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By Slow Food USA

From a surplus of celery to trouble staying full, chef and beloved cookbook author, Deborah Madison, is helping us tackle everyday vegetable cooking challenges by responding to questions submitted through our social media community. Read on to pick up some great ideas from one of America’s most experienced and talented vegetable-lovers – and check out her New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, an updated edition of her classic cookbook.

Angel Doeblor asks: (My) biggest challenge: not falling into the trap of cooking the same veg the same way each time. “this is how we use beets…”

Deborah Madison says: Angel – that’s why cookbooks are helpful – they give us ideas and insights. I suggest looking at books by authors you might not know, or who cook from a different culture than those you’re accustomed to. For example, collards are treated very differently in India than they are here – and they’re very exciting. As for beets, they have so many possibilities my head reels. I might start with them the same way (steaming), but then they can go in a lot of different directions. It helps to see what others think of as a dish then give it a try.

Remember, herbs are magic. They can entirely influence the nature of a dish. They give variety like nothing else and with such little effort. Almost everyone who wrote in would benefit greatly by becoming familiar with herbs. The plastic cartons are a drag – see if you can grow a few, or buy them at a farmers market. But remember, herbs are the adjectives in cooking. So are the fats you use. Read, taste, try new combinations and I think you’ll be very surprised at how easy it can be to give nuance to a vegetable.

Jennifer Moniz asks: There are certain vegetables that are often used in small quantities as secondary ingredients in recipes (I’m looking at you, celery) but are only sold in pretty significant quantities. I often buy a big bunch of celery only to use two stalks for a recipe base and then try to think of something to do with the rest of it besides chopping it up for snacking. What’s the best way to turn these leftover supporting veggies into a great main dish?

Deborah Madison says: Good question, Jennifer. I have the celery problem, too. But generally, there are recipes for cooking ALL vegetables in significant ways, including we usually use in small quantities. For some, those vegetables may be more than just a crunchy bit to add to something; they may be the meal. Or a dish. There is braised celery, for example. And Celery Victor, and celery a la Grecque. Celery soup is lovely. Come fall, add some celery root. I like to make a celery salad by very thinly slicing celery on a mandoline, dressing it with walnut oil, parsley and the celery leaves, minced, finely chopped egg, maybe including capers or green olives. Or I might use olive oil. And maybe some fennel, too, or watercress. Such ideas might work well with other vegetables, as well. Part of a bunch of parsley? Try a parsley-potato soup or a salsa verde.

Catherine Vial asks: I have two challenges 1) Having to UNLEARN decades of making meat/fish/poultry the center and 2) making sure vegetables are filling enough for my family’s main meal.

Deborah Madison says: That’s exactly the challenge I had in opening Greens restaurant – finding a new center for the plate. A lot of it is a visual matter. As a chef, of course, I had the luxury of being able to make foods that had a bit of complexity and strong visual focus – stuffed and folded foods— (see The Greens Cookbook) – something the eye would go quickly to as the “it” dish, instead of the feared hole in the center of the plate. The result was that customers left saying they had forgotten that there wasn’t any meat, and that was great. If you’re working and need to get food on the table quickly, that will be more of a challenge. But think about how things look –use a shallow, rimmed pasta bowl to frame polenta with sautéed zucchini and spinach with toasted bread crumbs, or a main course soup, or whatever you’re making. Small interesting garnishes can help draw attention to a food, rather than away from it (those toasted bread crumbs, chopped or slivered nuts, fresh herbs, slivered omelet, crumbled cheese). The suggestions I give for garnishing soups in the New VCFE work for lots of other foods, too. And include grains and other carbohydrates to make food filling along with protein of some kind.

Mary Horowitz asks: Our biggest challenge has nothing to do with the kitchen itself–it has to do with the people at the table. How do you change the perception that a “proper” meal needs to have meat or fish with a couple of sides?

Deborah Madison says: I keep writing about this! I guess I haven’t had a proper meal in a while. But think of tapas – lots of small tastes of things. Or a mezze table. Not a proper meal, either. Or what you get at a sushi bar. Or a ramen bar. Little tastes. One big bowl. There are plenty of examples of other approaches to the protein and sides. Personally, I can be very happy with just a salad, or a vegetable, or a soup. Would I serve that to company? Probably not – (though maybe both a soup and a salad and some good bread and a few fine cheeses) but it works in our house to keep it really simple. It didn’t always, though.

However, what makes change difficult is how we eat is largely habitual and deeply ingrained, so even though there are other models besides a meat-and-three, if they aren’t ours, changing can take time. (Patience.) But we do all know about appetizers in restaurants – one might try making a menu based on three of those – it’s not tapas or mezze – it’s more familiar – but also different.