Vegetables: More than Just a Pretty Plate
The array of vegetables available in grocery stores and farmers markets today is astounding. With health and nutritional consciousness becoming a top priority in many people's lives, vegetable consumption has gained popularity like never before. Not only are we seeing an increase in the variety of different types of vegetables, but there is also more variety in types as well. Until recently, if you wanted to purchase some potatoes, for example, your choices were somewhat limited. Today, however, you can choose from russets, Yukon Golds, Yellow Finns, fingerlings, purple Peruvians, butterballs, red creamers, yellow creamers, and that is just a partial list.
Eat (and Cook) with the Season
All of this variety often makes the decision making process difficult. A number of factors are taken into consideration when deciding which vegetables to use. The most important thing to remember is to choose vegetables that are at their seasonal best and that are the freshest. How you cook your vegetables is really a matter of personal preference, but there are certain techniques that are more suited to certain types of vegetables than others. Cooking techniques affect qualities such as color, flavor, texture, and nutrients.
Cooking Techniques: How to Prepare Perfect Veggies
The most common methods for cooking vegetables are boiling or simmering, steaming, stir-frying or sautéing, roasting, grilling and broiling, stewing and braising, and frying. Let's talk a bit about these different techniques, and when to use which:
Boiling and Simmering
Boiling and simmering vegetables is a fast and effective way to cook them, but can sometimes water-log them and deplete their nutrients. This is a great technique for vegetables that are going to be mashed or pureed because it cooks them through and makes them very soft.
Steaming is often a favorite way to cook vegetables because they retain their color, flavor, and nutrients and cook fairly quickly. Stir frying and sautéing are good techniques for vegetables that have been par cooked or for those where you want a nice, brown color on the outside.
Roasting is a good technique to use for larger, denser vegetables, with thick skins like potatoes and winter squash. Vegetables for roasting are usually left whole or cut into large pieces, and are allowed to cook from the inside out. Roasting allows the sugars in the vegetables to rise to the surface and caramelize, resulting in a rich, brown color and often sweet flavor.
Grilling and Broiling Vegetables
Grilling and broiling are good cooking techniques for vegetables that are dry to the touch, but have a relatively high moisture content. The key to great grilled or broiled vegetables is to make sure that they are cooked over high, direct heat and that they take on color and flavor from the heat source before they start to give off any liquid. Grilling or broiling at too low a temperature results in a vegetable that just steams and turns to mush. Often, grilled and broiled vegetables are brushed with a little bit of oil to attract the heat and get the cooking process moving more quickly.
Stewing and Braising Vegetables
Stewing and braising are techniques that cook vegetables for a longer time at a lower temperature. Like stewing and braising meats, stewed vegetables are often cut into smaller pieces while braised vegetables are typically cooked in large pieces or whole. This cooking method allows the vegetables to cook and be served in their own juices, thus retaining most of their nutrients and providing the true, full flavor of the vegetable.
Frying vegetables is quite common, and while certainly the least nutritious way to serve them, it is one of the tastiest. The best vegetables for frying are those that are low in moisture and cook quickly. Frying allows a vegetable to become brown and crispy on the outside while remaining soft and creamy in the center.
How to Select Fresh Vegetables
Purchasing, storage, and preparation are all factors that also affect vegetable cookery. As previously mentioned, the best vegetables are those that are in season and freshly picked. Look for vegetables that are firm, brightly colored, and not bruised or damaged. Ideally purchasing vegetables from a farmers market where they have just been picked and are at their freshest and most nutritious would be best. As vegetables age, they decrease in nutritional value, flavor, and often in texture.
Properly Store Your Veggies
Once purchased, vegetables need to be properly stored so they remain at their best until you are ready to use them. Potatoes and hard squash should be stored in a cool, dark and dry place. Onions and garlic should be stored in the same way, but should not be stored near potatoes as they have an adverse effect on each other. Tomatoes are best stored at room temperature unless they are over-ripe, in which case they should be refrigerated and used quickly. Most other vegetables should be refrigerated in a clean, dry bag until you are ready to use them. Remove the leafy tops from any vegetables that have them, such as carrots or beets, before refrigerating because the leaves absorb moisture from the vegetables and cause them to lose moisture more quickly.
Prepping Your Veggies
Without exception, all vegetables should be wiped, or washed, before you prepare them. Even those vegetables that are peeled should have any excess dirt removed before you proceed with them. A soft brush is often preferred for washing vegetables and can get into difficult crevices that may not otherwise be reached.
Peeling and trimming vegetable skins like carrots and potatoes is a common practice. Sometimes vegetables like broccoli or asparagus have a tough outer layer on the stalk or stem. In this case the tough, fibrous outer layers are removed and the tender, edible layers revealed. Some other preparation techniques include removing the ends and strings from pod vegetables such as green beans and snap peas or removing outer leaves from artichokes. Some vegetables like peppers must be cleaned internally before they are ready for use; the seeds also need to be removed. Leeks and scallions need to have any dirt and grit that has accumulated inside removed.
Vegetables can be classified in any number of ways and this is sometimes confusing because some vegetables fall into a number of categories. For the sake of consistency, we will categorize vegetables in future lessons by which part of the plant is to be eaten.
When is a Vegetable Really a Fruit?
The distinction between fruits and vegetables is often blurred when it comes to cooking. Many foods are technically fruits, but are treated as vegetables when they are consumed and fall into a broad category known as fruit vegetables. Botanically speaking, fruits are the ripened ovary and seeds of a plant that reproduce when they are pollinated. Most people choose to distinguish fruits and vegetables by taste and categorize fruits as being sweet and vegetables as being savory.
Some of the more common fruit vegetables are tomatoes, peppers, avocados, cucumbers, eggplant, and squash. While many of these do have some sweetness to them, they are much lower in sugar than traditional fruits and are typically eaten in savory preparations and not desserts.
Because all of these differ so much from one another, there is no one standard for purchasing and storage.
Recipe for Success
For more information and ideas on how to prepare some of these fabulous vegetables, check out the yummy recipes to the right!
About the Author
After receiving degrees from the University of Wisconsin and the Culinary Institute of America, Andrea Rappaport moved into a full-time career in the restaurant business. For over 12 years, she worked in various culinary jobs, including as a cook for Wolfgang Puck at Spago, and ultimately as the executive chef and partner of the highly revered San Francisco restaurant Zinzino. For the past seven years, Andrea has worked as the private chef for one family in the San Francisco area, and continues to expand her culinary portfolio by catering, teaching, and consulting.