Have you ever said that you don’t like to eat a certain vegetable? Have you ever found a restaurant that makes that vegetable in a way that you like it, but won’t eat it anywhere else? I get feedback like that a lot at the restaurants where I cook. Someone will say, “I hate brussels sprouts; but, however you make them I like.” Or, “I never liked broccoli until I tried it the way you make it.” I don’t have a secret recipe for vegetables. I just make sure I am being the best at the basics and the rest follows. Let’s look at a couple of general rules that I follow when it comes to different types of vegetables. As long as we follow these guidelines, cooking fresh vegetables full of flavor will never be a problem.
There will always be some things that you can not make any better for some people. I’ve only liked two specific preparations of liver. Rumaki takes a soy based marinated piece of chicken liver, a water chestnut, and wraps them in bacon. Take that and deep fry it. I was able to say I didn’t hate it but I would never ask for it. I also made a dirty rice with liver and I think I spiced it up enough that I didn’t hate it. That being said, I still don’t like liver and probably never will at this point. So don’t get discouraged when the kids still don’t like lima beans.
Making Vegetables Taste Better
I bet you thought vegetables can taste pretty good without cooking them at all. Or maybe you heard that raw vegetables are better for you since they haven’t lost any nutrients through applied heat. There are a lot of tasty vegetables that are very good on their own. There are also a lot that get better with a quick blanching, even if they are to be served raw or cold.
One rule I like to use is for almost any green vegetable I blanch before doing anything else. Blanching a green vegetable will brighten the color, it will take away an inherent bitter flavor. This bitter flavor goes unnoticed for a long time until that first time you taste it before and after blanching. Suddenly you realize the benefits of this very quick process.
- A large enough pot so that you can submerge the vegetable you are blanching entirely even if that vegetable is just going to float.
- You need to salt the water, not as much as pasta but a generous amount nonetheless.
- A bowl of ice water that fits the whole batch of vegetables being blanched.
- A spider, or a slotted spoon, or tongs for removing vegetables from pot. I recommend this spider from amazon.com if you don’t have one yet. This tool comes in very handy in blanching and frying.
- Strainer basket or a tray lined with paper towels
- If you have large vegetables, such as broccoli, cut them into smaller even-sized pieces. This will help them cook evenly and more rapidly. The faster the vegetable is blanched the better for keeping its texture and flavor.
- Bring the pot up to a rolling boil and be sure to season with salt. If you have a lot of vegetables to blanch, work in smaller batches so water can return to temperature quicker.
- Add the vegetables to the boiling water. You are now looking for their color to brighten. Once this happens, they are ready to be removed.
- Remove the vegetables and shock them by submerging them into the ice water. You only want them to be in the ice water long enough to stop the cooking process. Usually no more than a minute or two.
- Remove vegetables from ice water and let dry in a strainer or on a paper towel lined tray. This makes sure that the vegetables don’t retain any of the water from the blanching and shocking processes.
Now the vegetables are ready to eat, store, or cook in any way.
My first chef mentor would add a couple tablespoons of white vinegar when blanching carrots. As I’m writing this, I realize that I still don’t know exactly why we didn’t just use salt. It worked so I never thought to find out why. So if anyone reads this and has a good answer to this, please leave me a comment below. I still advise to do this because it does work. It may be that carrots are a root vegetable and are more dense.
Other colored vegetables such as peppers, radishes, eggplant, squashes, tomatoes, and other root vegetables Let’s look at different preparations for and some are just left alone entirely. The vegetables left alone I classify as anything I can take the salt shaker to the garden to eat on the spot. Radishes and tomatoes are my favorite salt shaker to the garden veggies.
Blanching Vegetables: Timing Guidelines
So now you may be wondering exactly how long it takes for the vegetables to turn a brighter color. What if I don’t realize they are getting brighter and I overcook them? Here is a guide for cooking times on various green vegetables.
You may want to leave them in longer than what I suggest. It all depends on how much crunch you want, how big the batch is, how big the vegetable itself is, and also I am going to underestimate the cooking times so you know how soon to look for the color change.
Some things just cook fast. If I am going to be cooking something right away, I may use a quick blanching technique based on how fast that vegetable cooks. If it is something like peas or spinach, I may add the vegetable to an already hot pan, then add a small amount of water in order to steam the vegetable. I will then salt the vegetable itself and toss until it is evenly cooked by the little amount of water. I will then immediately add my olive oil or butter and finish sautéing the vegetable right then and there.
- asparagus – 1 – 1.5 minutes
- green beans and snap peas – 1 minute
- lima beans – 1-2 minutes ( depending on batch size )
- peas – about 30 seconds
- broccoli – 1 – 1.5 minutes
- brussels sprouts – 2 minutes ( less if halved or quartered )
- cabbage and radicchio – 1.5 – 2 minutes
- greens: beet greens, chard, kale – 1- 2 minutes
- greens: bok choy and collard greens – 2 minutes
- greens: mustard greens and spinach – 1 minute ( see note on quick blanching )
- corn – 1-2 minutes depending on how soft you like it
Remember, these are just guidelines. Play around with timing, starting with shorter times and adding more based on how you like to eat your vegetables.
Different Ways to Cook Your Fresh Vegetables
Now that you have blanched your vegetables, and you may have already practiced this a few times and have a bunch of pre-blanched veggies in your refrigerator, let’s explore the different ways to cook them.
I love to grill vegetables. Here you have a lot of versatility with what you can do. You can grill any vegetable. The most natural vegetables for grilling are the ones that will easily fit across the grate without falling through the cracks. First you want to toss the vegetables with some olive oil, and then season with salt. Add some freshly cracked pepper and you are ready to go. You can flavor the vegetables with any spice or dried herbs before grilling. When they are done, you can add fresh herbs, drizzle a finer tasting olive oil or balsamic reduction, or simply serve.
For grilling, you want to make sure the grill is as hot as it can get. Remember, these are vegetables and will cook quickly. Also, keep in mind that they are going to be coated in oil which will flare. If you can keep the vegetables over the diffuser without having the oil flare up, that is ideal. It doesn’t always work this way. I tend to lay my vegetables across the grill and then move them away from where the flames refuse to die down. Another trick you can use is to spread some salt over the flare-ups. The salt will soak up the oil and put out the flame. Just avoid adding all that extra salt to your food.
Once you begin to see nice dark grill marks on the vegetables, turn them to grill the opposite side. You don’t need to have the grill marks completely covering the vegetable, just enough to impart that grilled flavor.
When cooking alongside a protein, you want to wait until the protein is in the last 2 – 5 minutes of cooking/ resting. If you have a large steak that needs to rest for 5 minutes before serving, let it rest while you cook your vegetables. That way you can plate everything at the same time and nothing overcooks.
Sauté literally translates to “jump”. To sauté is to make the ingredients jump in the pan. You use a small amount of fat and high heat. Great options for sautéing are any vegetables that are naturally or cut to smaller sizes. Sliced carrots, diced eggplant, broccoli florets, peas, spinach, etc.
Get your sauté pan extremely hot. Grab the handle with one hand and hold off the heat. Pour olive oil around the outer rim for either one or two whole circles. You can also use butter, add a couple pads of butter off the heat and allow to melt. Add your vegetables and return to the heat. Toss the vegetables a few times in order to get an even coating of oil. In order to get this motion down, you want to make a backwards “C” with the front tip of the pan. As you come up at the beginning of the “C” movement, you want the ingredients to move out of the pan and then you catch them towards the back of the pan as you come down to finish the “C” movement. Practice this with dried beans in your favorite sauté pan. Eventually you get the knack for proper sauté movement. This actually cooks and distributes seasonings more evenly than just stirring. Season with a pinch or two of salt. Add any flavor, such as cracked pepper, spices or dry herbs. Continue to toss over the high heat. Like grilling, you want to cook the vegetables until there is a nice dark amber color beginning to show on the edges. Once you have a nice color, it doesn’t have to be completely covering them, add some fresh herbs slide out of the pan to plate.
I especially love to sauté green beans, snap peas, carrots, eggplant, brussels sprouts, and green or yellow squash. I usually like to add onions, garlic, and colorful bell peppers to these, either a combination of a few of these or even all at once for a nice vegetable pasta dish. Brussels sprouts are one of the vegetable dishes I would get a lot of converters who never liked them until they had mine.
For brussels sprouts, I cut into quarters so they cook faster and also have a different texture than just a big old brussels sprout. Add them to an extremely hot pan and toss a couple times. Add about 1-2oz of water and cover. Let steam for about 1-2 minutes. Uncover, add a pinch of salt, toss and return to the heat so that almost all the remaining water steams away. Now add about 3-4 pads of butter. You want the pan to stay on high heat. The brussels sprouts should get a deep golden brown around their edges. Add one last pinch of salt, toss and plate.
There are more methods of preparing vegetables, such as souflées, purées, and mashes, but I only want to cover one more method. Roasting is very similar to grilling in preparation. You want to toss with oil and season and flavor. Then transfer the vegetables to a sheet pan. Spread the vegetables evenly on the pan. Bake in an oven on the upper racks at a minimum of 425 degrees F. Now you’re looking for a nice dark color around the edges.
Roasting is great for making a lot of different vegetables at once. I like to add broccoli and cauliflower to my baking sheet and then make the main protein. Fish is usually pretty good with these vegetables. When I’m finishing the main dish (if it’s fish, when I start it because it cooks quickly), I put the sheet pan in the oven and everything gets done about the same time.
I know I have butter as an ingredient on a lot of different lessons. If you are concerned about eating healthily, you can use only 1 pad of butter at the end of the cooking process for the flavor. If you don’t want butter at all, you can easily replace it with olive oil. Experiment with using less of any fat or oil. It’s all about getting the flavor you want and enjoy with using the least amount of fat.
These three methods of cooking vegetables all use high heat and short cooking times. You don’t want to overcook your vegetables. This will bring back that bitter flavor that we worked so hard to get rid of at the blanching stage. Also, overcooked vegetables have a soft texture. We want our beans to snap, and our carrots to crunch. We want to have nice crispy tops of broccoli and firm stems that aren’t turned to mush. If you achieve the wonderful textures I am describing, you didn’t overcook the vegetables and that means you retained a lot of their nutrients.
Remember you can always stop after blanching and eat the vegetables raw. Just try to avoid using some tasty sauces you learned to make in the previous lessons.
Feel free to leave any questions or comments below. Now go enjoy your vegetables.