Want a Tasty Way to Eat Healthy? Learn to Cook Like a Californian
California cooks have long taken a minimalist approach to plant-based cooking. The state’s chefs and home cooks have the luxury of using spanking-fresh produce from some of the nation’s most bountiful and varied farmland, year-round. And they know veggies that good need little adornment.
“Less is more. The ingredients are such high quality, all you need to do is make it taste like what it is,” says Jessica Largey, chef-owner of Simone in Los Angeles and former chef at Manresa, a farm-to-table mecca near San Jose. “You don’t need to overmanipulate it. A few drops of acid and a little seasoning are often all you need.”
This strategy still leaves room for innovation, though, just not in the form of the foams, spheres, and other modernist wizardry that critics consider overmanipulation. Californian revelations are simple but just as inventive, as with San Francisco chef Daniel Patterson’s renowned dish of carrots roasted on coffee beans: An unlikely pairing on the plate proves to be pure bliss on the palate.
This fruit makes basically any recipe better.
“Vegetables are the most important aspect of my cooking,” says Patterson, owner of the Michelin-starred Coi restaurant. “People in California have always been more attuned to vegetables. There’s an incredible abundance here. In spring, the flavors are more delicate, so they want less seasoning.”
“Spring is my all-time favorite season,” says Kim Alter, chef-owner of Nightbird and Linden Room in San Francisco. “You have to commit to the prep work,” including tedious tasks like shelling peas and double-shucking and blanching fava beans, “but it’s going to be some of the best food you’ve had in your life.”
Pristine spring produce easily lends itself to a starring role. Alter’s go-to casting choices for an iconic spring veggie, such as asparagus, include featuring it along with peas in pasta or risotto, shaving and wrapping it around sh that’s served with juiced asparagus sauce, or grilling it and topping with an avocado-buttermilk green goddess dressing.
RELATED: Spring Recipes
Like many of his California colleagues, chef Michael Fiorelli of Manhattan Beach’s Love & Salt delights in exploring the potential of a single ingredient within one dish (like with his roasted carrots dressed with carrot-top pesto, or an artichoke plate that includes artichoke puree, roasted artichoke hearts, and shaved raw artichokes tossed in lemon and olive oil). Placing a single vegetable in the spotlight showcases the spectrum of tastes and textures one simple plant can offer.
The key, he says, is knowing when to say when. “Just don’t mess it up,” he says.“It’s already beautiful.”
Chef Michael Fiorelli pairs fava beans with sharp sheep’s milk pecorino Romano cheese, ricotta, and briny preserved lemon at Love & Salt in Manhattan Beach. We streamline his toasts even further here and go with perfumy fresh lemon zest in the cheese.
View the Recipe: Fava-and-Ricotta Toasts
Sautéed Radish Salad with Avocado Dressing
San Francisco chef Kim Alter smartly uses buttermilk in avocado dressing: It thins the avocado, and the acid in it keeps the avocado green without masking its flavor like citrus sometimes can. We found the creamy combo pairs fantastically with spicy-sweet sautéed radishes.
View the Recipe: Sautéed Radish Salad with Avocado Dressing
Pasta with Shaved Asparagus and Pea Pesto
Inspired by Kim Alter’s spring pastas, this dish features a mint- flecked pea puree to coat the noodles. Shaved raw asparagus just barely cooks by tossing with the hot pasta, drawing out its distinctive flavor but leaving it delectably crisp.
View the Recipe: Pasta with Shaved Asparagus and Pea Pesto
Spring Onion Confit
Los Angeles chef Jessica Largey loves to confit green spring garlic. Here we use easier-to-find spring onions in a similar preparation. The fragrant allium slowly poaches in olive oil infused with lemon peel and develops balanced, mellow flavor. It’s an incredibly versatile stir-in and flavoring you can use all season.
View the Recipe: Spring Onion Confit
Rice Pilaf with Spring Onion Confit
Largey puts her spring allium confit to brilliant use in a simple pilaf, starting by sautéing dry rice grains in the tender, lemon-scented confit before simmering. “The confit is really all you need to flavor the rice. It’s pretty amazing,” she says. After developing our own version, we have to agree.
View the Recipe: Rice Pilaf with Spring Onion Confit
Chef Daniel Patterson blew minds from coast to coast when he first featured carrots slow-roasted on fresh coffee beans at Coi. The flavor pairing was an epiphany, yet the technique was incredibly simple. Here, we offer a subtle, faster-cooked springtime riff on the dish.
View the Recipe: Coffee-Roasted Carrots