Cookbook review: An ear for produce

“Listen to Your Vegetables: Italian-Inspired Recipes for Every Season” by Sarah Grueneberg with Kate Heddings (Harvest, $45)

Sarah Grueneberg learned to love vegetables as a child, while visiting her grandparents’ Texas ranch where meals revolved around whatever was fresh-picked from the garden.

She carried that appreciation with her to her first restaurant kitchen job at Brennan’s in her native Houston, and later Chicago, where she earned Michelin stars as executive chef at Spiaggia. It was there that, as part of her training, she was sent to work alongside chefs in Rome, Florence, and Milan and fell hard for all things Italian. She went on to open Monteverde Restaurant and Pastificio, earning her a James Beard award in 2017.

Passionate as she is about pasta, the “Top Chef” finalist still takes her culinary cues first from the season’s bounty, and then thinks about what other ingredients — meat or plant-based — deserve their company, rather than the other way around. It’s as if they’re talking to her, she explains, beckoning her to choose them and give them a starring role on the plate.

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This mindset informs her first cookbook, “Listen to Your Vegetables: Italian-Inspired Recipes for Every Season” (Harvest, $45). Most of its 16 chapters focus on a particular plant, which she brings to life with imaginative analogies reinforced with humorous illustrations. Asparagus spears are supermodels, peppers “love to dance around the kitchen,” and mushrooms are “the most chillaxed vegetable in this book, like a yogi!”

Pasta is the one non-produce item that gets its own chapter, because “it’s a perfect blank canvas to showcase every single vegetable imaginable.”

For all its playful charm, this book is serious about taking us from the produce aisle to the kitchen and ensuring our success. On any weeknight, Double-Roasted Spaghetti Squash with Burrata and Black Pepper (which I tried and heartily recommend), Cast-Iron Roasted Carrots with Carrot Top Salsa Verde, or Broiled Salmon and Cherry Tomato Oreganata would be excellent places to start. Or should you be ready to tackle a showstopper come springtime, look no further than Asparagus Cannelloni with Artichokes and Spring Onions.

With each recipe, Grueneberg promises to “make vegetables as craveworthy as any juicy steak.” That message comes through loud and clear.

Susan Puckett is a cookbook author and former food editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow her at susanpuckett.com.

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