If I didn’t know better, I’d think that José Andrés is obsessed with vegetables. But I do know better: He’s obsessed with everything to do with food and food production. And I’m sure that hardly defines the limits of his interests.
You likely know of Andrés because of his humanitarian visits to disaster areas where he and his crews have fed masses of people through his non-profit World Central Kitchen. But he’s also a restaurateur, with dozens of dining venues in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York, and many other cities. He celebrates his native Spain, but with a restless sense of fusion.
A flagship is Mercado Little Spain, nestled under Manhattan’s High Line, which comprises three restaurants: Lena, where most items are grilled; La Barra, featuring tapas; and Spanish Diner, featuring “larger portions of Spanish favorites.” But there’s also China Poblano in Las Vegas, combining Mexican and Chinese fare, and four locations (in Washington, DC; Pittsburgh; Miami, Florida; and Chicago) of Beefsteak, which features many of the vegetables and recipes in Vegetables Unleashed, A Cookbook (Harper Collins Publishers, New York, New York 2019).
This book, written in collaboration with Matt Goulding and illustrated with photography by Peter Frank Edwards, is a top-of-the-lungs celebration of the plant-based matter we like to eat and a surprising amount that we’d never otherwise think of consuming. Andrés loves peelings and other scraps – no wonder he’s pictured glorying in a wastebin! – and by the time you reach the end of this book, you may start to treasure them, too.
But you may not reach the end too quickly. This is more than a recipe book: It’s an exultant journey offering essays and lists and other compelling exhortations.
“Fruits and vegetables are sexy in a way that a chicken breast never can be,” he writes. “Think about it: What happens when you bite into a piece of meat? The first five seconds are kind of interesting, but then you spend another twenty seconds chewing something that has no flavor. Now think about a pineapple. As soon as your fork hits the flesh, its scent fills the air like a wonderful perfume. Then you bite down: juicy, sweet, and acidic, with notes of passion fruit and citrus and mystery that linger long after you stop chewing. That’s what I’m talking about.”
The recipes proper don’t start until page 64, and you well might feel exhausted by the time you get there, so aburst is this book with both philosophy and basics. Philosophies of minding the soil, co-existing with Nature, approaching the mysteries of cooking, and not getting too self-righteous along the way. Basics of kitchen tools to have on hand, from microplaner to immersion blender – with, when you can afford it, an electric juicer thrown in. Basics of pantry items, like good olive oil, and a slew of seeming exotica: za’atar, harissa, miso, sumac, and the like.
Not surprisingly, for an Andrés book, before the recipes start there’s a recipe, this one for heirloom potatoes roasted in coffee grounds and compost scraps. “The circle of life,” Andrés explains. “Or something like that.”
Then we alphabetically explore selected veggies, grouped within a chronological procession of the seasons. Thus it is we meet asparagus in spring, where it’s roasted with miso, or juiced into a cocktail with Japanese shochu, rice milk, and honeydew syrup. Or, if you have canned white asparagus on hand, served with a white sauce combining Manchego cheese with heavy cream.
“When we create dishes in the restaurants,” writes Andrés, “we try to look at vegetables not as singular ingredients but as a collection of different parts: peel, flesh, seeds, juice, tops. Then we try to do as much as possible with all those parts.” And so we’re introduced to carrot pasta, in which ribbons of carrot serve as the faux noodles, finished with a sauce made from carrot juice and oil derived from the tops.
Carrots also feature in a curry recipe that begins with a toasting of aromatic seasonings and features tomatoes, lime juice, and coconut milk. And they’re in a cocktail combining concentrated carrot juice with vodka, lemon juice, chickpea juice, and ginger syrup.
They’re also in ensalada rusa, a Spanish classic also featuring beets (or potatoes), peas, and chickpeas; in “Mom’s Lentil Stew,” tomatoes, potatoes, and brown lentils, adding chorizo if you’re so inclined. And they join a selection of other root vegetables on a thick bed of salt, baked for an hour and a half and then served with a drizzle of olive oil.
With a couple of bunches of broccoli, you can make the “Stupid-Easy, Stupid-Delicious Roasted Broccoli” recipe, in which the crowns of the vegetable are studded with garlic slivers and roasted in a water bath with a seasoning of olive oil and salt. On the next page is a use for the stems: pasta with broccoli pesto.
It’s by no means a succession of recipes. There are essays on the likes of marinated olives (“try adding a few cherries to the mix”), sofrito, berries, and tortillas; exotic drink preparations, like mushroom cappuccino, heirloom bloody mary, and sangria; and even a side-trip tour of the chef’s native Andalusia.
Many of the recipes are footnoted with a “freestyle” comment, encouraging you to get creative. After the braised leeks with sauteed mushrooms recipe, for example, the freestyle comment suggests that you “turn this into escabeche-style leeks by skipping the mushrooms and drizzling the braised leeks with 3 tablespoons (of) sherry vinegar.” Although when you turn the page, the recipe for creamed leeks may prove too distracting to think about going back.
His most-requested recipe is for gazpacho, here offered in its purest form (tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, garlic, and Oloroso sherry) alongside a half-dozen variations swapping out avocados, melon, beets – even cherries.
This is one of most compelling, well-organized, well-written cookbooks I’ve seen (and I’ve seen many). It is inspiring to read, and, based on the recipes I’ve already tried, extremely satisfying to cook from. And you’ll never look at a garden – or the produce section – in the same way.
(B. A. Nilsson, 2/24/22)