Read an Excerpt
When I set out to write the first edition of Vegetables in 1996, I went to the local bookstore to look at other vegetable books. I almost gave up when I saw hundreds of books about vegetables and several shelves full of vegetarian books, which made up one of the largest sections in the store. But as I flipped through the books, and after giving my newly conceived vegetable project a little thought, I realized that what I wanted to write was different. In my perusal of the competition I found few recipes for the simplest dishes—things like glazed carrots, mashed potatoes, sautéed spinach, and steamed asparagus—dishes to cook on a Wednesday evening with a house full of kids and after a day at the office. Some of the books extolled the virtues of shopping at the local farmers’ market (who could disagree?), but they didn’t mention those winter days when the only source of vegetables may be the supermarket. And while it’s great to cook with lovely fresh or even heirloom vegetables, it’s more of a challenge to make something tasty out of a few beans or a bag of supermarket mushrooms. So I decided to write a book that would include not just new or unfamiliar dishes but also the tried-and-true dishes that many of us grew up with. I also wanted to liven up many of these dishes by adding new twists—like folding pesto or roasted garlic into mashed potatoes or pine nuts and raisins to sautéed spinach.
At the same time, I decided to include simple new ways (new to us but traditional in other places) to cook less-familiar vegetables, such as kale, Swiss chard, fennel, and escarole. Many of these dishes were based on memories of meals in great restaurants or of travels to foreign countries; some were last-minute inventions made up after out-of-control buying sprees at the farmers’ market. The purpose of some of these recipes was, of course, to provide new tastes and combinations, but also to offer simple, flavorful, and lighter alternatives to “traditional” methods.
It’s now fourteen years since the publication of the first edition of Vegetables, and as books do, Vegetables went out of print. I (along with my publisher, Ten Speed Press) saw an opportunity to republish Vegetables with full-color photography. We have now included photographs of most of the vegetables and many of the recipes.
In addition to new color photography, this revised edition contains more than thirty new vegetable entries, fifty new recipes, and a new section on herbs. Chopping and dicing have been more thoroughly explained, and the book now has a thirty-page techniques section that explains (and sometimes shows) every method you might need to cook a vegetable. The new vegetable entries are mostly for Asian vegetables, although a few European ones (salsify, crosnes) have made their way in. The herb section covers all the common herbs, as well as lesser-known varieties (rue, epazote).
In the years since Vegetables was first published, American tastes have changed. We have stirred away from a richer and more subtly flavored European-influenced cuisine, to the direct flavors, bold variations in texture, and bright colors of Asian cooking. To accommodate this, I have spent many a morning in Chinatown trying to unravel the mysteries of Asian vegetables. The results of these endeavors are found throughout the book as I’ve taken some of these exotic and not-so-exotic beans and lentils, gourds, herbs, and rhizomes home to my kitchen laboratory for experimentation. Many of them I have cooked using traditional techniques and flavorings, but others have called out for completely new treatments.
This new edition of Vegetables is divided into two sections, the extensive technique section followed by an alphabetical listing of the vegetables themselves. Once you’ve read the technique section, the techniques called for in the recipes should all be familiar. Hopefully, with the knowledge of those techniques, you’ll be able to improvise with both familiar and unfamiliar vegetables. For example, the section on gratins—probably better known as casseroles—analyzes which liquids (cream, béchamel sauce, broth, coconut milk, and so on) are most appropriate. It shows how cooking times and temperatures influence the final result and how various toppings can be used to create a crust. Armed with this knowledge, a new idea or recipe for a gratin should be easily accommodated and mastered.
But the new Vegetables is not just about techniques. It also explores the flavor combinations used in many of the world’s great cuisines. Unlike many fusion dishes that have no tradition behind them, the dishes in Vegetables are firmly grounded in the cultural habits of various peoples working in the kitchen.
In short, armed with this new edition, you can embark on new culinary adventures and feel free to improvise in the kitchen. Once you have the basic understanding of how each vegetable behaves, coupled with a familiarity with the techniques that are used in its preparation, your flights of fancy will be well grounded in the realities of those treatments best suited to your preparations.
Techniques for Preparing and Cooking Vegetables
Before embarking on a recipe, improvised or otherwise, it’s essential to have at least a rudimentary mastery of those most basic knife skills: chopping, finely chopping or mincing, cubing, and dicing.
Basic Chopping Techniques
Chopping is the most straightforward of knife skills. To chop a vegetable is to cut it in a random way. You’re not dicing or cubing it, but rather simply hacking away at it until it has the size that you want.
To chop an herb such as parsley, use the longest knife you have. A long knife, because you can align what you’re chopping next to the blade, is the most efficient tool because you end up chopping more at once. To chop an herb or small vegetable, hold the knife in your right hand (assuming you’re right handed) with the end of the blade pressing against the cutting board. This pressure holds the knife in place and allows you to establish a kind of spring action in which the knife blade springs back as you chop. Use your left hand to continually feed what it is you’re chopping under the knife blade. Don’t use your left hand to hold down the top of the knife, a common error among even professional chefs. Some recipes call for fine versus coarse chopping. Fine chopping is used for vegetables that are meant to cook very quickly or to release the maximum of their flavor in a relatively small period of time. Vegetables are cut into cubes such as macédoine and brunoise when they show up in the finished dish and the dish is somewhat formal.
Onions and shallots require their own chopping methods. Halve the onion, cutting through the two ends—don’t slice through the equator. First slice each half in two directions—one parallel with the length of the onion half, the other with the knife held sideways—with the slices left attached at the root end. Then slice across the two slices that you have already been made. The whole thing will fall apart (except for the little bit of remaining root end). Then chop the diced onion more or less finely—anywhere from coarse chopping to mincing.
To cut turnips, celeriac, and other round vegetables into cubes, first cut off the sides so you arrive at a large cube (if you peel the vegetable first you can save the trimmings for soups and purees). Cut this cube into panels the thickness you want for the final cubes. Cut these panels—stack them if you feel comfortable—into sticks and then cut these sticks crosswise to arrive at cubes (see photos, page 351).
To cut elongated vegetables, such as carrots or parsnips, into perfect dice, cut them first into lengthwise pieces about 1 inch long. Trim the sides off these pieces and then cut the pieces into panels. Cut the panels into sticks—called “julienne” when about an 1/8 inch thick, and “macédoine” when about 1/4 inch—and then crosswise into cubes. Cutting elongated vegetables into a perfect dice requires considerable waste, and most of the time you’re going to want to cut these vegetables in a way that takes advantage of the whole vegetable. To do this efficiently, cut the vegetable lengthwise into 3 wedge-shaped strips. Slice these crosswise into little triangles.
Cutting Carrots, Salsify, and Parsnips into Even-Size Pieces
Peeling and slicing is the easiest way to prepare carrots and parsnips for cooking, but some of us like the crunch and savor of vegetables cut into larger pieces. To cut carrots, salisify, or parsnips, peel them and cut them into 1- to 11/2-inch-long pieces.Because carrots and parsnips taper, some of the pieces will be too small and others too large to cook evenly. To make the pieces all the same size, leave the smallest sections whole. Stand the thicker pieces on end and cut them lengthwise in halves, thirds, or quarters, depending on their size, so all the pieces end up being about the same size. This makes them prettier to look at and will ensure they all cook in the same amount of time. You can also cut the woody core out of each of the pieces—a nice refinement but usually not necessary. If you’re feeling conscientious, snap out the piece of wooden core in the center of each wedge by sliding a paring knife along where the core meets the orange outer part of the carrot and then gently twisting.
If you’re really being fancy, you can trim the edges of the pieces to give them a smoother and rounder appearance with a technique called “turning.”
This techniques takes a little time to learn, but once mastered (even a little) it will make presenting roasted and glazed vegetables all the more dramatic. Turning consists of rounding off the edges of vegetables, such as turnips, carrots, and celeriac. To turn vegetables, they must first be cut into appropriate shaped and sized pieces, usually the shape of elongated footballs or garlic cloves, all the same size.
Hold the vegetable at one end between the thumb and forefinger of your left hand. With a small sharp knife (preferably one with a concave shape) in your right hand, rotate the vegetable against the knife blade, following the edges and smoothing off the edges and the ends.
Slicing Carrots en paysanne
Unless you need carrots in perfect rounds, it’s more efficient to cut the carrots into little triangles called slicing en paysanne. Cut the carrots lengthwise into quarters and then slice the quarters, bunched together.
Getting at the Flavor: Peeling, Chopping, Crushing Garlic
The easiest way to peel garlic is to just break the cloves off the garlic, cut off the tiny hard edge on one end of the clove with a paring knife, and crush them, one at a time, by laying the side of a chef’s knife or cleaver over each clove and giving the knife a quick whack with your fist. The peel will just slip off. I never use a garlic press to extract the pulp or juice from garlic because most of the pulp gets stuck in the press and the press is difficult to clean.
Peeled garlic cloves can be chopped like any other vegetable, but some recipes require that the garlic pulp be worked to a paste. A large mortar and pestle are ideal, but few of us are so equipped—the requisite large marble mortar and pestle can cost more than a good food processor—but fortunately it’s easy to crush garlic to a paste with a chef’s knife. To make garlic paste, cut off the hard little end from the pointed end of the clove, give the clove a whack with the side of a cleaver to help loosen the peel, and chop the garlic before crushing it with the side of the knife. Keep pushing the knife along the surface of the garlic while leaning on the knife with your other hand—you can use a surprising amount of force.
Unless you’re very handy with a knife, and few of us are, it’s much faster and easier to slice certain vegetables with a vegetable slicer, either an inexpensive plastic slicer or a more expensive stainless steel mandoline.
Benriner is a popular brand of plastic slicer. Benriner slicers have razor-sharp blades and a plastic frame that you hold with one hand while sliding the vegetable against the blade with the other. When shopping for a plastic vegetable slicer, be sure to buy one with small nuts on the back for adjusting the exact thickness of the slices. Some brands allow you only two or three thicknesses, none of which ever seems to be the right one.
A mandoline is another kind of vegetable slicer. Mandolines are made of stainless steel and have legs for holding the slicing surface in place. Their main disadvantage is their expense—about five times as much as a plastic cutter. But if you slice or fry a lot of potatoes, a mandoline is almost indispensable; it not only slices but juliennes, cuts different size french fries, and is the only gadget for making ruffled potato chips.
A more rarified slicing gadget is the truffle slicer. A truffle slicer is small, usually made of stainless steel, and is hand-held. If you’re slicing truffles at the table—say, over pasta—a truffle slicer is elegant to look at and can even be passed around with the truffle for guests to help themselves (if you trust your guests that much).
Slicers (but not truffle slicers) come with guards with which to hold the vegetable as you’re slicing it. These inevitably get misplaced. A good alternative is to hold the vegetable with a towel, a habit I encourage for obvious reasons.
Peeling, Seeding, and Salting Tomatoes
While many of us don’t bother to peel tomatoes, much less seed them, peeling can make the tomato seem more tender if it’s underripe and hard. Cooked tomatoes will also release the peel, in little curlycues, into the surrounding sauce. Tomatoes are seeded, especially when they are destined for salads, so the liquid doesn’t dilute the vinaigrette.
Peeling. Plunge the ripe summer tomatoes in boiling water and leave for 30 seconds; leave firm or underripe tomatoes for 45 seconds. Drain the tomatoes in a colander and rinse with plenty of cold water. Cut out the section of stem still attached to the tomato and slip off the peel with your fingers or a paring knife. If you have only one or two tomatoes and a gas stove, you can roast the tomatoes over the flame with a long fork until the skin bubbles up, then rinse and slip off the peel. Remember that you don’t need to peel tomatoes for sauces or soups that are going to be strained—the straining eliminates the peels and seeds.
Seeding. To seed tomato wedges for salads, remove the seeds by sliding your finger along both sides of each wedge so the seeds fall out. To seed tomatoes that are being chopped or sliced, halve them crosswise and squeeze the seeds out of each half.