This month, Susie Middleton of SixBurnerSue.com released her second book, The Fresh & Green Table, a cookbook that sets vegetables at the center of the table. The clearly-written recipes help cookbook readers build a meal around vegetable-based main dishes.
Middleton, who lives and writes on Martha's Vineyard, answered some questions about the new cookbook, how she balances blogging and all the other demands of her busy life, and why it's so important to learn all we can about how to feast on healthy, seasonal produce.
Genie Gratto: In your first cookbook, you focused on vegetable side dishes, but this time around, vegetables are the star of the show. Why did you shift your focus?
Susie Middleton: I think side dishes are a great entry point for people who want to eat and cook more vegetables, so in Fast, Fresh & Green I offered nine different techniques for cooking delicious side dishes. I hoped (and it seems to have come true!) the book would offer people a whole new repertoire of vegetable sides—dishes that are fun and interesting to cook, but that everyone in the family will love to eat.
In my new book, The Fresh & Green Table, I invite people to take an even bolder step—to incorporate more vegetables into main dishes, too. Since I’m not a vegetarian—just a vegetable lover—and I’m very sensitive to what people really like to eat after my years as editor of Fine Cooking magazine—I thought the best way to do this was by offering familiar types of dishes, like salads, pastas, soups, egg dishes, and even pizza. Main dishes that just happen to feature vegetables!
I think everyone wants to eat more vegetables, so there’s no need to relegate them to the side. When you can make a Fresh Corn, Zucchini, Onion & Basil Frittata or Spaghetti with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes & Spicy Garlic Oil for supper, why not? But I’m not actually suggesting that every meal be just about the vegetables. I love the idea of making a veggie “main dish” and having a little meat on the side. By learning different ways to incorporate veggies into main dishes, you can go either way—all veggies on Meatless Monday, and a little bit less meat (best for all of us and the planet) the rest of the week.
It may be a little bit of a shift to think of veggies at the center of the plate, but if you just think of adjusting portion sizes, you can wrap your head around a big serving of Mediterranean Zucchini, Tomato & Bell Pepper Tian with a little bit of grilled fish or steak on the side.
GG: What has surprised you most about developing vegetable-based main dish recipes?
SM: The possibilities for vegetable main dishes are endless once you start to think about it! I had to narrow the types of dishes for this book—so maybe I’ll write another! To keep veggie main dishes interesting and filling, it helps to lean towards including at least one vegetable with deeply satisfying flavor (the “umami” factor), like mushrooms, onions, eggplant, sweet potatoes; or to include a bit of grains or pasta. I even occasionally use a small amount of meat as a flavor booster. For instance, most of the soups in the book, including the delicious Fall Farmers’ Market Minestrone, are completely vegetarian. But for one soup, the Tuscan Kale and White Bean Soup, I added a little bit of pancetta to make a quick, flavorful weeknight broth.
GG: There's the Meatless Mondays movement, the national Buy Fresh, Buy Local campaign, and myriad other efforts to get people to eat more local, seasonal vegetables. Why do you think so many people still struggle with getting their five (or more) servings of vegetables per day?
SM: Partly I think that folks are a bit mystified about the best ways to cook vegetables (I hope I’m helping on that), and partly I think a lot of folks are busy and tend to eat out a lot or purchase prepared foods. Cooking veggies does, truthfully, take a bit of time. It’s time well spent—for your health, your pocket book and your taste buds. And I can’t say enough to encourage people to cook more at home. But again, it’s a habit that takes getting into. I find that kids really get excited if you give them the opportunity to taste and get involved in the cooking process, so if spending time with your kids is important, welcome them into the kitchen!
GG: Which of the recipes in the book would you recommend to someone new to cooking? Which would you recommend to someone trying to get dinner on the table quickly on a busy night?
SM: Since my recipes are so detailed, my hope is that anyone can follow them and get great results. I’m sort of a natural teacher, so the idea behind my books is that if you read closely and start cooking, you’ll really start to become a good cook. I’m not a shortcut cook, so nothing is going to come together in 15 minutes. That said, I think frittatas—sort of Italian omelettes—are straightforward, tasty, and real “a-ha!” dishes for new cooks. Something like the Broccoli & Cheddar Frittata with Red Potatoes and Scallions is a hit. The Greek Spinach-Salad Pasta couldn’t be easier—just chop and mix—and is a great way to introduce new cooks to bold flavors that zip up pasta. Sizzling Veggie Fried Rice with Grampa Egg is a totally fun dish, too.
GG: When you've had an extremely busy and/or difficult day, what's your go-to comfort dinner and why?
SM: I will basically turn anything into a salad and I am a total potato freak. So we will often have some combination of roasted vegetables on greens with a simple vinaigrette. (The Warm Winter Salad of Roasted Root “Fries” is one of my favorite in the book.) We love smashed potatoes, too!
GG: I know you had a much longer list of recipe ideas than you were able to fit in the cookbook. How did you decide what made the cut?
SM: I used two factors to narrow the chapters—Is there a useful technique or concept here that can be customized? and Is it fun to make? The fun factor is huge for me. I just love to cook and hope to spread that enthusiasm. And two of the most exciting things I’ve learned to make over the years are grilled pizza and rustic savory tarts. I included those two chapters for the more adventurous cook and because both of those things are hands-on fun.
GG: Toward the end of the book, you focus on some basic cooking techniques that you think should be in every cook's repertoire. Why did you pick those particular techniques, and why are they so critical?
SM: I think good quality accompaniments are important for making a delicious meal, so I felt like some information and recipes on building a really good green salad, making perfect rice, and grilling bread would be helpful to round out the veggie main dishes in the book.
GG: How did you juggle writing the book and keeping up your blog?
SM: I enjoy writing my blog so much that it is not hard to sit down and write it every week. Even though I left my magazine career and fast-paced life behind five years ago to move to Martha’s Vineyard, I’ve found myself pursuing things I love in my new life with just as much energy. We have a market garden, a farm stand, and 60 chickens—plus I have just signed a contract to write my third book—so I am pretty much busy all the time, and am constantly adjusting my priorities. I know how to say “no” now (well, most of the time!), so that helps. Growing vegetables is a huge love for me and informs my cooking in a lovely way. I also love taking photos for the blog, so that stimulates me, too. Plus, I often start writing my blog in my head as I’m doing something else!
GG: Is there anything I didn't ask that you'd like BlogHer's readers to know?
SM: My family includes my partner Roy and his 9-year-old daughter Libby, who spends weekends with us and loves the farm and all the animals. We have a dog named Farmer and a bunny named Cocoa! It’s a good life!