Cathy Thomas, award-winning food columnist for the Orange County Register and blogger at Cathy Thomas Cooks, can easily hobnob with the most elite chefs. But she’s also a teacher of home cooks, making professional-level dishes approachable, as well as creating and relating preparations of her own.
Thomas’ mother was an acolyte of Adele Davis, the 1950s healthy-cooking advocate whose work seems positively prescient viewed through today’s raised vegetable consciousness. Thomas’ family table was undoubtedly the only one in the San Fernando Valley with two fresh vegetables and a big salad appearing at dinner, alongside the protein and starch. (Her mom’s salad dressing is a favorite—Harriett's Blue-Cheese Vinaigrette.) So it seems natural for Thomas to have continued her partnership with fine-produce purveyor Melissa’s for her latest book, “50 Best Plants on the Planet: The Most Nutrient-Dense Fruits and Vegetables” (Chronicle Books, $30), out in paperback next month. A beautifully bound hardback edition is out now, available at Bristol Farms, Mother’s Markets, and direct from Melissa’s, for $35.
The earlier books in what’s now a trilogy are “Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce” (Wiley, 2010), and the encyclopedic “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce” (Wiley, 2006). All are veg-centric, but the new “50 Best Plants” focuses specifically on which plant foods deliver the most bang for your calorie buck. Of course, nutrient density is undeniably important, and it’s interesting to learn how to naturally maximize vitamin and mineral intake. But the trick is incorporating these into your regular diet. Cooking for your family or guests demands a multi-pronged approach.
Which is exactly where a vegetable-respecting cook like Thomas comes in. The information she imparts is vital—you can’t cook well without knowing how to properly prepare a variety of vegetables. The recipes in “50 Best Plants” may have been created with an eye toward nutrition, but they’re a pleasure to cook and eat. I love her pan-searing method for Brussels sprouts—this is a vegetable I cook a lot, but never like this. The recipe, with its somewhat counterintuitive secret, follows.
“It's my favorite,” Cathy says of her way with sprouts. “I think I love the contrast of the browned cut edge and the still-green rounded edge—some sweet caramelization mixed with the vibrant vegetal attitude.” But, that aforementioned secret: “The trick is to not use high heat, right?” she says. “Medium, baby, medium. And, yes butter and olive oil come to the party, too.” Not to mention, dried cherries and chopped pistachios—which I can easily imagine switching up with other fruits and nuts, depending on the rest of your menu.
Pan-Caramelized Brussels Sprouts with Pistachios and Dried Cherries
Sweet dried cherries and crunchy pistachios add a just-right spark to seared-and-steamed Brussels sprouts. If you buy roasted and salted pistachios, be cautious about adding salt to the recipe. If you wish to make this dish vegan, leave out the butter and double the amount of olive oil. —Cathy Thomas
(Makes 4 to 6 side-dish servings)
1/3 cup warm water
1/4 cup coarsely chopped dried cherries
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
22 to 26 small, tightly closed Brussels sprouts, halved top to bottom
1/2 tablespoon butter and 1/2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Coarse salt to taste
1/4 cup coarsely chopped pistachios, roasted preferred
In small bowl, combine warm water and cherries. Set aside. Place Brussels sprouts in bowl; drizzle with 2 teaspoons olive oil and gently toss to lightly coat.
Heat 1/2 tablespoon butter and 1/2 tablespoon oil in large skillet on medium heat. When butter melts, shake handle of skillet to swirl butter with oil. Place Brussels sprouts cut-side down in single layer (pan shouldn’t be sizzling hot, or exteriors will over-brown before interiors are cooked.) Sprinkle with salt, and cover; cook until bottoms of sprouts are starting to nicely brown and interiors are tender-crisp, about 5 minutes.
Remove cover. Add water and cherries; increase heat to high. Cook until water evaporates and Brussels sprouts are nicely caramelized. Transfer to platter. Scatter pistachios on top and serve.