How to Cook Vegetables Like You Mean it
I have always loved vegetables. As a child, I happily wolfed down salads, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, carrots and just about everything else my mother put in front of me. Unlike my little brother who could really have done without the baby carrots my parents tucked into his lunchbox, I was a veggie lover from the start
These days, I'm happy to report that my brother eats most veggies with gusto. But it's not uncommon to encounter adults who claim to simply dislike most or all vegetables. Sure, they might occasionally reach for a cheese-covered or deep-fried appetizer that started out as a vegetable. Do onion rings count? they ask. But vegetables for the sake of vegetables? A resounding NO.
I'm going to go out on a limb (note the plant-based expression) and suggest that perhaps the people who claim to dislike vegetables are talking about limp, boiled-until-mushy vegetables. You know the ones. The previously frozen, margarine-glazed, often microwaved vegetables that were seemingly on every table in the 1980's. Convenience vegetables that served to round out a meat and starch. Sure, hate those. I hate them too. They're gross.
But if that's all you think vegetables are capable of, you are in for a treat. With a little good olive oil, some basic flavoring agents (we're talking garlic, onions, chili flakes, salt, pepper, lemon, etc.) and some very simple techniques, you can transform your Farmer's market haul into a deeply flavorful, addictively good dish, that is so much more than a side dish. Here's how.
Start with the good stuff. Cooking vegetables well starts with the freshest possible veggies (for help navigating the produce section, I like this handy guide from Wisebread).
Don't fear fat. Really, don't. Obviously it's important to show some restraint, but a little bit of fat (especially a heart-healthy one like olive oil) not only makes vegetables much more palatable, it also helps our bodies absorb their nutrients.
But, getting back to how good it makes veggies taste: you haven't lived until you have had broccolini tossed liberally in olive oil and roasted at a high heat with lemon, chile flakes, and salt. The florets crisp and each stalk takes on a lovely, gently caramelized taste. The olive oil seems to coax every single flavor molecule out, and it inevitably ends up being your favorite thing on the plate.
Another great fat to work with is brown butter. Simply cook a few pats of butter (I usually use unsalted butter so I can control the saltiness of the final dish) in a pan just until it begins to brown then remove from heat and toss with roasted or sautéed veggies.
Don't forget salt. Perhaps the most common mistake made by novice cooks is not using enough salt. Salt is a conduit for flavor. Whatever you add it to tastes more like what it is, because salt emphasizes its innate taste. Take a pinch of salt (don't use a shaker--salting with your hands gives you much more control) from high above food to make sure it distributes evenly. And don't forget to taste as you go. Nobody knows your taste buds like you do, and, even if you don't think so, you know how much salt is too much. My general rule is that food is salted enough when it's nearly too salty, but not quite.
Cook at a high heat. Most vegetables taste better with a little bit of color. A hot, heavy-bottomed pan (like a cast iron pan) over high heat, or an oven turned up to 425 degrees Fahrenheit will yield a fabulously tendercrisp product with gorgeous caramelized edges.
Flavor it up. I love adding chopped garlic, freshly ground black pepper, chili flakes, and lemon to just about every vegetable I cook. But thinly sliced fresh chilies, fresh rosemary or thyme, chopped shallots or onions, or citrus zest also make for wonderful add-ins. Check out what's in your fridge or pantry and add accordingly.
Toppings aren't just for ice cream. I always top my cooked vegetables with some sort of extra flavor element. Whether it's a whisper of grated Parmesan, chopped fresh herbs like parsley, cilantro, basil, or mint, toasted bread crumbs or chopped toasted nuts, cooked veggies deserve a little extra love just before serving.
How do you like your veggies? Let me know in the comments!