RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The writer Fran Lebowitz has made this observation about vegetables: They're interesting but lack a sense of purpose when unaccompanied by a good cut of meat.
Well, maybe some months, but at the height of summer, with vegetables bursting out of grocery store bins and farmers market stalls, a perfectly lovely meal can be made from start to finish with little more than vegetables.
We've asked food writer Nigella Lawson to give us a hand in making the case. Good morning, welcome to the program.
Ms. NIGELLA LAWSON (Food Writer): Oh, thank you.
MONTAGNE: Now, you come from, if I may say so, a culture not exactly known for vegetarianism, at least traditionally. What's your best pitch?
Ms. LAWSON: Well, listen, not only do I come from a culture that is far from vegetarian, I am such a committed carnivore, it can hardly be exaggerated. However, I think vegetables are fantastic. I mean, I take the view that all food is wonderful to eat.
So I don't really see the point in having a hierarchy, and so I think at this time of year particularly, not only is there such a superabundance of vegetables, but I actually - in the heat is probably the one time I think, I don't really need the meat, and it's not very often you hear me say that.
MONTAGNE: Well, let's leap into the menu, then. How about soup? And I know you have a recipe for something called Happiness Soup.
Ms. LAWSON: I do. When I called this soup Happiness Soup, I did feel slightly embarrassed, but the thing about Happiness Soup is that, one, it makes you very happy because you're using up the yellow squash that you see everywhere, but also in certain cultures, yellow is thought to be a color which if you eat foods thus colored, it promotes happiness and laughter.
It's odd to say, but it tastes yellow, as well as looking yellow, because you have the dice of squash - and I don't peel them, because you would lose so much color and texture - and I also add lemon zest. But you know, as if the yellow squash and the lemon weren't yellow enough, I think, you know, throw caution to the winds, and I add some turmeric. And I'm not a vegetarian, so I use chicken broth or stock, but obviously a vegetable stock will do the trick, and you bolster this by just sort of tumbling everything in a pan and adding some basmati rice, and I think it's to be eaten warm, as long as you've got some cold wine nearby and perfect for eating outside. So it's altogether very, very good for raising the spirits.
MONTAGNE: The next item on the menu would be...
Ms. LAWSON: A mushroom pasta. Now, you might not want rice and pasta at the same meal, but the real revelation, I think, is the intense meatiness of the mushroom sauce, and you can really understand that when you cook with mushrooms or eat mushrooms, but the joy here is that I'm not even cooking this sauce.
I mean, I tend to use cremini mushrooms, but any that you can get at the farmers market or that you grow yourself are just about fine. I just slice mushrooms very finely. I get out my lemon again, and my zester can't be stopped at this time of year with zesting some lemons. Put some lemon zest, some garlic, some lemon juice and some olive oil, some salt, and I cook some pasta.
I like linguini, but I mean, I think this would really go with anything, and the joy is you just let the mushrooms steep while the pasta cooks, and then once you've drained your pasta, you toss the mushrooms in, and it's phenomenal and very, very little effort, and there's something rather gorgeous about using even the fruits of the countryside, the vegetables of the countryside, if you like, so easily. It makes one feel a sense that one's really enjoying the summer, I think.
MONTAGNE: Nigella, you have a recipe for eggplant.
Ms. LAWSON: Yes.
MONTAGNE: Grilled eggplant. And I have to say, not one of my favorite vegetables, probably because of the texture.
Ms. LAWSON: Yes, I think I'm with you on that often. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the eggplant. The texture can go mushy, and they can soak up too much oil, but this is a recipe which really gives them, I think, a much more manageable texture.
I simply cut the eggplant lengthwise, so you've got almost long, bunny-rabbit-ear-shaped slices, and I brush a teeny bit with oil, probably a quarter cup, and I griddle them, or I grill them, or I just put them in a broiler, and you can do this stage ahead, which I always like because I want these cold, and then I crumble a bit of feta cheese, and I chop large, fresh, red chili, and sometimes I leave the seeds in if it's just for me because I like food very hot, but otherwise I take the seeds out. And I then have some fresh mint, and I have, again, I'm back with my lemon juice - I might even zest some - some pepper.
So I've got my chili and my mint and my lemon juice and feta, and I just have a mounded teaspoon or so of mixture at one tip of the eggplant, and I roll these up.
So there you've got this rather wonderful green, white and red stuffing in the sort of taupe and dark purple eggplant, and they're like little rolls. They're like little - just almost like, I don't know, Middle Eastern sushi. They're very good.
MONTAGNE: Now that could actually get me on eggplant. There is, of course, even on a summer day we'll be wanting a dessert. Now, there are plenty of fruit desserts, but talk to us about one with a vegetable base.
Ms. LAWSON: Okay, I'm really, really pleased to tell you about a vegetable dessert, and only because it makes such sense when you think about it, but it sounds so odd to start off with, and that's a zucchini cake.
And the wonderful thing about zucchini, if you grate them very finely, which you can either do by hand or in a processor, what they do when you put them in a cake is keep the cake incredibly moist. Really, it's a very straightforward sponge cake but with zucchini - and I tend to make the cake in two little thin sandwich layers, and I buy or make lime curd to go in the middle. But you could really buy any sort of jam, I suppose, if you wanted or just with a little bit of cream, and then I put a cream-cheese sort of frosting on top.
And just because I am glorifying the zucchini, I add a few chopped pistachios just because I know I'm referring to their wonderful green color.
MONTAGNE: And of course it makes it seem just that much healthier.
Ms. LAWSON: Oh yes, it's a wonderful way to eat cake and feel good about it in every sense.
MONTAGNE: Okay, so we've sort of gone green, then, in this conversation, which is always a good thing.
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MONTAGNE: And yellow.
Ms. LAWSON: That's right, and there is something about the colorfulness of vegetables that always makes one feel cheered up.
MONTAGNE: Nigella, thank you for joining us again.
Ms. LAWSON: As ever, a pleasure. Thank you.
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MONTAGNE: And you will, of course, want to try some of Nigella Lawson's recipes, and you can by going to NPR.org. You can also find out about Nigella's moonblush tomatoes.