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Michael Anthony—Executive Chef of Gramercy Tavern in New York City, James Beard Outstanding Chef of 2015 and author of V is for Vegetables—took a time out from the kitchen to chat with VT about making vegetable-centered meals, the one cooking skill all vegetable-lovers should master, how to vegify cookbook recipes, and more.
What prompted you to write a book all about vegetables? In writing the Gramercy Tavern Cookbook, vegetables played a large role in many of the recipes just as they do at the restaurant. I wanted to find a more personal way to share my enthusiasm for cooking and eating seasonal vegetables with home cooks.
Would you say that making vegetables a prominent part of meals is the most important cooking factor for eating well and living well? Yes, eating well and living well for me starts with cooking dishes that are distinctively from our own region. By sourcing locally, you treat yourself to the freshest, most delicious and nutritious components available. With the proliferation of greenmarkets and CSAs, vegetables happen to be the easiest subject to start with. I really do believe there could be a profound change to the way we eat and buy as well as grow our food if we as Americans could embrace the notion of the “classic American meal” being served in a bowl rather than on a plate. In a bowl, grains, beans and rice become a foundation of flavor and sustenance to uphold a wide variety of seasonal vegetables and a much more sensible proportion of meat and fish (think of Chinese stir fry or an Indian stew). The simple physics of eating from a bowl could have a profound impact on our health, environment and quality of life.
If there was one cooking technique you think a home cook should master to make vegetables shine, what would it be? Peeling and chopping. 1) Buy a cutting board large enough to organize your work, at least 18- by 26- inches. Most home cooks have limited their cutting surface so that it makes it quite awkward and slow to peel vegetables. 2) Peel vegetables over a bowl or tray to catch dirty skins, peels, and other trimmings. Pile vegetables neatly in an organized fashion so your hands don’t have to make large movements- this will speed up the job without necessarily working faster. 3) Accept that there is magic in the monotony of preparation for a meal long before your family and friends share their oohs and ahhs, you as a cook can should feel a deep sense of satisfaction in peeling and chopping vibrant ingredients. There’s nothing more beautiful and more important than preparing food for someone you care about.
You talk in the introduction of your book about the wonder of handing a first-grader a whole cauliflower. How do you get that sort of wondrous reaction in a daily cooking routine? What first led me to get interested in cooking was the mystery, wonder and beauty of the ingredients themselves. Every Friday when my family’s box of vegetables arrives from the CSA, I pull out the vegetables one by one and proudly show them to my daughter and wife in true amazement. Falling in love with using vibrant ingredients is the first step. Eating something specific from our region is a courageous act. Paying close attention to the natural world around us keeps life exciting and it turns the ordinary act of eating into a celebration.
Why was it important for you to test the recipes for your cookbook in a home kitchen? Our cookbook team (Dorothy Kalins, co-author, Maura McEvoy, photographer, Kathy Brennan, recipe tester, Sue Li, kitchen assistant and Don Morris, graphics and design) set out to make this book in a unique way. Every photo shoot included cooking the dishes, sitting down to eat the dishes and collectively making revisions. We really wanted these recipes to actually work for the home cook. Our entire team gave input as to how to make them practical and delicious. Since we were literally eating each dish together, I felt a sense of challenge to make them delicious and we make revisions based on the combination of factors: practicality, deliciousness, time involved in preparation and execution. We really worked hard to get them right.
What’s your cooking style at home? Since I have 3 daughters and a family full of discerning diners, we start with the freshest ingredients we can find by way of CSA or shopping at the Greenmarket. Getting everyone involved in the preparation generally helps to get everyone to at least taste the dish. But timing becomes the most important priority when you’re trying to get dinner on the table for the whole family. I generally try to use as few pans as possible and the bulk of most of our meals is made of vegetables, grains, beans and rice, but we have very few restrictions. My wife and I are constantly trying to introduce the girls to the pleasures of tasting new things. Being the cook on top of being the parent is not easy! Stay flexible with the foods that your friends and family enjoy and focus on including a wide variety of foods as often as possible. If your kids see you eat it, one day they might do the same.
What tips do you have for vegetarians who want to vegify cookbook recipes? I would suggest rather than cooking complete recipes from books, find essential ingredients and flavor combinations and focus your dishes around those essential combinations. I do this at the restaurant and have created a number of dishes that don’t fit into any particular category, they’re just delicious, creative combinations of vegetables that I love to eat. The key to making these dishes delicious is to season them well. I don’t mean overdoing it with the salt, I mean find a seasonal salsa, chickpea dip, a dry chili rub, or fresh chopped herbs infused into olive oil to make the vegetables stand out.
How do you cater to vegetarian diners when they come to the restaurant? All of the dishes are cooked to order, and whenever we adapt a dish to make it vegetarian or vegan, our goal is to always make it an upgrade. Rather than subtracting the best part, we add enough to each dish to make them enviable. For the last 8 years, we’ve insisted that if we offer vegetable-based menus, they have to include our most creative and inspired thoughts on food. A guest may experience their perception of our restaurant through these vegetable dishes, so they have to taste inspired.
What tips can you offer vegetarian diners when they go to non-veg restaurants like Gramercy Tavern? Pick restaurants that use your same philosophy to source food that you do. You can be assured that they will have fresh and vibrant ingredients to cook with. After all, any good restaurant should have intimate relationships with local growers. Vegetables represent our most powerful way to tell a story of how to eat distinctively from our own region. They become the cornerstone of our culture and define who we are.
In your “A Recipe is a Sketch Not a Blueprint” section, you talk about substituting vegetables and say “Experiments can lead to happy solutions.” Why? By talking about a recipe being a sketch, not a blueprint, I want to encourage home cooks to feel empowered to cook for themselves using their senses, their judgment, and their own taste to guide them. Many cooks feel the need to look to a specialist to tell them how to do it. But once a cook has mastered a few basic techniques, anyone can do it. It’s important that we reconnect with our kitchens and feel confident that we can make delicious food at home. Cooking is not a spectator sport. Photography © Maura McEvoy