carrot mixture and salt to taste. Transfer dip to a serving bowl, and drizzle with olive oil.
Note: Chili oil: Heat ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil and 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes in small skillet over medium heat. Cook until flakes begin to sizzle, about 2 minutes. Transfer to small heatproof bowl to cool to room temperature. Strain cooled oil through fine, double-mesh sieve. It keeps refrigerated in an airtight container up to 1 month.
“Cut cauliflower into thick slabs, brush them with olive oil, and roast them so they brown and cook through,” wrote Mangini. She tops them with pan-toasted breadcrumbs and serves them with Spanish-style romesco sauce made of roasted red peppers, tomatoes, sherry vinegar, almonds and hazelnuts. Mangini likes them with pan-crisped potatoes and steamed or sautéed greens.
The sauce keeps refrigerated in a container up to 2 days; it improves if made a day ahead.
Serves 4
■ 1 large or 2 small heads cauliflower (see Note 1)
■ 4 to 5 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
■ Coarse or flaked sea salt
■ Freshly ground black pepper
■ 1 cup coarse fresh breadcrumbs (see Note 2)
■ Red pepper romesco sauce (see Note 3), for serving
Preheat oven to 230°C (450°F). Line a plate with paper towels. To cut cauliflower steaks, cut off stalk flush with base of crown. (Do not cut any part of core that is attached to florets.) Stand cauliflower upright. Cut 2.5-cm. (1-in.)-thick slices, from crown down through core end. Side cuts may be precariously held together but should be bound by the core.
Use a wide spatula to transfer steaks from board to a rimmed baking sheet. Brush them evenly on both sides with 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil, and season generously all over with salt and pepper. Roast, turning halfway through cooking, until steaks are browned on both sides and tender, 20 to 25 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add breadcrumbs and cook, stirring often, until golden brown and toasted, about 6 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, transfer them to the lined plate to drain, and let cool completely.
Divide steaks among plates and top each with a dollop of warm or room-temperature sauce and a sprinkle of toasted breadcrumbs. Serve immediately, with extra sauce at the table.
Note 1: A small cauliflower head yields 2 to 4 steaks; you’ll need 2 heads for 4 servings to guarantee a thick cut for each person. A large head should give 4 good-size steaks.
Use a wide spatula to carefully transfer steaks to a baking sheet. Any pieces that do not hold together can be prepared the same way and served alongside steaks.
Note 2: Coarse fresh breadcrumbs: Remove crust from about 60 grams (2 ounces) bread with serrated knife. Tear bread in pieces and pulse in food processor to get fluffy crumbs, some large and some small.
Note 3: Red pepper romesco sauce: Preheat oven to 230°C (450°F). Line rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. On one end place 2 sweet red peppers on their sides. On other end place 2 small-to-medium tomatoes such as plum tomatoes, halved lengthwise.
Roast until tomatoes are soft and their skins start to brown, about 15 minutes. Carefully transfer tomatoes to a plate. Continue roasting peppers 20 to 30 more minutes until skins blacken and blister in places. Transfer to a bowl, cover immediately with plastic wrap and let cool.
In food processor finely chop 1 large garlic clove. Add ¼ cup toasted almonds and ¼ cup toasted hazelnuts and finely chop. Peel tomatoes and add to processor. Peel peppers, discard stems and seeds, and put flesh in processor.
Add 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar, ¹⁄8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, ¹⁄8 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika and 1 teaspoon fine sea salt. With motor running, stream in ½ cup olive oil until mixture is smooth. Serve heated, at room temperature or cold. Thin with water if desired. Makes 2 cups.
“This pureed summer soup is essentially butter corn in all its salty-sweet, creamy glory,” wrote Mangini. Making stock from the shaved corn cobs gives the soup a deeper corn flavor. For a different flavor, you can use basil instead of coriander. You can serve the soup hot or chilled.
Serves 4 to 6
■ Kernels shaved from 6 large ears of corn (see Note 1, reserve cobs)
■ 1 bay leaf
■ 6 whole black peppercorns
■ 2 Tbsp. olive oil
■ 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
■ 1 medium onion, cut into 6-mm. (¼-in.) dice
■ 1 garlic clove, peeled
■ 1½ teaspoons fine sea salt, or to taste
■ 2 pinches cayenne pepper, or to taste
■ 1 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice
■ ¼ cup chopped fresh coriander leaves, for serving
■ ¼ to ¹⁄3 cup freshly crumbled feta or goat cheese, for serving
■ Freshly ground pepper
■ ¼ cup spiced and sweet pepitas (see Note 2 below) or toasted pumpkin
■ seeds, for serving
■ Your best extra-virgin olive oil, for finishing
■ Lemon or lime wedges, for serving
In a large pot combine 3.8 liters (1 gallon) water, shaved corn cobs, bay leaf and peppercorns. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for 25 to 60 minutes, to impart as much corn flavor into stock as possible. Remove cobs, bay leaf and peppercorns. Leave stock over low heat.
Meanwhile, heat olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter in Dutch oven over medium heat until butter melts. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until it begins to soften and becomes translucent but not brown, about 3 minutes. Add garlic, corn kernels, 1 teaspoon salt, and cayenne. Cook over medium-high heat for 5 minutes. Add 4 cups corn stock, cover and bring to a simmer. Uncover slightly and simmer over medium-low heat until corn and onions soften, about 20 minutes. Stir in remaining tablespoon butter until melted. Remove from heat.
Puree soup with immersion blender to get soup with some texture, or in batches in high-speed blender for silky smooth soup. Return soup to medium heat and add up to 1 cup stock to thin soup to desired consistency. Add lemon juice and remaining salt, or to taste.
You can cool soup and refrigerate it in an airtight container up to 3 days. If serving cold, add more stock if needed.
Ladle soup into bowls and garnish each with cilantro, feta, freshly ground pepper and pepitas, and drizzle with olive oil. Serve with lemon wedges.
Note 1: To cut corn kernels off cob: Break cob in half to create flat surfaces so that kernels won’t jump far when they fall. Stand half-cob on its flat surface.
Starting at top and turning cob as you go, slice kernels off cob with chef’s knife without including dry pieces of cob. Use back of knife to scrape remaining corn juices off cob.
Note 2
: Spiced and sweet pepitas (pumpkin seeds): Combine 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil, 1 teaspoon sugar, ¹⁄8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, ¹⁄8 teaspoon ground cumin and ¹⁄8 teaspoon fine sea salt in a small nonstick skillet over medium- high heat. Cook, stirring often, until sugar melts, about 2 minutes.
Add ¼ cup raw shelled pumpkin seeds and cook 2 to 3 more minutes, stirring constantly, until they are coated and begin to brown. Remove seeds to a plate and cool completely.
They keep in an airtight container at room temperature up to 1 week. Makes about ¼ cup.