The Vegetable Butcher
By Cara Mangini
Suzy Chase: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book podcast with me, Suzy Chase.
Cara Mangini: I'm Cara Mangini, chef and owner of Little Eater in Columbus, Ohio and author of The Vegetable Butcher.
Suzy Chase: You're Italian great-grandfather and grandfather were butchers. When did you realize that you wanted to take the craft in a different direction with vegetables?
Cara Mangini: Well, I have always had a strong interest in the connection between food and health. I spent a lot of time traveling, mostly in Europe, and France, and Italy, and Spain, Croatia, Turkey. I found, in all these places, that vegetables played a really significant role on the plate in a very natural way. It wasn't political. People could just pick up any vegetable and turn it into a meal. I started thinking a lot about my own family's craft and connection to butchery with what I was seeing abroad and a real need for making vegetables more second-nature here. I took that observation and my strong interest in vegetable education and thought I could apply that craft that's essentially been in my family for generations to vegetables and, ultimately, understanding that if we don't have the knife skills and the understanding of how to simply pick up produce and turn it into a meal, that we're never really going to cook with vegetables every day in a way that I think we need to.
Suzy Chase: Eataly is a fantastic Italian market here in New York City. Describe your gig there.
Cara Mangini: It was incredible working at Eataly. I was a vegetable butcher. People could walk right up to me with their produce for purchase, and I would slice it, and dice it, and prime it, and essentially prepare vegetables for them so that when they got home to cook they'd be a step closer to getting dinner on the table. What I found in that experience was that even the most sophisticated New Yorkers were sort of amazed at these simple tips, and tricks, and techniques that I was sharing with people. They could have walked away and done other shopping, but they stayed around to watch me prep their produce. I found, ultimately, again in that situation, that I think that vegetable education was needed, and people were sort of excited to cook with vegetables once they saw that it wasn't as complicated as they thought.
Suzy Chase: The holidays are coming up, and winter squash dishes are always a hit. What are some easy ways to tackle squash?
Cara Mangini: Well, I guess in terms of the breaking down of squash ... My book The Vegetable Butcher shows you, not only for squash but every vegetable, how to break everything down, which I think is half the battle when it comes to cooking with vegetables. In particular, it's really tricky when it comes to winter squashes. There's so many different varieties, and they can be a bit high maintenance to break down. I think it's really important when you're actually cutting it is to create a flat surface so that that large squash doesn't slip out from under you, and that's sort of when accidents happen.
In terms of actual dishes, there are so many that I think are pretty easy. Spaghetti squash is a great one. You can cut it in half, essentially, roast it cut-side down, and then you just pull those wonderful little strings out. There's a great recipe in the book for a brown butter spaghetti squash with fried sage and hazelnuts. It's absolutely delicious. I love baking, of course, with winter squashes and pumpkins, pie pumpkins. There's a great recipe in the book for a winter squash goat cheese cake, which is awesome. I think that one that's also really easy is delicata squash. You can eat the skin, and so it makes it one that I turn to, certainly on weeknights, that you can just very quickly prep it and turn it into a meal. You just slice it in half, scoop out the seeds, cut it into half moons. You can pair that with a grain. You can turn it into sort of inspired fall tacos, which I think they make a great filling for that. It depends on the type of squash, but there's so many different things that you can do with it.
Suzy Chase: In terms of cutting, you said create a flat surface. What do you mean by flat surface?
Cara Mangini: Yeah. Generally, with the squash, it depends on the type. Winter squash is one that you sort of ... It really depends because there's so many different varieties. Let's say a butternut squash. You'd want to trim the top and the bottom. You never want to cut right into the stem. That's where you'll sort of ruin your knife, so just under the stem. Then cut it in half where the top part of the butternut meets the more bulbous end. There you're creating a flat surface to stand up the squash. You want to stand it up on its widest cut end in order to make the additional cuts from there.
Suzy Chase: Okay, gotcha. So we don't stab ourselves.
Cara Mangini: Yeah, exactly.
Suzy Chase: That's not good.
Cara Mangini: It's one that's difficult to discuss. It's why I think it was so important in my book to show step-by-step guides for every vegetable, because it's one that you want to see it. It can be difficult to discuss, but it's one that, once you get the hang of it, you're going to get vegetables on the table much faster.
Suzy Chase: The step-by-step photos in this book are really great.
Cara Mangini: That's the goal, just to make this easier and more approachable. Vegetable cooking, cooking with vegetables, shouldn't have to be complicated. I think, in order for us to make recipes our own and to shop at any farmers' market or grocery store or wherever you shop for your produce, to be able to pick out whatever stands out to you and looks really delicious and appealing to you, that you can get it home and really feel comfortable and confident turning that into a meal. I think that being able to reference those photos and quickly do it is going to help facilitate that.
Suzy Chase: Often times, I pull greens out of my crisper and they're limp. Now, does that mean they're unusable?
Cara Mangini: Really good question. When it comes to reviving your greens, you can put them in ice water or really cold water and let them sit there for 30 minutes. Even 15 minutes would be enough just to see if they sort of start to come back to life. If they're still limp and they're really past their prime, now is a good time to saute or braise them, throw them into a stir fry, or a pasta, or a soup. We don't have to throw them away the second they're starting to look limp or even slightly yellowed. Now it's a good time just to use them differently rather than using them, let's say, in a raw salad. You want to cook with them. I think we're really quick to throw things away. Part of cooking with vegetables is getting to know how to use them at different moments in their life cycle.
Suzy Chase: If we can only find or afford conventional produce, what types of vegetables should we steer clear of in terms of pesticides?
Cara Mangini: Shopping organic is certainly a personal choice, but there are certain vegetables that are known to retain the highest levels of pesticides. Those include bell peppers and potatoes, lettuces, celery, spinach, and our greens, things like collards and kale. If you want to make a commitment to some organic, those would be the ones that I would recommend.
Suzy Chase: I'm a one-trick pony when it comes to artichokes. I cut off the stem, boil the heck out of it, and serve it with drawn butter. Over the weekend, I broke out and I made your recipe for stuffed whole artichokes. When buying artichokes, what should we look for?
Cara Mangini: They should be heavy for their size. The leaves should be sort of tightly held together. They shouldn't be hollowed out at all or separated. That's really it. Some brown marks aren't terrible. They don't really affect the flavor of the artichoke. You just want to make sure they don't feel too light. Overall, you can store them in your refrigerator, but it's one that you want to try and use as soon as possible.
Suzy Chase: Last night I also made your Turkish carrot yogurt dip on page 86. That only had just basically three ingredients, but it packed so much flavor. We really like it watching the election returns.
Cara Mangini: Thank you. I love that recipe, and it is really an easy one. Every time you serve it, people are amazed and wonder, "What is in this thing?" What I love, I think it's important ... For me, I had a bad childhood memory with carrots, where I had the frozen peas and carrots that were steamed or microwaved til the life was sort of sucked out of them. I love this preparation of carrots because you get just this wonderful color on them. You shred the carrot and then saute them in oil and then you add pine nuts or walnuts, and you get that wonderful caramelization on the carrots. Then while it's still warm, stir it into a nice, thick Greek-style yogurt. Of course, there's some garlic in there as well. At the restaurant, we put it on an open-face sandwich with micro greens or maybe sliced cucumbers. It's wonderful as a dip with maybe pita chips and crudites or, again, a great topping for crostini. It's just an easy, really versatile recipe. By the way, you can also shred some zucchini in there during the height of summer.
Suzy Chase: Oh, that's a great idea.
Cara Mangini: Yeah. It's really good.
Suzy Chase: Little Eater is your produce-inspired market and restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. I assumed that you grew up in Ohio and just wanted to get back home, but you grew up in San Francisco. What brought you to Columbus? Talk a little bit about Little Eater.
Cara Mangini: Yeah. I'm from the San Francisco Bay area. After college, I lived and worked in New York City for many years in a completely different career. When I decided to pursue a life in food, I worked in restaurants and taking on different food jobs at night and on the weekends, eventually left my other career and decided to head back out to California in hopes to start my business in California to be closer to my family and to get back home. Serendipitously, I met my husband while I was working in the Napa Valley, and he convinced me to start my business in Columbus, Ohio, where he lives and works. It turned out that Columbus, Ohio was the missing link in my business plan. It's turned out to be a really incredible community of people and a wonderful farming community that supports my restaurant. We are a produce-inspired restaurant.
Also, there's a grocery component where we sell the produce of all of our farm partners as well as products from artisans in Ohio and around the country. It has been a really incredible opportunity in Columbus because we've been able to really fine tune the restaurant concept and, again, really grow due to the great support of our community. The idea is that, really, everything on the menu is inspired by something that is seasonal and local. You can mix and match scoops of our vegetables or pair them with many of our other produce-inspired dishes on the menu.
Suzy Chase: What do you have coming up in 2017, and where can we find you on the web?
Cara Mangini: In 2017, I have a new restaurant opening up. Same concept, but we're growing into 2,700 square feet.
Suzy Chase: Wow.
Cara Mangini: We're really excited. The menu is going to evolve some. That's the big project. Online, you can find me at litteeater.com. Also, I'm @caramangini on Instagram.
Suzy Chase: With The Vegetable Butcher, anyone can sign up for their local CSA or tackle the farmers' market without thinking twice. Thanks for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Cara Mangini: Thank you so much for having me.