Vegetables often get a very bad name. Sometimes it is deserved, but more often than not it’s your fault. Yes, your fault! Mine too.
Here’s one half of the problem; people like me make fun of vegetables, and probably even more reprehensible, we make fun of people who eat them. Particularly so if that is all they eat.
Who hasn’t had a vegetarian version of a dish, probably lasagna, that is a watery, bitter perversion of the classic dish? It’s disgusting as hell, especially if some vegan friend is raving about it while you valiantly struggle to both swallow and not rip her throat out like Rick did to that guy at the end of season five of The Walking Dead.
The same thing goes for eggplant parmesan. This is one of the most truly awful meals one can have. Or is it? It certainly is when most people make it. But here is the part that makes me and my kind such very bad people; we know how to make these dishes in ways that will make even the most confirmed carnivore beg for seconds. But we don’t. We mock and ridicule instead. Why? Because we don’t want to eat YOUR version of them. Sorry, I thought that it was time you knew.
So, why don’t I make these dishes? Well, I do…but very rarely. If I can make lasagna with delicious, savory, mouth-watering Italian sausage, why would I leave it out so that I can add poison to the meal?
That’s right, you read that correctly, vegetables are poisonous. Most of them, at least. You see Mother Nature is one clever, devious bitch. She put the seeds that she wants spread willy nilly into delicious things so that creatures great and small would eat them and then propagate the world by shitting seeds all over creation. That’s the purpose of fruit. It is meant to be eaten.
Then we have vegetables. I’m not about to get into the debate over all of the minutiae about the hermaphroditic intricacies that some fruits and vegetables display. Does it really freaking matter anyway? Sheesh. We’re hungry bastards, not botanists. So, speaking in the broadest of terms here, so that even the Wal-Mart shoppers and Fox um, News viewers can participate, fruits are seed delivery systems and vegetables are, at the very least, actual bits of the plant.
As such, nature provides an abundance, nay, a plethora, of defense mechanisms to protect vegetables. Much of it in the form of poisons and other harmful chemical agents. These range from nutrition blockers to cyanide to carcinogens. Nasty little buggers, ain’t they?
Being the ingenuous, devious creatures that we are, us humans have devised ways to counteract these effects, mainly by peeling and cooking. At this point, I feel a strong urge to go on a slightly tangential rant. Please excuse me, I will be right back.
Fuck you raw kale! And raw spinach? Fuck you too! You can both kiss my hairy yellow ass too. Due to the idiots, and there is no doubt that they are idiots, in the raw food movement, we eat this indigestible foul-tasting bullshit all of the time. Raw veggies do not provide more nutrition, that’s pure voodoo science for people who love science but hate tiresome stuff like facts and research. They tend to be the flip side of the aforementioned Wal-Mart/Fox crowd. Both suffer from “Hey, if you don’t think about it much, it sounds right, so it must be right” Syndrome. Avoid all varieties of these douchenuggets whenever possible. They know not of what they excrete. Raw vegetables usually provide less nutrition and way more toxins. That’s what sciencey types call “facts.”
Okay, where was I? Peeling and cooking. Unfortunately, that’s where so many of us begin and end when dealing with vegetables. Why? Because that’s what our parents did if we were lucky, and if not, they melted a frozen square of nastiness that was horrible to even look at, much less put into our mouth.
So, let’s look at the problems vegetables pose to the home chef.
Many vegetables are indeed bitter. Just like with wine, and pretty much anything humans ingest, perception of flavor varies, but most of us agree that certain veggies sometimes taste bitter.
The very best way to mitigate this is to move to California or Southern France. The bitter veggies are sweet there, and the sweet ones taste like candy.
Can’t do that right now? Me either. So, what can the rest of us poor, hungry folks do? Pick up that salt shaker. That’s right. Pick it UP! Forget what your doctors and your family have told you. It is your friend when you use it correctly.
Salt will offset the bitterness in many vegetables, making it taste much more sweet. Now we can add herbs, acids and whatever we want to enhance the flavors. But it all starts with salt.
Watery Vegetables Suck
There was a time when we were told that pouring out the liquid in canned vegetables meant that we were wasting flavor and nutrition. Sounds right, doesn’t it? So it must be right. Right? Hell no it’s not right. Pour that crap out. Cooking vegetables in it is what will cause nutrition and flavor loss. If you need a little liquid to cook them, use something else and only enough to ensure that it cooks off entirely.
And as the above statement implies, as far as cooking goes, canned and frozen vegetables have their place in our kitchens for a variety of reasons. Availability, out of season freshness, ease of use, etc. Don’t be a veggie snob. Use fresh when you can and when appropriate. But giving that can opener a workout now and then is not a cause for shame. Save that for the stuff you look at on the Internet when no one is around. Oh yeah, I’ve seen your history file, you nasty thing, you. Hell, if it’s within the range of legal, don’t waste time feeling guilty about that either, unless that makes it more fun for you. I understand, I was raised Catholic too. Just stop ogling my carrots like that, you sick freak.
Which brings us back to watery veggies. If your vegetables are swimming in liquid, soups excluded, you are not cooking them properly.
I know, I can hear you whining from here, “But Joe, when heat is applied to vegetables they give off water! It’s not my fault!” Oh, but it is. It really is. And I’m going to tell you how to stop allowing it to happen.
Are you you still holding onto that salt shaker? I don’t remember saying that it was okay to put it down, do you? Go get it, we’ll wait. Wipe your nose while you’re at it.
Got it? Good. Most vegetables are full of water. That is one of their primary functions in the plant world. Holding and moving water to make sure that the plant is and remains healthy is just what they do. We don’t care about that anymore, because we’ve already likely killed the plant. Screw it, we’re hungry goddamnit, and cellular health of a dead, or possibly just missing, plant does not concern us in any way. That’s where salt comes in again.
For items that often ruin dishes like the ones we talked about earlier, salt is the answer. Slice these watery veggies that dilute their flavors and those of everything they interact with, and lay them out on a baking sheet lined with an absorbent kitchen towel or a couple of layers of paper towels. Then sprinkle them with a nice light, even layer of salt. Go easy, but don’t be timid either. Now, go away for anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, depending on the veggie and the thickness.
After waiting, use some paper towels to blot up all the water and salt on the surface. Replace the towels underneath if need be, then flip the veggies and repeat the salting, waiting and blotting. Remember learning about osmosis in school? You just osmosed. Congratulations! You also learned one of the greatest secrets to cooking vegetables. Reducing the amount of liquid inside and outside of vegetables is key to reducing bitterness and intensifying flavor. This is the key to cooking them, and applies to fresh, frozen and canned.
How To Cook Vegetables
One of the biggest myths about cooking is that great cooks have great recipes. The truth is that most really great cooks don’t use them, they write them for lesser cooks. That’s a very broad, sweeping statement, and will probably be taken in the wrong way by a lot of people, but in a day to day context, entirely true.
Great cooking is about processes and technique, about accumulating knowledge and applying it correctly. It’s about knowing what result you are after, and the best way to achieve it.
Like salting to remove excess water, what I am going to tell you is in that vein. I am not even going to tell you when to do these things. Why not? Because I’m a jerk? Well yeah, but even more importantly, because these things are going to make you a better cook.
This is a term that is in a lot of recipes for fruits and vegetables, but gets skipped. Some people don’t know what it means, others know that it can be skipped and the dish can still be cooked. Both are a shame.
Blanching is a very simple process, but it means more time getting ready and during cleanup. But don’t let that stop you, the results are worth having to throw one more pan and a colander into the dishwasher.
All that blanching entails is putting the item to be cooked into boiling liquid for a short time before stopping the cooking process abruptly with ice water or running under cold water. It’s very simple, yet does so many things.
You know how vegetables in fancy restaurants are so much more brightly colored than what you make at home? Blanching.
Why can some people use very sulfurous or bitter ingredients like cabbage and it tastes great, while others can’t? Blanching.
How do you sauté vegetables quickly and over high heat without burning the things you add for flavor, such as garlic and shallots? Blanching.
All that can be accomplished by the simple process of boiling water, plunging certain veggies into it for 30 seconds, and then removing to a waiting bowl of ice water. Just drain well and pat dry. Remember that excess water is the enemy, let’s not add any back through other techniques.
I just mentioned sautéing above in conjunction with blanching. It’s a great way to cook vegetables, but roasting is another.
The high, dry heat of an oven is ideal for removing moisture and bringing out the flavor of certain vegetables. Broccoli and cauliflower are especially good this way. And if you’re really not going to be happy unless you get a recipe, go here and quit whining so much. It’s really tasty and demonstrates this technique well.
The idea is to use as high of a temperature as the vegetable take to get some nice carmelization on the edges without burning, and still cook it through. 450 to 500 degrees Fahrenheit is usually a good safe starting point. Make sure that you spread the veggies out on a flat baking sheet. If they are too close or the cooking vessel has high sides, your veggies will steam and the results will not be what you are going for.
Finishing off with some grated cheese or lemon zest during the last 10 minute of cooking is a nice touch, as is a little butter or olive oil before serving.
Matching Herbs and Spices
Knowing how to enhance the flavors of vegetables doesn’t end with the techniques we’ve already covered. To make them really special, especially when you may not always have the highest quality ingredients available, like those smug veggie chomping Californians do, using other ingredients can really liven things up.
Keep in mind that we want to enhance the flavors, not mask them. This isn’t pouring goopy cheese sauce over boiled broccoli to get a kid to eat it. We’re taking fine cooking here, dammit!
This is one of those areas where not only do personal preferences come into play, but you’ll need trial and error to build up the experience that I mentioned earlier. All I am going to do is give you a goal and a few ideas to get you started.
The goal is to think of what the best example of a vegetable you’ve ever had. Think back to that time when you dug into a side dish and realized it was better than the entree. Chances are that someone found a way to bring out the flavors that were already there.
As one example, let’s think of how a carrot tastes. They are earthy and sweet with just a hint of zing, right? That’s how I think that they taste, anyway, and it’s my post, so we’re going with that whether you agree or not.
So, sweet is probably the taste that dominates when most of us think about carrots. This is why you see so many dishes that employ maple syrup to glaze them. It’s a good start to this concept. We’re enhancing flavors that already exist. Maple syrup and carrots work together and satisfy the requirements of this exercise.
However, I think that maple syrup can sometimes be too much on carrots, depending on what they are being served with. I like to use a little orange juice and ginger. Carrots are already sweet and this combination only enhances that aspect a little bit while really kicking in the zing part and accenting the earthiness some. It also allows you to add more spices if you want to enhance the main dish or even the wine being served. For example, a little nutmeg and allspice to go with your Thanksgiving dinner and a Pinot Noir.
More ideas for vegetable enhancing combinations include lemon zest and thyme, or rosemary and lavender. Splash with your favorite vinegars, or use seasoned butters and oils. Find what you like for the vegetable and the circumstances.
Veggies may be poisonous, but they don’t have to taste like it.