The Vegetable Butcher: How to Select, Prep, Slice, Dice, and Masterfully Cook Vegetables from Artichokes to Zucchini
". . . a must-have for any well-curated cookbook library . . ."
For many home cooks, the thought of peeling, slicing, and dicing vegetables is a tedious affair that leads many people to reach for a bag of frozen or pre-prepped veg from the supermarket. But what if someone were to teach you how to do it faster and more efficiently—someone, say, with the sexy title, Vegetable Butcher? Now are you interested?
Cara Mangini—whose Italian name alone should serve as her bona fides—was among the first “vegetable butchers” at that paean to Italian food, Eately, in New York City. She also studied vegetable farming in Napa Valley and currently runs a vegetable-centric restaurant called Little Eater in Columbus, Ohio.
In The Vegetable Butcher, she has taken her extensive experience and shaped it into a terrific how-to book on vegetables that is as beautiful to peruse as it is practical for both novice and seasoned home cooks alike. The aim of the book is found on the inside cover page where “vegetable butcher” is defined as both “a trusted professional who breaks down vegetables with knife lessons, insider tips, and approachable preparations,” and the book itself which is defined as “a resource full of produce-inspired recipes that deliver over-the-top flavor without sacrifice (or apology).”
For the uninitiated there is plenty of introductory information on proper knife skills along with how-to guides on selecting, caring, and storing knives; cutting boards; and other kitchen tools as well as useful tips on some basic cutting methods that vary depending on the shape of the vegetable (conical like carrots versus cylindrical like zucchini versus round like beets or celery root).
Each vegetable in this A–Z guide, is introduced with practical advice on seasonality, flavor pairings and how best to select and store. The flavor pairings, called Good Partners, are especially helpful for cooks willing to experiment. Let’s take corn for example—there is plenty of corn around right now and maybe you are tired of eating it on the cob with butter (although why that would be the case I don’t know). Just a partial listing of Good Partners for corn will tell you what to do with it: “Avocado, basil, balsamic vinegar, bell peppers, black beans . . .” Stop right there. Doesn’t all of that combined with corn sound like the beginning of a good side dish to go along with just about any meat cooked on the grill? You get the idea.
What follows next in each vegetable chapter is a photo guide called Butchery Essentials, which explains how to prep and cut each type of vegetable. There really are some terrific tips for even the most seasoned cook. Her technique for cutting bell peppers for example was new to me and will be my go-to method from now on. Same for seeding a tomato—a different cut, slicing the tomato vertically rather than horizontally, that yielded a more efficient way to de-seed.
Before moving on to specific recipes, Mangini gives an overview of Favorite Cooking Methods for each vegetable such as roasting, steaming, boiling, etc. She sometimes also includes a few simple preparations for a given vegetable in this section but isn’t always clear how these mini-recipes are meant to be used. Take Parsnip Raita for example: it is a condiment-like preparation of shredded parsnips, Greek yogurt, ginger, walnuts, honey, mint, lemon juice and Medjool dates. If you are not up on your Middle Eastern cooking, you might not figure out what this should be paired with. A little help here would have been useful.
As for the recipes themselves, they are neither numerous nor particularly groundbreaking. They are pleasant, accessible, work-a-day recipes that will serve you well, but there isn’t much here that is new to experienced cooks. No one in your family will complain about Zucchini, Sweet Corn, and Basil Penne but they won’t necessarily beg you to make it again. And while The Garlic and Ginger [Green] Beans is a great recipe to have in your back pocket when serving an Asian-marinated fish or meat dish, it isn’t something we haven’t seen before. Ditto for the Marinated Basil and Garlic Pepper on Goat Cheese Tartines, Gazpacho, and so on.
That said, there are some exceptions, like Parsnip-Ginger Layer Cake, which just might make next winter less dreary.
More than the sum of its recipes, what sets The Vegetable Butcher apart from other vegetable cookbooks (and makes it a must-have for any well-curated cookbook library), is that it provides loads of useful tips and instructions on how to work most effectively with any given vegetable. If we are going to make vegetables the star of the meal, we have to be taught how to select and prep them. And as always, practice makes perfect.