Cooking School Day 3: How to Be a Cook Who Can Make Any Vegetable Fun to Eat
Onward in Kitchn Cooking School, and we’re so excited because it’s VEGETABLE DAY! Have you ever brought home a big pile of kale, beets, or squash, only to watch it all wilt or brown in the back of your fridge? Or maybe you did cook something, but it turned into a sad, unappetizing pile? All the sad trombones. Well, today your vegetable hesitancy vanishes. By the end of this lesson you’ll feel ready to grasp and transform any vegetable into something fun, flavorful, and — best of all — never wasted.
Watch: A Crash Course in Vegetables | Cooking School
These days, vegetables are more important than ever. Our parents may have been meat- and potatoes-eaters, but more and more of us want a variety of plants to be at the heart of our plates. Many of us grew up, however, with approaches to cooking that didn’t prepare us for making veggies so central. Vegetables, in their wonderful variety and flavors, can also be hard to get right. There’s a reason “eat your vegetables” is an expression for doing something awful: They can be all too easy to overcook and under-season.
Start Here: Vegetables, the Fun Way
Once you learn the different categories of vegetables and some basic techniques for cutting and preparing each kind, you’ll be much more confident about incorporating them into dishes. So first, let’s talk about categories.
What Kind of Vegetable Is It?
Broadly speaking, most vegetables fit into a few categories, based largely on the part of the plant they come from. And you can get a broad sense of how to cut it, clean it, and cook it, by first thinking about what kind of veggie it is.
There are root vegetables such as beets, potatoes, carrots, radishes, and turnips. There are vegetables that have seeds and stems, like squashes, peppers, tomatoes, and green beans (these are fruit, botanically speaking, but we use them as vegetables because of their savory tastes and characteristics). There are leafy greens like lettuce, but also heartier greens you cook, such as kale, collards, spinach, and rainbow chard. And finally there are the stalks and/or tops of plants. Celery and leeks, fit here, but also spring onions and cruciferous veggies like broccoli and cauliflower.
Cleaning vegetables is an often-overlooked first step, but any vegetable you bring in the house should be cleaned, whether it’s coming from the grocery store, the farmers market, or your garden. For most vegetables, this means a good wash, possibly a light scrub, and a thorough pat or spin dry (especially if you plan to cook with oil).
For hearty root vegetables, a good scrub with a clean brush does wonders, but every vegetable should be washed well before cooking. Even mushrooms can be washed and dried (as long as you don’t leave them to soak). You don’t need to waste money on spray washes, though — cold water and a brush is ultimately just as effective.
Despite common belief, many root and fruit vegetables do not need to be peeled. Carrots, beets, radishes and the like can simply be scrubbed and dried, and will taste (and look) perfectly fine in a dish. Bonus: You’re saving on food waste! Potato skins, of course, change the texture of a dish (but mashed potatoes with the skins can be delightful), so whether you trim depends on your needs. If you do prefer to trim vegetables, and don’t like the idea of waste, keep the scraps in a gallon bag in the freezer — when it gets full, make vegetable stock.
As we mentioned in Day One of cooking school, one of the most valuable things you can do when preparing any dish is to cut vegetables into roughly the same-size pieces. This will ensure more even cooking, and help the dish taste better. Most vegetables are straightforward to cut, and need little extra instruction (as long as you’re practicing your knife skills).
How you cut a vegetable depends largely on what category of vegetable it is. Watch the video above or read the instructions below for help preparing all of these. Root vegetables tend to be easy: Simply trim an end, so it sits flat, and then chop or dice. Vegetables with inedible seeds and stems, like peppers, are a little trickier: You’ll want to remove the flesh without getting the seeds everywhere. Thicker leafy greens like kale or Swiss chard need to have their (edible) stems removed (the stems take longer to cook) but the leaves can be rolled up and sliced into ribbons, and the stems can be chopped like any other stem vegetable. Plant tops — especially cruciferous plants like broccoli or cauliflower — will make a mess if you try to separate them from the top down. Instead, remove the stalks from the stem, to make less of a mess.
Here are some of the most common vegetables, and some instructions for how to cut each of them.
There are probably as many ways to cook vegetables as there are vegetables to cook, but if you find yourself facing a pile of vegetables and without a recipe (or one you like) there are two very basic, and very easy methods that will make nearly any vegetable delicious. And if you have these “recipes” memorized and turn to them again and again, you will find that — yes, we have reached peak fun! — it’s truly fun to transform a vegetable that would otherwise have withered or gone unused into something that is delicious and nourishing.
So if you have an assortment of vegetables, chop them into evenly sized pieces and sort them roughly by kind (roots, fruits, stalks, etc.) and by density. Then do one of two of the following things:
Roast them. Preheat an oven to 425°F, season everything generously with salt and enough oil that each piece feels slick, and begin roasting them. You can roast vegetables individually, pair together ones that roast at the same rate, or roast them in stages. Here’s more on how to roast any vegetable.
Make soup. If you have broth on hand, nearly any vegetable or group of vegetables can be made into a delicious soup! You simply sauté the firmer vegetables in oil or butter, add stock, and simmer until everything is tender, seasoning to taste. Here’s more on how to make soup from almost any vegetable.
If You Learn Just One Thing Today …
A handy way to make nearly any vegetable delicious is to cut it into roughly even bite-sized pieces, toss it with a little oil and some salt and pepper, and roast it. Roast at 425°F, check it regularly with a fork, and take it out when it’s crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. This works for practically everything except for leafy, tender greens like lettuce.
And actually, when it comes to lettuce, the first part of this advice still holds: Cut it into bite-sized pieces and season with salt and pepper before dressing your salad and adding other ingredients. You will be surprised by how much better it tastes.
What You Don’t Need to Worry About
Don’t spend too much time fretting over organic versus conventional produce. Organic stuff might be better for the environment, but there’s little evidence that organic foods are much healthier and they’re not any less safe. In fact, there are no long-term safety effects associated with eating conventional produce. So whether you’re on a budget or just don’t want to spend a small fortune on kale, go ahead and buy the regular stuff. Conventional, organic, fresh, or frozen — no matter how they get to your plate, the one thing that every doctor and nutritionist will agree on is that it’s good to eat more vegetables.
Level Up! Vegetable Pro Tips
Our Favorite Vegetable Tools
We have recommendations for basic gear on our equipment checklist, but here are a few more tools specifically for vegetables that can save time, and frustration.
5 Recipes to Make the Most of Vegetables
All of our assignments have three options, depending on how much time you have today. Do what you can; come back for more later!
15-Minute Assignment: Watch & Read
If you haven’t yet, watch the crash course video above. After that, read through the primers on cutting vegetables, below. If you could pick just one thing from all this information, what would you like to try first?
30-Minute Assignment: Practice!
Check your work: How long did it take everything to cook? How quickly did the harder vegetables cook compared to the softer ones? Now taste what you’ve made. How do the vegetables taste, when cooked? How do the tastes combine when the vegetables are eaten together?
60- to 120-Minute Assignment: Stretch Yourself
Read through this recipe for French ratatouille, and then assemble the ingredients, and make it. When you get to step four, remove a small portion, season, and taste it. Repeat this every 20 minutes or so as long as you can, or until the full 1 1/2-hour cook time is up. Write down your best description of the tastes and textures of the stew each time.
Check your work: Compare your descriptions of each of the stew’s iterations. What changed? What qualities did you like about each? This dish is a classic combination of eggplant, squash, and peppers. What does each ingredient bring to the dish? What would be missing if it were removed?
What It Takes to Be an Expert Vegetable Cook
Regardless of what you absorb now or how much you practice this weekend, it takes a long time to really master cooking vegetables. And there are hundreds, if not thousands, of techniques for preparing vegetables from cuisines around the world — from long, slow cooking, to preparing and eating them raw. Consider the various categories of vegetables, and try using the same recipes on similar vegetables. This will help you learn which qualities each ingredient brings to a dish.
You can also join your Kitchn Cooking School cohort in our Kitchn Facebook group, which is devoted to all things Cooking School this month.
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