British chef April Bloomfield is known for her fresh take on gastropub fare, which follows a nose-to-tail ethos and results in dishes like the legendary Roquefort hamburger at The Spotted Pig, one of her three New York restaurants. On the heels of her first cookbook, A Girl And Her Pig, comes next month’s A Girl And Her Greens, with a chapter dedicated to “top to tail” vegetable recipes. We spoke with Bloomfield about how to properly prepare greens, what to look out for at the farmer’s market and how a sharp knife can make things taste better.
Peas seem to be a leitmotif in the book and they’re certainly a quintessential British green. Is there a signature veggie dish that represents your cooking as a whole?
I grew up eating peas and broccoli and root vegetables, like turnips and carrots. But yes, I’m very passionate about peas. If they’re not that great I get a bit grumpy. I love going to the market and picking out the sweetest ones. Peas are one of my go-tos, along with things I always use in the kitchen, like chili and lemon and olive oil. When combined, those flavors really pop. Winters can be long and hard – especially this year – and you can just obsess about something green popping up from the ground. Your body starts to crave the recipes you’ve been waiting nine months to make.
Which vegetables did you first perfect? Are there any “starter” greens you would recommend for novice cooks to prepare?
People find vegetables quite daunting in general, so I wanted to make this book very accessible. When I first started out at cooking school, we had the responsibility of cooking vegetables while keeping the color and the wonderful texture. You’re also taught to top and tail green beans nicely and to have seasoned water at a rapid boil. You know, you really want the water to be rolling and bubbling. Also, try throwing a small handful of green beans into a large pot of water instead of shoving them all into a small pot, where they’ll be cramped and maybe not rolling around and cooking evenly in the water. People are so worried of overcooking that they undercook, and then the vegetable doesn’t reveal itself. Maybe just cooking it a little less or more will give you different contrasts. Vegetables are incredibly versatile: you can eat them raw, par-boiled or fully cooked. A good example of this in the book is the roasted fennel salad with blood orange. I used raw and cooked fennel, so you get this fresh anise flavor with some crunch and texture alongside a mellower flavor with a nice caramelized sweetness. They complement each other.
There’s a Japanese concept that the kind of knife you use can make an ingredient taste better. For example, if you cut a radish with a dull knife it will taste different than if you cut it with a well-maintained blade. How important are tools in cooking with vegetables, especially raw ones?
If you’re using a dull knife on, say, a lemon, you can imagine you’re pushing all the essential oils out. Or if you slice a radish, you’re squishing all that delicate spiciness and delicious radish flavor. I suppose you’re breaking the cells of whatever you’re cutting. That idea makes sense: have the right knife for the right job – and keep it sharp. It’s not just about the flavor, which is still the most important part, but also the look. You want your food to be beautiful, not flat and dull.
Are there any similarities between preparing meat to vegetables?
When I first set out to write this book, I thought that I cooked a lot more vegetables alongside meat. But when I came to write out my list of recipes, it only ended up being three or four that included meat. At home, I save my bacon fat for cooking vegetables if I want something a bit richer and rounder. If I have a lot of leftover veg, I’ll throw it into a soup with a light chicken stock. So you have that fortified meat coming through but it’s really just all about the vegetable.
Do you have any tips for picking out the best produce at the farmer’s market?
Normally whatever catches my eye. At Kaufmann, you have a certain aesthetic that you curate. It should be equivalent in the vegetable world. Go for herbs that are green and bright. Radishes that aren’t frost bitten or tired looking. It could be the most beautiful apple in the whole world that you want to hug and take home, but you won’t really know if it’s good until you taste it. So go to your market and build relationships with the vendors. Ask and be polite. Many chop produce up for people to taste. A knobby old carrot can be just as beautiful as an ordinary looking one.
A quintessential spring dish from April Bloomfield’s forthcoming A Girl And Her Greens. Best enjoyed outdoors.
Snap Pea Salad
I admit that I’m hard on sugar snap peas. I get disappointed when they suck, of course, but I also get grumpy when they’re anything less than perfect—unblemished, super sweet, and not a bit starchy. That’s the curse of keeping high standards, I suppose: You’re so rarely satisfied. When at last I do find perfect snap peas, I make this salad. I leave them raw—only the finest snap peas can be this delightful without a dunk in boiling water—and accentuate their flavor with little more than lemony dressing and mint. If you’d like, you could add some creamy goat cheese in blobs or good old burrata alongside.
1 pound sugar snap peas, trimmed and strings removed
1 small spring garlic clove, peeled and very thinly sliced
Five-finger pinch mint leaves, preferably black mint, roughly chopped at the last minute
¼ cup Simple Lemon Dressing (below)
4 handfuls delicate, peppery arugula
So long as you find the right snap peas, you’ll have a smashing salad. But I find that putting your knife to them adds even more excitement, a little textural variation and attractiveness. Accordingly, run the tip of your knife along the spine of some of the larger pods and open them like a book to expose the peas. Slice others diagonally in half or thirds. Keep small ones whole.
Combine the peas, garlic and mint in a large bowl, pour in the dressing, and toss gently but well. Season to taste with salt and lemon, if you’d like. Add the arugula to the bowl and toss gently to coat the leaves in the dressing without bruising them. Arrange it all prettily on a platter and serve straightaway.
Simple Lemon Dressing
Makes ½ cup plus 3 tablespoons (generous ½ cup)
This all-purpose dressing brightens whatever it touches. It proves that three simple ingredients can become something extra special when they’re combined in just the right proportion.
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
¾ teaspoon Maldon or another flaky sea salt
Combine the ingredient in a container with a tight-fitting lid, and shake well until the mixture looks creamy. Taste and add a little more olive oil, lemon or salt, if you’d like. Set it aside until you’re ready to use it and shake again just before you do.
From A Girl and Her Greens by April Bloomfield. Photos by Greg Loftus. Copyright 2015 April Bloomfield. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.