12 Vegetable Magic Tricks Everyone Should Know
This story is part of Eat More Plants, Kitchn’s June 2021 special issue devoted to putting the flavor and magic of plants at the heart of your plate.
It’s hard to deny the ease and reliability of steamed broccoli and roasted root vegetables. But with so much variety out there in the vegetable kingdom, our salads and side dishes deserve more.
In fact, vegetables treated right can have so much more flavor and piquancy than meat. Personal chef and blogger Charles W. Hunter III of The Salted Table believes that “if people cooked their vegetables with the same intensity they cooked their meats, they would love their vegetables.” Here are a dozen little magic tricks that will intensify flavor and put your vegetables over the top.
Cook your veggies twice.
Potatoes are what typically come to mind when we think of the term “twice-cooked,” but those traditional dairy-filled numbers aren’t the only application. Berkeley cook and author Phyllis Grant loves keeping steamed vegetables like potatoes and cauliflower on hand for quick snacks and side dishes. She reheats them in a skillet with vinaigrette, where they’re seasoned through as they brown in the skillet along with the tangy salad dressing.
Think of this brilliant method sort of like the difference between leftover steamed rice and fried rice: One’s a comforting neutral, and the other is a way to repurpose leftovers. You can reach for those same flavors (garlic, ginger, sesame oil, and soy sauce) when using this method for vegetables, or maybe go with coconut oil, fish sauce, a pinch of sugar, and a squeeze of lime. These punchy flavors would be beautiful on hard squashes!
Crash your mushrooms.
Traditional kitchen wisdom tells you to chop things uniformly to ensure even cooking. While thinly sliced is nice, try breaking this rule when it comes to mushrooms. Instead, pop off the stems, crush the caps with the heel of your hand, and break them up into pieces. Uneven is what you’re going for here. After cooking in a hot pan, the larger pieces stay chewy and meaty, while the smaller bits get crispy and nutty. This contrast of textures is so satisfying!
Make vegetables the dip.
Everyone knows the secret to eating more vegetables is to dip them in ranch. Okay, sort of kidding, but dips are a great way to get more veggies into your day. No offense to ranch, but try making your vegetables the dip instead. Break out your food processor and dig around the leftovers you’ve got knocking around your fridge. Making hummus is perfect as is, but try adding sweet potatoes and a spoonful of miso for a totally different bean dip. Swap in a can of white beans, and add steamed broccoli or thawed, frozen artichoke hearts and lots of lemon and garlic. Red lentils, roasted carrots, and harissa. Thawed frozen peas, spinach, and a spoonful of pesto. A jar of roasted red peppers, smoked paprika, almonds, and sherry vinegar.
These dips are excellent spread onto toast, spooned onto a dinner plate as a base for your protein, or just as a dip for your carrot sticks.
Pickle more than just cucumbers.
A dill spear next to your sandwich is great, but there’s no reason to limit yourself. A basic brine is just water, vinegar, salt, and sugar, plus whatever flavors you’re into. Quick pickles do not require canning, and can be made from all kinds of vegetables. Pickled carrots are great for snacking, but even better when you make them Mexican-style with jalapeños and onions. Thinly sliced radishes make a surprising salad or sandwich topping. Pickled red onions can go on everything from tacos to avocado toast. Grant likes to pickle kumquats to add to her salads. Did you know you can pickle mushrooms? There are so many unexpected ways to pickle whatever vegetables you’ve got on hand.
Learn to season at the right moment.
Charles W. Hunter III actually recommends holding off on salting and seasoning vegetables until halfway through cooking. Adding spices after your vegetables have cooked partway through helps ensure the spices don’t burn. Cumin will taste earthy and coriander will be floral instead of grainy, burnt, and bitter. Same goes for your herbs. Adding them at the end or after cooking preserves their integrity, preventing them from turning black and maximizing their fresh flavors.
Add luxury with a handful of beans.
Beans have such a unique, nutrient-dense profile that the USDA considers them to be both a protein and a vegetable. Dried beans are economical and easy to keep on hand, but don’t feel you have to commit to cooking a full pound at a time. Add a handful or two to your soup pot. The beans release their starch during their long simmer to produce a thick and hearty stew. (This works particularly well for chili.) Cheaper and tastier than canned, and requires nothing more from you but a bit of extra time.
Stop tossing your salads: Design them.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with tossing some mixed greens in a bowl with some cherry tomatoes and oil and vinegar and calling it done. But you can create some real salad magic when you take the time to design it. Think of it like getting dressed — start with your statement piece, and build around that depending on the colors and textures you’re going for. Grant looks at salad-making as combining complementary ingredients to make up a whole that is so much greater than its parts. “I often come from a visual place,” she explains. Skip the salad bowl and reach for a plate instead, showcasing your star ingredient instead of burying it. A head of radicchio is striking, but needs something sweet to offset the bitterness, like a fruit or honey-sweetened dressing. She then steps back and thinks, “‘Oh this needs a little white, some creaminess’ and I’ll reach for the crème fraîche, now I need crunch, so here are the pistachios or hazelnuts.“
And your greens don’t need to be the main event. Maybe your avocados are perfect. Instead of mashing them into oblivion, Phyllis likes to halve and peel them. She fills the bowls with an intense garlic and anchovy vinaigrette, and lays them on a bed of arugula. “And then I think, maybe I want to put all of this on top of some pizza.” Hereby requesting that all salad recipes include pizza.
Make garlic magic with toum.
Toum is a Lebanese garlic dip made up of garlic, lemon, and oil. It’s strong and delivers intense garlic flavor to whatever it’s added to. It’s an emulsification similar to mayonnaise, except instead of egg yolks, it uses many cloves of garlic. Watching garlic transform into a thick and creamy dip is truly like magic. You can use it as a dip, but that’s really just the beginning. Whisk it into salad dressings or marinades. Spread it over a pizza crust before adding toppings for a white pizza. Stir it into pastas or soups, add it to a sandwich, or spread it on bread and toast for an easy garlic bread.
Give chile seeds a second act.
Many parents know the agony of loving spicy foods and having children who decidedly do not. Removing the seeds from chiles is an easy way to temper the heat. But don’t throw the seeds away! Brendan Nomura, chef at Austin’s Old Thousand, steeps them in vinegar or honey. Perfect for vinaigrettes, a quick pickle, or to splash and drizzle over anything that needs a little tangy, sweet heat before serving.
Take your beans for a spin!
Your salad spinner is not just for greens! It’s perfect for canned beans. After draining and rinsing, beans still hold onto a fair amount of water. No biggie if you’re throwing them into a pot of soup. But if you’re adding them to a salad, that extra water can dilute your salad dressings. And it’s nearly impossible to crisp up chickpeas if they aren’t completely dry. Instead of reaching for stacks of towels, give them a spin instead. They’ll shed more water than you imagine!
Give your greens an ice bath.
Ever wonder how that pile of cabbage that often accompanies tonkatsu cutlets is so crisp and fresh? Japanese chefs soak the thinly sliced cabbage in icy cold water, ensuring it’s as fresh and crunchy as possible. The perfect contrast to your fried cutlet.
It’s a fun little trick for any greens you plan on serving raw. But it comes in particularly handy for that wilted romaine or chard that has been languishing a little longer in your fridge than intended. Instead of tossing your sorry greens, chop it up as needed for your recipe, and give it a 20 minute soak in ice water. They should perk right up, saving you both money and reducing food waste. A salad spinner is the perfect tool for this. Soak them in the bowl and when you’re done, lift it out of its ice bath, and spin away the extra water.
And then dry them to a crisp.
Plant-based cook and recipe developer WoonHeng Chia loves to stir-fry her vegetables. It’s a quick and easy way to get the flavor of high-heat cooking without turning on the oven. She recommends making sure your vegetables are completely dry before you add them to your hot pan to “let the heat slowly draw out the ‘sweet’ juice from the vegetables.” Getting your vegetables as dry as possible is a common theme. Water-logged veggies aren’t appealing, in appearance or taste. Sometimes the only “trick” you need to let vegetables taste amazing is to let them be themselves!
What’s your favorite vegetable magic trick?