“The world is a lot smaller than people think.”
That’s one thing that Michael Vetro has learned from his time as executive chef of culinary operations at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. Chef Vetro cooks for hundreds of patients and thousands of staff members from all over the world, using produce grown right here in Tennessee.
“Potatoes, carrots, onions, peppers, rice — you find those things from Jamaica to India to Serbia to Lebanon,” he says.
“Most of our core ingredients are the same no matter where we come from, and that’s kind of beautiful.”
Today, it’s standard practice for Vetro’s team to get recipe requests for dishes they’ve never cooked — and often for dishes they’ve never eaten or heard of before. When that happens, step one is always the same.
“We sit down with families and we talk to them,” he says. “They tell us what they’re looking for, we make it, and we ask them to tell us how to change it. Does it need to be saltier? Spicier? Sweeter? Learning about new foods has taught me that even if I know ‘spaghetti,’ my spaghetti is not the same as your spaghetti. To get the dish right, you have to get to know the people.”
Here are some of Chef Vetro’s favorite ways to use Tennessee ingredients in local, regional and international dishes.
Beets and turnips
Because of Tennessee’s central location, farmers often travel from out of state to sell produce at our markets. That means we get longer growing seasons and may see excellent turnips, beets and sweet potatoes well into the summer. Chef Vetro’s team likes to roast vegetables just until tender but serve them cold or at room temperature for a summery spin on the veggie staple. If you have leftovers beets: pickle them for a cool, crunchy snack that’s pretty and delicious.
Blackberry or Blueberry Vinaigrette
On summer days, St. Jude goes through 15 pounds of fresh berries on the salad bar alone. But Southern summers are long and berry-growing seasons are short, so if Chef Vetro gets a big bunch that are still a little red or crunchy, he turns them into salad dressings or sauces. It’s a great way to make the most of not-yet-ripe or overripe berries.
Cabbage and cucumbers
Kimchi, a Korean dish of salted, fermented vegetables, takes a long time to prepare, so Chef Vetro’s team uses a shortcut. They create the pickley topping for their Cambodian-style taco station — helmed by a chef who grew up in the Southeast Asian nation — using fresh local cabbage, or they make a quick pickle. They use both to top Korean-style tacos, and Chef Vetro says they also make a great topping for Bulgogi, a Korean grilled beef dish that’s often served in lettuce cups.
“If you run across Armenian cucumbers, get a bunch and make pickles,” says Vetro. “They’re as big as your arm, but they don’t get tough and they have very few seeds, which makes them great for marinating. Throw them on salads, tacos — whatever needs acid or crunch.”
Fresh melon, sweet carrots and pungent ginger create a bright orange juice that’s a home run with kids.
Grill or roast the cauliflower and carrots and toss them with a creamy coconut curry for an irresistible vegetarian side dish.
Chargrilled Curried Okra
Roll okra in yellow curry and char them on the grill so they crisp up. Serve them as a side dish or as a hot appetizer.
Caramelize fresh peaches and sweet onions for a unique spin on sweet and sour chicken.
Pair fresh peas (cooked al dente so they still have some bite) with baby spinach, Parmesan cheese, mint and lemon vinaigrette.
Biryani is a traditional Indian vegetable dish made with potatoes, green chiles, spices, nuts and rice — something we often forget grows right here in the South.
“We grow all kinds of rice in this region — jasmine, basmati, long- and short-grain varieties, heirloom,” says Vetro, the latter of which is any rice that isn’t commercially sold in large quantities. “Trying out different kinds of rice is an easy, approachable way to add variety to what you’re eating, or to add a new element to a favorite recipe.”
Scotch bonnet peppers
Flaky pie crusts are stuffed with ground beef, herbs and spicy Scotch bonnet peppers. While these peppers are commonly known as Scotch bonnets in America due to their resemblance to Scottish military hats, they’re actually native to the Caribbean and Central America, which is why you’ll see them used often in Jamaican cuisine.
Sorghum (a sweet cereal grain used to make molasses) and sweet potatoes are both grown here in Tennessee, and that combination happens to provide a lot of minerals your body needs including iron and magnesium. This recipe works with every variety of molasses from unsulfured amber to blackstrap and it’s especially delicious served with jerk chicken.
Squash and zucchini
Whenever you end up with extra vegetables, make ratatouille, a stewed dish that originated in France. It works with anything: eggplant, zucchini, squash, tomatoes, onions.
- If you want to eat it as a side dish, cook it less so the vegetables keep their texture.
- If you want to try it as a stew or sauce, cook it longer and serve it with anything from fish to meat.
“It’s as simple as it sounds: mozzarella, strawberries, balsamic vinegar and fresh basil,” says Vetro. “When strawberries are ripe, you can’t beat it.”
Chef Vetro has two favorite ways to cook tomatoes:
Tomato Pie (cheddar cheese, fresh basil, breadcrumb topper) and
“I don’t even have a recipe for ‘Summer Pasta,’ because it’s so simple,” says Vetro. “It’s just chopped, ripe tomatoes, red onion, garlic and fresh basil.”
To make it:
- Warm a little olive oil in a pan
- Cook the minced garlic in oil just until you can see bubbles
- Add red onion but don’t cook it long enough for it to go clear
- Add the tomato and basil
- Turn the heat off
- Season it with salt and pepper, and
- Serve it on angel hair pasta.
“I grew up on this dish, so to me it’s perfect,” says Chef Vetro. “Simple. Fresh. Summer.”