Meet the chef who butchers veggies

A big deterrent to eating fresh vegetables is not knowing how to cut them up and prepare them. The remedy? “The Vegetable Butcher” by Columbus chef/restaurant owner Cara Mangini. She’ll be stopping in Dayton on Aug. 2.

We caught up with Mangini to find out more.

Q. This is the first cookbook I’ve seen that is devoted to how to prepare and “butcher” vegetables. Where did you get your idea for it?

A. I came up with the idea for this book over time, but ultimately, through travel experiences and various professional experiences, I realized that I wanted to focus my career on vegetable education, and create a resource that would help make vegetables more approachable and second nature in our culture. I wanted to share all the tips, tricks, techniques and recipes that I have gathered over my years of working exclusively with vegetables in hopes of making the preparation of vegetables easier and less intimidating for people. My goal was to produce a cookbook that would serve as a guide to vegetables, demystifying produce with practical, how-to information (the stuff that, somehow, no one ever taught us, but most books assume we already know). Ultimately, at the core of this book, I wanted to offer readers produce-inspired recipes that would encourage them to cook with vegetables and experience the joy that comes with it.

Q. How will learning the proper techniques of butchering vegetables change a homecook’s experience in the kitchen?

A. Vegetable-based cooking can seem complicated, time-consuming and intimidating without an understanding of knife skills and how to properly handle and approach each vegetable. I believe that getting to know and practice proper techniques is the key to cooking with vegetables on a regular basis (and ultimately, supporting our health). Without these basic skills, I think people tend to avoid cooking with vegetables or get stuck in a rut — preparing the same handful of vegetable side dishes over and over. Learning proper knife skills and other techniques will help homecooks feel comfortable and confident with every vegetable that comes into season so they can cook recipes with ease. They will also be able to better improvise and freestyle with their own recipes — that’s where the fun is. With the right techniques and recipes, we no longer have to equate vegetables with sacrifice.

Q. What are some of the easiest and yet most misunderstood vegetables to prepare?

A. I find the misunderstood vegetables are usually the ones that people associate with a bad childhood memory or experience of the vegetable being prepared improperly. Beets, okra and eggplant are definitely the ones that come up time and time again. Fresh beets aren’t as fussy to prepare as people think and the reward is a sweet, earthy and meaty vegetable that can be quite versatile.

Q. What do you serve at your restaurant in Columbus?

A. Little Eater is a produce-inspired restaurant committed to honoring the work of local farmers and supporting the health of our community. Every dish highlights a seasonal and local vegetable and gives customers the opportunity to taste the season at any given moment. We serve seven vegetable-based salads every day that you can mix and match to make a meal, or pair them with produce-driven sandwiches, farm-egg dishes (frittata and quiche), crostini, flatbreads and soups. For example, in the summer our most popular vegetable “scoop” is a roasted zucchini, almond and quinoa salad with scallions and basil vinaigrette as well as an heirloom tomato panzanella and an organic and local lacinato kale salad with avocado-scallion dressing, jalapeno-pickled golden raisins and an Ohio sheep’s milk cheese.

Q. When it comes to food, what do you like about Ohio?

A. Ohio provides access to truly remarkable, seasonal ingredients that inspire everything that I do. There are hard-working, extraordinary farmers just outside of our city centers (as well as in them) who are growing beautiful, nutrient-dense food and giving us the opportunity to enjoy a variety of vegetables. I also love and really appreciate Ohio for having a lot of pride and building a supportive community of people that creates a vibrant, creative and inspiring food culture.

Q. What’s next? Do you think you’ll write another book?

A. I would love to continue to write books about vegetables and explore all platforms that will allow me to continue to encourage people to support our farmers, and help motivate and inspire everyone to cook and eat vegetable every day. My restaurant Little Eater is also expanding soon with the goal of making vegetable-driven food more delicious, convenient and accessible on-the-go.

MARINATED CELERY, CELERY LEAF AND CHICKPEA SALAD

3 tablespoons sherry vinegar

¼ teaspoon fine sea salt, plus extra as needed

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus extra as needed

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

½ teaspoon pure maple syrup

2 garlic cloves, smashed

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

4 cups cooked chickpeas (canned is fine)

4 large celery stalks, trimmed and sliced on a diagonal about 1/4-inch thick

2 large scallions, thinly sliced on a diagonal

Leaves from at least 6 celery stalks, coarsely chopped

1 pint cherry, grape or Sun Gold tomatoes, halved

¼ cup packed fresh basil leaves, chopped

1 ½ cups Hand-Torn Toasted Bread (optional, recipe below)

2 ounces Parmesan cheese, freshly shaved with a vegetable peeler (about ½ cup)

½ medium head romaine lettuce, trimmed down to white ribs and lighter green crisp leaves, chopped or torn into 1-inch pieces (optional)

1. Whisk together the sherry vinegar, salt, pepper, Dijon mustard, and maple syrup in a large bowl. Add the garlic and let the mixture stand briefly to infuse with the garlic flavor. Gradually stream in the oil, whisking quickly and constantly, until the mixture emulsifies.

2. Add the chickpeas, chopped celery and scallions, and toss them to evenly coat with the vinaigrette. Cover and refrigerate until the flavors meld, at least 2 hours and ideally overnight.

3. Remove the garlic cloves. Just before serving, add the celery leaves, tomatoes, basil and bread, if using, and toss gently to combine. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Top with freshly shaved Parmesan. Serve over or tossed with romaine, if you wish.

Note: Look for full bunches of celery with plenty of leaves still attached. Use up to 2 cups of leaves if your bunch yields it. If you can’t find celery with the leaves attached, add ¼ cup flat-leaf parsley leaves, chopped, for color and a bit more flavor.

Our assessment: On a sweltering summer day, this anti-pasto-style salad will hit the spot. It’s fresh and filling. I highly recommend letting the salad chill in the fridge overnight to allow the flavors to mingle. The next day, it takes only minutes to put together.

HAND-TORN TOASTED BREAD

4 slices (¾ to 1 inch thick) Italian or ciabatta bread (day-old bread is fine)

About 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Fine sea salt

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Meanwhile, using a serrated knife, cut away the crust of the bread. Tear the bread into bite-size pieces and place it on a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle the bread with olive oil and season with salt to taste (the bread should not become overly soggy with oil, but you should be able to taste the olive oil and salt). Toss the bread to coat evenly, then spread it in a single layer, being careful not to overcrowd it.

Toast until the croutons just turn golden and crispy on the edges, 10 to 15 minutes. Let cool complete. Store in a zip-top bag or airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.

Our assessment: These croutons are worth the effort — so much better than store bought!

From the book: “The Vegetable Butcher: How to Select, Prep, Slice, Dice an Masterfully Cook Vegetables from Artichokes to Zucchini” by Cara Mangini; 346 pages, $29.95. Published by Workman, 2016.

What you get: A guide to butchery basics and cuts, plus sections on more than 50 vegetables , including best cooking methods and recipes, make this an invaluable reference guide.

In her own words: “This book is the product of my years devoted to working exclusively with produce, and it includes all of the notes and lessons I have gathered along the way.

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ABOUT THIS FEATURENew cookbooks flood the market every week. This feature will help you make sense of what’s new and what’s worth trying out. Email your questions and ideas to connie.post@coxinc.com

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