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You know how some people are obsessed with stamp collections or fantasy football teams? Well, we're obsessed with cookbooks. Here, we'll talk about them.
Today: With A Girl and Her Greens, April Bloomfield saves precious for someone else.
If I got to spend one night with the Michelin-starred chef April Bloomfield, I’m not sure whether I would take her to my grandma’s or a punk show. Her restaurants—be it Tosca or Spotted Pig—make me think the latter: The food is heavy, the music is loud, and the diners are louder, overcome by the noise from the speakers and the exposed kitchens. The drinks probably have something to do with the rowdiness too, and hint at anarchy with names like Suffering Bastard and Trouble in Paradise.
Then there's April lovingly cooking with Marcella Hazan on Mind of a Chef. She makes jokes she hopes will land, she watches intently for Marcella’s approval of her gnudi, she gets teary, she blushes. Even April, the rock star, gets starstruck. She seems like someone who’d be good with my grandma, who’d let her believe she makes the better gnocchi when really she forgot the salt.
So I cracked open April's new book A Girl and Her Greens, the follow-up to the Piglet-winning A Girl and Her Pig, hoping for some answers (should April ever want to hang out). Vegetables have been anointed an angelic halo in recent years—to the extent that we have overused and subsequently tabled the term “farm-to-table.” Maybe this subject isn’t the one for April to show her badassery—and indeed, in the introduction, she admits she doesn’t quite have the nerve to get inked (but if she did, she’d get a tattoo of pea pods).
The illustrations in the book are as cute as a pea pod; my grandma would adore them. There are peas swan-diving into a food processor and garlic scapes trying to peek through soil. There are piggies—in a vegetable book!—that dance and hug potatoes and hide in corn fields. Donning a pirate’s eye patch, one even says thank you to the reader at the end. This might just be the nicest, most darling vegetable cookbook ever.
But then again, there’s pig parading through a vegetable cookbook in both drawn and, more significantly, edible forms—which is a little rebellious. Just two years ago, some people panicked at the inclusion of bacon in the onion tart in Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy. In A Girl and Her Greens, bacon, pancetta, ground pork, more bacon, and other meaty goods make appearances alongside collards, mushrooms, eggplant, and cabbage. Vegetables play in the same sandbox as meat, and they therefore have to come down from their pedestal. Which is good. Bruises build character. April advises us not to get too attached to our vegetables: If the tomatoes you bought are squishy, forgo the plan for a salad and make tomato sauce instead. Sure, gallop through the farmers market, but be realistic. They’re only vegetables.
In A Girl and Her Greens, vegetables are some of the many colors in our cooking crayon box. And as a result, they get to go on pretty exciting adventures—with meat, yes, but also with cream and adjectives besides “crisp” and “fresh.” April devotes a whole chapter to pairing veg and cream. She makes a salad and sticks it between two slices of white bread with a creamy dressing and butter. She creams spinach and emboldens it with anchovies, lemon, and white wine.
And speaking of audacious, there are lots of recipes where vegetables are boiled (read: not crisp)—boiled asparagus with ramp béarnaise sauce, boiled fennel, boiled Swiss chard with marjoram, boiled brussels with butter, and so many boiled potatoes. It’s April saying: “This is how I like my vegetables. (You may like them this way too.)” The tone isn’t brash. She’s not forcing us to like her recipes and stop garnishing our salads with dainty sprouts. She’s merely suggesting that we try her way of cooking, eating, and thinking about vegetables—and the result is food I dearly wanted to try.
The first recipe I went for was a grilled vegetable vinaigrette, in which fennel, radicchio, and red onion are slowly grilled, then finely chopped and mixed with vinegar, oil, and herbs. For once, vegetables weren’t the star of a salad but rather a heady condiment that I put in an egg salad sandwich, on lettuce, and scattered over steak. I wondered what else I could do with it. In the meantime, I ate it straight from the jar, which I’d never feel inclined to do with any other vinaigrette.
In this way, A Girl and Her Greens is friendly and welcoming—it encourages you to shovel spoonfuls of vegetables into your mouth, instead of just admire them. It encourages you to think about vegetables in a way we typically reserve for meat—as something that you're allowed to rip into, gnaw on, pair with heady flavors, and eat with your hands. That’s because it’s written by a chef who isn't afraid to get reckless with vegetables until a good dish presents itself and who isn’t too cool to let us in on the fun. This is what we need. We already have precious love songs about vegetables.
Photos by Bobbi Lin