Welcome to Health Goth, our column dedicated to cooking vegetables in ways that even our most cheeseburger-loving, juice-bar-loathing readers would approve of. Not everyone realizes this, but vegetables actually do taste good. We invite chefs to prove this assertion—and they do, time and time again.
Chef Ashleigh Shanti is ready to get outside. There's a whole world of things to pick, forage, and ferment, and she hasn't had enough opportunities for it recently. As she sets up in the MUNCHIES Test Kitchen, she tells us that she's been an outdoor explorer since childhood. "I was coming home smelling like onions all my life," she says with a laugh. Armed with a bag of goodies, she'll use some of those finds when she cooks with us today.
In North Carolina, she hopes to soon climb for spruce tips and root around for edible flowers. But even in New York's concrete expanse, Shanti—chef de cuisine at Benne on Eagle in Asheville—has found some time to dig into that Appalachian spirit. Before stopping by, she did a little hotel room fermentation, sprouting black-eyed peas in a big Ziploc bag.
Those sprouted peas are for a raw collard green salad, which will be tossed with sherry vinegar- and molasses-soaked peaches and fried plantains. Shanti isn't vegan—the oxtail is one of her favorites on the menu at Benne on Eagle, she says, and on her days off, she goes all out with a big project of tonkatsu. Yet, she adds, "This is a dish I would go vegan for." It's also proof that collards don't always need a long cooking time.
The salad is more prepping than it is cooking, which means we get plenty of time to chat with Shanti as she chops. She de-ribs the greens, then juliennes them into skinny ribbons. Before Benne on Eagle, she worked for the award-winning North Carolina chef and former television host Vivian Howard, but between jobs, she spent six months traveling: Maine, upstate New York, Charleston, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Copenhagen. She's since settled into the "really amazing" food scene of Asheville, she says, where the produce is exciting and abundant, and there's a community of local foragers.
She cuts peaches, which she'll marinate in molasses, sherry vinegar, lime, dijon, and sumac. "It's got a natural citric acid," Shanti says of the latter. "That's something I really enjoy foraging. It's a seed, so you basically have to hull it, and the outside is what sumac [as a spice] is." Any stone fruit works, but peaches happen to be her favorite. She shaves fennel into thin sheets on a mandoline and bathes them in the mixture too. It should sit, but not much longer than a few hours, since the acid would break down the peaches too much.
Shanti slices plantains into rounds and drops them gently into a cast iron pan of hot oil. She fries them quickly, then swoops them onto a baking sheet to be smashed lightly with a spoon or the side of a knife. Once they're slightly flattened, she fries the plantains again for crispy, craggly bits around a soft, sweet interior. When the plantains are brown and crisp, Shanti spoons them onto a paper towel-lined plate.
With all the elements prepped, Shanti unloads the sprouted beans. "I love funk and it adds that funky element," she says. Eaten on their own, the sprouted beans taste a little greener and a little more interesting than your average legume. "Fermenting and sprouting, all that stuff is something I do frequently. I think I really started getting into it when I started making kombucha. From foraging wild ingredients, I think that’s just a natural progression."
Finally, in a big bowl, she pours the peach mixture onto the collards and throws in the sprouted beans and plantains. "I always think this salad is best when it soaks for a couple minutes at least. The vinaigrette soaks into the collards," she says as she tosses the greens. Shanti finishes it with crispy, deep-fried black-eyed peas, though corn nuts make an easy replacement.
We've had a lot of salads, and this one's a standout. It's crispy and tangy with a hint of pleasing bitterness. Don't worry about the sides; this filling salad is a meal all on its own.