10 Small but Mighty Ways to Make Vegetables Better

published May 14, 2018
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(Image credit: Ghazalle Badiozamani)

I could eat the majority of vegetables steamed with a little olive oil and tamari every day. It’s just about the simplest way to prepare them, but still it might be the best. Whether I’m making broccoli, bok choy, Napa cabbage, watercress, or kale, they all only need the following treatment: five minutes in a steamer, olive oil, and soy sauce. Bam.

Dig a little deeper into anyone’s distaste for a particular vegetable, and you’ll likely uncover an unfortunate preparation that lodged a taste in their memory. They hate Brussels sprouts because their dad used to boil them down to a mush. (And, oh, the smell that made in the house! Awful.) They refuse green beans because of the persistent presence of the slimy rubbery canned green beans on the dinner table all through childhood. They don’t like kale because they’ve been faced with one too many chewy, jaw-busting kale salads. All it takes is one bad dish, and the vegetable gets a bad rap.

(Image credit: Cambria Bold)

Luckily it’s equally as easy to turn a negative opinion positive with a good dish. I’ve seen it happen again and again, and heard those words: “I don’t even like [fill in the blank], but I love this! What did you do?” Sometimes it’s about knowing the little tricks to really bring out the best in a vegetable, but often it’s about knowing when to leave it alone.

Often my favorite vegetable recipes are lessons about the vegetable itself — a study in the essence of what makes that vegetable so good. Usually the central lesson remains the same from radishes to radicchio: don’t mess with a good thing.

  1. Roast your radishes: Raw radishes are all bite and spice, but a roast in a hot oven gives them a new identity. Roasted radishes are silky and incredibly juicy with a sweetness throughout the whole vegetable.
  2. Caramelize your cabbage: Give cabbage the caramelized onion treatment and it brings out a similar magic in the vegetable. Serve the sweet cabbage as a side dish, pile it onto sandwiches, or add broth and sourdough toasts for caramelized cabbage soup.
  3. Stir them into butter: Radishes, fresh herbs, small peppers, shiitake mushrooms — this is just the beginning of the list of vegetables that make delicious compound butters. Stir finely chopped vegetables into softened butter and add a little salt and lemon. Slather it onto bread and call it dinner.
  4. Grill your beets: Paint beet slices with balsamic vinegar and throw them on the grill to make them meaty in the center and caramelized around the edges. Add the beets to arugula and top with goat cheese for a full-on summer dinner.
  5. Make use of umami: Some of the best tools to highlight the best of vegetables were staples of the hippy cuisine of the ’70s. Nutritional yeast, tamari, and miso all work as the best bases for sauce for greens, asparagus, and more. Stir a bit of thinned-out miso into sautéed greens at the last moment, or make a sauce of nutritional yeast, tamari, butter, and garlic for nearly every vegetable in your kitchen.
  6. Salt your lettuce: Add a sprinkle of salt to your lettuce before you dress to highlight the flavors in the leaf. Then taste a leaf after dressing and add more salt if necessary.
  7. Use the whole vegetable: Don’t compost those greens! Save the tops of your kohlrabi, turnips, and beets in a bag in your fridge. Cook them up as a side, or throw all your greens into water with pasta as it boils. Add breadcrumbs toasted in butter for a dish that’s part pasta, mostly greens.
  8. Taste as you go: Whichever vegetable you’re cooking, taste as you go. Every vegetable will shine with the right amount of salt, acid, and fat, but you have to taste along the way to be able to know how to use those tools most effectively.
  9. Embrace dairy: Vegetables and dairy are a perfect combination. Braise your cabbage with butter, broil your broccoli with cheddar, and stir yogurt into celery root. Even just a sprinkle of hard cheese or a splash of cream can make the difference between an okay dish and fantastic one.
  10. Use fresh herbs: Go beyond the tomato-basil combination. Stir dill into your spinach or Swiss chard, add mint to your corn, and heap broccoli with fresh tarragon.
(Image credit: Jennifer May)

Meet Alana Chernila
Alana Chernila writes, cooks, and teaches cheesemaking in Western Massachusetts. She is the author of three books: The Homemade Pantry, The Homemade Kitchen, and Eating From the Ground Up.