LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Barbara Kafka has a new cookbook called Vegetable Love. The title comes from Andrew Marvell's poem, To His Coy Mistress. My vegetable love shall grow, he writes, vaster than empires, and more slow. Kafka has written 700 pages on vegetables. It's two books, really; a primer on buying, storing and cooking each veg, and recipes for making them magical.
We met in the narrow, crowded kitchen of her New York City townhouse. I asked for two things, a dish fit for a spring and a transformation of a boring vegetable. She picked risotto, and by complete coincidence, my nominee for the most boring root I know, carrots.
Ms. BARBARA KAFKA (Chef and Author of Vegetable Love): Carrots, first of all, as we all are now aware, are rich in beta-carotene. And are therefore extremely healthy. And when they're young and sweet, like anything else, they...
WERTHEIMER: Mmm. It is very sweet and very tender.
Ms. KAFKA: They're very nice. And the trouble is that most of us are getting hideous old carrots that we don't want. And then you don't want these, which are called baby carrots.
WERTHEIMER: Those are the kinds that come in the cellophane pack.
Ms. KAFKA: Right.
WERTHEIMER: Or the plastic bag.
Ms. KAFKA: And you don't want them because, even though they say all natural, that's not what they are. They're cut down. Somebody's taken a carrot and put it in a machine and it's been cut up. And then it's been tossed around until it gets smooth and gets the shape of a baby carrot. But it's not a baby carrot and it never will be. Whereas, a true baby carrot is about three to four inches long. And it's very pretty on a plate.
WERTHEIMER: Why did you decide on the vegetable book?
Ms. KAFKA: As I move along in life, I find that I'm often not eating a main course; that I'd rather have three first courses, or sides, or something like that. And that they tend to be vegetables, because vegetables have more flavor; and of course, it's hideously healthful.
WERTHEIMER: I peel and Kafka chops the carrots into matchsticks. They'll cook in butter with thinly sliced onions, seasoned with lemon zest and a pinch of cayenne pepper.
Ms. KAFKA: You know, I never met a child, people are always saying, But my children won't eat vegetables. And they, there is a temptation to say, My dear, if you would learn how to cook...
WERTHEIMER: Despite that big voice, Kafka is tiny with unruly gray hair. She stirs up the pot periodically, filling the room with the sweet smell of carrots and onions. Two things to add at the end, Chinese Five Spice Powder, hers comes right from the supermarket, and lemon juice.
Ms. KAFKA: Now, you want the lemon zest to go in now. But you don't want the lemon juice to go in now, because lemon juice dies if it's cooked. So you always want, even if you're making the dish ahead, I'm putting the butter back, wait and add the lemon just at the end when you're reheating.
WERTHEIMER: While the carrots are cooking, Kafka starts a springtime risotto, made with orange-gold chanterelle mushrooms, green peas and fiddlehead ferns. In some parts of the country people still collect fiddleheads in the woods in early spring.
A fiddlehead fern is a curled up little bit of a fern that is the first part to come above the ground.
Ms. KAFKA: Well, it also is called fiddlehead because it's like the head of a fiddle.
(Soundbite of chopping)
WERTHEIMER: I help chop chanterelles and shallots to be cooked in the butter with the tarragon. That set aside, and the real business of risotto, the rice starts. In a kitchen crowded with equipment, with pots hanging on every wall, Kafka finally finds the pot for the risotto under the table. She dumps the round, translucent grains of rice in hot olive oil and stirs until they turn white. After that it's pretty fast and surprisingly easy.
Ms. KAFKA: This is arborio rice, which is short grain, Italian grade rice.
WERTHEIMER: A little vino is going into this risotto.
Ms. KAFKA: Yes. What you're looking for is a little acidity to go with all this richness. Pour in the wine.
(Soundbite of steam)
Ms. KAFKA: I love that sound.
WERTHEIMER: For the rice, the rice and the oil, and the wine, as you said, crackle and pop.
Ms. KAFKA: Yeah. I mean, it makes a wonderful sound. And it let's you know that you really did your job. Then we stir this until the liquid has almost evaporated. And we do that on high heat. And then we start adding the stock. So now, now you have to be a little careful because homemade stocks, like this one, are one of the things that makes it a joy. But also, problem is it has an enormous amount of gelatin in it, that's extracted from the bones, will tend to stick and burn.
WERTHEIMER: When the rice is done, Kafka adds the mushrooms she prepared earlier. Fiddleheads and peas go in last. They barely need to cook.
Ms. KAFKA: So there we are, and that's done. Would you like to taste it?
WERTHEIMER: I would love to taste it.
Ms. KAFKA: All right. Let's get a bowl. Oh, I know. I have a nice bowl here, because it's a Japanese bowl. It's lacquer, which means that it will not get hot to the touch.
WERTHEIMER: Oh, look. There's a fiddlehead right in the middle of the top.
Ms. KAFKA: I put it right there so you couldn't possibly miss it. You have enough mushroom?
WERTHEIMER: Yes. Oh, yes. I have lots of everything.
Ms. KAFKA: You have lots of everything.
WERTHEIMER: Mmm. Oh, it has a wonderful flavor. It's very hot. Ah, the rice is really soft. And the peas sort of like pop when you bite down on them. Great.
Ms. KAFKA: We did it right!
WERTHEIMER: Mmm. Perfect.
Ms. KAFKA: Okay.
WERTHEIMER: We haven't forgotten those carrots keeping warm at the back of the stove.
Ms. KAFKA: Here is your bowl of carrots and your fork.
WERTHEIMER: Thank you. Thank you.
Ms. KAFKA: And you can taste that.
WERTHEIMER: These are those, and they're very soft. And they are very good.
Ms. KAFKA: Now, that you would not call boring.
WERTHEIMER: No, not at all. You're right.
Ms. KAFKA: No.
WERTHEIMER: They have a little cayenne kick. But it's mainly the sweetness of the carrots against the tang of lemon that makes me think I might convert to carrots. But Kafka also offers carrots as sorbet, sweet with lemon and ginger. And carrot honey ice cream; surprisingly good.
Ms. KAFKA: And I do lots of sorbets and ice creams, and they're very good. And they're very beautiful. The intensity of color that you find in the vegetables is just wonderful. And it's a question of balancing the flavor and perhaps putting a spice in there, or something. As you do an apple pie, you put cinammon, right? Or nutmeg, or something like that.
WERTHEIMER: But you make a strudel with apples and beets.
Ms. KAFKA: It's wonderful! It is wonderful and it's so beautiful. I mean, I like pretty.
WERTHEIMER: I noticed that in, in the Vegetable Love book, there's a recipe for veal stew with sliced artichoke bottoms. And there's a note at the bottom of the recipe that says, This stew is white. Choose a colorful plate.
Ms. KAFKA: Well, I meant it. And you know, you have to have fun. It's the antithesis of what we were all told as children. Don't play with your food. I play with my food. I play in making it. And I play in plating it and serving it. And to me, that's fun. You have to do what pleases you and what pleases your guests, and have fun and play.
WERTHEIMER: Barbara Kafka in her kitchen in New York City. Her new book is called Vegetables Love. You can find complete recipes for the dishes we made, plus how to make carrot ice cream by going to our website npr.org.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
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