"Ick, Okra!"

Okra, spinach, broccoli, lima beans ... if it is green and it is a vegetable it is sure to be despised by billions of children. Nature programs the young to seek rich foods; foods high in sugar, fat, and protein. Our pallates as children are more sensitive to the bitter elements in vegetables designed by evolution to keep animals from ravaging precisely those vegetables we treat as food. And so we grow up disliking vegetables - sometimes because they taste bland and bitter and sometimes for no other reason than because they represent the power parents have over their children to make them eat things they hate.

But as we age, the subtle textures, nuanced flavors, and nutritional benefits of vegetables become more appealing. Our sensitivity to vegetables' bitter flavors fades. This is good because vegetables, especially those low in simple carbohydrates are richer in vitamins, minerals, and fiber per calorie than other foods. Many vegetable foods even beat out meats in terms of delivering protein per calorie. This is true for a number of kinds of beans, for instance.

As a personal note, I have always believed that I hate vegetables. I buy vegetables, they sit in the refrigerator, and frequently they expire and are discarded. Yet when I cook vegetables I am always surprised at how much I like them. Whenever I cook meat, I cook it with vegetables. The vegetables make the meat ever so slightly better, but the meat improves the vegetables to the extent that frequently I could just eat the vegetables and throw away the meat! In other words, no vegetables, no dish.

I cannot think of a vegetable preparation that I enjoy that resembles anything I ate before I was 25. And this testifies to the sorry state of vegetable cooking in the USA. Americans are missing out on some of the best flavor and nutrition available by not cooking vegetables in ways that bring out the naturally delicious nature of the food. Ill treatment of vegetables seems to be a problem that stretches almost uniformly from coast to coast once one is more than 25 miles from the heart of any major city with a serious culinary reputation.

The traditional American way of cooking vegetables by boiling them into a mush is at least partly responsible for people loathing vegetables. Each vegetable deserves the right treatment. And frequently that means marrying the vegetable with some amount of fat, whether it be from a meat that it is cooked with, or from butter or olive oil. There are some who think it is bad nutrition to take butter or olive oil with vegetables. But for many of us, the butter is the 'sugar that makes the medicine go down.' No butter, no veggies. It is more than just an unrelenting prejudice against bland food that makes me believe that one day science will prove that eating vegetables with olive oil or butter is crucially essential to good health.

Cooking Vegetables

The classic continental method for cooking broccoli, asparagus, carrots, and so on, usually consists of two steps. The first is blanching in hot water for a few minutes, between one and five. Then the vegetable is shocked quickly and briefly in ice cold water. After that the vegetable is left to rest for a minute or two. Finally, it is cooked by some other method which may be sauteeing, steaming, or something else entirely. This is a finicky way to treat vegetables but it has these advantages:

A second possible 'standard treatment' for vegetables involves cooking them via steaming or via microwave to a certain point, then (possibly shocking and ) finishing them in a saute. This method is of a little less help with bitterness, but it captures some of the advantages of the traditional method, with less work.

Leafy Greens

Generally speaking, it is useful to think of a different technique for each sort of vegetable. In the case of greens, one can start by blanching to get rid of bitterness, then drying. Blanching need only be for several seconds. Alternatively, spinach, kale, beet greens, and mustard greens can be good sauteed over high heat for a matter of seconds, just until it wilts. If there is a bit of garlic in the pan with the olive oil, this will generally improve flavor. And salt will diminish the bitter flavor. Sometimes lemon or balsamic vinegar will finish the dish to perfection.

Southern cooking serves ham or bacon with greens, and this is a marriage made in heaven. French cooking marries greens with cheese and egg, as in eggs florentine, souffle florentine or spinach quiche. This, too, is an ideal marriage.

Root Vegetables

In the case of root vegetables such as parsnips, carrots, celeriac, or beets, they may be completely cooked by steaming or microwaving, then pureed with a bit of butter and optionally some herbs. Interestingly, cauliflower responds well to this treatment. One can end up with a sort of mashed potatoes that is smoother than any made with potatoes. Somehow, pureeing a head of cauliflower with a few tablespoons of butter, a pinch of salt, and some pepper, removes almost all the objectionable qualities of cauliflower. It is a dish I have grown to love. And I will tell you that I do not like cauliflower.

Carrots, celeriac, and parsnips can be microwaved together and pureed. It makes a marvelous winter vegetable puree that goes with almost any meat dish. It gets along famously with fish and poultry, and it complements red meats well enough. Of course, the puree takes on special golden butterscotch tones if the vegetables have been roasted to perfection instead of microwaved. This flavor can be enhanced with the addition of a bit of butter, cooking sherry, pepper, and nutmeg.

Not surprisingly, the baking potato is best cooked by baking. Just place it on a rack in the oven at 400F for 60 minutes. This method will make the skin crispy and give it a chocolaty smell. It is possible to grow to love this flavor so much that the actual meat of the potato becomes almost secondary. This sort of effect cannot be had with other cooking methods or with other potatoes.

Other potatoes work well steamed or microwaved. A very fast way to get a light sewrving of potatoes is to cook one and a half medium waxy potatoes per person for two minutes per potato in a microwave until done. Then, put them through a potato ricer. They undergo a miraculous transformation from plain and bland to airy and interesting in this trip

If one is making home fries, it is best to bake the potatoes first, then cool them. Finally, cook them slowly in butter until brown. Those who love potatoes but who are worried about or suffering from diabetes might consider that the wax-skinned potatoes generally produce less available starch than the baking potatoes, so modest consumption of these potatoes might be part of a diabetic's diet. ( If you are diabetic, follow your doctor's advice.)

Most root vegetables are ideally suited to making gratins. The normal procedure involves layering sliced potatoes or some other vegetable with some dairy product, and cooking it in the oven for some time. An old American classic is scalloped potatoes with ham. But one can level a complaint against such a dish, for it generally fails to deliver the browned potato flavor that makes gratins truly delicious. A much simpler method is to slice potatoes thinly using a food processor, then layer them with just a bit of melted butter in a dish until the whole preparation is about an inch thick, then to bake it until top and bottom are crusty brown, about an hour at 400F.

The 'yam' or sweet potato is nicely cooked roasted. There are a lot of things one can do to 'gussy it up' - add orange juice and dried cranberries, or candying, or adding chopped pecans, or even clever things involvong various chile peppers - but fundamentally it is so darn good roasted and served with butter that it is almost a shame to serve it any other way.

Fleshy Summer Vegetables

Summer and winter squash and sweet potatoes respond best to roasting . This is because they have starches and sugars that caramelize nicely. These same sugars are in parsnips and carrots; and these vegetables also roast very nicely, too. Yellow summer squash sliced thick and baked simply in a single layer in butter for an hour is one of those great classic dishes. I had it once in a classic Mexican restaurant in old town Albuquerque. And I'll never forget it.

Solanaceous vegetables frequently are separated from their skins using heat. Peppers are seared under a broiler or over an open flame until charred. The same can be done to tomatoes. Eggplants, frequently, are roasted first and scooped from their skins. These various heating steps tend to intensify the flavor of the vegetable. Roasting seems to improve and intensify the sweet flavors of vegetables.

Ratatoullie and eggplant parmesan are classic eggplant dishes made from sauteed egg plant. To get the best out of an eggplant prepared in this manner it must be peeled, salted, then wiped clean before cooking. Any recipe that fails to do this and fails to explain why, can be safely ignored.

Although a kitchen cannot function properly without them, bell peppers, tomatoes, and onions almost never stand on their own; they always support other things. Usually they balance meat dishes or sauces. Sometimes they are supporting players in melanges such as caponata. Roasting or sauteing will develop their flavors best. It is frequently aggressive treatment of these vegetables that works best; Mexican cooking techniques frequently burn the outsides to a char.
The artichoke is perhaps the most interesting vegetable in terms of flavor. Unfortunately, it is also the most labor intensive to prepare. Only ambitious cooks go beyond simply steaming an artichoke and serving it with butter, but this is really all that is required. Doing more risks not only wasting time, but ruining a good food.

Cruciferous Vegetables

Steaming then sauteing without shocking works nicely for brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage. Brussels sprouts can be cooked very nicely if halved, cooked flat-side down in butter until golden brown, then steamed or microwaved to the finish. Be sure to cut them with a Chef's knife or a Santoku knife: a perfectly flat face is required here. And use butter. All cruciferous vegetables need butter. Cauliflower, responds very nicely to being sauteed in butter. A favorite dish is to finish it with some sauteed bell pepper and onion and a rich curry in coconut milk.

Savoy or Napa cabbage is my choice for making stuffed cabbage since it is easy to work with. Unfortunately it is growing more difficult to find. Bok Choi might work as well, but the sauce might have to be different.

Of course there are a number of high-calorie treatments of vegetables which involve batter-dips and frying. Tempura is one. Corn meal batter a la southern fried okra is another. Anyone who has once enjoyed a properly dipped and fried okra will be cured of the 'Ick, Okra!' reaction forever. It is the same for just about any vegetable; there almost always exista an appetizing preparation for it.

Beans, Peas, Asparagus, and So On.

Frequently one needs green on a plate. The number of choices for cooked green vegetables is limited, especially given the fact that leafy greens are such a difficult sell. Peas and green beans can fit the bill

Peas are marvelous for their ability to fit in well with other vegetables. They marry perfectly with carrots. And they can transform potato dishes. It is little surprise then that Indian vegetable korma and samosas - both classic dishes - marry potatoes, carrots, and peas. A classic Spanish vegetarian dish menestra verduras also features potatoes, peas, onions. It also contains artichokes.

One can cook them separately and serve them together, or cook them together with meat. Normally, however, peas cook fairly fast compared to these vegetables, so they would be added near the end of cooking. Peas can be enjoyed simply served alone, but they are improved considerably by the addition of buttery sauteed button mushrooms. Canned peas are rarely interesting, but frozen peas can be exactly the right thing to serve with a meat, or poultry dish.

Snap peas are peas picked young in order to enjoy the pod. The flesh is tender and sweet, once stripped of the tough ends and filaments on the edges. There are a number of classic treatments of snap peas, but I always think of them as being stir-fried very quickly with a little fresh ginger and a tiny bit of sugar cane or brown sugar, then finished with a dash of soy sauce.

Green beans are horticulturally related to peas. My favorite treatment of them is blanched then stir-fried in a Szechuan manner with ginger and garlic, and finished with soy sauce and some hot pepper flakes. They are good enough just microwaved that I have to admit to treating them like this most of the time.

Asparagus is the only vegetable to appear in the first hundred pages of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. This may not be the highest recommendation one can find for a vegetable, but it does say something. Garden fresh asparagus is a delicacy to die for. The stuff in the stores, usually, has been long dead. If you can find really fresh asparagus, cook it quickly in the microwave with a bit of butter. Take a standard sized bunch - we will assume it is about a pound. Cut off the bottom two inches or so, then place it in a Pyrex baking dish about four to six inches wide and as long as the asparagus spears. It may form two to five layers. Spread two tablespoons of softened butter over the top spears, cover with wrap, and microwave 4-5 minutes. Let rest, covered, for two more minutes, uncover, and serve. If you are a person who loves cheesy sauces, indulge yourself with a Mornay or some other great, cheesy sauce.

Okra is everyone's favorite vegetable to hate. But I have to admit that when it is competently breaded and fried I find it irresistable, especially with ketchup. Breading may contribute more calories than the okra itself, so maybe eating it like this is not a good nutritional practice. I have had fresh okra cooked into gumbo. This is a classic treatment of the vegetable - but it is one I have never dared to attempt. And I have had pickled okra, and like it.

Canned Salad

When I was growing up the term salad referred to 'iceberg' lettuce with some chopped tomato, shredded carrot, and dressing - in our household it was dubiously called French.

Technically, salad is a cold dish - generally featuring vegetables or fruits -dressed with 'salad dressing' and served cold. Salad dressing is some combination of acid and vegetable oil - usually emulsified as in maynaise, or acid and sugar. Salad dressing conventionally features some collection of herbs or spices or dried vegetables such as onion or garlic or pepper. By this definition, marinated artichoke hearts are 'salad. Tuna salad becomes salad with the addition of mayonaise and some vegetable, chopped onion maybe. Waldorf salad becomes salad with the addition of mayonaise. Four bean salad is salad by virtue of being dressed with vinegar and sugar. By this argument, sweet pickles are also salad. Also by convention, bread is absent a salad except for special items such as croutons - which might more correctly be considered condiments or dressing.

My own perception of salad changed when I discovered this recipe. Mix in a bowl

There is no lettuce here. In fact, one can make this salad without the onions and by substituting roasted bell peppers in jars or sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil. In short, one can make a reasonably nutritious and satisfying salad without any fresh vegetables. This is a remarkable observation. But it leads us back to to where our great grandparents lived, in a world of seasonal vegetables, a world where canned and pickled vegetables were the way of getting vegetables to the table during long, cold winters. Just remember that our great grandparents also had root cellars packed with apples , carrots, parsnips and turnips.

Those of us who hate supermarket lines find canned salad attractive. Its ingredients are remarkably well priced at wholesale clubs where one can get giant jars of four bean salad or marinated artichoke hearts at about 20% of the cost per pound of those sold in supermarkets.

Green Salad

For all its convenience, though, canned salad can never match the sheer freshness of one made with fresh greens whether it be iceberg, romaine, or butterhead lettuce, baby spinace, mache, arugula, or some mix of salad greens that includes endives and frisee. I was reminded just today that the dandelion exists in the new world thanks to the culinary gardening ministrations of early European settlers: a rabbit browsing my lawn chose a late-breaking dandelion as his sole entree from the smorgasbord of offerings in my lawn just today at lunchtime.

Here is my vote for greens and their go-withs

This little exploration of salad is just the tip of the iceberg. The good news is that if one wished to live entierly on salad, it would be possible.

The world of vegetables is a big and interesting one. And the longer one explores vegetables, the more interesting the world becomes. Vegetables offer a wide variety of interesting flavors and textures and they deliver a nutritional punch lacking in many other foods. It was not until I was 30 that I began to imagine I might love vegetables. It took another decade before I began to really love them. Now I wish I had started sooner.

Eat well and prosper.



Copyright S.R. Brubaker 2002 - 2006.


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