Read this cookbook: “Eating from the Ground Up: Recipes for Simple, Perfect Vegetables” by Alana Chernila (Clarkson Potter, $28)
By Wendell Brock
Alana Chernila compares Hakurei turnips to oysters and chocolate. “Its curvy smooth flesh,” she writes in her new vegetable-centered cookbook, “qualifies it for aphrodisiac status.” She knows that cheap lowly cabbage can be transformed into something creamy and sweet by simply braising it in butter. And that plain boiled potatoes or roasted radishes can be zipped up with a drizzle of bright, herbaceous salsa verde, or an easy puree of scallions and watercress.
A blogger, teacher, cookbook writer and cheese maker who sometimes hawks vegetables at farmers markets near her home in western Massachusetts, Chernila has a tender, preternatural touch with zucchini, cucumbers, corn and tomatoes: those indefatigable show-stoppers that sing and dance and carry on all summer long.
In a series of chapters on soups and other warm, comforting fare; the cooling bites of summer; and food that is meant to be eaten out of hand, she offers a philosophy of vegetable cooking (and not cooking) that is pure, simple and guaranteed to put you at ease.
“This is not a vegetarian book, and it’s even less of a vegan book,” she says at the start, confessing that her daughter suggested they might name it “Vegetables with Cheese.” (That was not a complaint, either.)
While many veggies are perfect yanked fresh from the dirt or vine, others, she argues, need salt, fat, acid or dairy to coax out their natural caramels and subtle terroir.
The fail-proof method for roasted potatoes is to steam them first. Greens, it seems, makes everything better: from lemony chicken soup to buttery polenta.
I experienced many revelations while reading this book.
Who knew that tomatillos start out as “lime-green paper lanterns, each self-inflated around a tiny green fruit at its top”? “As the tomatillo grows, it fills the lantern, eventually occupying the whole sphere.” Yes, they make deliciously acidic salsas, but they can also be rounded out with black beans. (Hence a recipe for chili.)
The best dip is made with onions you caramelize yourself. Butternut squash puree can be baked into custard, then topped with candied bourbon pecans and whipped cream. “It’s like pumpkin and pecan pie in one,” Chernila writes of her gluten-free, Thanksgiving-perfect dessert.
“Eating from the Ground Up” has plenty more such secrets, many so unadorned that they barely qualify as recipes. With produce season just days or weeks away, this volume is full of ideas and inspiration, all expressed in a voice that is sunny, smart and often angelic.
Wendell Brock is an Atlanta-based food and culture writer, frequent AJC contributor and winner of a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award for journalism. Follow him on Twitter (@MrBrock) and Instagram (@WendellDavidBrock).