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Talking “Root to Leaf” with Miller Union’s Steven Satterfield

bio-steven-siteSteven Satterfield is the 2015 James Beard Foundation-nominated executive chef  and co-owner of the award-winning  Miller Union in the Atlanta’s Westside. He’s also a fixture in the good food movement—he’s a board member of Slow Food Atlanta and longtime supporter of Georgia Organics and many other great organizations.

He creates simple dishes that are seasonal, sustainable, and Southern-inspired. Satterfield is inspired by fresh, local products and focused on discovering rustic and modern cooking techniques that use every part of his ingredients.

His new cookbook, Root to Leaf: A Southern Chef Cooks Through the Seasons, is his first, and it’s a celebration of vegetables. The cookbook is divided into seasons, and Satterfield teaches the basics about southern crops and how to prepare them through 175 creative and simple recipes that use the entire full plant as much as possible. Root to Leaf includes fantastic pictures by John Kernick that almost allow readers to feel the texture and flavor of the featured vegetables. Satterfield spoke to us about his inspirations, his cooking philosophy, and his recipe for a Radish Sandwich with Butter and Salt.

How did your interest in developing recipes that use the entire plant spark?  This is an extension of the work we were already doing at Miller Union.  Because we are buying fresh produce from local farms, at first I was seeing things like chard stems and radish tops in the compost bin and after a couple of discussions with my sous chefs, we started incorporating things like this into menu items.  Not only is it more efficient and less wasteful, but it’s also much more economical.  And when you think about paying for items by the bunch or by the pound, then you discard 50 percent of it, that feels really wasteful.  As the discussions continued, we evolved, utilizing corn cobs, mushroom stems, you name it.  If we can save it from the compost bin and make it into something delicious, that’s less greenhouse gases and more happy customers.  The term “root to leaf,” or using every part of the edible plant, is a riff on “nose to tail” cooking, which has been a popular way to describe using every part of an animal with little to no waste.

Is there an ingredient or a dish that you’d like to try but hadn’t had a chance yet?  There are always things that I want to try making, or ingredients I haven’t discovered yet.  That’s part of the excitement of being a chef.  You never stop learning.  I’ve worked on a couple of fun recipes lately, including a french toast recipe where the bread is dipped into fresh cold pressed kale juice instead of milk and butter, or using leftover salt from preserving lemons to pickle green tomatoes.  My brain never stops.  I’m always trying to come up with something new.

What has been the latest unknown ingredient that you have been introduced to? How did you cook it?   Sorghum seed, or whole grain sorghum, has been our latest discovery.  I have known of sorghum syrup for years but had no idea that the grain was edible.  We simmer it in water or mushroom stock and then serve it with grilled quail and a sorghum gastrique.

Do you have any “ritual of discovery” to find out how to cook ingredients that you were not familiar with? I think the best way to discover new things is to read cookbooks or gardening books, food articles, or just talk to farmers or chefs.  Exchange of ideas is the most infectious and fun way to learn.

What’s one of your favorite meals of all times? I have a hard time picking favorites.  I love so many types of food and had the privilege of having many great meals.  One of my favorite meals in the past year was a little taverna on the Greek island of Santorini, where we dined on fried sardines, grilled eggplant, braised octopus, cucumber and tomato salad, and a crisp Assyrtiko wine.  The scenery definitely made it even more special.

Your book has fantastic pictures from John Kernick. How did you work together to capture the essence and identity of the featured crop and recipe? I love John’s work, he’s such a natural.  We met on a Food & Wine magazine shoot several years ago and totally hit it off.  It was my first magazine shoot ever so I was terrified and he made me feel at ease.  In fact, he said, “If you ever do a cookbook you should call me!” So I did. I like John’s philosophy about shooting food.  It is totally in line with how I approach making food.  Everything is natural. He only uses available light, meaning natural sunlight, but always diffused.  Wherever we were we had to find the north-facing spot so that the light cascaded over the plate evenly.  From there I simply made the food that I make and he makes it look amazing.  There were no tricks or fake ingredients, it was all real food that you could eat, and we did!

Why did you feature the radish on your book cover? I thought that the radish was the perfect symbol for the term “root to leaf,” especially in the sense that most folks in America don’t eat radish tops.  When they are fresh they can be quite delicious but they definitely need to be dressed or cooked.  On their own they are not so great.  This idea alone is a great reason to dig deeper into the idea of utilizing all edible parts of the plant.Root to Leaf

Your Radish Sandwich with Butter and Salt recipe looks delicious, and incredibly simple. And it’s so beautiful visually. Why do radishes and butter go so nicely together? Radishes are innately spicy but something magical happens when they are combined with salt and fat.  The resulting flavor combination shows off the sweet and crunchy side of the root, mellowing its bite with butterfat and salinity.  This is not a new idea, the French figured it out a long time ago, but I think it is one of the most genius combinations on earth.

Is there a specific reason why you cut the radishes on different ways (some on the length and some on the width)? Dense winter radishes are not so great eating out of hand like an apple or even in thick wedges.  They are a little more starchy and tend to have even more of a strong bite.  When sliced thinly, however, this cross-sectional cut allows us to experience that bitterness without overwhelming the palate and the texture of a thin slice has the perfect crunch without being too starchy or hard.  Garden radishes, the smaller more delicate ones, have a higher water content and a softer flesh which makes them better for eating whole or cutting into wedges.

What is the most important step when doing this recipe? Making a sandwich is an art.  It’s important to spread the butter evenly across the bread, and layer enough radishes on there to contrast the fat.  The butter is like the mayo and the radish is like the meat.  Coarse sea salt is really key in this recipe as well.

Radish Sandwich with Butter and Saltradish

  • 6 to 8 small sandwiches or 20 to 24 hors d’oeuvres
  • 1 standard-size baguette
  • 12 tablespoons (11⁄2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2 teaspoons flaky sea salt
  • 2 bunches radishes, trimmed, washed, and thinly sliced
  • 1 small handful arugula
  • Pinch fresh garden herbs such as chives or tarragon

Slice the baguette lengthwise and crosswise, creating 4 quarters. Place the bread on a cutting board cut sides up. Spread each quarter with softened butter, and sprinkle with salt. Pile sliced radishes onto each quarter, pressing them firmly into the butter. Lay the arugula and herbs across the bottom quarters, and top with the corresponding tops. Press down on the halves firmly with your palms. Place the sandwiches on a cutting board and cut into small sandwiches or hors d’oeuvres.

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