If you've paid attention to the career of chef José Andrés over the past few years - and who hasn't? - you shouldn't find it surprising that his latest cookbook, "Vegetables Unleashed," is an ode to plant-based cooking, or, as co-author Matt Goulding told me, "a song of José, sung in the key of vegetables." Even though he's from the land of jamón (and has done much to promote it in the States), Andrés years ago started talking up the idea that vegetables are "sexy" and worth moving to the center of the plate. That philosophy, in fact, is the driving force behind his fast-casual mini-chain Beefsteak.
I talked to Andrés - whose World Central Kitchen served millions of meals after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico - about his book in front of a sold-out crowd in Washington. Edited excerpts of our interview follow:
Q: You have a fascinating set of stats in the book, including that 42 percent of Americans don't regularly eat vegetables and the average person eats 186 pounds of vegetables a year yet 279 pounds of meat. Why do you think people in America don't eat more vegetables?
A: Vegetables have had such a bad rap. We had presidents like President [George H.W.] Bush who said he didn't like broccoli. Then you think for a second about Popeye - and spinach that came from a can. I love cans. In Spain we can everything. You know the only thing we don't can? Spinach. Who was the m-o-r-o-n that came out with that idea?
But also, the richest country in the history of mankind today has places where American citizens don't have easy access to simple and humble fruits and vegetables. How did we create this system where a pound of ground meat is cheaper than broccoli and cauliflower?
The farm bill subsidizes the wrong vegetables - in this case corn and others. The meat industry and then the fast-food industry are able to use those subsidies to become the powerhouses they are. And believe me, I want them to succeed. They employ a lot of Americans. But they cannot do it at the expense of many small farmers of America that produce broccoli and cauliflower and carrots and asparagus and leeks and onions and don't get the same subsidies. We need to level the playing field of subsidies. Then vegetables will be cheaper or meat will not be so cheap. All of the sudden you completely change the balance, where Americans will have more access to vegetables and will start eating less meat.
Q: So let's say we've gotten to this point where people have more access to fruits and vegetables and they're buying more because they're cheaper. Tell us about some of your favorite ways you think people should be cooking vegetables that maybe they wouldn't think of. In your book you talk about boiling, but it's much different than how my mother did it.
A: I remember my mother always had this pot of water boiling in the kitchen. She would put potatoes in the water, some salt, and when the potatoes were finished, she would add green beans. If they were very tender, they'll cook for two or three minutes and they were nice and green. If they were very hard they'd cook for 8 to 10 minutes and be not so green, but delicious nonetheless. And then she'd add olive oil and vinegar, some salt. Other days she would brown the garlic and she would put the hot oil on top of the vegetables with a little Spanish pimenton, or as you people of Hungary call it, paprika. You see, super simple.
I want to bring this simple idea to people to boil vegetables to perfection. And you can put your favorite toppings on top. You can put allspice, Old Bay. Old Bay is great. Instead of all the crabs, put it on the vegetables. It's a Maryland tradition, people!
Sometimes we look for the most complicated, the most difficult solutions, but great cooking it doesn't require something so fancy. Just a simple humble pot of water boiling with salt is the beginning of a great family meal.
Q: In the book you write about using just enough water to cover the vegetables, so by the time they're tender, the water that's been seasoned with the salt is also really full of flavor and is just barely glazing the vegetables.
A: If you're using the same water and you keep boiling some vegetables in it, that water at the end is very tasty. You put a spoonful of miso in there and you add some corn, and all of the sudden you'll have an amazing soup.
Q: What was it like to work on this book under the late great Anthony Bourdain's imprint, and how did his vision affect yours?
A: Well that's a serious one. This book very much almost happened at the same time as Puerto Rico. So we were kind of working on the Puerto Rico book ["We Fed an Island"] on one side and the vegetable book on the other, and Tony was behind both in a strange way, in a beautiful way. Tony always likes to push the envelope. He liked the work we did in Puerto Rico very much. He was texting me and asking me, "How are you doing?" And I told him, "I don't know yet, but we're trying to feed all these people." And then next was a text from him saying, "What are you waiting for to tell this story?" Very much this was a very quick way for Tony to say: "Come on. Let's do a book." With the vegetable book it was exactly the same. He said, "I know he's going to be nutty, and we're going to push the envelope, guys, so let's do it." For us it was an amazing thing.
Q: The book really tells your biography through dishes: The tortillas in Spain. Your mother's lentils. Your wife's gazpacho. The corn soup of Austin Grill. The salt air margarita of Oyamel. The beefsteak tomato sandwich from Beefsteak. And there's even djon djon rice from your time working in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.
A: Do you know what djon djon is? It's this black mushroom that grows in the north of Haiti. And the moment when you find it, it is white, brownish, beautiful - it smells like compost because it's growing in a decaying tree. And when you pick it immediately becomes super dark black. This is one of those dishes that has a special connection to a moment in your life - a smell, a flavor, a moment with good people.
Q: It's spring in the Mid-Atlantic. What's the first thing readers of your book should make?
A: So right now, you go to the farmers market and what do you have? Asparagus everywhere. Who doesn't like our asparagus? You know how hard it is to grow asparagus?
What you should do as soon as you buy them is start eating them raw right there. Why should you do it? Because the deer do it, too. If the deer do it, you know it's good. And we have a recipe with miso - the roasted asparagus with miso, which is so simple, so delicious. But really you need to make the recipes your own. Sometimes there are some ingredients you're not going to have - very much like life. We can't be always complaining about the things we don't have in life versus enjoying the things we do have. Cooking is like life: Follow the recipe, but when you don't have an ingredient, you change the ingredient, or just change the name of the recipe if everything goes totally wrong. I've done it, and it works.
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JOSÉ ANDRÉS'S MISO-ROASTED ASPARAGUS
The chef and humanitarian was inspired by his friend and fellow chef Nobu Matsuhisa's famous miso cod when he developed this way to give an umami-rich, deep flavor to asparagus. You can also try it on wedges of sweet potato, rounds of eggplant or any diced root vegetables, such as beets, turnips, carrots and parsnips.
1 pound (1 large bunch) asparagus
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup hot water
1/4 cup white or light miso paste
Position an oven rack 6 inches under the broiler element and preheat the broiler (to high if your broiler has different settings)
Trim the bottom 1 inch off the asparagus stalks. If any are bigger than a pencil, use a vegetable peeler to peel another 2 or 3 inches' worth of the skin from the bottom of the stalks.
Whisk together the sugar and water in a small bowl until the sugar dissolves, then whisk in the miso paste.
Arrange the asparagus in a single layer in a shallow roasting pan or on a rimmed baking sheet. Spoon the miso mixture over the asparagus, turning the stalks so they are evenly coated.
Broil until the asparagus is lightly browned and the miso is bubbling, 6 to 8 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Nutrition | Calories: 80; Total Fat: 1 g; Saturated Fat: 0 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 640 mg; Carbohydrates: 15 g; Dietary Fiber: 3 g; Sugars: 9 g; Protein: 5 g.
(Adapted from "Vegetables Unleashed," by Andrés and Matt Goulding. Ecco, 2019.)