It was a head of overripe purple cauliflower—the last from my friend Nicole’s winter garden—that began my obsession with colorful produce. The cauliflower was close to flowering, and probably a little bitter, but I was enamored. I had never seen purple cauliflower before or, at least, it had never captured my attention so completely. I began to consider vegetables differently—regarding them not in terms of what ingredients would make a meal but what colors inspired me. And once I began hunting for color, it popped up everywhere: the shocking fluorescent pink in the rib of a humble chard stem, the flecks of deep reds and purples in baby kale leaves, the pale shades of new green that emerged in the spring, and even the quiet yellows and whites in so many winter vegetables.
Thinking about produce in terms of color reinvigorated my relationship not only with food but also with photography. It brought me to a place of curiosity, an inquisitive examination of the natural world through its structure, its tones, and its hues. Formalizing this preoccupation with a new series on my blog, The Year in Food, was an easy next step. Called “Color Studies,” the purpose of the series was to celebrate color in produce. The project resonated with people. And it captured and held my attention and interest. Hiding out in the Color Studies were the beginnings of this book.
One of the greatest discoveries in working on this book was that flavor and texture are equally important in creating a dish one can rightfully call vibrant.
I love to improvise in the kitchen, driven by a desire to experiment, to think about ingredients creatively, to brainstorm. Vibrant Food is the result of that brainstorming: its purpose is to start with color, employing flavor and texture to build gorgeous, dynamic dishes. My hope is that it is equal parts inspiration and accessibility. Even if you can’t find nettles, fresh chickpeas, kumquats, quince, or some of the other less common ingredients I’ve grown so fond of, I hope that curiosity will get the better of you. Perhaps you’ll bring a striking vegetable home and mull over it, and then build a colorful dish around that vegetable. That is how I cook.
Which is to say, this book showcases how I like to eat. Some colorful ingredient will capture my fancy, and I’ll begin to think about it. I’ll think about its texture, what would taste good with it, whether it needs sweet or salt or acid, and I’ll build a recipe from there. We all have our preferences and quirks, and I don’t think that mine have ever been more abundantly clear than in the process of making this book. If I had my way, I would add olive oil, Greek yogurt, feta cheese, chipotle powder, paprika, arugula, kale, cardamom, or eggs to nearly everything that I eat. They are the ingredients that I return to again and again.
And speaking of food preferences, one thing should be noted: I stopped eating wheat in November 2011. I did so because of long-term, chronic digestive issues that were deeply interfering with my ability to function and enjoy life. I had known for a long time that I should cut wheat out of my diet, but it was no easy task. When I finally did so, my digestion began to function healthily again, and I have kept with a gluten-free diet ever since. Most of the dishes in this book that use pasta noodles or wheat flour have been tested both with and without wheat gluten. I have grown to love how dynamic nut and grain flours are, and how much flavor and texture they add to a dish. The choice is yours to make. If you’re partial to wheat noodles and wheat flour, carry on as you know. If you’re curious about eating gluten-free, this is an opportunity to experiment with brown rice noodles, oat flour, almond flour, and the like.
Seasonality and structure
I love eating produce at the peak of its season. It’s a very intuitive way of getting the best fruits and vegetables, and it’s also an intuitive way to organize this book. But what’s in season and when that season begins and ends is wildly variable depending on climate and location. So take it with a grain of salt. Some produce peaks late in its season, some produce straddles the end of one season and the beginning of another.
I have organized the produce in each section according to when it peaks in the season, from early to late.
Sometimes the joy of food can get lost in the nuances of nutrition. Over the past few years, a lot of information has come out on the nutritive value of phytonutrients in colorful vegetables and fruits. I care deeply about what I eat, but not to the point that I will choose one vegetable over another because one has more antioxidants. And so goes this book: if we intuitively let color guide our choices, we can trust that we’re eating well, and taking care of ourselves, and celebrating food for its dynamism, its vibrancy, its flavor, and its colors, as much as we are for its benefits to our health.
with Cacao Nibs
Rhubarb’s bracing, tart flavors come alive in this dessert. I love the crunch and savory chocolate notes that the cacao nibs provide, along with the cool tang of crème fraîche. It’s an intoxicating mix.
In a large pot, combine the rhubarb, honey, water, and lemon juice. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the pot, and toss the pod in as well. Stir gently
to combine. Bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook, covered, for 12 to 15 minutes, stirring halfway.
Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly. Discard the vanilla bean pod. Divide the compote among 4 bowls. Serve warm or at room temperature with
a dollop of crème fraîche and a generous sprinkling of cacao nibs.