More and more vegetables are making their way onto our plates. And more of these vegetables and the ones we’ve loved for years are moving from the side of the plate to the center.
Vegetables, when prepared properly, are delicious, visually appealing, and amazing sources of nutrition.
When you match the right cooking techniques with the vegetable in hand, whether it’s a can of corn or a fresh Portobello mushroom, you can transform your ingredient into something magical, and memorable.
Mastering a few simple techniques will advance your culinary skills and make you a better overall cook, while expanding your repertoire of dishes.
Let’s touch briefly on a few techniques that are perfectly suited for properly preparing vegetables:
Steaming is an excellent way to prepare vegetables, ensuring each vegetable or piece is cooked similarly, to the ideal texture. Vegetables steam to perfection in differing amounts of time, so it is critical to know how long to steam each for, and stop the cooking process at the precise moment. This is true for most vegetable cooking methods, although a few techniques are a bit more forgiving, and may not result in vegetables that are overcooked.
The technique of placing vegetables into boiling water, usually for a very brief period of time, often only seconds, and plunging them into ice water is useful in a number of applications. Stopping the cooking process prohibits many vegetables from becoming too soft or soggy. This is a common technique for preparing vegetables for use in many salads. Blanching some vegetables allows the skin to easily be removed. Tomatoes are often blanched for this purpose. Potatoes are often blanched before being finished by sautéing, deep-frying, or another cooking method.
Sauté vegetables in hot butter or oil until they begin to caramelize. Simmer your browned vegetables in a bit of vegetable or chicken stock, and serve. The technique can be enhanced along the way with additions of steps and including some additional flavors along the way such as herbs and spices, garlic and aromatic vegetables, fresh citrus juice and zest, crushed nut or bread garnishes. Your imagination can run wild.
A pan large enough to hold small vegetables or uniformly cut pieces without crowding is heated over medium heat. Oil or butter is added when heated sufficiently the vegetables are introduced to the pan. Usually the vegetables are left untouched until they have had a chance to brown on one side, and then flipped, stirred or tossed around a bit to brown a different side. Vegetables can be cooked completely by sautéing or started using this method, and finished using a second method. Sautéing plays a large role in the creation of soups, stews, and casseroles.
This is an exceptional technique for bringing out the natural sugars in the vegetables. The sugars caramelize and add tremendous flavor and texture. Oven roasting is ideal for larger, heartier vegetables Carrots and onions, winter squash, potatoes and beets are among the favorites for being cut into equal size pieces, brushed with olive oil or butter, placed on baking sheets and roasted in the oven until browned on the outside with perfectly soft interiors. Roasting Is typically done with higher heat to ensure they are nicely browned. Vegetables will have different cooking times, and will need to be removed from the oven to avoid overcooking or burning, while others finish roasting.
In general, for perfectly grilled vegetables, cut into large even pieces, brush or toss with a light coating of olive oil, apply seasonings, place on grill over medium heat. Directly over the heat source may be too hot, as vegetables will burn quickly if the heat is too high. Allow your vegetables to sit on the grate until they have nice grill marks and are half cooked. Turn carefully using tongs, and finish grilling. Remember many vegetables such as asparagus and zucchini will continue cooking after being removed from the heat, so avoid over cooking them.
This technique is used to quick roast vegetables. Prepared as if they will be oven roasted, the vegetables are placed under a broiler element for several minutes, turned and finished cooking in just a few more minutes. Another useful application for broiling vegetables is the removal of skins from chile peppers. Burning the skin on the outside of the pepper allows it to be removed easily. The flesh of the pepper softens during the cooking process. The skin is discarded and the flesh of the pepper is ready for use.
Acorn Squash – The popular winter squash can be steamed or boiled for use in soups, or to mash like potatoes. Oven roasting is perhaps the best cooking technique for bringing out the natural flavors. The lovely round shape of acorn squash makes it perfect for cutting in half and roasting. The neutral flavored softened flesh of the roasted squash pairs well with butter, brown sugar maple syrup, garlic, honey, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Asparagus – Asparagus is delicious raw, and well suited for most cooking techniques. The spears come in three sizes – pencil, standard and jumbo. The classification relates to the thickness of the spears. Freshness is the key when choosing asparagus; whether you choose thin or thick spears is a matter of preference. In general, overcooking is to be avoided. The spears become mushy and undesirable to eat. Steaming is an excellent method to prepare asparagus in its natural state. Sautéing in butter or olive oil brings out the natural sugars of the asparagus. Oven roasting the spears showcases their nutty flavor.
Avocado – Avocados have a rich, creamy, buttery flavor and texture. Known mostly as the star of guacamole and delicious raw, they are terrific in a number of dishes including sandwiches, salads, soups, and dips. Incredibly versatile, the avocado has a place in breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert dishes.
Beans – Beans come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Many varieties of beans are available in dried and hydrated forms. Recommended cooking techniques vary depending on the bean type. The majority of beans, the smaller varieties such as kidney, pinto, Great Northern, navy, etc. are often simmered for long periods to soften the bean completely. Green beans are an example of a bean that loves being sautéed or oven roasted. Beans are an excellent source of protein, fiber and minerals, and an ideal choice as a meat substitute.
Broccoli – Steaming and boiling broccoli are the two most popular methods for preparing broccoli. Broccoli continues to cook after it has been removed from the heat source and breaks down quickly. Avoid overcooking. Sautéing and oven roasting broccoli are excellent ways to introduce some seasoning and complimentary flavors to your broccoli while the vegetable browns slightly and the natural flavors come out. Broccoli pairs well with chile pepper, garlic, lemon, cream sauces, butter, nuts, and melted cheese.
Brussels Sprouts – Perfectly cooked is the desire with Brussels sprouts. Blanching or steaming for a few minutes and then finishing cooking in the oven or by sautéing is an excellent way to infuse some flavor into your vegetable at the same time bringing out the natural sugars and nuttiness. Brussels sprouts pair very well with bacon, pancetta, butter, garlic, sea salt, fresh ground black pepper, cream, and cheese.
Butternut Squash – A holiday staple, butternut squash are available year-round, store well for months and can be prepared using several cooking methods for an infinite number of incredible savory and sweet dishes. Halved or quartered and oven roasted, peeled and sliced into perfect circles for a rustic tart or casserole, peeled and chopped into large pieces as a foundation for a vegetable stew. Butternut squash are versatile and ideal for putting something delicious and fresh on the table.
Carrots – Favored in both sweet and savory dishes, carrots are often part of a dish as opposed to the star. Wonderful raw eaten out of hand, or in salads, the naturally sweet carrot is delicious with a lovely crunch. Simmered, boiled, braised, and steamed softens carrots while maintaining their pleasant sweetness. Roasting and sautéing carrots delivers deep, rich flavor.
Cauliflower – The sweet, natural nutty flavor of cauliflower will shine through whether steamed, stir-fried, roasted, braised or sautéed. The vegetable roasts very well, keeping much of its crunch. Cauliflower mashes and purees beautifully making it ideal as a replacement or complement to potatoes, and a perfect thickener and flavorful addition to soups and stews.
Corn – One of the few vegetables that’s desirable out of a can or a frozen box. Fresh corn from the cob dripping with butter, sea salt, and fresh ground black pepper does not get much simpler to prepare, or more enjoyable to eat. Corn on the cob is glorious when steamed or grilled. Corn kernels can be prepared using most cooking methods. Sautéing and oven roasting will bring out the natural sugars and enhance the flavor and texture of this very popular vegetable. Corn is a staple in soups and stews, and pairs well with fish, seafood, garlic, bacon, potatoes, tomatoes, basil, and mushrooms.
Eggplant – Eggplant can be cooked a variety of ways. The versatile vegetable is naturally bitter, but with some help can become much less bitter. Eggplant takes on flavor very well, meaning herbs, spices, garlic, onion, braising liquids, sauces, and the other ingredients in the dish can impact the way it tastes. Eggplant is a staple in curries, soups, stews, and casseroles. Roasting or grilling large eggplant slices or whole eggplant is common and an excellent method for bringing out the natural sugars and even more flavor. Eggplant should always be fully cooked.
Mushrooms – Mushrooms are ideal for high preparations. Sautéing, stir-frying, grilling, and oven roasting are exceptional at browning mushrooms and crisping their exteriors, while bringing out their natural rich, nutty flavor. The trick with sautéing and oven roasting, especially with button mushrooms, is to maintain high heat and not to overcrowd. Leave space between mushrooms so they are less likely to stew as they release their juices. Mushrooms are perfectly suited for steaming, braising, and stewing a well. There are dozens of mushroom varieties available in dry and hydrated form. Each requires a little knowledge and practice to entice its best flavor and texture.
Peppers – There are sweet peppers and hot peppers. Sweet peppers such as bell pepper are high in vitamin A and vitamin C. They are delicious raw and require very little preparation to be cooked. Regardless of the cooking technique used, bell pepper cooks quickly. The sweet peppers are staples in egg dishes, soups, stews, pastas, and adorning pizzas. Chile peppers are ideal for adding some heat to your favorite dishes. The heat level ranges from barely noticeable to seriously scorching. Much of the heat resides in the seeds and inner membrane. The heat from chile peppers diminishes some when the peppers are cooked.
Potatoes – They are rarely if ever eaten raw as they contain toxins that are largely killed off when cooked. Potatoes are steamed, boiled, simmered, and braised. They are staples in soups and stews. One of the world’s largest food crops, potatoes are a regular part of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They are prepared using most cooking methods and take well to them all. Potatoes should not be undercooked. They pair well with dozens of foods including garlic, cheese, cream, butter, leeks, onion, rosemary, and thyme.
Spaghetti Squash – The oblong winter squash variety are usually baked, boiled, steamed, or microwaved whole. Once cut open, the seeds are removed, and a fork is used to scrape the flesh away from the tougher exterior shell. The strands of squash that fall away resemble cooked spaghetti. Often the strands are sautéed to enhance the flavor and texture and introduce new flavors into the squash. The seeds are edible, and are especially nice when roasted and coated in butter and salt.
Spinach – Although we prefer fresh spinach, the frozen variety has its uses. Frozen spinach is fresh spinach that has been blanched, ensuring cleanliness and providing a bright green color. Fresh spinach is readily available in most supermarkets, often prepackaged. Fresh spinach, especially baby spinach is ideal for salads and incorporating into soups, pastas, casseroles, egg dishes, and a variety of baked items.
Summer Squash – Interchangeable for the most part with zucchini, summer squash, especially the yellow crookneck variety is perfect for salads and a great addition to soups, stews, sautés, pastas, and casseroles. The soft exterior skin is edible, making preparation a snap. Smaller specimens, having fewer seeds and less water, are slightly more desirable. Summer squash cooks very quickly. Avoid overcooking as it becomes mushy.
Sweet Potatoes – The popular root vegetables are versatile in that they can be baked, boiled, fried, or mashed. They may also be used as a substitute for pumpkin or squash in many recipes, and there is generally no noticeable difference in taste. Preparation is only limited by the imagination. They can be used in savory or sweet dishes and they are easy to adapt to any cooking method. Prior to cooking, they should be cleaned well with cold water and dried. The skin can be peeled or left on.
Tomatoes – Canned tomatoes are a pantry staple. They are the preferred choice for preparing many dishes including some soups, stews, and sauces. Diced, peeled whole, tomato sauce, tomato paste, and tomato juice are very useful in most home cook’s kitchens. There are usually around a half dozen fresh tomato varieties at any supermarket. The difference is largely size, the number of seeds, and the juiciness. Freshness is key with tomatoes, and the best tomatoes are those that are in season, and picked right off the vine. Tomatoes are delicious raw and star in many dishes in their uncooked form. Tomatoes can be cooked in every way imaginable, each cooking technique tapping into the unique characteristics of this delicious vegetable (technically fruit).
Zucchini – Small specimens have fewer seeds and less water. Zucchini is delicious raw, eaten out of hand or dressed with a nice vinaigrette. Slicing zucchini incredibly thin is a popular technique for preparing this versatile vegetable. Zucchini is tasty when quickly sautéed over high heat, grilled or oven roasted, or battered and deep fried. Zucchini is a tasty addition to soups and stews.