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Photo by Tommy Feisel
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Photo by Tommy Feisel
Photo by Tommy Feisel

Worst Cook in Columbus: Veggies

It’s mid-afternoon. I’m contacting Catie Randazzo by phone to introduce myself and the concept of “The Worst Cook in Columbus.” She calmly replies, “I’m familiar with it.” My eyes fly open. Oh my god. Shit just got real.

About a year ago, I was sitting in an editorial meeting, listening to a debate on who dominates the Columbus food truck industry and thinking, “Selling food on a truck is a thing?  You can do that legally?”  (Ok, maybe I wasn’t quite that bad.  But food-related conversation was definitely out of my comfort zone.)  So I was sent to The Commissary for some much-needed help. And now the industry knows me. People who have cooked stuff on television know “The Worst Cook in Columbus”, someone who gets desperate and makes “meals” with spaghetti and peas and salad dressing and who figures pretty much everything cooks at medium temperature.  (Right?)  Catie Randazzo wants to meet me. Which means I can’t wait to meet her.  (And, she runs a food truck.)

In the spirit of the season, today we’ll be pickling vegetables and turning some of those into a salad and sandwich.  For Randazzo, pickling is a joy. “I get to save a life,” she explains, meaning she extends the summer harvest into autumn, keeping vegetables off of food’s “death row.” Working with vegetables, even washing and prepping them, is a labor of reverence for her, and an act of respect for the growers and pickers of the food, who birthed these vibrant plants into our hands.

For me, working with vegetables is just plain labor… because I am so, so, so bad with a knife. I’m pretty sure when I enter the portals of hell, I will be given a chef’s knife and an endless sack of potatoes that need to be turned into 1/8th inch slices.

It is when I am holding a knife, wearing a bug-eyed Sheldon Cooper-esque expression that people begin to believe that I am serious in saying I do not know what I am doing.

But Randazzo’s enthusiasm for teaching and wicked sense of humor wins me over.  And there’s definitely a beauty to the vegetables we’re working with, all Ohio grown.  So I put a damp dish towel under a cutting board to keep it stable, and give it my best.  Julienning an onion. Cutting a pepper into sticks. I am very slow, and don’t even recognize that I am working with (literally) not the sharpest knife in the drawer.  Randazzo tells me to “choke up” on the knife like a baseball bat.  She teaches me to cut backwards to see if it’s any easier. And she consoles me with the truth that pickling doesn’t require absolute accuracy.  There’s room to fix errors.

Randazzo has me measure coriander, mustard seeds, red pepper flakes, sugar and salt and add fennel, sliced onion, garlic cloves, and a couple of bay leaves in a stockpot.  But it’s not until we add water and white vinegar that I realize that we are making a brine, which I thought was basically salt water. Silly me. The brine goes on the stove to be brought to a rolling boil, dissolving the sugar and salt.

In a crucial step, Randazzo takes the temperature of the brine down from boiling to not-quite-freezing. Warm liquid will “cook” the vegetables a bit, while a cold brine will preserve the crisp texture of the vegetables and their full flavor. At The Commissary, we are lucky to be able to make use of a chill blaster, which is kind of like a combination of a bank vault and a freezer. If you do not have a chill blaster (which you probably do not), you can use a regular freezer or leave out the water from the brine, and add ice when you want to chill it. The liquid should be cold to the touch.

We fill our Mason jars with peppers, beets, green tomatoes, and cucumbers and pour in the brine. Randazzo adds some of the solid part of the brine, as well as sliced jalapenos and funky-looking garlic scapes – I was unaware of as a thing.  In a few hours, the veggies will taste pickled. Meanwhile, Randazzo takes out some pre-pickled veggies and whips up a simple and quick late summer meal of a pickled green bean and chopped tomato salad and a BLT from slices of pickled green tomatoes and arugula on ciabatta bread – spicy, crunchy, and bright all at once.

I leave The Comissary bearing four jars of brightly colored vegetables, which will keep fresh for three weeks (and longer if I don’t that they’re not at their peak freshness).  And I have the answer to the food truck debate, which I will be bringing up at the next meeting. Just because I know.

Catie Randazzo is the owner chef of Challah food truck, where she serves up Jew-“ish” comfort cuisine, deli-inspired foods, and is particularly known for her chicken sandwich.  She’s also recently taken over the kitchen inside Woodland Taverns. Randazzo loves to learn from her cooking and also loves teach. She gave me several moves that can be learned, and possibly mastered, almost immediately and make you feel like you know you’re doing.

The barrel roll cut.  Slice off both ends from a pepper.  Make a straight cut down one side and “unroll” the pepper. This allows you to remove the membranes and seeds without scooping. The shake. Place unpeeled garlic cloves in a metal bowl.  Place another metal bowl, upside down, on top and hold them together firmly.  Shake it really hard and the peels on the cloves will loosen, or come off entirely.

The really quick pickle.  One large julienned red onion + a handful of kosher salt + a few splashes of champagne vinegar (do not submerge the onions).  Mix up (or flip) your ingredients in the bowl.  (I’ll admit.  I refused to flip.  I believe that was a good decision.)  When the liquid is visibly pink, you’re ready to go. The save. Brine can be reused. In that sense, it is like salt water.

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