How 3 Cookbook Authors Make Vegetables the Star of Every Meal

How 3 Cookbook Authors Make Vegetables the Star of Every Meal

For New York Times columnist and cookbook author Hetty Lui McKinnon, vegetables are more than just a food group—they’re deeply personal. “My father worked the produce markets in Sydney, so…we were surrounded by fresh, seasonal produce,” she says. “There was a sense of abundance.” But after he passed away, when Hetty was 15, their family no longer had access to that same beautiful, seasonal produce. In that time, practicality, not seasonality, became the guiding principle for how they shopped and ate.

In her new cookbook, Tenderheart, which landed on shelves in May, Hetty puts her complex relationship to vegetables on display in recipes that reflect her flexible, deeply personal approach to cooking. Organized into chapters that each highlight a different vegetable, the book explores family recipes (like Mum’s Velvet Potatoes) alongside playful riffs on classics (see: Charred Broccoli Reuben Salad and Chocolate-Eggplant Brownies) and ultra-versatile weeknight meals (Soy-Butter Bok Choy Pasta and Cheesy Kale & Rice Cake Bake, to name just two).

And she’s not alone in her devotion to vegetables: Authors and recipe developers Susan Spungen and Sheela Prakash also came out with cookbooks this spring—Veg Forward and Salad Seasons, respectively—that center on the possibilities that come from cooking and experimenting with vegetables. “My goal was to broaden home cooks’ lens of what a salad can be as a way to effortlessly bring more vegetables (and fruit!) to the table,” says Sheela, whose vegetable-centric (though not entirely vegetarian) book stretches the notion of “salad” in delightful and unexpected ways (think: Herbed New Potato & Salmon Salad and Stone Fruit Salad With Rosé Vinaigrette).

As ideologically appealing as the idea of cooking with more vegetables might sound, changing the ingrained habits of how we shop and eat can be more of a challenge. So, how does one actually start cooking with more vegetables? According to Susan, practically speaking, “The best thing to do is to focus on the vegetables first when planning your meals.” That means, rather than beginning your shopping with a meat or fish centerpiece in mind, start in the produce aisle and see what piques your interest.

One option is to buy seasonally, which Sheela says is, “not only the easiest way to guide you in to what to bring home at any given time among the sea of available produce, but in-season vegetables just taste better.” When you’re stumped, using what’s in season as a starting point can make the produce aisle feel less overwhelming.

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However, don’t be fooled into thinking that the only vegetables worth eating are those at peak ripeness and seasonality. “Yes, eating vegetables in their peak season is delicious, but it’s a luxury not afforded to everyone,” says Hetty. “I wanted to liberate home cooks from the anxiety and dogmatic thinking around produce.” In practice, that might mean reaching for a tomato even in the dead of winter (she recommends slow-roasting to bring out its sweetness) or a bag of frozen peas in lieu of fresh.

In changing—or expanding—our definition of “good” produce, we might be able to foster a more accessible food world, argues Hetty. “Food shouldn’t be elitist. It should be egalitarian and available to all,” she says.

To get a sense of these authors’ approach to cooking with vegetables, we chose one recipe from each book, all of which are cooked (at least in part) on the grill. So often associated with meat, grilling is an underrated way to make the most of whatever veg you have on hand, giving it a smoky edge while bringing out its sweetness.

Grilled Zucchini With Whipped Ricotta, Calabrian Chile & Almonds from Veg Forward

For Susan, grilling is part of her everyday cooking routine. “I love the taste of grilled food, and appreciate how it keeps the kitchen clean, adding to the ease and simplicity of summer cooking,” she says. Zucchini, which is often dismissed as bland or boring, becomes tender and juicy on the grill—though you could easily roast or sear it, instead. Specifically, she reaches for small zucchini for this dish (she gets hers from Balsam Farms in Amagansett, NY) because they’re “sweet and firm—not watery and seedy like larger ones can be—making them perfect for grilling.” Paired with creamy, whipped ricotta, roasted almonds, and a drizzle of chile oil, this dish is composed of simple ingredients that, when paired, become something spectacular.

Grilled Romaine With Tomato Vinaigrette from Salad Seasons

According to Sheela, grilling is a simple way to transform lettuce. “Grilling warms, chars, and crisps the edges of the lettuce while the interior leaves and core stay crisp and cool,” she says. “That gives you two textures and temperatures to experience as you’re eating, all from one humble head of lettuce.” Keep in mind that the technique doesn’t work for all lettuce varieties: Skip delicate ones like butter and bibb, and instead go for romaine, iceberg, or chicories, she says. A garlicky vinaigrette made with grated tomato finishes the dish, seeping into the romaine’s many charred layers.

Grilled Eggplant & Soba Noodle Salad With Nearly Nước Chấm from Tenderheart

“For this recipe, I wanted to create an eggplant dish that offered big flavors and robust textures,” says Hetty. “As we all know, eggplants are like sponges, soaking up flavors greedily, so it was important to serve it with a sauce that is punchy and full of life.”

To achieve eggplant that’s tender and smoky but not mushy, Hetty turns to the broiler, which she finds easier and quicker than the grill. However, if you happen to be grilling, feel free to cook the eggplant on that instead. Just make sure to cook the eggplant in thick slices—to prevent them from falling apart—and cut the slices into smaller pieces once they’re off the heat. Balancing out those smoky, charred flavors are soba noodles and the citrusy, spicy “nearly nước chấm,” a veganized version of the Vietnamese staple sauce. The result is a dish that functions in many ways like a pasta salad, perfect for summer potlucks and cookouts.

How do you like to cook with vegetables? Share your tips in the comments!

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