Veg Doesn't Have to Be Boring: Basic Prep Skills + 5 Side Dishes
One of the most common and useful pieces of advice that can be given to most people is, "Eat more vegetables." We all know this and believe it, but it still needs to be uttered time and time again.
Vegetables are often endured rather than enjoyed. I believe this hints at the key. If you can enjoy eating vegetables rather than tolerating them as a necessary evil, you are on the road to success.
Cooking Is the Key
So why aren't people enjoying their vegetables? "Because they’re horrible!" No, although in some cases the perfectly uniform, immune-to-seasonality supermarket offerings are less flavoursome than the gnarly, still-got-some-dirt-on-them farm shop options. But I digress. Vegetables are the essence of freshness and are usually packed with complex natural sugars. How is that not yummy?
"If you can enjoy eating vegetables rather than tolerating them as a necessary evil, then you are on the road to success."
Because vegetables are being handled wrongly. In a lot of cases, the go-to method for cooking is boiling, which is rarely the best option. It tends to leach out flavor and colour. You've probably seen the green-hued water going down the drain. That wasn't just the beautiful colour you poured down the drain - it was the flavour and a fair few of the essential nutrients, too.
In this article, I will show some of the techniques to creating better vegetables and share a few appealing side dishes for your repertoire.
The Basics: Cutting an Onion
After a brief online chat with the Queen of the Swing, Tracy Reifkind, I've decided to start at the beginning. She said she loved the picture at the top of my Facebook page, which is me chopping an onion for a guacamole. Chopping an onion correctly is a perfect real-world place to reconnect with your food.
Here’s how I dice an onion:
- Cut the top off, the point end, and leave the root intact.
- Place the cut end face down on your board, then cut in half through the root.
- Now peel your halves and set the halves cut-side down on your board.
- Make multiple cuts from root to tip all of the way through to the board, allowing the root to hold it all together. That's why I left it on, you see.
- Cut width-wise at right angles to the last cuts, and voilà.
How to Blanch an Onion
The next step is blanching. To some this may seem like an unnecessary complication, but it has many functions and is the main difference between domestic and professional vegetable cooking.
Blanching comes from the French word blanc, which means white. Rarely are you actually whitening anything, but more avoiding altering its colour. That basically describes one of the process’s functions. Blanching sets the colour of green vegetables, making them appealing to the eye. After all, the first taste is with the eye, and the more we stimulate our senses with food, the more satisfying it is.
"Blanching sets the colour of green vegetables, making them appealing to the eye. After all, the first taste is with the eye, and the more we stimulate our senses with food, the more satisfying it is."
Blanching is also referred to as "parboiling.” The partial boil starts the cooking process, which allows further processes to be more thorough. It has another benefit, in that it leaches out bitter flavors that can turn people off some vegetables like sprouts, chicory, broad beans, and so on. (Although on a more advanced note, bitter flavours are useful to offset saltiness.)
So how do we do this trick? Easy.
- Bring a large pan with plenty of salted water to a rapid boil. There needs to be enough water so that the addition of the vegetables doesn't drop the temperature too much. As far as salt is concerned, Italians have a typically poetic guide for salting blanching water. They say it should be as salty as the waters of the Mediterranean ocean. But that little bit of lyricism doesn't provide me with any actual insight as I have never been there, so roughly half a teaspoon per pint is fine.
- Drop in your trimmed vegetables and boil for 2-3 minutes.
- Immediately transfer the vegetables to either a bowl of iced water or set them in a colander under running cold water. This is to cool the vegetables as quickly as possible, thus halting the cooking. Then drain to remove excess water.
From here, knowing how to brown vegetables is a simple little bit of knowledge that can make meal times a lot more pleasant. Brassicas - which are your cabbages, all of the broccoli family, and Brussels sprouts - have a lot to gain from a little browning. This idea is often illustrated with the popular idea of frying blanched cabbage or Brussels with bacon.
To brown the vegetables, all you need to do is chop and blanch the vegetables as above, ensuring they are thoroughly drained and evenly patted dry with a clean tea towel. Then quickly sautée them in a pan with a little butter just before serving. This is also an opportunity to add a little flavor if you like. Garlic is always a welcome addition.