Sarah Grueneberg, one of Chicago’s most successful chefs — a pasta expert who displays her prowess at Monteverde Restaurant & Pastificio in West Loop — makes her cookbook debut with Listen to Your Vegetables, a seasonal guide on how to shop, cook, and season produce of all stripes. Co-written with Kate Heddings, the book is emblematic of Grueneberg’s lifelong interest in what she describes as, “following the food.”
“It’s the idea of listening to your vegetables,” Grueneberg says with a laugh. “What are they trying to tell you? What do they want done with them?”
To celebrate the book’s release, Monteverde will host two nights of special dinners. Tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on Friday, November 18 for dinners on Monday, December 5, and Tuesday, December 6 via Resy.
Through her cooking, Grueneberg explores where her food is from, who raised or grew it, and the unique histories that are intimately intertwined with recipes. Each story illuminates some unique aspect of every ingredient in her cooking, both at Monteverde and in her book. This process begins at the grocery store or farmers market. Going to a market and paying close attention to what is in season, who grew it, and how those factors affect each ingredient’s quality are important steps in the cooking process dispute not taking place in the kitchen, and in Listen to Your Vegetables, Grueneberg shares her understanding of this holistic relationship to cooking with readers.
Writing a cookbook focused on seasonal-driven quality for a national audience is a bold undertaking, and that’s why Grueneberg chose to organize her cookbook into chapters based on the vegetables themselves rather than by season. Having grown up in Houston, traveling all over the world to hone her culinary skills, and finding immense success in Chicago, Grueneberg understands that perspectives on in-season produce quickly change depending on where readers are located.
“Strawberries are incredible in Texas in February and March, and you would never think that growing up and cooking here in Chicago,” Grueneberg said. “Growing up in Texas [my family] didn’t grow asparagus, but up here May hits, and the best asparagus is from Michigan and Wisconsin. If you go to the farmers market [during the fall] and you see pomegranates and all the apple varietals are so much more abundant than they were in July, maybe it’ll start to click.”
A self-proclaimed “pasta-holic,” Grueneberg was compelled to include an entire chapter on fresh pasta despite her debut cookbook’s focus on produce. In fact, Listen to Your Vegetables beautifully marries seasonal produce with pasta throughout the entire cookbook, including rigatoni in pea pesto and spinach tortellini with leeks, miso, and hazelnuts.
At Monteverde, guests are able to watch chefs make pasta by hand through a strategically placed, angled mirror above the workbench. This was Grueneberg’s station, where she put on a show when the restaurant debuted in 2016. In Listen to Your Vegetables, readers are again given an opportunity to learn through step-by-step photographs how pasta is made and the various techniques used to create unique pasta shapes.
“I really wanted to offer some visuals to help people along the way so they could have a little more confidence — especially when making pasta,” Grueneberg says. “Making pasta at home is an activity. It’s not, ‘Let’s whip up the pappardelle for dinner in 30 minutes.’ It is a planned hobby.”
In addition to Grueneberg’s hard-earned cooking expertise and pasta-making tips, Listen to Your Vegetables is also imbued with Grueneberg’s personality. While an attentive and often serious chef, Grueneberg describes herself as being silly and lighthearted. After all, revelers caught her behind the bar at Leña Brava in 2017 dancing with Rick Bayless the night she won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Great Lakes. In her debut cookbook, this duality manifests alongside photos by Stephen Hamilton with lively illustrations from Andrew Jesernig that detail highly characterized, personified vegetables.
In the cookbook’s second chapter, asparagus is depicted as a diva reclining on a chaise lounge with a note beside it declaring asparagus as the supermodel and movie star of the vegetable world and meant to take center stage. In later pages, olives are shown parachuting into a cold press to eagerly become exquisite olive oil. Grueneberg says she wanted to capture the distinct characteristics of each vegetable through its personification to hopefully help her readers understand that each one brings unique traits to each dish.
“The image of that vegetable is its voice,” Grueneberg says. “Maybe it was my way of showing people who don’t know my fun side as much how I geek out about food and obsess about it all the time and think about crazy things that normal people don’t think about.”
Grueneberg started to think of vegetables as distinct characters in her pantry after consistently traveling and working late at Monteverde. After buying tender greens like butter lettuce and watching it wilt in her fridge on several occasions, Grueneberg came to understand cabbage and other hardy greens as sturdy, reliable, and patient ingredients she could leave in wait.
Grueneberg tested every recipe in Listen to Your Vegetables in her home kitchen to assure they work for readers in their own homes, and she hopes her cookbook encourages people to be unafraid to let vegetables of all sorts take a central focus in their cooking.
“I’ve heard many people say that a lot of Americans buy the same 20 groceries every time they go to the grocery store,” Grueneberg said. “I guess in a way, Listen to Your Vegetables is about being a little spontaneous. Maybe grab that turnip you walk by every time you go to the grocery store and find a way to highlight it.”