06/06/2012 03:31 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2012

Vegetable Abundance

The day I met Julia Child was amazing and I was just a little star-struck. Here she stood, the icon of all that is cooking, shaking my hand, smiling and asking about my specialty.

"So all you eat are vegetables?" she asked, genuinely interested and perplexed. At first, all I could think was that she did a great imitation of Julia -- but she was Julia and I was dumbstruck.

Her words have stuck with me for years. As perplexed as she was, I was sure as I am about the use of vegetables in my diet. For me, there can never be enough, and there is never any shortage of variety and interest to keep me inspired.

What is it about vegetables that enchant me season to season, with no end in sight to this honeymoon-like state of culinary bliss? Plants have the most important job on Mother Earth -- they work to supply the planet with oxygen as they purify the air of carbon dioxide, which they, in turn, absorb through photosynthesis. And since we, as animals, take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide, plants make the perfect partner for humanity.

Plants only get more delicious with an innate ability to transform light into useable energy, which they can store for later use; plants are our most significant source of vitality, as we consume their energy and convert it into fuel. Vegetables are the original source of protein, carbohydrates and other complex molecules of nutrition, which means they contain within their humble seeds, stalks, stems, roots, leaves and flowers all the vital components necessary for animal life to thrive. Without plant life, our beautiful, fragile planet would be a barren, sterile sphere.

Still not convinced to eat more plants? Skip the science and picture the bustling activity of open-air markets, bins overflowing with the harvest of the land. From backyard gardens to busy farm markets, wherever fresh vegetables, fruit and herbs of the season are cultivated and shared, an engaging way of life is created, one that puts us back in direct contact with the planet we call home. From robust greens and delicate herbs to succulent tomatoes, strong, sweet roots and fresh seasonal fruits... if that doesn't inspire us, I'm not sure what will.

Planting your own garden, even if it's just a few herbs in containers, as well as making early-morning trips to area farm markets will give you a sense of abundance that is unparalleled. Even supermarkets feature locally grown fresh produce, as the demand for such lively fresh food grows.

For me, the recipe is secondary to the choosing of ingredients -- and that is especially true with vegetables. No amount of culinary skill can revive vegetables that are bereft of their vitality, even creating complex sauces and dressings as disguises. Freshly harvested, organic, locally-grown vegetables are always my first choice with commercial and organic choices from outside my region used solely to fill in the gaps. Over the years I have discovered that the handling of a vegetable in the kitchen, the actual preparation of it for a dish, is far less important to taste than the quality of it. Where and how it was grown, when it was harvested, and how long it has taken to get from the soil to your cutting board will have a greater impact on a recipe than how you season it. Cooking is only a bit player in the drama of the kitchen.

How do you get the best quality vegetables and fruits on your dining table? Shop where you know the food is freshest -- a farm market, a cooperative market or better quality supermarkets. (Although in truth, you can find veggies in the smallest bodega these days.) Decide your final menu after you have shopped, not before. Free yourself to look for the most vital and beautiful produce you can find and build your meals around them. Buy produce that is locally grown and organic (as much as possible), choosing the ingredients that look freshest, like they could jump out of the bin into your cart.

Thinking of vegetables this way makes cooking an entirely different experience. Handling fresh, vital, living food is so inspiring that you will want to cook. You will never tire of washing beautiful vegetables, as their vibrant colors blind you with their life. Smell them; caress them; taste them in their raw form so that you become familiar with how they will behave in a dish. You will come to the realization that fresh, vital foods require very little effort and little enhancement. Complex cooking methods, heavy sauces and overwhelming preparation time will be a thing of the past in your fresh kitchen -- and your results will be yummy.

Cooking vegetables is the key to our vitality, to enlivening our being. With vegetables in our diet, anything is possible. Can you imagine a more delicious way to follow the path to your dreams? A few recipes to get you going? Of course!

Spring Vegetable Barley Soup
Makes 4-5 servings

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 small leek, split lengthwise, rinsed free of dirt, diced
Sea salt
2 medium carrots, diced
2 cups sliced fresh shiitake mushrooms
2 new potatoes, unpeeled, diced, do not peel
1 small zucchini, diced
½ cup pearled barley, rinsed well
4 cups spring or filtered water
2 tablespoons sweet white miso
Several leaves fresh dandelion, coarsely chopped
Grated zest of 1 fresh lemon

Place oil and leek in a soup pot over medium heat. When the leek begins to sizzle, add a pinch of salt and sauté for 2 minutes. Stir in carrots and a pinch of salt and sauté for 1 minute. Stir in mushrooms and, a pinch of salt and sauté for 2 minutes. Stir in potatoes and a pinch of salt and sauté for 1 minute. Stir in zucchini and a pinch of salt and sauté for 1 minute. Add barley and water and bring to a boil. Cover; reduce heat to low, and simmer for 15-20 minutes, until the barley is soft. Remove a small amount of broth and dissolve miso. Stir back into soup and simmer (do not boil) for 3-4 minutes more. Stir in dandelion and lemon zest just before serving.

Crunchy Tuscan Kale Salad
Makes 3-4 servings

1 bunch Tuscan kale (also called lacinato or dinosaur, but regular kale will work)
1 teaspoon extra- virgin olive oil
¾ cup coarse bread crumbs
1 clove fresh garlic, minced
½ teaspoon sea salt
⅛ teaspoon cracked black pepper
Pinch crushed red pepper flakes
3 tablespoons extra- virgin olive oil
Juice from ½ fresh lemon

Rinse the kale leaves and towel dry. Shred the kale leaves, removing the stems if they are thick.
Place a teaspoon of oil in a skillet over medium heat. Sauté the bread crumbs until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Set aside.

Mix together garlic, salt, pepper, red pepper, oil, and lemon juice. Adjust seasonings to your taste and mix well.

Summer Sea Veg Salad
Makes 3-4 servings

1 large cucumber, unpeeled and thinly sliced into rounds, do not peel
2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
1 ripe, but firm avocado, pitted and diced
3-4 springs fresh basil, coarsely chopped
2 cups baby spinach, rinsed well
½ cup torn dulse leaves
Avocado oil
Soy sauce
Cracked black pepper
Juice of ½ fresh lime

Combine cucumber, tomatoes, avocado, basil, spinach, and dulse in a salad bowl. Whisk together oil, soy sauce, pepper, and lime juice. Adjust seasonings to your taste. Toss dressing gently with salad, taking care not to break avocado. Serve at room temperature or chilled.