When I saw an advance copy of "Power Vegetables!," the second cookbook by Peter Meehan and the editors of Lucky Peach magazine, my first thought was that vegetables - and even vegetarianism - might now be officially hip. The signs of hipness have been there for a while, especially in the way chefs are treating meat-free cooking at restaurants like Vedge and V Street in Philadelphia; Dirt Candy, Nix and the upcoming ABCV in New York; and, frankly, countless places on the West Coast.
But Lucky Peach? It's harder to get any hipper than that.
The subtitle of Meehan & Co.'s book, a follow-up to "101 Easy Asian Recipes," is "Turbocharged Recipes for Vegetables With Guts," and the book delivers, with recipes for Buffalo cucumbers, daikon radish with XO sauce, cauliflower chaat and more. On the cover, plasma globes crackle amid a pile of vegetables (Meehan's inspiration: Sharper Image catalogues and 1980s horror movies), and on the inside, Meehan describes the look as "over the top and NASCAR-y." I talked to him about how the book came about; edited excerpts of our conversation follow.
Q. What do you consider a turbocharged vegetable?
A. Part of it is overstatement for the sake of making this book entertaining and different, and part of it was, like the Supreme Court judge once said about the definition of pornography, you know a power vegetable when you see one.
We started off with 200 dishes, and we cooked through them, and it would be, "This tastes good, this is a good recipe," but we'd look at the plate and ask, "Are you powerful?" For many dishes, we couldn't say yes.
Like cachapas - they're Venezuelan. You make a fresh corn batter into a pancake to wrap around cheese. It's a cool use of corn as a vegetable turned into a delicious snack, but it just felt like too much work and too much manipulation and not enough payoff for what it was. There were these idiotic catchphrases we had - like, "ease is power." We want simple, hamfisted ways - with no ham involved - to make vegetables fun to eat.
Q. The counterexample would have to be elote (Mexican corn on the cob, smeared in mayo and sprinkled with cheese, chili and lime). You would look at that and say, "Are you powerful? Yes, you are."
A. Yes. People have done a lot of elote coverage in the past few years - but beyond putting butter and salt on your corn, what's the best way to make corn easy and delicious in the summer? That's the way. We looked for ways to improve dishes where we could. Vichyssoise is in every 1970s cookbook, and it's a great way to use that combination of ingredients, and we made it and loved it. Then we realized: If we make it with dashi, that's the little thing that makes it more interesting. It may seem like a tired old soup, but it's not quite ready for bed yet.
Q. What are your favorite ways in general to pump flavor into vegetables?
A. Combine half white miso, half butter and keep it in your refrigerator. You can heat any vegetable and put that on top of it, and it will taste great. Miso butter is a great back-pocket trick. I think the other thing is what you see in restaurants all the time: burning the [expletive] out of a vegetable - "charring" it would be the Martha Stewart way to put it - then hitting it with a high-acid vinaigrette. That tends to please the people, assuming the people are older than 8.
Q. What made you choose vegetables for the second cookbook?
A. I am almost 40 and dealing with the ramifications of not having the metabolism of a child anymore, and trying to postpone death in any way, shape or form. So increasing the amount of vegetables in my diet is important to me.
The longer you cook, the more you realize that the interesting thing isn't the meat, it's the vegetable - you go to the market and they change all the time, they come into season - and finding ways to manipulate them requires more thought than meat cooking. Cooking vegetables is more interesting, a little more - I don't want to say fun, because I barbecue a lot on the weekends, so it's not like I don't find cooking meat fun. But having grown up with a pretty boil-this-maybe-put-vinegar-on-that, middle-American approach to eating vegetables, finding ways in my own kitchen and codifying them for myself to make vegetables delicious and fun and exciting, the kind of thing you're stoked to serve to guests - or just eat again this week - was just where I was at with what I wanted out of a cookbook.
Q. You very casually draw from all over the globe in the book. Do you think that reflects the way a lot of people cook these days?
A. I don't, but I think it should. I think it's never been easier to get ingredients, whether it's via Amazon or actually going somewhere in the real world, which I vastly prefer to do. There's no excuse to cook with a closed mind anymore. And I think somewhat prescriptively. This approach has certainly bettered my own eating and living and cooking.
Roasted Squash With Pumpkin Seed Mole
4 servings, Healthy
The fluffy texture of sweet kabocha squash combines here with the deep, warm, spicy flavors of a pumpkin-seed-thickened Mexican mole (called pipian rojo) for a standout fall dish.
Serve with beans and rice for a complete meal, or as a side dish, with or without corn tortillas.
MAKE AHEAD: You may have more mole than you need; it can be refrigerated for up to 1 week or frozen for up to 3 months.
Adapted from "Power Vegetables," by Peter Meehan and the editors of Lucky Peach (Clarkson Potter, 2016).
For the mole
3 dried guajillo chili peppers
2 dried ancho chili peppers (may susbstitute 2 more guajillos)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic
1/2 cup chopped yellow or white onion
2 dried bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 cups water
1/2 cup raw, unsalted pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
2 tablespoons raw white sesame seeds
1 teaspoon kosher salt
For the squash
Two 2-pound whole kabocha squashes (may substitute small sugar pumpkins or acorn squashes)
Sesame seeds, for garnish
Lime wedges. for garnish (optional)
For the mole: Pull the stems from the dried guajillo and ancho chilies and shake out and discard their seeds. Tear the chilies into postage-stamp-size pieces.
Heat the oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium-low heat. Add the chilies, garlic and onion, and toss to coat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion and garlic are soft and the oil has turned red, about 8 minutes. Stir in the bay leaves, oregano, cumin, paprika and cinnamon. Cook, stirring often, until the spices have melded and become fragrant, 2 minutes. Add the water and increase the heat to medium-high; once the mixture comes to a boil, reduce the heat to medium to maintain a gentle boil. Cook until the sauce base has reduced by half (to about 2 cups), 20 to 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, place a medium skillet over medium-low heat and add the pumpkin seeds. Cook, tossing the seeds frequently so they toast evenly, until they have darkened a few shades and browned here and there, 3 to 4 minutes. (A few will pop and dance in the pan.) Slide them onto a plate; add the sesame seeds to the pan. Toast them, shaking the pan, until they are a dirty blond color, 1 to 2 minutes. Slide them onto the plate with the pumpkin seeds to cool.
Transfer the hot sauce base and cooled sesame and pumpkin seeds to a blender; remove the center knob of the lid (so steam can escape), cover that opening with a paper towel and puree until smooth.
Return the pureed sauce to the pan over medium-low heat; cook until it has thickened, about 5 minutes, and season with the salt. You should have about 2 1/2 cups. (You can use the mole immediately, but it will taste even better after being cooled and refrigerated for a couple of days. Reheat it gently, adding splashes of water to loosen it, as needed.)
For the squash: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Use a sharp, heavy knife to carefully cut the kabochas in half vertically through the stem end. Don't remove the seeds. Lay the halves cut sides down on the baking sheet. Roast until they are tender enough to be pierced with a paring knife or fork, 30 to 40 minutes. The skin may be quite firm, but the flesh should be soft and caramelized in spots.
Once the squashes are cool enough to handle, flip them over and carefully scoop out their seeds and pulp, taking care not to break the flesh. Reserve the seeds for later roasting if desired. Slide a large serving spoon between the skin and flesh of the squash, removing the flesh from each half in two or three large wedges. (If it's easier for you, cut each squash half in half again before removing the flesh.)
Place the wedges from each half into a shallow bowl or dinner plate, season lightly with salt and spoon about 1/2 cup of the mole across each one. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve with lime wedges, if desired.
Nutrition | Per serving: 260 calories, 9 g protein, 25 g carbohydrates, 16 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 330 mg sodium, 6 g dietary fiber, 8 g sugar