Maricela Vega learned early that a dish can rise or fall on the right ingredient. The Atlanta-based chef says her mother, who is from a village in Guanajuato, Mexico, was very particular about her peppers. “When we would go to Mexico, she would say we had to get these peppers from these stalls for these reasons,” she recalls. “I didn’t understand it then.”
Now sourcing is everything to Vega. The deliciousness of an ingredient matters, of course, but so do its provenance and the personal connections she makes with farmers and producers. “I think about it all,” she says. “Even when you cook, you can see how everything is connected to everything else.”
Vega, who moved to Dalton, Georgia, from California when she was eight, always loved cooking but turned it into a profession in Atlanta, where she built her name at restaurants including Empire State South and 8ARM before throwing herself full-time into her food business, Chico (named for Chicomecóatl, Aztec goddess of agriculture), making masa nixtamal from landrace corn for tamales and creating dishes that honor both Southern ingredients and Mesoamerican influences.
Her recipe for eggplant Milanesa makes excellent use of the Southern garden as it transitions to fall. To start, she mixes buttermilk with a good small-batch Southern hot sauce to make a bath for half-moons of raw eggplant. She then dredges them in cornmeal—she prefers Anson Mills—seasoned with turmeric and Guntur Sannam chile powder from Diaspora Co., a spice company dedicated to supporting farmers who practice sustainable agriculture. You can substitute spices from the grocery, but it’s worth tracking down the best vegetables you can.
The heart and soul of the recipe is a fall salsa built from a roasted butternut squash or a small heirloom pumpkin, blended with citrus, garlic, ginger, and fresh peppers. Make it ahead and store in the fridge for a meal that comes together quickly. Spoon a good amount of salsa on the plate, either family style or individually, then arrange the hot eggplant on top, add some juicy tomato slices, and drizzle it all with olive oil—Vega likes to use a good-quality oil from Georgia.
Finally, toss on a few crisp sage leaves fried for about a minute in the same oil as the eggplant, a vegetable she says farmers at the local market always seem to have in abundance. “I don’t know if eggplant gets enough attention,” she says, “but it should.”