The term “vegetable butcher” sounds like an oxymoron, or something straight out of a vegetarian fever dream. But Cara Mangini, who held that title at the Italian marketplace Eataly in New York, explains it simply: a resource to help customers break down vegetables correctly and provide insider advice on preparation. “We have professionals we go to in all different areas of our lives, whether it be hairdressers, doctors, cheesemongers, meat butchers — people who have really studied a certain area or craft and can fill in some of the blanks and provide advice,” she says. Mangini now owns Little Eater, a produce-focused restaurant and shop in Columbus, Ohio. She has gathered expert tips, techniques, and recipes for preparing everything from artichokes to zucchini in her new book, “The Vegetable Butcher.”
Q. How did you prepare for the job?
A. I realized that I spent a long time thinking about the connection between food and health, and I traveled a lot. In other cultures, I found that vegetables were much more intuitive and second nature. I spent a lot of time in France and Italy and Turkey cooking with home cooks and chefs, and eating and enjoying those cuisines. I spent time on a farm really getting to know vegetables with the intention of wanting to pass vegetable education onto others and see how those ingredients behaved from the planting to harvest to the table.
Q. Did customers take to the idea of a vegetable butcher at Eataly?
A. There were a lot of people who wanted to eat healthier and cook with vegetables, but they didn’t really know how to do it. They had a lot of questions that they were sort of afraid to ask. But once you have a professional to ask, you feel a lot more comfortable.
Q. What kinds of help would you provide?
A. One was that a customer could pick out produce — a winter squash, artichokes, celery root — and they could walk up to the vegetable butcher counter and I would prep the vegetables for them so they could take them home and start cooking right away. I would peel the artichokes down to the choke. Or I would shave celery root or break down squash into cubes. There were also lots of demos.
Q. What is the best way to butcher winter squash?
A. A general piece of advice I give is just having a good chef’s knife. That handles a big part of the issue, especially when it comes to working with a hard winter vegetable like a butternut squash. No. 2 is having a good solid board and working space. And then the most important thing is to create a flat edge so you’re not struggling with the squash slipping off the board. For the actual butchering of the squash, you want to cut off the top and the bottom. Then you immediately have flat surfaces to work with. Then you can stand up each side on a flat surface. You have a nice steady position.
Q. What’s the secret to prepping something more delicate like mushrooms?
A. With mushrooms, ideally you want to use just a damp cloth and rub the dirt off. When it’s Tuesday night and you’re trying to get dinner on the table, can you dunk them in water quickly, shake them, then rub them off to make that whole process go faster? You certainly can. You want to let them dry before using them. You also want to make sure to cut off any tough ends, but you should be able to use most stems. Then just think about how you want to enjoy them in the dish, whether it be thinly slicing or creating a larger bite with a larger cut. You can also tear mushrooms, which is nice for certain kinds like oyster mushrooms or shiitake, king trumpet mushrooms, hen of the woods.
Q. Are there other things, like mushroom stems, that we should be saving and using?
A. Definitely. Beets are one where you get two vegetables in one. The greens are excellent. You can use them like you would Swiss chard or kale or spinach. Just sautee them up. The stems of broccoli are excellent and a big part of what you pay for. You want to peel the base of the broccoli to remove any fibrous outer flesh. When you reach the more tender part of the stalk, you can cut it up and roast it or steam it. Cut it into matchsticks to add to a stir-fry. You can use the tops of leeks and even things that are starting to go past their prime in the refrigerator for a vegetable stock. I save most vegetable scraps. You can put them in the freezer. When you do have time you can just put some stock on the stove.