When Monteverde Restaurant & Pastificio Chef and owner Sarah Grueneberg received the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Great Lakes in 2017, and people immediately started asking her what she wanted to do next.
“It was like, ‘Can’t we just live in this moment?’ she says, “But I thought maybe the next one would be a cookbook.”
After years of hard work, the top chef finalist is released Listen to your vegetables: Italian-inspired recipes for every season on October 25. Each of the fifteen chapters focuses on a different vegetable or fruit, with a different chapter devoted to pasta.
“When I cook at home, I like to open the fridge and see what products I have in the fridge first,” she says. “I’m a chef who likes to cook at home rather than just cooking in the restaurants, so I’ve been known to go home after a full day of work to cook pasta or something like that at midnight. It was important to me to write a book that home cooks can use, and hopefully it will inspire their cooking a little bit.”
The name of the book came from Grueneberg’s favorite way of shopping.
“I usually walk into the grocery store without a plan and just see what’s there,” she says. “I do believe the vegetables are talking to me a bit. It sounds weird, but sometimes I’m known for just grabbing beets or turnips and that first trip through the produce section will help me out. Do I get meat? Will I get seafood? Do I get cheese? Will I get pasta or beans? That is the first step of the creative piece.”
An important part of listening to your vegetables is embracing seasonality.
“Some vegetables won’t taste as good in the winter, so maybe wait until spring for asparagus,” Grueneberg says. “But you can find pretty good cabbages, broccoli, fruits, vegetables, and pumpkins here in Chicago in the winter.”
Prioritizing quality ingredients is an important part of Italian cooking, which Grueneberg studied in Italy during her time at Spiaggia in Chicago, which received a Michelin star three years in a row during her tenure.
“I love the history of the cuisine and I really like the stories behind the olive oil, balsamic, and honey,” she says. “I think [Italian chefs are] ingenious when it comes to making vegetarian food in a way that totally craves, like an aubergine parmigiana. A great eggplant parmesan can satisfy you as if you were having a meat dish while being 100% vegetarian.
Grueneberg opened her own Italian restaurant in the West Loop in 2016, and Monteverde remains one of the most popular spots in Chicago, with reservations being booked as soon as they are released.
“We’re really lucky,” she says. “We have a great team of people and our management team is very strong and many have been with us since pre-COVID. We’re just trying to rebuild.”
While the restaurant has largely resumed normal operations, they still don’t have the staff to operate the popular wok station, which was used to make dishes like arrabiata and orecchiette. Monteverde doesn’t offer take away food while the patio is open because they can’t keep up with the amount of orders, but Grueneberg plans to bring the option back for the winter.
“Pre-COVID, to-go was a pretty small number — just a few items per night,” Grueneberg says. “But after the corona crisis, when we did it in the spring, we would have 15 to 20 orders a night, which equates to an extra 20 tables.”
Grueneberg had been working on opening two new restaurants before the pandemic and is just beginning to return to that ambition. She first wants to open a completely new concept and then possibly add a second branch in Monteverde.
“We’re mixing everything up now,” she says. “It’s hard to turn off our creative brains.”
The menu at Monteverde changes daily, following a monthly theme based on different regions of Italy, with Umbria in the spotlight for October. Diners can always find signature dishes like cacio whey pepe, made with ricotta whey, and ragu alla napoletana, with tomato-braised osso bucco and soppressata meatballs, but the offerings shift with seasonal produce. Autumn brings potato-filled žlikrofi, a traditional Slovenian dumpling, and winter squash dishes. Sometimes the menu also changes due to kitchen accidents.
“That happens a lot, even if it’s frustrating,” Grueneberg says. “One of our most popular specials we serve is a meatball ravioli, and that only happens when our meatballs get too soft and we need to make something tasty out of them.”
The recipe for the roasted baby artichokes in Listen to your vegetables also came about by accident. Grueneberg was reheating artichokes and forgot to put them in the oven, only to find that after 45 minutes they had shrunk and had become crispy and crunchy, giving the taste of fried artichoke chips without the need for a mandolin.
“If you burn something or roast a little further than desired, those mistakes and curveballs can make different dishes,” she says.
Try her roasted baby artichoke recipe from Listen to your vegetables below.
juice of 1 lemon
8 to 10 baby artichokes
2 tbsp olive oil for every day
Coarse sea salt (such as Maldon) or kosher salt
1/4 cup of olive oil for every day
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced or chopped
1/4 cup chopped mixed fresh herbs (such as mint, oregano, and parsley)
2 pinches of chili flakes
2 pinches coarse sea salt (such as Maldon)
Finely grated zest (use a Microplane) and juice of half a lemon
1. Make the artichokes. In a medium bowl, mix the juice of 1 lemon with 4 cups of cold water. To clean the baby artichokes, I recommend wearing gloves as they tend to stain your hands and have a few pointed thorns. With a serrated knife, cut 1 inch off the top of each artichoke. Peel away two or three layers of the outer leaves until you reach the pale green-yellow leaves. Trim 1/4 to 1/2 inch from the bottom of the stem. Using a vegetable peeler (I recommend a Y peeler), peel the stem until you reach the soft parts of the light green stem. (Some stems are very fibrous, but this varies from artichoke to artichoke. If the stem seems too stringy, it is best to remove it.) Cut the cleaned artichokes lengthwise through the stem and place in the lemon water. You can keep the cleaned raw artichokes overnight in the lemon water if desired. I recommend putting a sign on top of them to keep them underwater.
2. When ready to roast the artichokes, preheat the oven to 450°F. Drain the artichokes, pat them dry and toss with the olive oil and a few generous pinches of coarse salt. Arrange them in an even layer on a foil-lined baking sheet. Roast for 15 to 20 minutes, until tender; Feel free to taste one or pierce it with a paring knife.
3. Meanwhile, make the herb marinade. Combine all marinade ingredients in a medium bowl.
4. Turn the grill to high and place the artichokes 10 cm from the heat source. Roast for three to four minutes, until the edges of the artichokes begin to turn from golden brown to dark brown. Remove from the oven. While they are still warm, toss the roasted artichokes through the herb marinade. Season with a few pinches of sea salt. Serve warm, chilled or at room temperature. You can store them in the fridge in an airtight container for up to a week.