“I’m going to eat up my vegetables.
I can’t get enough of vegetables.
I love you most of all,
My favorite vegetables.”
— The Beach Boys, Smiley Smile
I remember being sixteen years old, in the corner of a bedroom in our house in London, big puffy headphones on my ears. The rest of the house was quiet, the world far away. I was listening to the hiss and crack of music on vinyl, the record quietly moving forward and spinning songs into my head.
I had found a pile of Beach Boys albums in this bedroom, in the strange house we called home for a year. My father, the English teacher, had won a Fulbright exchange to the United Kingdom, a prestigious gig that made us all proud. But it also meant we uprooted our lives and switched places with a family in south London. At times, I felt lonely, bereft of anyone my age. Music always brought me back to centered.
Now keep in mind, I was a Beatles girl. Their music had woven itself throughout every year of my life. But at 16, just before we left for London, I had lost my mind and heart to them. I remember spending the entire summer of Rubber Soul, the headphones pressed to my ears as I tried to memorize the harmonies. When we left for London, I left nothing to chance in packing. We couldn’t bring much, but I brought all my Beatles albums. I played those discs so many times that I wore them down. (That’s what happened to my father’s first edition Sgt. Pepper’s record, which he purchased on the first day it had been for sale. But was it my fault that he let me play it on my Fisher Price record player when I was seven, and danced to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds so often that I scratched it beyond repair?)
The Beach Boys were always a pale comparison to me. But I grew up in Southern California, and in cold and clammy London, “Surfin’ USA” felt like home. I missed it, all that I knew before, even the parts I had never liked. So I listened to surf music, in a row house in Streatham, in 1982. “Sloop John B” condensed all my melancholy into three minutes, and I listened to it five hundred times.
And then I found Smiley Smile. Oh lord, that album was weird. Songs meandered into endings that faded out of earshot. Warped melodies wavered between notes. And the lyrics made no real sense. What had happened to those clean-cut boys gone surfing? I almost put it away after listening to the first side. My virgin ears just couldn’t comprehend anything beyond the three-minute pop song.
But something stuck — some stubborn curiosity — and I just kept listening. This was headphones music, the kind that makes you close your eyes, and press your back up against the side of the bed as you sit on the floor and try to drink it all in. Every note was there for a reason. I didn’t understand. But I tasted something strange, a little note that could lead to something more. I kept listening.
And then I heard the vegetables song. A little jaunty chant, a Moog synthesizer behind it, the singer bopping along seriously to a song about vegetables. I laughed out loud. I didn’t know that songs could be so damned sarcastic and beaming with satisfaction at the same time.
I started the record again.
Music was never the same for me. Hell with the tidy pop song. (The Beatles had already paved the way for me, of course, but I thought they were the only ones.) Give me meandering, ridiculous, and far-more-interesting-than-top-10 music. I wanted more.
* * *
I didn’t know it would transpire then, but that’s exactly what happened to me with food. It took me longer to expand my tastes, to still keep chewing in spite of that initial “weird” feeling, than it ever did with music. But now, without a doubt, I am hooked.
Vegetables — as the Beach Boys sang? I love you most of all. After a childhood of canned peas and iceberg lettuce (that’s how most of us ate at the time, after all), I have broken out into the world of real vegetables, the produce equivalent of “Smiley Smile.”
Behold, above, the lowly celery root. (Did you know that’s what the photograph at the top shows you?) I’ll be honest. I didn’t even know that celery root (or celeriac), as it’s also known) even existed before I met the Chef. He reached for this strange root one day at the farmers’ market, and I nearly shouted, “What the heck is that?”
Look at it. That’s no one’s idea of pretty. It’s bumpy and lumpy, like a kid with bad acne. The bottom has long, protruding threads, like the stubborn hairs on an old man’s chin. It’s knobbly and humble, no one’s idea of gourmet food.
But peel it and boil it, mix it with spuds to make a potato-celeriac mash? Heaven. Roast it up with other winter root vegetables and serve them with a jalapeno aioli? Yes, please. I’m still exploring all the corners of my mouth with my tongue.
Some vegetables are easy to love. Carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers in season? These are no-brainers. Summer vegetables are like those young women who wear shirts with nothing left to the imagination and their pants hanging too low. It’s easy to see what those have to offer.
But winter vegetables, all the knobbly roots? They’re like the smart girl in school, the one with her own sense of style: thrift-store button-down shirts; old slacks; wacky suspenders; a bowler hat. You think she’s too weird for your time. But when she starts talking, and you find out she’s a smart ass, and she doesn’t give a damn if you even like her? Suddenly, she’s far more attractive than that other one.
Summer vegetables are like modern movies. Winter vegetables are witty-banter movies from the 1930s, where dialogue and long looks smoldered. The kiss in that final scene was far sexier than too much skin, any day.
(I don’t where this came from. I’m just going to leave it.)
* * *
Next weekend, the Chef and I are having another ingredient potluck party with our friends. November was potatoes. December was citrus. (That was, perhaps, the only time in my life when I thought, “Okay, no more lemons today.”) This month is knobbly winter root vegetables.
Rutabagas, turnips, parsnips, celery root, and sunchokes. Potatoes will do. Ginger is technically true. I know there are others. We don’t know what we’re making yet. We can’t wait to see the table laden with dishes made from the misbegotten vegetables.
What would you bring, if you were coming? Parsnips roasted with smoked paprika and honey? A sunchokes mash with garlic and mustard? Ginger juice sprinkled on top of fried turnips?
If only we had the room for you all.
* * *
But here’s my suggestion for you. This week, just once, try a winter vegetable you have never eaten before. Who knows what one bite of a rutabaga could start for you? Twenty-five years later, you could still be humming that note in your mind.
Brussels sprouts, kale, and bacon
On Christmas Eve, the Chef stood in my parents’ kitchen and made us all a memorable meal. Juicy pork roast with a sour cream and horseradish sauce. Potatoes roasted in duck fat. We could hardly wait for him to come to the table.
So how could we have predicted that our favorite bites of the night — for all of us — would be this dish he made from lowly Brussels sprouts and kale?
Of course, bacon helped. We brought some particularly fatty, tender shoulder bacon from Wooly Pigs, for the day. But really, your favorite bacon with the taste of porky goodness would work here.
I hated Brussels sprouts when I was a kid. I had never heard of kale. Who could have told me that I would crave them both now?
We have no way of knowing how we’ll change. We might as well be open to it.
3 strips bacon
1/2 medium yellow onion, small diced
1 teaspoon garlic, fine chopped
1/2 teaspoon fresh rosemary, chopped
12 Brussels sprouts, outer leaves removed and cut in half
1 bunch lacinato kale
1 teaspoon each kosher salt and cracked black pepper
freshly grated Parmesan
Cooking the bacon. Put the bacon strips in a large skillet. Cook it until the fat has rendered and the bacon has reached the crispiness you desire. Take the bacon out of the pan and leave the fat.
Sautéing the vegetables. Add the onion and garlic to the pan and cook on low heat until translucent. Throw in the rosemary. Toss in the Brussels sprouts halves and sauté for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the kale. Toss and cook the entire batch until the kale has wilted.
Finishing the dish. Toss in the bacon pieces and stir. Season with salt and pepper and taste. Remove from heat. Top with the Parmesan. Serve.