They used to be the stuff that fueled childhood nightmares: forkfuls of overcooked broccoli or endless orbs of bitter Brussels sprouts that had to be endured in order to tackle, finally, the chocolate ice cream. But today’s renditions of green vegetables don’t require nose-holding or the camouflage of cheese in order to win over legions of fans. From the once-maligned spinach that only Popeye fancied to the leafy kale that went on to wildly successful oversaturation, here’s a passel of formerly shunned vegetables (and a few equally undesirable fruits) that chefs have helped give miraculous makeovers.
“I didn’t always like kale.” says Dale Talde, chef of TALDE, Pork Slope and Thistle Hill Tavern, in Brooklyn. “However, as you get older, you need to do a lot of things that you don’t always want to do — like working out and not eating cheeseburgers four times a week. So, I started adding more healthy greens to my diet.” Curly kale, a nutritional powerhouse, seems to have become the most desired vegetable on the planet, popping up in everything from detoxifying smoothies to nostalgic casseroles. At his eponymously named restaurant, Talde melds kale with persimmon, pickled beets and candied almonds in a creamy ponzu sauce.
The side of spinach gussied up with caramelized onions Frederik de Pue serves at his Washington, DC, restaurant, Menu MBK, is a far cry from the “thick, bitter, large leaves” he remembers as a child. “At home, we just sauteed it with a little garlic, olive oil and fleur de sel. My mother used to make a Boursin soup where she added spinach and blended it all together,” he says. “I love the diversity that this one vegetable can give — flavor, color and texture.”
Over-boiled, under-seasoned Brussels sprouts of yore have been replaced by vibrant riffs, like the ones made by Nicholas Calias, executive chef at Brasserie JO, inside the Colonnade Hotel, in Boston. “When I was a kid, I hated Brussels sprouts,” the chef admits. “But my perception has completely changed over the years. They are a chefs’ friends because they soak up flavors and can be prepared in so many different ways. They’re fantastic when raw, the leaves are great as a garnish and they are delicious with fondue,” he explains. In the fall and winter, crisp Brussels sprouts, fried in vegetable oil, tossed with sea salt and finished with an herbed Greek yogurt sauce, are part of his regular repertoire.
In Louisville, at Decca, one of executive chef Annie Pettry’s signature dishes is wood-grilled broccoli with almonds and anchovy. “I could eat broccoli every day. It’s strong enough to stand on its own yet is still a team player and picks up other flavors very well. I particularly love the results from caramelizing broccoli,” she says. At home, Pettry does this simply in a cast-iron skillet on the stove top, finished in the oven; at the restaurant she turns to the wood-fired grill, which “picks up a delicious smokiness and turns it slightly sweet and almost nutty.”
For children reared in the South, seed-filled okra was a staple at the dinner table. But unless it was fried or pickled, the results were often hard and stringy. “I was never a big fan of okra. It started as a kid in the garden when, as the oldest cousin, I was elected to be the ‘picker of okra,’ recalls Florence, Alabama-based designer Natalie Chanin, who runs the Factory Store + Café at Alabama Chanin. But her toasted version of the vegetable, baked in a cast-iron skillet with olive oil, salt, cracked pepper and benne seeds, shatters all those childhood visions. “The slimy interior and seeds of the okra pod crisp perfectly, and the addition of benne seeds brings out the nutty flavor of the toasted pods,” Chanin says. “I also love how the pods become like little boats that you can use to scoop up freshly made tomato salsa,” she points out.
Peas, warmed up from a can, were perhaps not the best childhood introduction to the legume, says Robbie Wilson, chef/partner of Mattei’s Tavern, in Los Olivos, Calif. “There was nothing to like about a tin-flavored, melted pea. The color reminded me more of something infected than anything actually vegetal,” Wilson remembers. “I’m pretty sure that the only time my mother used those cans was in lieu of spankings — it was punishment enough.” His tombo tuna with crushed sweet pea guacamole, goat cheese and pickled Serrano, is another story, with the chef embracing the Santa Ynez Valley’s “clean, sweet, tender, crunchy” peas. “Despite their diminutive proportion, they supply a tremendous amount of flavor,” Wilson says.
“As a kid I ate everything, and I loved the lima bean and corn succotash my mother made,” says Michael Lomonaco, executive chef and restaurateur behind Manhattan’s Center Bar and Porter House New York. “I have great respect for lima beans, and they did wonders strengthening the Roman Empire’s armies.” Today, he includes the starchy, protein-packed beans in his soups and chowders.
Apart from forays into borscht and ubiquitous goat cheese and walnut salad combinations, beetroot was long the gnarly vegetable most cooks eyed with trepidation. But Mads Refslund, executive chef at the Nordic-inspired New York restaurant, ACME, has a few unconventional ideas for them. On the vegetarian tasting menu, he pairs beets with sweet and sour cherries; for dessert, he transforms them into an earthy granita. “We use shaved frozen beetroot, beet raisins — beets cooked in blueberry juice, dehydrated and then rehydrated — blueberries, rye bread crumble and yogurt foam,” he says. “Beets are fantastic because they are so versatile.”
Often strictly relegated to Thanksgiving feasts, the acerbic cranberry has yet to find traction in mainstream dining. Austin Perkins, executive chef of Nick’s Cove, in Marshall, Calif., is determined to change that mindset with his garden rainbow chard salad, bringing together duck confit, cashews and cranberries grown in the restaurant’s garden. “It’s a crowd-pleaser because it incorporates complementary flavors, from the sweet tartness of the cranberries to the savory and salty duck,” Perkins says. “So many people think cranberries come only in canned form with those little anti-botulism lines scorched into the sides, but they are much more.”
This autumn, Sean Telo, chef at Brooklyn seafood hangout, Extra Fancy, will serve a homey coffee cake topped with prune preserves. While the fruit may forever conjure images of grandparents guzzling down its liquid iteration, Telo proves that the re-branded “dried plum” can indeed be seductive to younger palates. “Prunes have a rich, sexy, dark-fruit appeal, the same way dates and blackberries do when you preserve them by making jams or jellies,” he says. “Prunes are high in antioxidants and fiber, which makes eating them a delicious and somewhat nourishing substitute for chocolate.”
Alia Akkam is a New York-based writer who covers the intersection of food, drink, travel and design. She launched her career by opening boxes of Jamie Oliver books as a Food Network intern.