F&W’s Masters Series: Lessons from Vegetarian Blogger Dana Slatkin
A champion of the Beverly Hills Farmers’ Market and author of the blog Beverly Hills Farmgirl, Dana Slatkin graduated of the Culinary Institute of America and spent a year in France apprenticing under two chefs known for vegetable cookery: Georges Blanc and Michel Guérard, as well as working at the famed bakeries Poilâne and Fauchon. Now a mother of three children, Slatkin divides her time between Aspen and Los Angeles, where her husband runs the Santa Monica hotel Shutters on the Beach. She’s currently at work on a television show and teaches cooking classes out of her home.
How do you build a meal without meat?
Because I’m feeding a family, I like to have at least four dishes on the table so everyone can find something they can eat: one whole-grain dish, two vegetable-based dishes, and a protein. The protein can be meat, but it can also be any number of vegetable-sourced proteins like tofu, beans or quinoa.
How do you make sure the flavors work together?
Sometimes they don’t. Meals at my house are more of a smorgasbord. I will mix something Asian-inspired with something Mediterranean with no trouble at all. The more you can wake up your and your family’s taste buds the better. I don’t believe any meal needs a theme.
How do you create a vegetarian dish?
Maybe it’s my Berkeley background, but I hate waste. I’ll do a sweep through my vegetable drawers and see what’s looking good. Then I usually turn to one of the classic trinities I learned at cooking school, like the Asian trinity of garlic, ginger and scallions, or the French trinity of the mirepoix—onions, carrots and celery—or the more Southwestern or Latin trinity of onions, garlic and tomatoes, maybe some cumin. Once I’ve got the building blocks, then I turn to my spice drawer. Much to my husband’s dismay, I tend not to make the same thing twice. Sometimes he’ll ask me, “What was that great risotto you made a few weeks ago, can you make it again?” But I’ll have no recollection! Some people have their five favorite things, but I can never stick to that. I always enjoy creating. There are some duds, and there are some hits.
What distinguishes a stellar vegetarian dish from an ordinary one?
Proper cooking. You really want the vegetable's personality to come through. So this is key.
Combining colors. Especially when you’re cooking for kids and picky eaters, it’s important to think about color. Like I’ll combine eggplant, which can look kind of a blah, with colorful tomatoes to make it more visually exciting. Or a bright green pesto, or maybe a dark brown or green olive tapenade.
Thinking beyond salt. It’s good to have flavors other than just salt. I’m not a big fan of plain steamed vegetables. I like to add olive oil, garlic, scallions, something to bring out more of the character of the vegetable.
Contrasting textures. Vegetables are really shining now because people are realizing that you don’t have to just slice them—you can grate them, dice them into little bits, make them into noodles, play around with their shapes and sizes. I love the idea of taking a head of cauliflower and slicing it into steaks to treat it more like the main star.
What are your best tips for washing, prepping and storing vegetables?
I don’t wash veggies until I’m ready to use them. The one exception: I’ll wash and dry and break down vegetables like broccoli and lettuce then keep them in Ziploc bags to save prep time later on. They have to be bone-dry, but just in case you missed a drop, it’s a good idea to put a paper towel in the bag.
I have a really good tip for washing mushrooms. I learned this when I was an apprentice at Georges Blanc: You fill a bowl with cold water, and you drop in a handful of flour and swish it around. Now you add the mushrooms and swirl them around quickly in the water, and lift them out onto a dishtowel to dry. Your mushrooms come out sparkling clean. The flour acts like Comet: it’s an abrasive that scrubs out the dirt without over watering the mushrooms, and it bleaches them. The flour is left behind in the water. Any that clings to the mushrooms can either be towel-dried off or will encourage a crust or caramelization when you roast or sauté them.
When you’re washing berries it’s important to use a very gentle stream of water, because if you turn on the faucet too strong you’ll damage them.
I pretty much put all of my veggies into the crisper drawer. If they end up looking a little sad, I’ll put them in a bowl of ice water and perk them back up—even larger root vegetables like carrots and radishes.
Stone fruits and tomatoes don’t go in the fridge.
Onions, garlic and potatoes go into dry storage, in a cool, dark, dry place. I keep them in cloth-lined baskets, so the cloth absorbs any moisture.
What are key pantry staples for vegetable lovers?
Tamari. I find it has more flavor over salt, where soy sauce has more salt over flavor.
I love a tomato paste that’s super concentrated with tomato flavor.
I use canned San Marzano tomatoes a lot—they have really tomatoey flavor, and the ones that are already peeled and pureed are superconvenient.
I put herbes de Provence in soups, vegetables, pasta sauce, pretty much anything where you would use herbs.
I’m a big fan of coconut milk for anything creamy, it’s so lovely and luscious. I use both regular and light. If you’re baking, you need regular because you want the fat. But light organic coconut milk is a pretty all-purpose substitute for anywhere you need milk or cream. I make a mac and cheese with coconut milk and it comes out beautifully. I use it in corn chowder, too. My favorite is chocolate coconut fondue. That’s one of my signature desserts, my kids love it, and it’s a great way to get them to eat fruit.
When it comes to olive oil, I tend to buy as local as I can, and so I look for California olive oils like ones from Ojai and Napa. I find that the regular olive oils are just as good as extra virgin. I look for an opaque or darker glass bottle, which will keep the oil fresher by protecting it from the sun and light. I generally only use olive oil in low heat cooking and salads, because under high heat olive oils can turn carcinogenic.
For high-heat cooking like roasting and frying I use grapeseed oil; it’s a great neutral oil that doesn’t have much flavor. But it heats safely to high temperatures and it’s great for frying. I love this restaurant supply store here in LA called Surfas; they sell huge jugs of grapeseed oil. They also sell them at Costco.
What are the best sweeteners?
I’m trying not to use white sugar at all these days—I just don’t think it adds anything to our diet, and it’s just no longer necessary since there are so many alternatives. Maple syrup is my favorite sweetener—I like that it’s got other notes besides just sweet, and a little goes a long way. If a recipe requires sugar, I’ll use organic cane sugar or brown sugar, which has more caramelly notes, or honey. Or I’ll just cut way back on the sugar. But these days I find that I need more than just the flavor of sweet in a dessert.
For all of my fridge condiments, I always buy small quantities. Small jars and small containers help keep everything fresher. And they’re not as overwhelming. You can keep more variety in your fridge if they’re all in smaller containers.
- I use organic white miso paste to flavor just about anything: Caesar salads, soups, or vegetable fritters, it’s a big one for me.
- Dill pickles are good flavoring agent for salad dressings. I’ll use a little of the brine as well as the pickles.
- I love tahini for making hummus and salad dressings; it adds a nice creaminess. It doesn’t last long in my fridge.
Top 5 kitchen tools for vegetables?
- Japanese Benriner mandoline. I got it at the Japanese market and it’s so easy to take apart and put back together. It’s easier than a mandolin and less intimidating.
- Ceramic knives. There’s nothing better for slicing tomatoes. I’m a big fan of the Kyocera ceramic chef’s knife; it’s supersharp, it’s like a scalpel.
- Rice cooker. I’ll cook all my grains in it. I tend to use a lot of whole grains—farro, quinoa, brown basmati rice, barley.
- Cast-iron pan. It’s ideal for sautéing because it has such even heat. And I fry in the same pan that I’ve been using for years. You don’t need a deep-fat fryer; a cast-iron pan with a fry cover works like a charm. A fry cover looks almost like a pot cover but it’s mesh. It allows you to keep the grease from splattering without steaming the food.
- Food processor. I use it all the time for grating. When I’m making latkes, it grates all the onions and potatoes in a minute flat. I’ll use it to make fritters. I grate zucchini a lot, I make zucchini and pea pancakes a lot in the summer.
Best vegetable cooking techniques?
- Roasting. I am not one to spend all day in the kitchen. I usually roast at high heat. That way the roasting goes pretty quickly, and I like that crust or crunch to my vegetables. The caramelization brings out the flavor of the vegetables. And it’s so easy: You really just need olive oil, salt and pepper, but if you want to add a little more punch, mustard seeds or cinnamon is nice. You can roast drier mushrooms like shiitake, maitake, and cremini with cinnamon to bring out their sweetness and earthiness.
- Steaming. Even though I’m not a fan of plain steamed vegetables, I will often steam vegetables to parcook them before I roast, sauté or grill them. The other night I parcooked some potatoes by steaming them and then threw them into a sauté for a corn salad with steamed baby potatoes—that’s a nice summer salad. It’s only important when you steam vegetables to add salt to the cooking water and to the vegetables. I prefer steaming to boiling because boiling tends to water log the vegetables, you tend to lose some of the nutrients, and it takes longer because you have to wait for the water to boil.
- Grilling. I grill pretty much anything—artichokes, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, green beans. I parcook most vegetables before I grill them, especially harder vegetables like artichokes and broccoli. You don’t want vegetables to spend too much time on the grill. You want a little bit of color, but you don’t want them to be charred.
- Sautéing. It’s quick, clean and simple. I’ll sauté just about anything. I’ll flash-sauté green beans or broccoli florets with a little lemon zest, maybe some chile flakes and garlic. Spinach is always a good one to sauté.
- Stir-frying. The key with stir-frying is to make sure all the vegetables are the same size, and to parcook some of the denser vegetables, like the cruciferous vegetables, or carrots.
- Braising. That’s probably my least-used technique, but endive, fennel, some of the harder root vegetables that may not have as much inherent flavor are good for braising. It concentrates their flavors, and allows you to incorporate other flavors.