Come see Dave and Peter talk about vegetables—and more!—at the Rizzoli Bookstore in New York on December 6. Get tickets today!
There are four spots in our new cookbook, Power Vegetables!, where we talk to chefs about what a power vegetable is to them. Dave Chang, Brooks Headley and Julia Goldberg, Jessica Koslow, and Ivan Orkin all weigh in. Here Peter Meehan talked to Dave Chang about his take on vegetable cookery.
How do you think about cooking vegetables? What is a power vegetable to you?
Power vegetables, to me, should be about a mix of something that is powerfully fermented. Which is essentially how we make food anyway. Usually it’s salty and sweet and umami driven. That’s what you want out of them. I think the Chinese make vegetables beautifully, but a lot of time it’s not all vegetarian. They’re going to use a little beef broth, a little pork broth, oyster sauce. That’s how I want to eat most of the time. I think the greatest example of how you can make a vegetable dish in my life right now is Sichuan string beans. Vegetables should have a tiny, tiny bit of meat, and for me, the power comes from the fermented vegetable that you add to them. Take ya cai (fermented mustard greens) for example. If you stir-fried some green beans in pork and some chili—it would be fine on its own, but what takes that to a whole other level is the fermented mustard greens.
In almost all of Asia, vegetables trump anything else. If you look at Vietnamese stirfries, Burmese food, Indian food, you can eat a bowl of vegetables, because they taste fucking good. I think the European notion of vegetable always tends to be drawn in some type of fat, or some type of béchamel, or something that’s cheese driven. While that’s delicious, I wouldn’t necessarily consider it powerful. I think the vegetable has to be almost nondairy, getting its power from another vegetable source, not the primary vegetable.
And that’s why you like fermented vegetables with fresh vegetables.
If I take radishes, smash them, toss them in a little oil, with mint and scallions, and I put ya cai in it, and I dust it or roast it off with some nori sheets and put lime juice on it, and maybe a little honey, it’s going to be fucking delicious. I mean, I know it. There’s no way that’s not going to be delicious.
So what are the elements that you’re hitting there?
This is just generally how I think about things: Obviously you need salt, you need sweet, you need acid, you need a little spice. You need texture. And umami ties it all together. I think as a young cook it’s like, Oh butter butter butter, we need more butter. And then you want to do it because everyone tells you you can’t use too much butter. Now I’m like, no. Like all these kids who love EDM—they’re going to get to a point in their lives when they want to hear something else. Butter is amazing, it’s one note, but I don’t want to taste butter in my vegetables. Not anymore. I want to taste the vegetable. Like butter on corn, yes. But maybe I’d rather have cheese on corn. And then there’s other components. I think dairy is an important thing to certain vegetables, but let’s break down why a dish is a certain way. What’s that Mexican street corn?
Elote. Why do people like that?
You get salty cheese and fatty mayonnaise and spicy chili powder on it. You get grilled corn that’s maybe caramelized.
So however you distribute the cheese, the spice, and the lime juice on the corn, if I have one bite of that, the margin of error for that not to be delicious is fucking very high. It’s a huge fucking bucket for you to miss that. I mean, you could have too much acid, but that doesn’t matter because you have this crazy perfect balance of salty, spicy, sweet, sour, bitter, not bitter, and just the right amount of texture. You need some type of texture and sweetness. I think all this pheromone bullshit about smells and stuff is nonsense.
What pheromone bullshit?
Smells. No. The foods that people love are the things you can taste on your fucking tongue. Nothing else matters. What I don’t think is a power vegetable is cauliflower steaks.
I hate the name.
Seems like a reason.
T-bone filet of tofu is the equivalent of . . . just stupid. But if you think about things that are really delicious, right?, they have the balance of things, like the L’Arpege cauliflower dish that Jean-Georges stole—capers and raisins, salty, sour, brown butter. Power vegetables often aren’t about the vegetable, but about using that as the glue for everything else.
I look at Indian food; Indian food has the best vegetables. They don’t taste like fucking vegetables. You cook it to the point where it all tastes like something else. You know, it’s like the structure for other flavors. I think if it’s two ingredients, it’s not a power vegetable—like sautéed pea shoots on rice at a Chinese restaurant is not a power vegetable. I love it, but it’s not a power vegetable. For me, a power vegetable has a balance of salty, sweet, sour, acid, some type of sweetness and sour and texture. Texture is huge. No bitterness. Everything else is just California cuisine.
This is excerpted from Power Vegetables!, our cookbook of meat-free cooking that even carnivores can get behind. Order it today and get our instant-download Cornzine and a limited-edition enamel pin.
Come see Dave and Peter talk about vegetables—and more!—at Rizzoli on December 6. Get tickets today!