When I was younger — or maybe when the internet was younger and people were less careful about what they were saying — the question would often be followed by a variation on "It's because you worship cows, right?" This is wrong on a lot of levels: Hindus don't worship cows, of course, and the reason I don't eat meat stems more from a shark dissection in fourth grade than anything else. But the cultural meaning is also important to me: I didn't eat beef even before that fateful biology lesson, and its consumption is still a hard line in my diet, whereas fish sauce and shrimp broth and pizza with the pepperoni picked off (but the runny, spicy pepperoni oil still on the cheese) all sometimes pass muster. But I'm digressing. The point is that it was not easy to be a vegetarian in the American South in the nineties and the early aughts, a world that didn't think all that much about vegetables. They were at best a necessary evil, their consumption demanded in small portions by that ubiquitous food pyramid, but usually served as an afterthought, hidden under protein of some sort or plated far off to the side.
Then, somewhere along the way, boring old veggies got a rebrand. In the last few years they've moved to the front of the food world's mind: salads got smarter and more broadly defined, restaurants started opening with menus dedicating whole sections to vegetable-focused dishes, an emphasis on seasonality emerged and picked up steam. Restaurants would dedicate valuable menu space to noting which farms their produce came from. It became cool to scoff at tomatoes in the winter and post pictures of them, sliced and salted, in the middle of July.
Whatever the reason — a social shift towards mindfulness, healthfulness, sustainability, or maybe just a reaction to our most recent bacon-saturated decade — this move toward thinking more about vegetables is happening, and it's happening now. Two recent vegetable-focused cookbooks have been released by high-profile Southern chefs: Root to Leaf by Atlanta chef Steven Satterfield, and The Broad Fork by Hugh Acheson, who runs four restaurants in three major Georgia cities.
The two chefs approach vegetable cookery from different perspectives, but they both come to it, one way or another, from a place of meat
The two chefs approach vegetable cookery from different perspectives, but they both come to it, one way or another, from a place of meat; in the South, after all, animal-heavy cuisine is the norm. There are stereotypes about food from this region, that it's fried and rich and full of lard and butter — and there are also realities, like macaroni and cheese being listed on most menus as a vegetable. Both chefs want to use their books to upend these expectations. In The Broad Fork, Acheson talks about the sad fact that a generation of reliance on convenience foods has reduced a vibrant cuisine to little more than buckets of fried chicken and plates of barbecue, turning the Southern palate into "the fall guy of the American dietary malaise."
Satterfield agrees: his Atlanta restaurant, Miller Union, materialized from a similar frustration with the cliches of Southern cooking, and it was one of the first kitchens in the city to put a real emphasis on seasonal produce. As he says at the start of Root to Leaf, he started cooking professionally just as "the idea of Southern food as something noble and respectable" — as opposed to sweet tea and mayo and batter-fried everything — was catching on. Or, as Acheson argues, catching on again: "Southern food champions its local larder," he writes. "It is a vegetable-driven experience that we need to get back to."
The Broad Fork
Hugh Acheson has long been a champion of farmers markets and CSAs, of shopping local and eating well, so it came as no surprise to me that vegetables would be the focus on his most recent book. What was a surprise to me is The Broad Fork's ease and accessibility. I turn to Acheson for special occasions; I go to his restaurants in Atlanta and Athens for anniversary tasting menus, lunches with my boss, and graduation dinners, and I've occasion-cooked out of his first book, A New Turn in the South, more than from any other cookbook I own — it's a go-to for Mother's Day brunch and fancy picnics and Thanksgiving dinner for thirty.
Acheson seems to have realized that this was the case, and in this book, he's trying to solve the problem of saving thoughtful meals for celebrations. When we're in a hurry, we shy away from cooking real food, good food — when we've just gotten back from work and it's already 9 p.m. or when we're running late for soccer practice or an early meeting or drinks with friends — because it's intimidating. It takes too long, compared to the convenience of the takeout or frozen meals. Except that it doesn't: "Feeding yourself and your family should not be as difficult as we are made to believe," Acheson says. He gives us permission to make the adjustment slowly: "Ease into the idea of good food."
The book is laid out first by season and then by ingredient, with little notes at the start of each section to encourage the reader and short descriptions prefacing each dish. For every fruit or vegetable, there's usually four recipes, one that's more in-depth alongside three quick or straightforward plates. It's a fun book to flip through or to read cover to cover, but it's also very cookable. Labeled pictures accompany each dish, and the index and season-based table of contents are thorough. For trickier foods, there are sidebars, like the detailed, fool-proof poached egg method that runs alongside the grits with piperade and asparagus that has already become a go-to dinner for me. And the ingredients themselves run from seasonal staples like apples and arugula all the way to less familiar produce like salsify (crisp tubers similar to turnips) and yacon (a dense root with a taste close to jicama).
Acheson's casual, community-focused approach to vegetables and vegetable cooking makes this book accessible for anybody willing to learn
Acheson's simple salads and blended soups push diners to eat seasonally without thinking too hard — for every risotto (try the spring onion) and stuffed morel mushroom, there's a crisp toasted bagel with fromage blanc, tomato, sea salt, and basil, or the not one but two egg-bread-brussels sprouts recipes. "Similar, sure, but whatevs," writes Acheson, in classic style. He's an expert and he knows it, but he's not intimidating. His casual, community-focused approach to vegetables and vegetable cooking ("Is there really a backlash against kale?" another sidebar asks) makes this book accessible for anybody who's willing to learn more about seasonal produce.
Root to Leaf
Everyone in the South has a story about Cracker Barrel, a restaurant known for its chicken-fried steak, biscuits and gravy, and its attached country store selling penny candy. When my grandparents would come visit from Delhi, they’d always insist on going there; the draw was the vegetable sides, which you could order in a four-scoop plate, choosing from potatoes mashed or baked or hashed, crisp fried okra, steamed corn, broccoli casserole, collard greens, and that great Southern vegetable, starchy mac and cheese. But while the plate of sides was novel to my vegetarian dadaji and dadima — it wasn’t often in an American restaurant that they had such a variety to choose from, cooked in so many different ways — to me it was tiring. I was used to cobbling together dinners from the sides section at restaurants. My friends or dates or colleagues got composed meals, plates planned ahead of time by industrious chefs, and the vegetarian girl had to build her own supper.
And so it is with confidence that I can say that the vegetable plate at Steven Satterfield’s restaurant Miller Union is the best in Atlanta. Satterfield's vegetable dishes are artfully composed and well-thought-out in a way that so many restaurant vegetable preparations are not, so it follows that Root to Leaf is not only a beauty of a cookbook, but also one that makes you work. This is a book for smart cooks who want to eat with the seasons. While some of its recipes are as simple as melon sprinkled with cayenne, salt, and lime, others assume a level of culinary fluency from the reader that can lead to disappointment.
I wanted to make the red velvet cake — colored naturally with beets — for a friend’s birthday (Satterfield’s book offers more desserts than Acheson's, and more drinks), but I couldn’t get past the first step. He instructs us to wrap medium-size beets in parchment, then aluminum foil, and then "bake until the tip of a knife slides easily into the largest beet." I like to bake, but whole beets have not yet made it into my repertoire, and I couldn’t begin to guess how long this would take. Fifteen minutes? Forty-five? And asking for "medium beets" without scale or reference only complicates things further. I moved on instead to a soft blueberry coffee cake topped with crisp streusel, a good choice both for its simplicity, and for how well it showed off the juicy sweetness of the berries.
Maybe the fault here lies with me, the less-experienced cook, but I couldn’t help but want clearer descriptions of what was expected of me both in the kitchen and at the market. I wanted more access to Satterfield's recipes, which are very, very good: I loved the warm roasted carrots with red onion and thyme when I made them, and liked snacking on the cold leftovers in the days that followed even more. I welcomed his simple blueberry mostarda, a way to use up leftover berries from the coffee cake without the fuss of canning or preserving.
We know immediately that Satterfield wants us to get real about vegetables: he's serious about them, and we should be too
As readers, we know immediately that Satterfield wants us to get real about vegetables: he’s serious about them, and we should be too. Like Acheson's book (and so many other vegetable-focused volumes), Root to Leaf is divided by season and then by ingredient. Adding gravity to Satterfield's passion are the detailed overviews that precede each section about summer berries or fall squash or those finally-in-season tomatoes. They're illuminating and inspiring, part history lesson (did you know the Greek name for fennel was marathon, and that the marathons we know today stemmed from a fight between the Greeks and the Persians in a field of fennel?), part love letter, part instructional manual on cleaning, preparing, and storing.
Satterfield's creamed rice with English peas, a Southern take on risotto made with Carolina Gold long-grain instead of the traditional Arborio, turned out well, but it's telling that his recipe runs only about a third as long as that of a comparable risotto in The Broad Fork. That’s the thing about this book: Satterfield is writing for confident readers and cooks, people who come home from a morning at the farmers market with reusable bags full of off-the-cuff purchases of whatever produce looked good and fresh — it's a book you turn to a few weeks into the season, once you’ve got the lay of your greenmarket down and are looking for inspiration.
Both of these books take a celebratory approach to produce, but an approach that at the same time is understanding of the limitations of the seasons, and the inspiring dishes that can result from that kind of limitation. Vegetable love, after all, can go too far: I went to a tasting menu dinner about a month ago, right at the cusp of spring, and one of the courses boasted ramps among its ingredients. I was skeptical — the world was still a little snow-slushy — and it turned out that the ramps had been frozen from the previous spring, saved by the kitchen just so that they could be brought back out as soon as the first murmurings of "ramp season" cropped up, regardless of whether or not any actual ramps had yet appeared. This feels almost akin to Starbucks relaunching pumpkin spice lattes in August instead of October to make some extra dough, and it puts me off me a little. Vegetables are not a marketing gimmick; ramps are not $4 trademarked coffee drinks.
It's to both Satterfield and Acheson's credit that neither of their books falls down this rabbit hole of hype that can come along with ingredients that find themselves on the business end of a trend. Satterfield's book is the one you give your neighbor with the enviable garden. Acheson's is the gift for your coworker who lives near the greenmarket and wants to start bringing in more lunches from home. Both are, ultimately, essential. They're valuable, in-depth looks at cooking with the seasons, to be sure, but they're also instrumental in recalibrating the Southern palate — making it an easier, happier place for me (and for everyone) to eat their vegetables.
The Broad Fork
Ten Speed, May 2015
SKILL LEVEL: Beginner to Moderate. Acheson takes the time to explain dishes, processes, and substitutions.
WHO THIS BOOK IS FOR: CSA members, people who want to be more involved in their food communities, Hugh Acheson fans
WHO THIS BOOK IS NOT FOR: The meat-and-potatoes crew, people who consider cornbread a vegetable
BUY IT ON: Amazon, Barnes & Noble
Root to Leaf
HarperWave, May 2015
SKILL LEVEL: Moderate to Advanced. Satterfield's book is written for people who already have a working knowledge of kitchen techniques.
WHO THIS BOOK IS FOR: Farm-to-table enthusiasts, diners who get really really excited about seasonal produce
WHO THIS BOOK IS NOT FOR: Novice cooks who are just starting to get interested in the kitchen
BUY IT ON: Amazon, Barnes & Noble
Header photo: Helen Rosner
Interstitial vegetables: Shutterstock
The Broad Fork cover courtesy of Clarkson Potter
Root to Leaf cover courtesy of HarperWave