Step 1: Eat More Vegetables

A few weeks ago I wrote about the changes we need to make to move towards more sustainable home lives, and how so many of those changes are built on the slow integration of deceptively simple habits like eating more vegetables (The Incredible Power of Habit). Even if you don’t yet have the time or the space to grow your own, you can start right now learning how to eat the vegetables that you will grow in your someday garden.

It sounds easy. Of course, if you had a garden, you would eat like Alice Waters, right? Doesn’t the ability to garnish poached beets with fresh chevre and call it dinner come automatically with that first harvest?

No. No it doesn’t. Not for very many of us.

Because although I adore poached beets and at least two other members of my family will deign to eat a few with me, I cannot call that dinner, cheese or no cheese. In my fantasy housewife life, I serve a small piece of grass fed meat with a simple pan reduction, alongside perfectly steamed local brown rice, those sweet poached beets and a pile of braised greens with garlic. A four part harmony of colors, half vegetables, 3/4 vegetable matter. A lovely, balanced, sustainable meal.

In real life, I remember to put the roast into the crock pot before lunch by some stoke of genius. I don’t think any farther than that until 5pm, when I remember in a rush I need to start the rice before I take the laundry off the line. As I’m setting the table it occurs to me that I have forgotten a vegetable, again. I run out to cut some collards, which I quickly steam with butter. But even I am tired of collards, and my lackluster approach certainly doesn’t appeal to anyone else at the table.

i’ve finally integrated the habit of washing and trimming veggies right when i bring them home, before i put them in the fridge. the beets i stick straight into the crock pot for a couple of hours, then when i crave that beet salad all i have to do is whip up the dressing.

The problem with vegetables is many fold. At the heart of the matter is the fact that most of us didn’t grow up eating them as a central part of our meals. In our culture, vegetables are an afterthought, almost a garnish. When I consider the question of dinner, vegetables are the last thing on my mental list, after protein (1) and starch (2). By the time I get to them, I just don’t have the energy or time to attempt anything beyond ‘cooked, with butter.’

Because dinner, in real life, comes down to a tally of minutes. I usually allow myself about 50 of them to get the job done, start to finish. With kids underfoot. And I am a fast, experienced cook! How many of us can afford more than an hour to prepare dinner? And what can you do in an hour?

In magazines, even in the ‘weeknight dinner’ section hidden in the back, they give you a recipe for one thing, with the associated time estimate. Disregard for the moment the fact that their time estimates are ridiculously low for a first run with a recipe, and consider instead the meal in it’s entirety. Maybe you can make sauteed chicken breast with mango in 20 minutes, if you know your way around the kitchen and don’t pay too close attention to the recipe (following recipes is much more time consuming than just cooking) but the photo shows the chicken reclining on a bed of rice with nothing else on the plate. Is that dinner? Chicken and rice? Probably you are supposed to open a bag of baby salad greens, dump them into a bowl and grab the bottle of salad dressing from the fridge. Even still, between that and starting the rice, you are looking at 30 minutes, for a super efficient cook with mostly pre-prepared ingredients.

What about us? Who start with the whole chicken from the farmers market because it’s the best value, who cook brown rice because it’s a whole food full of nourishing goodness, who feel that vegetables should not come sealed in preservative gas. Real vegetables take time. You start with a plant, necessitating scrubbing/trimming/deveining/chopping or any number of other verbs, just to get it ready to cook.

Then comes– what to do with it?

I actually love plain vegetables steamed with butter. But I do get tired of the same vegetable steamed with butter night after night. And when you eat seasonally, that’s often what you get. Whole seasons of just a few kinds of vegetables. I want to learn new recipes, new ways to make the same old veggies seem different. But I get frustrated by how many “vegetable” recipes are half dairy products. Of course it will taste good if you add a pound of cheese and half a stick of butter. I don’t need a recipe to tell me that.

There are a few good basic tricks out there:

Roasting. The best trick in the book, I’d say. Toss almost any vegetable (except greens) with oil and salt and roast at 350-400 until caramelly brown around the edges and tender through. All root vegetables are divine this way, and some green things too, such as brussel sprouts and asparagus. Sadly, I have trouble justifying the high blast of mostly wasted heat involved with oven roasting and so I only do it occasionally.

Caramelizing is the stovetop version of oven roasting. If you have not learned the joys of properly caramelized onions, you have some magic ahead of you! There are two tricks– not crowding the pan and getting the temperature right. I’ve found the best way is to start out on medium until the onions just start to color and then turning the heat down to med-low and eventually to low (as the moisture cooks out of them they need a lower and lower heat to keep from burning.) You want a nice rich caramel color around the edges of very soft onions. Cooked this way, they are a side dish in their own right, or a start to the best greens you’ll ever eat (see below). Many other vegetables benefit from the same careful temperature treatment– mushrooms are glorious if cooked in a single uncrowded layer until golden brown on both sides; cabbage can be cut into thick wedges, arranged cut side down in a buttered pan and cooked over med-low heat (covered with a lid) until golden brown on both sides and barely tender throughout, one of my favorite ways to eat one of my favorite vegetables; caramelized carrots are a revelation. The downside of pan roasting is that since the vegetables need to be in a single layer you can’t really fit enough in a single skillet to feed a family.

With dressing. I feel Americans are unfairly disadvantaged in the salad department. We have such a narrow view of it. I myself am only sometimes fond of the leafy variety, but I adore many other vegetables dressed in my garlicky homemade goodness— sliced cooked beets, grated carrots, thinly sliced cabbage and/or kale, steamed broccoli, fresh sliced tomato… Though certainly not all at once! In fact, I generally prefer just one kind of vegetable in my salad.

The Color Green

All of those techniques are great, but one of the challenges I’ve had is that my lazy gardens, on both sides of this continent, have generally pumped out one thing in almost nauseating quantity. Greens. And I mean the sturdy brassica variety– kale back home in Alaska, and collards here in New Orleans. Now, understand that I adore greens. Adore them! If I could rotate the kind of greens, I think I could eat them every day. But even I get tired of the strong flavor of collards, day after day after day.

I feel like greens deserve their own little segment here because they are 1. the easiest thing to grow, no matter where you live, 2. unbelievably healthy and 3. completely undervalued and underloved.

arugula, baby mustard, and purple kale. i love arugula for salads, but i’ve also found it can be cooked exactly like spinach and is delicious with eggs.

When new gardeners ask me what they should grow I always say kale or collards, depending on latitude. These hardy brassicas are easy to grow from seed and they look beautiful while growing. Whereas other crops require more careful planning to mature before the end of the season, or on a succession schedule, brassica greens can go in anytime, anywhere. They can be harvested at any stage and over a long season be pulling outer leaves as needed. They grow fast, make lots of extremely nutritious food in a small space, require very little care and generally seem to love life. You can see why I am always inundated with them!

The caveat is that people aren’t used to eating greens more often than a few times a month, if that. And when Americans do eat greens, it’s almost always spinach. Even though homegrown kale and collards are miles better than the tough store-bought versions, they’re still not spinach. And there are precious few recipes for cooking these sturdy greens to inspire newcomers.

Here’s my own green missionary recipe:

Caramelize half an onion in 2 Tablespoons of butter, don’t let them burn! Meanwhile wash a bunch of kale, collards or chard. Trim the thick central stalk out from the middle of the leaf and throw it to the chickens (if using chard, save the stems for this muffin recipe!) Chop trimmed leaves into bite sized pieces. When the onions are nicely browned, throw the greens in along with 1/4 cup each of stock and chopped tomatoes (I keep chunks of each in the freezer for just such an occasion). Cover the pan and allow to steam/fry for about ten minutes, stirring several times. Cook until the greens are tender, adding water if necessary to keep the pan from drying out. Don’t cook so long as to get limp and brown though, that’s only good when there are large quantities of pork involved (and then, my oh my is it good!)

What is your favorite way to cook vegetables? In that post about habits, several of you mentioned favorite cookbooks, and I thought it would be nice to open things up to your advice again. Because despite all those good ideas above, I still find veggies going soft and wilty in my bottom drawer all the time! I myself am not a recipe follower but I am an avid cookbook reader (I read for ideas). As I mentioned earlier, I am often disappointed by the quantity of vegetables in ‘vegetable’ recipes. But then, I think I am trying to get something out of nothing, you know what I mean? I want to use up that 3 pound pile of collards in my fridge, and I don’t want to have to spend $10 on fancy cheese to do it. But I want the end result to taste different than the same old pile o’ collards I always make…. I am hoping for some kind of magic trick I guess.

There’s no magic involved, but I am incredibly inspired by Paula Wolfert’s Mediterranean Grains and Greens. This book is literally half about greens! All kinds of greens, in fact wild greens figure big, as do lesser used cultivated greens like endive and beet greens. Wolfert is an authority on authentic Mediterranean food, and she bases this book almost entirely on the traditional foodways of that region.

Sadly, and this is a lot of the problem for many of us I suspect, I am cooking for an increasingly picky audience. Most of these greens-rich recipes simply don’t get eaten. I perservere with cooking greens, partly out of an obligation to use up the glut of greens from my garden, partly so that at least my kids still see greens on the table, and see me eating and enjoying them. But considering that I am the primary eater, and I have 3 other eaters to cook for, I don’t find the time to sex my greens up. I’m lucky to get the onions caramelized for that missionary recipe above, let alone tantalizing, time consuming recipes like Paula Wolfert’s wild greens gnocchi.

Here are a few of my older posts on cooking with vegetables:

Harvest First, Cook Second— this one discusses Grains and Greens and my corresponding epiphany about local food knowledge

Swiss Chard Ravioli— the 4yo ate these! a big project though, with lots of cheese

If You Can’t Beet ‘Em— pink pancakes go over very well with little people

Green Tomato and Turkey Enchiladas— using up those end of the season beauties

What are you favorites?

29 thoughts on “Step 1: Eat More Vegetables

  1. What a tasty, mouthwatering post CJ, I can literally taste these yummy foods! Definitely makes me want to grow more varieties this year. Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s River Cottage Veg Book is pretty good. Do you get his programmes in the US? His recipes are pretty sexy.

  2. I, personally, hate “salad”. It’s so ubiquitous and it’s so NOT the best way to eat greens! In the past few years, I’ve become far, far more conscientious about eating vegetables. But we really only have salads in the summertime, when we’ve got homegrown lettuce, or some wild greens like dandelion leaves. (A lot of times, a mix of the two since dandelions are very bitter.) The rest of the year it’s easy enough to add lots of vegetables to the foods we already like to eat and prepare. I usually double the number of vegetables a recipe calls for, or even more if the veggies are small. Two carrots? Why not put in four instead? My husband is also really good about adding more veggies to a meal, or thinking of other veggies that would go well in it. When we make pizza, I throw a layer of spinach on first thing. I usually can’t taste it very much, but the nutrition is still there. (I get sick of spinach too.)
    However, I really should be better about adding things like collards and kale into our diet. Thanks for the inspiration! I can’t wait to try the recipe when the kale starts popping up here.

  3. Great post as usual. I’m a big fan of soup. I do one at least once a week during Winter. And my kids love a soup for dinner if it’s blended thoroughly with no chunky bits and served with bread. I can throw loads and loads of veggies in a soup and if I throw in lentils or a bean of some sort we’re getting our protein too.

  4. kale. or chard. or collards. or even (gasp) spinach. but usually kale. (i like lacinato (sp?) chopped, sauteed in coconut oil with walnuts or almonds, pinch of salt and pepper, served over scrambled eggs. i *LITERALLY* eat this every day for breakfast. EVERY DAY. sweet, salty, crunchy, filling. so delish.

  5. Just wanted to say great post. I’m a life long protein-starch clone looking to break the habits, without the repercussion of hubby sneaking down to the convenience store for a nasty burrito cuz he’s afraid of the colored chunks in his food. Lentils and barley also scare him, as do the full bean-pots soaking – but, like you’ve posted, I can plan ahead for the time consuming pieces, then life interrupts and there I am staring down at a simmering pot of beans at suppertime and thinking what now? Thanks for sharing!

    PS – a raw salad of broccoli, avocado, tomato and onion is one of my favs – drizzle w/raspberry vinegar, oh my

  6. Ah, vegetables! The need for us all to eat more is close to my heart. I have faced the boredom of eating the same old veggies, and love your outline for the various was to sneak variety into the menu. Texture and seasoning is everything.

    We just visited my Mom (who I learned to cook from), and I came face to face with just how many veggies we eat now compared to an average “healthy” family – my sister is still living at home (so there’s a family of 3). I was cranky by day 3 for lack of enough veggies. I just didn’t realize I ate so much until there weren’t any.

    I think the biggest thing is baby stepping it. Try eating one serving of veggies at every meal. Yeah, breakfast, lunch and dinner. I might be as simple as fried eggs and celery and a red pepper, or Zucchini pancakes. Then, for lunch I like adding a salad, but agree on using hearty greens. Kale is my fav! For dinner, try making a vegetable stir fry with some meat to help add flavor and stretch the meat:)

    Ok, off to start dinner myself!

    1. god, how do you have time to do all that cutting? i love greens with my morning eggs, but i can barely barely! get the eggs cooked, let alone greens cut and cooked. you could point out tho that this is partly because any kid-easy minutes i get in the mornings i spend drinking coffee and looking at a book. with relish! not about to switch that out for cutting up collards.
      lunch is also a rush job. i love to eat salad in the middle of the day, particularly when it’s hot, but we’ve usually just got back from an exhausting morning outing and it sounds like so much work.
      habit! that’s the key though, right? just baby step it up, like you say.

  7. Since you love butter, highly recommend taking a gander at the Victory Garden Cookbook (linked to the old PBS show of the same name). It’s kind of old-school, but I LOVE it. I’ve had a copy for more than 15 years in my kitchen. It’s all about growing the veggie, then cooking it, all in alphabetical order by veg! :)

      1. Another nice cookbook, similar and newer, is FROM ASPARAGUS TO ZUCCHINI by MACSAC (the Madison Area Comm. Supp. Agr. Coalition). It is
        paperback ,only 12.00 or so and lists each vegetable and info and 3-5 recipes for it. Sold at co-ops.

  8. Have you tried making kraut from your collards? I’ve done it with kale. Not as tasty as cabbage, but hey- it’s a pickle. It’s a good way to use up an overabundance of any veg, and once it’s fermented, you can refrigerate it for months. Delish on sandwiches, plus you get all that probiotic-y goodness in there. Not sure how it would go over with the kids, though.

    1. i made kalekraut once. too strong for my taste. i’m (sadly) a marginal ferment person. wish i liked all and anything, but i only like a few of the regulars– cucumber pickles, cabbage kraut, etc.

  9. I like pan-fried white beans and greens, like this concoction. Otherwise, I tend to chop up greens and just chuck them in everything. Quesadillas or tacos? Greens go in, usually chard but sometimes kale. Baked mac and cheese? A whole head of shredded greens go in before I chuck it in the oven. Fried rice? Lots of greens can fit in there. I also like to go the savory pancake route and just throw a bunch of shredded vegetables into the batter, and serve the finished cakes with plain yogurt or maybe baba ghanouj. Yay greens!

  10. I eat kale for dinner all the time! I AM in alaska, so it makes sense. ;-)
    -in my mind collards, kale, spinach, and chard are pretty much interchangeable… with a few exeptions.

    1. First off. BRAISED! (this is also amazing for carrots, baby turnips with greens still attached- oh my!-, etc.)

    Take a cast iron skillet, drizzle some olive oil or add a pat of butter, pour in a cup or so of liquid -vary it up! stock is amazing and nuanced, red wine is divine, white wine is light, vinegars work too though probably better with stock. You can add chopped garlic (or carmelized onions). Salt and pepper. Cover and stick in the oven. Check it to make sure its not sticking to the pan, but it doesn’t need hovering the way a saute can. The brilliance of this is that it makes its own reduction sauce.

    2. Sautee in your biggest pan or wok. Slice/chop them thinly so they’re about the width of noodles.
    option a – go italianate. Olive oil, balsamic, basil, parsley, thyme, oregano, salt pepper and GARLIC, and onions. Sautee till wilted, toss with pasta. sprinkle parmesean. eat.
    option b – go oriental. Canola oil with a splash of sesame. soy sauce. GARLIC(sweet and sour it up with some wine vinegar or rice vinegar mixed with brown sugar). paprika, coriander, etc. Serve over brown rice.
    **(option b – works great with all kinds of vegetables. just mix together in a great big stir fry with sesame, garlic and soy sauce. Growing up we had a carrot broccoli cabbage onion garlic tofu stirfry once to twice a week. Oriental stirfry works tossed with noodles too. THink Lo Mein or Pad Thai, just with tons of veg.)

    3. Same as above, option a, but add in some beans (and other veggies optionally too). Cook over easy eggs, and top each plate/bowl with one. add parmesean. pierce egg. SOO good. This is italian peasant style.

    4. Quiche. I usually slice potatoes to line the bottom of cast iron, rather than fussing with a crust and tarte pan.
    Take cast iron, cover bottom with sliced potatoes. Nearly fill rest of pan with chopped greens (I usually add carm. onions and sometimes some cheese.) Wisk a bunch of eggs (4-8) and milk with salt pepper and any spices. Basil and thyme are good. So is mustard. Pour eggs over greens. Smoosh around with a fork to make sure all the greens are at least wet with egg. You don’t want a whole lot of greens out of the egg mix, a little is fine, but not too much. Just whisk some more eggs and milk and add if needed. Bake at 300-350 till the eggs in the middle are set and don’t jiggle too much when you shake the pan.
    Serve with ketchup.

    5. If Kale is tender enough, I tear it up and use instead of lettuce in salads.

  11. Hi,
    I found your blog a few weeks ago and have been lurking…

    I’m in the UK, so most of my favourite cookbooks wouldn’t travel across the ocean, but I would second the recommendation for (anything by) Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who I know isn’t completely unknown in the US. I don’t have the veg book, but I love the other books that I do have by him.

    The cookbook I’ve been reading most recently (and I know is everywhere across the internet) is An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler. I read it expecting it to be overhyped, but actually found it interesting and inspirational enough to get me out of the ‘what’s for dinner again’ rut. Veg heavy, (she used to work with/for Alice Waters, so it may lean slightly towards poached beets and fresh chevre!) I found lots to take away from it and I consider myself a pretty good cook.

  12. Oh man, I’ve gotta write this stuff down. I am working on overcoming a lifelong aversion to silverbeet (chard) – mainly because I’ve inherited a big patch of it when we moved house but also because I’ve been craving greens since my baby was born 7mths ago :-). I’ve got a nice patch of Kale coming along for winter too.

  13. My yoga teacher neighbor does a kale salad in which you don’t cook it, you rub it with salt and lemon juice and let it sit. This breaks down the fibers a bit. Then add halved cherry tomatoes. I bet if you don’t like all the salt and lemon juice you can rinse it off before eating.
    I have greens everyday. It grows all winter in Oklahoma.. Right now I have red chard, leftover leek half, a bulb garlic with greens, and a kind of mealy tomato cooking in the leftover juices from making last night’s sausages. Once greens cook down, will add duck eggs. Hmm can’t wait.

  14. This winter, overcome by cabbage, I realized that I could make up a coleslaw recipe that I liked. That was a revelation. I served ribs and mashed potatoes and coleslaw, and my three year old ate the coleslaw for nearly an hour. Cabbage isn’t very green though. I like kale and collards in stews with the roots, rather than alongside. I use kale instead of parsley whenever I get the chance. I need to try making a kale tabouli! I haven’t tried that yet.

  15. I grew up mostly vegetarian, so my ingrained patterns are to think of the vegetables first in a meal… Though I admit, since starting to eat meat – and I do! Alot! – I find myself marginalizing the vegetables as a side to the meal. When I catch myself in that pattern, I sometimes read through (part of) “Sundays at Moosewood.”. Everything Moosewood does is vegetarian (and vegetable full!) So it always reminds me of how veggies can be a meal; and I love “Sundays” because it’s broken into ethnic sections, so there’s so much potential for inspiration. When I’m feeling stuck and in a rut, cooking in a different regional flavor or a few days usually cures me :-)

  16. I grew up with my father’s garden, vegetables repeatedly served whether you liked the way they were prepared or served it was what was on the table. In my middle years i began craving all those old familiar flavors and rediscovered vegetables. Now I’m old enough to be bored with food and love all the inspiration your blog and the comments provide. All these veggies work wonderfully in detox protocols (I hate the word DIET!). Plus if you keep feeding them to your babies in different presentations, they eventually come to love them as we do. My 19yo son is the Hot Pocket King, but he loves broccoli, brussells sprouts, grapefuit, figs and will try any new beg put on his plate. Win-win. Keep up the good food!

  17. I love vegetables, can’t think of one I don’t like (just did: I don’t like broad beans though I will eat them if I have to, like at a friend’s house). A little bit of lemon or vinegar quickly and easily zips the flavour of greens. Garlic, of course. Orange juice, if that’s what you’ve got. (Real) bacon bits. But I like them plain too. Spinach is good if it”s just wilted. Kale chips are great, kids like them, but I find them a lot of trouble to do for myself. Also I eat too many of them.

  18. I[m with you on the need to minimize chopping, if only because it makes time to chop something else. I have gotten out of the habit of using onions with my greens, in lieu of garlic — another rock solid crop that we have access to all year round. I chop up a clove or two, throw it on the heating oil till it’s just starting to brown, add the chopped greens, a sprinkle of salt and cook them till they’re as cooked as you like them. If I’m feeling really fancy, I throw in a handful of raisins (chopped if you have the chance) and some chopped nuts (walnuts, almonds, pinenuts or pecans if you have them). If they’re winter greens (aka kale that has been through a couple frosts) you don’t hardly need the raisins. I do broccoli similarly, but steam it a bit first (i dont use a steamer, just in a saucepan witha cm or two of water). Then drain and whenever you’re about ready to eat, saute the garlic and then add the broccoli and sear it a bit in the hot pan/garlic/garlic flavored oil with salt. We

  19. Where I live, the bumper-crop vegetable is winter squash. Which, conveniently, can be steamed and stuffed with a mix of red (or white or black) beans, quinoa, mushrooms, and shredded hardy-greens-of-choice. Add a maple-mustard-cidervinegar dressing (or some plain yoghurt, either way) and it’s delish.
    I find that mixing cabbage-family veggies with (a) mustard, (b) apple-based products (juice, butter, diced fresh or dried apples…), and/or (c) plain yoghurt tend to be pretty fail-proof. Nutmeg goes well, too. And ginger, if you’ve got it.

    I boil-sautee chopped green or red (either) cabbage in apple juice with a teaspoon of lard on the bottom of the pan, and it works great. It would probably work well with kale (or collards, though you’re back in Alaska now), too.

    Similarly, you could probably swap out the red cabbage and use shredded/ribboned kale (maybe diced chard stems?) to make a raw salad featuring diced apple, dried (sweetened, or not?) cranberries, and crumbled black walnuts (if you’ve got them), dressed in plain yoghurt with a hint of maple syrup and about a teaspoon of grainy mustard thrown in.

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