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Jessica Yellin is a CNN national political correspondent based in Washington, D.C.
Jennifer Rubell might be the world’s first vegetable butcher.
She slices and dices vegetables, shares cooking tips and generally promotes vegetable consumption at Eataly, celebrity Chef Mario Batali's new Italian food emporium in New York City. Catch her during the noon bustle and you’ll hear her extol the virtues of celery root, watermelon radish, or baby beets and as she chops to customers specifications advising them, "Toss with olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper. Fantastic!"
"In the vegetable butcher area, we try not to give people recipes; we try to give people an approach to cooking," says Rubell.
Rubell is all about finding new approach to food. A Harvard graduate who studied art history and went on to train at the Culinary Institute of America, she is now a performance artist. "Food, for whatever reason, is the medium I think in,” she explains.
She’s determined to make us all to re-examine our relationship to food and asks, “How can we look at food in a more aware, awake way? How can we think about food in a way that is more mindful? How can we get our children into food?”
She hatched the vegetable butcher idea over wine late one night with celebrity chef Mario Batali, who was just opening the new gourmet mega-market Eataly. They wanted to encourage people to make more fresh vegetables and move beyond the familiar. Rubell advises, "Don’t always buy the zucchinis."
They realized doing the chopping for the customers is one way to give veggies a nudge. “The idea is to remove any obstacle from people cooking at home. We’ll trim your beans..we’ll clean your mushrooms,” says Batali.
“The whole stand is more or less to give you the information to disarm the vegetable to make it easier to cook. Like anything can be sautéed or even for that matter eaten raw. You can take almost any of the vegetables in this whole area and shave them thin enough and dress them with a little extra virgin olive oil and they’re so good.”
Rubell is his vegetable missionary. She is no vegetarian – “I eat meat, I eat everything” she exclaims but believes, “Vegetables are by far the most interesting thing in the food world.” When asked why so many Americans hate them she gets excited. “I’d hate vegetables too if I ate frozen vegetables! I’d hate vegetables if I ate vegetables that are out of season! I think to fall in love with vegetables you need to eat seasonal vegetables and you need to eat them prepared very simply and they need to be homemade.”
True confession: Jennifer and I went to college together and she’s been working on my cooking skills ever since. On the day we visited she showed me how to peel a baby artichoke - cut off the tip and the end of the stem, peel back all the dark exterior leaves till you’re left with a soft green interior, and then with a paring knife carefully trim away the hard skin on the stem. Then she laughed, “I would say for the vegetable butcher, artichokes are the crowning glory because they are really intimidating to people.”
She also showed me how to slice celery root - chop into big pieces then slice those thin with a gizmo called a mandoline or with a kitchen knife. She helped me make a celery root salad - toss the raw slices with lemon, salt and olive oil - and customers swarmed the counter to eat free samples.
She suggests that salad could be part of a quick evening meal. “Make this little salad, then you could even buy a rotisserie chicken bake a couple of potatoes – in the microwave if you want – and you have a whole meal that takes five minutes instead of getting something take out.”
The advantage of cooking yourself, she says, is, “You know how much salt you are putting in you know how much oil you are putting in” and “you know that your kids are getting the best food inside their bodies.”
Rubell feels like she’s hit on something with this vegetable butcher idea. “As an artist you have to take a look at the big issues of the day and the biggest issue today is jobs and people not having jobs.”
“I have a fantasy that people will go into their supermarkets all over America and say let me be a vegetable butcher for a week and see if you sell more vegetables. See if your customers are happier and then it could be a new profession in America.”
Call it vegetable stimulus.
Whether or not the butcher idea catches on, she’s convinced the vegetable’s moment has arrived. “When Michelle Obama planted a vegetable garden at the White House that was the official beginning of the vegetable moment. We need to get fresh food and a kind of consciousness about food into the way we live today.”
Some tips from Rubell
Which vegetables should you buy?
How do you cut a vegetable?
How do you interest your kids in eating vegetables?
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