When Monteverde Restaurant & Pastificio chef and owner Sarah Grueneberg received the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Great Lakes in 2017, 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 next would be a cookbook.”
After years of work, the Top Chef finalist is releasing Listen to Your Vegetables: Italian-Inspired Recipes for Every Season on Oct. 25. Each of its fifteen chapters is focused on a different fruit or vegetable, with another chapter devoted to pasta.
“When I cook at home, I like to open up the fridge and see what produce I have in the fridge first,” she says. “I'm a chef that likes to cook at home versus just cooking in the restaurants, so I've been known to go home after working all day and cook pasta or something like that at midnight. It was important for me to write a book that home cooks could use, and hopefully it will inspire their cooking a little bit.”
The name of the book came from Grueneberg’s preferred method of shopping.
“I usually walk into the grocery store without a plan and just see what's there,” she says. “I really do believe that the vegetables kind of talk to me. It sounds weird, but sometimes I've been known to just grab beets or turnips and that first trip through the produce section will help guide me. Do I get meat? Do I get seafood? Do I get cheese? Do I get pasta or beans? That's the first step of the creative piece.”
A key part of listening to your vegetables means embracing seasonality.
“There's some vegetables that aren't going to be as good in the winter time, so maybe wait for asparagus until spring,” Grueneberg says. “But you can find some pretty good cabbages, broccoli, fruit, vegetables, and squashes in the winter here in Chicago.”
Prioritizing quality ingredients is a key component of Italian cuisine, which Grueneberg studied in Italy during her time working at Chicago's Spiaggia, which was awarded a Michelin star for three years in a row during her tenure.
“I love the history of the cuisine, and I really love the stories behind the olive oils and balsamics and honeys,” she says. “I think [Italian chefs are] ingenious when it comes to making vegetarian food in a way that seems totally craveable, like an eggplant parmigiana. A great eggplant parm can satisfy as if you had a meat dish while being 100% vegetarian.”
Grueneberg opened her own Italian restaurant in 2016 in the West Loop, and Monteverde remains one of the most popular spots in Chicago, with reservations booking up as soon as they’re released.
“We're really lucky,” she says. “We have a great team of people and our management team is really 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 staffing to operate the popular wok station, which was used to make dishes like arrabiata and orecchiette. Monteverde isn’t offering food to-go while the patio is open because they wouldn’t be able to keep up with the volume of orders, but Grueneberg plans to bring the option back for the winter.
“Pre-COVID, to-go was a pretty small number—only just a few items a night,” Grueneberg says. “But post-COVID, when we were doing it back in the spring, we would have fifteen to twenty orders a night, which is like twenty more tables.”
Grueneberg had been working towards opening two new restaurants before the pandemic and is just starting to return to that ambition. She’d like to open an entirely new concept first and then possibly add a second Monteverde location.
“We're throwing everything around right now,” she says. “It's hard to turn our creative brains off.”
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, which incorporates tomato-braised pork osso bucco and soppressata meatballs, but the offerings shift with seasonal produce. Fall brings potato-filled žlikrofi, a traditional Slovenian dumpling, and dishes featuring winter squash. Sometimes the menu also changes due to kitchen mishaps.
“That happens a lot, even though it's frustrating,” Grueneberg says. “One of our most popular specials that we run is a meatball ravioli, and that only happens when our meatballs get too soft and we have to make them into something delicious.”
The recipe for the roasted baby artichokes featured in Listen to Your Vegetables also came about by mistake. Grueneberg was reheating artichokes and forgot them in the oven, but found that after 45 minutes they had shrunk and become crispy and crunchy, producing the flavor of fried artichoke chips without requiring a mandoline.
“When you burn something or toast it 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.
Roasted Baby Artichokes
Juice of 1 lemon
8 to 10 baby artichokes
2 tbsp everyday olive oil
Coarse sea salt (like Maldon) or kosher salt
1/4 cup everyday olive oil
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced or chopped
1/4 cup chopped mixed fresh herbs (like mint, oregano, and parsley)
2 pinches of chile flake
2 pinches of coarse sea salt (like Maldon)
Finely grated zest (use a Microplane) and juice of half a lemon
1. Make the artichokes. In a medium bowl, combine 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 pointy thorns. Using a serrated knife, trim 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 off the bottom of the stem. Using a vegetable peeler (I recommend a Y-peeler), peel the stem until you reach the tender parts of the pale green stem. (Some of the stems are very stringy, though this varies from artichoke to artichoke. If the stem looks too stringy, it might be best to remove it.) Quarter the cleaned artichokes lengthwise through the stem and place in the lemon water. You can refrigerate the cleaned raw artichokes in the lemon water overnight if wanted. I recommend placing a small plate on top to keep them submerged in the water.
2. When you are ready to roast the artichokes, preheat the oven to 450°F. Drain the artichokes and pat dry, then 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 of the marinade ingredients in a medium bowl.
4. Turn the broiler to high and place the artichokes 4 inches from the heat source. Broil for three to 4 minutes, until the edges of the artichokes begin to turn anywhere from golden to a dark brown char. Remove from the oven. While they are still warm, toss the roasted artichokes with the herb marinade. Season with a few pinches of sea salt to taste. Serve warm, chilled, or at room temperature. These can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to a week.