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?