Back in the 1950's - when I was, ahem, young - American home cooks had an amazing talent. They could take beautiful, fresh vegetables and turn them into mushy, unappealing, over-cooked slop. It's no wonder that a few generations grew up 'hating' vegetables. Potatoes were about the only vegetable that was generally edible. Baked, mashed, or french fried. Those were the choices. Knock yourself out.
Although we know better today, but with the high school Home Economics class having gone the way of the dinosaur, there are new generations who simply don't know how to cook at all - not to mention prepare tasty, well-cooked vegetables.
We're constantly exhorted to get more fruits, vegetables and whole grains onto our plates. Experts in health and nutrition recommend that we get 5 to 9 servings per day. And, yet, few cooks are truly comfortable working with more than a handful of vegetables, with potatoes, lettuce and tomatoes at the top of the charts. This is a sad state of affairs considering that there are literally hundreds of great vegetables out there waiting to be prepared in thousands of different ways.
Fortunately, I'm here to help you.
Let's start at the cutting board. Learning a handful of basic knife cuts can add a lot of visual interest to vegetable dishes and help the vegetables to cook quicker and more thoroughly without overcooking (the worst thing you can do to a vegetable!). You don't need some gimmicky gadget to do it either. A basic chef knife and a paring knife, kept sharp, is all you need. Buy the best knives you can afford - and I recommend going to your local restaurant supply house where they'll be happy to guide you. No, you don't need to be a professional to shop at one of these places! I've been getting my equipment at the local place for years! And, saving a LOT of money.
BTW: Don't store those knives tossed in a drawer! That's how they end up dull - and you'll eventually cut yourself while fishing for something else. Also, buy a Honing Steel and Sharpening Steel to keep them razor sharp. The Honing steel realigns the edge after use. The Sharpening steel does just what it says ... sharpens a dull blade in between sharpening with a whetstone.
This chef, Amy Chaplin, rocks my culinary world. Her technique with the knife isn't exactly what I was taught ('rolling the knife' through the vegetable) and yet, it all works brilliantly. You'll learn a LOT here about knife technique, but also about how she recommends cooking a vegetable.
Use up those last beans by slicing them very thin, on the diagonal, for quick cooking in a mix of vegetables that you can pair with pasta, potatoes or grains!
Cutting up vegetables according to their relative cooking times/speed will allow you to mix and match with confidence. Tonight, I'm pulling out the last of that eggplant, a small yellow squash and thin asparagus, which I'll sauté with onions, minced garlic and caper berries. The Cherry Tomatoes can be tossed in whole or sliced at the very end, when you add in the cooked pasta.
Here are basic knife cuts.
This list is probably beyond what most home cooks will use on a regular basis, of course, but start with the everyday basics, and work from there.
Chunks - Perfect for dense vegetables that will go into soups and stews that will simmer a long while.
Rondelle (Coins)- Carrots and parsnips are the obvious vegetables for this cut.
Baton/Batonnet - Sticks that can easily be cut down for Dice. Baton/Sticks work well with vegetables like carrots, parsnips or rutabagas that you'll braise in a nice sauce (think: wine and herbs) until just knife tender. Looks lovely on the plate.
Dice (large/medium)- Cubes that are made from Baton/Sticks, and are perfect for steamed mixed vegetables, soups and such.
Bruinoise– The Bruinoise dice is the smallest dice you can have. Perfect for sauces, salads, tossed in with grains. Very fast cooking, great raw.
Julienne– The julienne is a type of cut that is stick-shaped and very thin. Start with Julienne cut and create the Buinoise.
Chiffonade– The chiffonade or ribbon type cut is used when slicing very thin items such as herbs or leafy vegetables such as kale, collards, chard or spinach. With larger, tougher leaves, cut the center out first. Roll the leaves and slice.
Pairing vegetables adds variety and interest - both in visual interest and flavor. Tomatoes and cucumbers are an example. Onions and sweet peppers are another.
Here are a few classics - but not an exhaustive list:
Asparagus with: Carrots, potatoes, leeks, mushrooms, shallots.
Beets with: Green beans, beet greens, cabbage, carrots, onions, potatoes, radishes.
Bok Choy with: Bell peppers (all colors), onions, carrots, mung bean sprouts, sweet potatoes, mushrooms.
Broccoli with: Cauliflower, onions.
Brussels Sprouts with: Celery, Celery Root (Celeriac), onions, turnips.
Cabbage with: potatoes, bell peppers, fennel, mushrooms, tomatoes.
Carrots with: Root vegetables especially turnips. Carrots also love sugar, ginger, lemon, maple syrup, parsley, tarragon, thyme and even chili peppers.
Cauliflower with: Broccoli, Capers, chile peppers, greens, leeks, onions, potatoes, tomatoes (Indian cuisine), watercress.
Chard with: Leeks, onions, wild mushrooms, potatoes, pine nuts, raisins, spinach, tomatoes.
Corn with: Bell peppers, lima beans, carrots, celery, leeks, onions, potatoes, salad greens, summer squash, tomatoes.
Eggplant with: Bell peppers - all colors, any summer squash, onions, tomatoes.
Greens (turnip, kale, collards, mustard, chard, dandelion) with: corn, garlic, leeks, mushrooms, onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes.
Green beans with: Bell peppers of all colors, carrots, corn, mushrooms, onions, potatoes, tomatoes.
Leeks with: Carrots, cauliflower, celery, fennel, mushrooms, onions, potatoes, tomatoes.
Mushrooms with: Asparagus, carrots, green beans, Lima beans, bell peppers, celery, onions, peas, potatoes, spinach, tomatoes.
Okra with: Bell peppers of every type and color, chile peppers, tomatoes.
Peas with: Asparagus, carrots, celery, leeks, mushrooms, onions, potatoes, tomatoes.
Potatoes with: Bell peppers (particularly roasted), carrots, cauliflower, celery, celery root, hearty greens like kale, leeks, onions, parsnips, peas, rutabagas, spinach.
Rutabagas with: Beets, broccoli, carrots, celery, celery root, bitter greens, leeks, onions, parsnips, potatoes, squash (butternut).
Squash (winter type such as Acorn, Butternut) with: Celery, carrots, mushrooms, onions, parsnips.
Squash (summer type such as zucchini, crookneck) with: Bell peppers of all colors, corn, eggplant, onions, tomatoes.
Sweet Potatoes with: Beans, bell peppers, bitter greens, kale, leeks, wild mushrooms, onions, potatoes, tomatoes.
On the stove, in the oven or over the grill. But, let's not forget the Instant Pot.
Then, there's the decision of how to cook any particular vegetable. Roasted? Baked? Grilled? Steamed? Sautéed? Poached? Stewed? Braised? Stir Fried?
Some are obvious like a baked potato. Sweet potatoes are great baked, roasted or even cut into thicker slabs and steamed. This is where the 'cut' becomes really important. Larger pieces or whole vegetables take longer to cook - so are best suited for longer cooking times in an oven, over steam or in an Instant Pot, for example. Smaller cuts and more delicate vegetables - greens like Chard come to mind - cook in just a couple of minutes and do well with a quick sauté or steam.
Let's take that list and give examples of cooking methods that might best suit the vegetable in question.
Asparagus: Grilled, steamed, baked, sautéed/stir fried, poached.
Beets: Steamed, baked, roasted, Instant Pot.
Bok Choy: Sauté/stir fry, steamed.
Broccoli: Steamed, sautéed/stir fried.
Brussels Sprouts: Steamed, roasted, braised.
Cabbage: Steamed, sautéed, simmered or braised.
Carrots: Steamed, poached, roasted, grilled, simmered in a soup, sautéed, Instant Pot.
Cauliflower: Steamed, roasted, baked. sautéed, simmered in a broth, Instant Pot.
Chard: Steamed, sautéed/stir fried, poached.
Corn: Boiled, grilled, sautéed, roasted.
Eggplant: Baked, sautéed, simmered in a stew.
Greens (turnip, kale, collards, mustard, chard, dandelion): Quickly steamed, sautéed, gently simmered/braised in a stew.
Green beans: Roasted, grilled, sautéed/stir fried, steamed, simmered in a soup.
Leeks: Sautéed, braised in a sauce, soup or stew.
Mushrooms: Sautéed/stir fried, braised.
Okra: Sautéed/stir fried, braised in a stew, grilled, steamed.
Peas: Steamed, microwaved, sautéed/stir fried, poached/simmered.
Potatoes: Baked, roasted, steamed, poached, boiled, simmered.
Rutabagas: Baked, roasted, steamed, poached, boiled, simmered.
Spinach: Pour boiling water over it. Done. Or, cut it up in ribbons or small bites, and toss directly into hot grains or soup. Done. Keep it simple.
Squash (winter type such as Acorn, Butternut): Baked, roasted, steamed, poached, boiled, simmered.
Squash (summer type such as zucchini, crookneck): Baked, roasted, steamed, poached, boiled, simmered.
Sweet Potatoes: Baked, roasted, steamed, poached, boiled, simmered.
Cooking is about 'balancing' flavors. Add salt, but it shouldn't taste 'salty'. Add some acid such as citrus, vinegar or wine, but you don't want it to taste 'sour'. This is why I add flavors - a little here and a little there - each step of the way. Tasting with each addition. I might add a pinch or two of salt as I'm beginning to sauté onions and garlic. Then, when I add the next ingredient, taste and add a bit more. You build flavor a layer at a time.
I've written about many of my favorite herb/spice blends on this website. They run the gamut of cuisines, but I have some favorites. I cannot live without the Lake Shore Drive Seasoning from The Spice House for just about any vegetable. Similarly, the Summer Garden Salt-Free Herb blend from Penzey's, and the Everything But Salt Blend from Salty, Savoury, Sweet The Spice & Tea Shoppe.
These three will get you started! Buy in a larger quantity that works for you, keeping a little handy on the shelf with the rest tightly wrapped and in the freezer.
When all else fails: Onion and garlic powder. Salt and Pepper. Finish with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.
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