What Chefs Know About Vegetables (That You Don’t)

updated Jun 20, 2021
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.

With all the time they spend in the kitchen tasting recipes, chefs have a wealth of knowledge about how to bring out the best in ingredients. And vegetables, from artichokes to zucchini, are no exception. That’s why, because we’re going veg-heavy on Kitchn this month, we asked some of our favorite restaurant chefs and authors to share some of their best veggie secrets. From a smart way to eat root vegetables in the summer, to the best thing to do with cherry tomatoes, here are some great ways to elevate your own vegetable cookery at home.

Recaudo makes everything taste good.

If you’re looking for a foolproof way to make any vegetable taste good year-round, cook up a recaudo, says Zarela Martinez, an authority on regional Mexican cuisine who’s based in New York. Start by sautéing a mix of onion, tomato, and garlic, then season to taste with salt and pepper. Add any vegetable you have on hand, and you’ll have a fresh and complex side or main dish, says Martinez. Make your recaudo more luxurious by adding a splash of cream. This is the kind of traditional recipe Martinez and her son, chef Aaron Sanchez, will be sharing on their new podcast, “Cooking in Mexican” on the Heritage Radio Network. 

Try a recipe: Recaudo from Zarela Martinez (recipe is in last step)

Easy Skillet Kale with Lemon & Garlic

Blanch kale to make it more tender.

James Beard Award winner Tyson Cole is a trained Japanese master sushi chef who employs cross-cultural techniques at his family of restaurants in Austin, Texas. One of their most popular salads at Uchiko is the Yokai Berry, which Cole loads up with salmon crudo, dinosaur kale, blueberries, green tea, quinoa, and Asian pear. To make the kale less chewy, Cole blanches it for three minutes in boiling water, and then quickly cools it in ice water. “It’s a common Japanese technique especially for vegetables that maintains its color and it maintains all the vitamins.” You can also soften kale by dressing it in oil and vinegar and letting it sit for 30 minutes, so the fibers break down a bit. 

Try a recipe: Yokai Berry from Tyson Cole at Uchiko

Charring concentrates flavor and heightens sweetness.

This is intentional charring; not walking away from the stove while you’re distracted by the TV. Chef Gregory Gourdet, who recently competed on Top Chef Allstars, says carrots, cauliflower, and red cabbage develop deep, delicious flavors when you put them under the broiler or into a 450-degree oven for 10 minutes. “A lot of these vegetables have a mild background sweetness,” says Gourdet, who’s executive chef at Departure in downtown Portland, Oregon. “When you char them, that bitterness develops an umami. Bitter and sweet go well together.” Gourdet suggests pairing charred cauliflower with jerk seasoning, cabbage with XO sauce, and blackened broccoli with chili oil.

Shave root veggies into a salad.  

Cooked turnips, radishes, and kohlrabi pretty much scream winter. But ribbon these root vegetables with a vegetable peeler, and they become sheer and light. “You don’t have to cook root vegetables,” says Adeena Sussman, chef and cookbook author extraordinaire of the acclaimed cookbook Sababa:  Fresh, Sunny Flavors from My Israeli Kitchen. Heighten the natural sweetness by dressing them with a little lemon juice and olive oil. Then use your slightly wilted radish or jicama in a salad, atop pasta, with crudo, or combined with cheese and bread crumbs or croutons for a riff on panzanella. 

Swap sweet potatoes in for white ones. 

“Anything a white potato can do, a sweet potato does better. And it’s so much healthier,” says Isabel Cruz, author and owner of The Coffee Cup in La Jolla and Isabel’s in San Diego. Oven roast them in a cast iron pan with butter, brown sugar, and chili powder, or pair them with flank steak, green onions, and a bright guava sauce for an unforgettable one-dish dinner. Sweet potato hash is a popular breakfast special; just lightly boil the sweet potatoes, then shred and brown with olive oil, onions, and peppers. You may never go back to regular hash again. 

Make a luxurious tomato confit. 

When you have perfectly ripe cherry tomatoes that are sweet like candy, it’s tempting to eat them raw. But douse them in olive oil, and you can turn them into a richly flavored condiment that’s excellent on crusty bread, atop pasta, or spooned over labneh and paired with hummus and flatbread. “Tomatoes are a real essential cornerstone of the Israeli kitchen,” says Sussman, who is based in Tel Aviv. “Roast cherry tomatoes at a high temp and make them into a confit. It’s a nice, lush thing to do.”

Try a recipe: Roasted Sheet Pan Cherry Tomatoes from Adeena Sussman (scroll to the bottom)

Cook vegetables before marinating them.

Many vegetables are made up of fibrous cells that don’t break down and release the nutrients inside until they’re heated. So it stands to reason that applying heat is also a good way to put flavor in. Gourdet says to steam, roast, or bake your carrots, Brussels sprouts, eggplant, or beets. Dress them with vinaigrette, and after 30 minutes or so, they’ll be loaded with flavor. He’ll be sharing more secrets in his upcoming cookbook, Everyone’s Table: Global Recipes for Modern Health (not yet available for preorder).

Credit: Lauren Volo
How To Make Creamy Avocado Pasta

Avocados make good sauces.

 “Avocado isn’t just for guacamole,” says Cruz. “ It’s good as a sauce with Asian flavors too.” At the restaurants, they purée avocado with cilantro, a clove of garlic, salt, olive oil, and maybe a little almond milk to make a creamy sauce for salmon, brown rice, or eggs. Another favorite is blending avocado with soy sauce for a deep and decadent sauce that’s good on anything from steak to crudités. 

You’re cooking zucchini too long. 

“You barely have to cook zucchini,” says Martinez. “A lot of people overcook it and then it’s not fun to eat.” She says to slice it lengthwise, lightly sauté it or blanch it by dunking it in boiling water and then cooling it in a bowl of ice water. It tastes amazing with a little salt and a drizzle of garlic-infused olive oil. 

Please be kind to your mushrooms. 

“Mushrooms have so much depth of flavor, and people … get them home and throw them in water and that really ruins them,” Cole says. Instead, wipe those shiitakes with a damp towel, or rinse button mushrooms briefly and dry them off. Cole says mushrooms shine with quick cooking too: sautéed, fried, or pickled lightly, as in his kinoko usuzukuri at Uchi. Handled lovingly, mushrooms can be meaty or silky, plus they add so much umami to your meal. At home, Cole loves shaking Trader Joe’s mushroom powder on rice, pizza, and chicken.

What are your best vegetable tips? Let us know in the comments!