There was a time when vegetables were the runts of the dining scene, relegated to superfluous garnishes and boring sides. But veggies have staged a coup. These days, Marc Forgione’s American Cut sells a single carrot for $10, and “vegetable-driven” tasting menus are trending around town.
The revamped reputation of vegetables is rooted in the prevailing vogue for local, seasonal eating. Despite our ability to ship anything to just about anywhere in the world, the trendiest restaurants are all about what’s in season, or even what can be foraged in the fields behind a chef’s kitchen.
Where does nature’s bounty end and BS begin?
Restaurants overhaul their menus quarterly, coloring their signature dishes with kohlrabi, garlic scapes, and Swiss chard—whatever is flourishing at local markets. But where does nature’s bounty end and BS begin? When buzzwords like “seasonal lettuce” shows up on the bill of fare at your local dive bar (alongside a very un-divey price tag), something seems suspicious.
To debunk the mythology of seasonal vegetables, we went to get some answers from Amanda Cohen, straight-talker and chef-owner of one of NYC’s most celebrated vegetarian restaurants.
The expert: When it comes to vegetables, Amanda Cohen is queen. In opening her East Village restaurant Dirt Candy, it was her mission to make vegetables fun again. “Most people are intimidated by vegetables,” she says. “They don’t like them, they don’t know what’s in season, or they’ve only ever had them prepared one way. They seem mysterious, bland, and easy to get wrong.”
Here, Cohen shares some tips for making the most of seasonal produce, as well as some caveats that will help you avoid chasing dubious trends.
The “organic and seasonal” is as much about making diner feel virtuous as it is about making thing taste better.
Cohen says: If you live on or near a farm, [buying all organic and seasonal produce] is an awesome way to eat. But if you’re a normal person then the seasonal and organic game is just another way to make you feel like good vegetables are an inaccessible luxury item that’s out of your reach. I get my vegetables the same way most people do: off a truck, in a box. I’m not using some kind of magical Prickleback Farms Russian Sugar Eggplants when I make my eggplant tiramisu. I’m using the same old eggplants you get at the supermarket. My goal is to demystify vegetables and make them fun and exciting and accessible again, not to cloak them in astrological seasonality charts and a bunch of restrictions that have very little to do with their actual taste.
Spinach mille-feuille at Dirt Candy
The best reason to buy vegetables in season is when they taste better and are less expensive.
Cohen says: But practically speaking, we live in a post-seasonal world—with a few exceptions. Ever since the formation of the international highway system and refrigerated shipping containers, there are few things that we can’t get year-round. Some things are still depressing—winter strawberries or non-cherry tomatoes in December, to name a few—but generally seasonality really doesn’t matter for the average person.
Buying and eating vegetables in season can help conserve energy on a global level, but only if the entire world agreed to do this.
Cohen says: It is possible but fairly unlikely, and then you wouldn’t have lemons in winter, or anything much besides root vegetables from November through March (in the Northeast, at least).
Potato salad at Dirt Candy
CSAs are a great option for getting local, organic produce no matter what region you live in.
Cohen says: As long as you’re flexible about what you’re cooking and prepared to get a ton of corn in late summer and a truckload of kale in winter. With other veggies, it matters less; for instance, potatoes aren’t going to taste dramatically better in late summer. Corn, on the other hand, is so much sweeter in the fall than it is in January.
Frozen vegetables can be a decent substitute for fresh, high-quality vegetables when an item is out of season.
Cohen says: In a pinch, frozen vegetables are usually fine, just make sure they’re not freezer burned, which is more common than you might think. If the packaging is covered with hairy ice, stay away.
Broccoli dogs at Dirt Candy