The Vegetable Butcher: Cara Mangini of Columbus, Ohio
Armed with a good knife, imaginative recipes and a love of all that's fresh and local, Cara Mangini is the best friend eggplant and okra never had.
Cara Mangini's grandfather and great-grandfather were Italian butchers. As her knife flies across a head of cabbage, leaving a piled wake of leafy ribbons, one can't help but marvel at the power of DNA. It's not just the fluid intuition with a very sharp blade. Cara loves the challenge of breaking a food down, exploring its parts and eking big flavor from every cut. (Never mind that she favors beets over beef.) She showers the cabbage with cilantro and mint. "Oh," she sighs. "This smell. This is summer."
The Asian slaw is one of Cara's original "scoops"-colorfully nutritious salads and sides that customers mix and match at Little Eater, her cafe in Columbus, Ohio's, North Market. She also sells produce at an adjacent stall. And last year, she penned an award-winning cookbook The Vegetable Butcher (Workman)
That last piece is the clincher. Cara wants the rest of us to be as confident with vegetables as she is. "Knowing how to pick up something like an eggplant and turn it into a meal, that has been lost along the way," she explains. "If we're going to really eat more vegetables, and if we're going to support our farmers and farmers markets, that knowledge has to become second nature."
In all her work, Cara studiously avoids the words vegetarian or meatless. She doesn't want to turn people off. She prefers to draw us in-with tiny tomatoes slicked in olive oil, sweet corn dressed in lime juice, or sauteed carrots swirled alluringly into yogurt. The point is, embracing vegetables isn't about what you can't eat. It's about everything you can.
Cara's vegetable essentials
1. Fresh Ingredients
"We all know this, but I can't stress it enough: Buy as much produce as you can in season, even if it means waiting to make a favorite recipe. The color, flavor and texture of fresh, local vegetables from a CSA box, farmers market or garden are unmatched-even for basics like potatoes."
2. Sharp Knives
"Your knife should work for you. If you have to apply a lot of force, the blade slips, or the cuts appear crushed or jagged, it's dull. (Another test: Hold up a piece of paper and cut it vertically. The knife should slash through cleanly.) Many kitchen shops will do the job for a modest fee, but an electric sharpener works, too."
3. A Real Cutting Board
"You want a large, sturdy surface-ideally wood, maybe plastic, definitely not glass-that will provide a firm, stable and expansive work space. A 20x15-inch board sounds huge, but once it's living on your counter, you won't believe you cooked without it."
4. Olive Oil
"Extra-virgin olive oil is a vegetable's number-one companion. (Good Parm is a close second.) Use mild olive oil for everyday cooking. Splurge on a more robust, full-flavor oil for drizzling over raw or steamed vegetables, pouring in a saucer for bread, or "blessing" a dish, as the Italians do, after it has been cooked."
5. Stock Pot
"I save all my scraps in the freezer for homemade stock: Asparagus ends, corn husks, onion skins, tomato cores, fennel fronds, herb stems, mushroom trimmings, even the stringy centers of winter squash. Cover them in water, add a few peppercorns and some salt, and simmer until all the life and flavor has leached out of the scraps, 40 minutes to 1 hour. Strain well."
Cara's recipes and veggie tips
Grilled Eggplant and Mozzarella Hero with Spicy Tomato Sauce and Pesto This scrumptious mess of a sandwich is every bit as satisfying as a classic Italian sub. Cara confesses that she skips the step of salting eggplant to remove bitterness. The key is buying small eggplants in season and using them fast, so they don't languish in the fridge. See the recipe.
Turkish Carrot Yogurt Dip White dips don't have to be humdrum. In this recipe, a souvenir from a trip to Turkey's Mediterranean coast, Cara sautes grated carrot, pine nuts and garlic in olive oil, then stirs the mixture into Greek yogurt. See the recipe.
Marinated Garlicky Tomatoes with Goat Cheese Crostini Oven-softened cherry tomatoes soak overnight in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic and basil, mellowing and juicing out into a gloriously oozy compote. Cara serves them on crostini with cheese, but they'd work as a pasta sauce, too. See the recipe.
Grilled Okra with Smoked Paprika and Lime Laced with citrus, smoke and sea salt, grilled okra is a funky, utterly novel side dish or happy hour nosh. (New to okra? Cara describes the flavor as a cross between eggpland and asparagus.) See the recipe.
Okra tip: West African and southern cooks embrace okra's notoriously slimy texture as a thickener, but you can minimize it. Choose small (2- to 3-inch) pods. Dry them thoroughly after washing. and cook them whole over fairly high heat.
Sweet Corn and Black Bean Succotash This cilantro-flecked confetti salad can be served at any temperature. The Southwest-inspired dressing is mild, so the flavors of just-picked sweet corn and peppers shine through. See the recipe.
Swiss Chard Crostata with Fennel Seed Crust Dried herbs, garlic and fennel give this rustic tart a familiar Italian sausage-like flavor. The olive oil-based pastry comes together in a snap in the food processor. See the recipe.
Greens tip:If chard or kale looks a little sad after a hot day at the farmers market, give it a plunge in a bowl of ice water for 10 to 20 minutes. Drain well. Wrap in a kitchen towel, and place in a loose plastic bag in the fridge.
Quinoa Salad with Roasted Zucchini, Almonds and Feta You could make a meal of this dish: caramelized zucchini, crunchy almonds, salty cheese and hearty quinoa, all dressed in honey-basil vinaigrette. See the recipe.
Zucchini tip:Always choose small to medium-size squash for optimal flavor. The large ones are tempting, but they are watery and can be bitter and seedy. Save them for grating into cakes and quick breads.
Zucchini Olive Oil Cake with Lemon Drizzle With its subtle mix of warm spices, vanilla, maple and citrus (and tangy white icing), this is no ordinary zucchini cake. See the recipe.