Here Be Vegetables!
A fearless guide to selecting fresh produce
Lets start from the beginning. Or at least the easiest beginning for most folks. The grocery store. Most people would head straight for the canned or frozen vegetables. DON'T! There be no dragons in the fresh produce section! Fresh vegetables, when cooked right, have so much more nutritional value, plus a much better color, flavor and texture. Frozen is fine to keep on hand when fresh vegetables are out of season, or to speed things up in the kitchen...but the fresher a piece of food is and the closest to it's natural sate as possible, the better.
I've seperated vegetables into categories by color. When selecting fresh produce, you typically want to look for an item that LOOKS pleasing. No brown or mushy spots, no dents or gashes, firm skins, good odor, and no gnats hovering around the bins. Don't buy vegetables that look stale, wilted, or limp. In selecting many fruits, you will want to look for a softer skin or rind, and a good fruity scent. I am covering mostly vegetables here, though.
We're all familiar with salads. But stay away from that pre-chopped, bagged iceberg lettuce if possible. Iceberg lettuce has little to no nutrition, and is mostly water. Darker leaf lettuces are much better. Bagged salads are fine, but try to go for the organic ones in boxes if they are available. The box keeps your salad from being compressed. Don't bother with the ones that include "dressing mix" either. Try several different types of salad mixes to find one your family likes. Some greens are bitter or spicy, others are light and sweet. If you like lettuce on sandwiches, try the large, fresh heads of leaf lettuce. Romaine is the most common, but there are others too. Being still attached to the stem, the heads will last a long time if kept loosely wrapped in plastic and not allowed to dry out, or in a container. Just break off outer leaves as you need them. Fresh salad dosen't have to be limited to just lettuce, either. Try slicing other vegetables into it...celery, broccoli, zucchini, cucumbers, radishes, carrots, peppers...even fruits like tangerines, mandarin oranges, and apples are good. Try adding protien, like pecans or walnuts, hard-boiled egg, or bits of cooked lean meats. Chicken, ham, fresh bacon, shrimp, tuna, and salmon are all good on salads.
Dress your salad, but don't drown it. For a typical 1-2 cup bowl of salad, you should only be using a couple tablespoons of dressing at the most. A light drizzling of it. Try different dressings...we usually have a variety in our fridge...ranch, green goddess, blue cheese, zesty italian (also a good marinade), catalina (a sweet tomato dressing thats good on chicken-topped salads). Try your hand at making a fresh salad dressing. Mix together a bit of olive oil and balsamic vinegar for a nice, simple Italian dressing. Orange, lemon or lime juice can also be used instead of vinegar. Mix some fresh-pressed garlic or fresh herbs into the dressing. If you mix anything into it, let the dressing sit and marinate for a while in a container before putting it on your salads, so the flavors can meld together.
Most people either love it or hate it. Or it's cousin, cauliflower. We like broccoli, but I am picky about cauliflower. The kids are still a bit iffy on broccoli, but will eat it occasionally. They like broccoli-cheese soup. Broccoli is very nutritious and has a good flavor if cooked right. The stems take longer to cook, but the tops, or florets, cook quickly. Try steaming it or putting it into stir-frys. Florets should be added near the end of cooking time, but chopped stem pieces can be added earlier. Peel the thicker stems if you want to eat them, but I normally just send them to the compost pile. Your broccoli should be bright green, stems easy to pierce with a fork, and not mushy. It goes well with many other vegetables, having a mild flavor on its own, but if you cook it by itself, try steaming with a little butter and green onions. A dash of salt or galic salt, and black pepper are good. Lemon should be added at the last minute for broccoli.
For Cauliflower, I like to toss the florets with olive oil, and my own personal blend of herbs and spices to suit the meal --usually oregano, thyme, black pepper, new Mexico chili powder, and paprika-- and either bake in a covered dish, or grill in a foil packet.
I hear so many people say they HATE celery. "It burns more calories than you get from it and its not no flavor!" Well, what are you doing, eating a whole, pale stalk? Select celery bunches that are darker green with lots of leaves. The leaves have a very good flavor, similar to parsley, I think. My kids like munching on fresh celery, but I've always cut it up for them, I never could stand gnawing through those tough fibers. If you are making sticks, put the stalk rib-side-down, and cut 2/3 of the way through. Then snap it the rest of the way in half, pulling those fibers out in the process. Celery is a very aromatic vegetable, and is good for flavoring dishes and making broth, along with carrots and onions. Don't throw away those tops, they make a good herb, or green for salads.
It's a type of summer squash, or a cookable cucumber. It's very good in Italian dishes, and can be breaded and lightly fried in olive oil. Zucchini has a very short cooking time...it will quickly turn tender, and then become an inedible mush. Slice it long-ways, or into rounds. Sautee, stir-fry, bake, grill, add to soups. My kids tend to prefer it mixed with other vegetables or pasta in a tomato-based sauce, or parmesan-breaded and fried.
Of DOOM! You needn't be afraid of asparagus. It's a fairly delicate vegetable, any good produce department will stock them cut-side down, in water to preserve freshness. The lower 2-3 inches of stem are tough and should be discarded. It has a short cooking time, about the same as broccoli or zucchini. The top 2-3 inches cook quicker and should be added after the stems have cooked for a bit. Try it steamed with butter and green onions, or with an alfredo-sauced pasta dish. Chicken and mild-flavored white fish are good meats to serve with asparagus.
I often pair it with baked or grilled salmon, and a rice or couscous side.
Green Bell Peppers --
Just stay away from those all together. They are unripe, and bitter. Go for the sweet, ripe, orange red or yellow ones instead, if you like bell peppers. Or try another veriety of green peppers, like poblano.
Green Onions --
These are very young, sweet white onions. Use them in moderation, as a flavoring. The whole onion can be used, except the little roots, and any dried-up leaves. Add it at the very end of cooking, or use fresh.
Won't make you smash a freight train into tin cans, or send a bully into next week like Popeye, but it is good for you. Spinach can block the body's absorption of some nutrients like iron and calcium due to a compound called oxalic acid. Make sure you have plenty of these minerals in your diet already if you decide to eat a lot of spinach. It's a versatile green, and can be used fresh or cooked. To me, a pile of cooked limp spinach on a plate is repulsive, but it is wonderful mixed in with pasta dishes, or on pizzas. Its what makes that green pasta green, too.
Green Beans --
They come from a can, right? Oof. Canned green beans are nothing compared to fresh ones. Fresh-cooked green beans are crisp, sweet and juicy. They have a medium cooking time and can be steamed with butter and onions. Mix them with just about anything. Even eat them raw in a salad! They do well with any sort of sauce -- cream or tomato-based. "Green beans" can refer to any immature version of what becomes dry beans. The young pods of pinto, black, red and kidney beans can all be green beans. When mature an dry, the bean seeds are considered a protien, not a vegetable.
You can use the little round "sweet peas" which are out of the pods, or the young pods known as snow peas or sugar snaps. Fresh peas are an early spring vegetable. I'm not fond of the typical pile-o-peas that ends up getting shuffled around on your plate, but they are good mixed with other things, or made into a cold pea salad. Snow pea pods have a short cooking time and are good in stir-frys or raw. Sugar-snaps are very similar, but fatter, and can be cooked slightly longer. Or eaten raw as well.
Many people find okra repulsive. Others think it delicious. It has a fuzzy exterior, a slimy inside, and large, soft, white seeds. Okra is normally fried, but is also eaten pickled or used in a spicy cajun stew called gumbo. Gumbo is also another name for okra itself. The sliminess of the okra helps thicken the broth of gumbos.
Yellow Summer Squash --
You can use this like zucchini. It cooks quickly and has a similar flavor. We've tried it with tomato-based mixed vegetables, parmesan-breaded and fried, and baked with cheese.
Corn is good, but you should have plenty of other vegetables in your diet, too. Corn is fattening. It is good cooked plain, or with salt, butter, and pepper added. Don't drown your corn in butter, though. A tablespoon for a can of corn, or a teaspoon melted over a corn cob is enough. Use canned or frozen corn-off-the-cob in soups and stews or casseroles and skillet meals. A lot of traditional Mexican dishes include fresh corn. Boil corn-on-the-cob in PLAIN water until tender, and let people butter, salt, and pepper them to their taste. For grilling, select corn cobs with the husks still attached. Remove the first couple of leaves (they will break off easily anyway), and pull back the rest to expose the corn. Remove all the silk, and rub softened butter over the corn kernels. Add a little sea salt and black pepper if you like, smooth the husks back down over the corn, and roll in at least 2 layers of foil. Grill until kernels are tender, turning occasionally to avoid burning. You can remove the husks and use the stem as a handle.
We all know and love the common carrot. Stay away from those cute little baby-cut carrots though, they are evil. They do not last as long as fresh carrots, and during their processing, are doused in a bleach solution. If you want a nice presentation for fresh dipping carrots, buy plain ones, peel, and cut them into sticks. Carrots are fine eaten with the peels on, as long as you scrub them. They have a rather long cooking time, a little less than potatoes, and are good in most dishes. Avoid using carrots with tomatoes, the flavors just do not mix well. Try them by themselves steamed, cooked with a little butter and season salt, or brown sugar. Grate them over fresh salads, or make a carrot salad as a cold side dish or snack.
Winter Squash --
So far my family is pretty new to the world of squash, but winter squashes have a good flavor. Pumpkin is a winter squash, if you like pumpkin cake, pie, or cookies, you will probably like the other kinds. Commonly-seen varieties are the dark green-skinned acorn squash, and the large tan butternut squash. They are good baked and made into soups, or even used as a filling for ravioli or tortellini pastas and served with an alfredo sauce. Winter squash is good with sweet or hot spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, or chili powder.
Sweet Potatoes --
I've never had sweet potatoes fixed in a way that I like, so I will not discuss them.
Real tomatoes are nothing like those soggy, bland pink slices you get on fast-food burgers. Real tomatoes are bright, meaty, and tangy. When selecting tomatoes in the store, look for darker reds, and smooth, tight skins. You don't want mushy or damaged tomatoes, or ones that look pink, green, or yellow. Unless of course you are buying a yellow variety, but those are rare in stores. Roma or plum tomatoes are best for versatile cooking. The medium round types are good for salads, slicing, or light cooking. Try grilled or baked couscous-stuffed tomatoes!
If you can find heirloom variety tomatoes, BUY THOSE, or grow your own! My personal favorites are Green Zebra (tangy, good on sandwiches), Druzba (standard red, very flavorful), Cherokee Purple (A purple beefsteak, good on sandwiches. Sweet), and black cherry (a purple cherry tomato, good in salads or cooked with chicken or shrimp dishes)
Sweet Peppers --
I normally don't cook with bell peppers, because we don't really like the flavor, but many people do. They have a long-medium cooking time, and are good mixed into sauces or stir-frys, stuffed, or eaten fresh in salads. Other sweet peppers are a rare find in stores, but are much more flavorful. Try growing different varieties of peppers, they are very easy and can even be grown in pots. We use a couple varieties of sweet red peppers, they are good fresh as well as cooked lightly. Banana peppers are normally used fresh when green, but also carry a good flavor if allowed to fully ripen to a yellow or orange color.
Hot Peppers --
You normally find hot peppers in their unripe, green state. Jalopenos, poblanos, and serranos are the most common. Jalopenos are the most versatile, poblanos can be used in a variety of ways, uncluding stuffed, and serranos are normally used in modreation to spice things up. Habaneros can also be found...little orange wrinkled peppers...but they may prove to be too hot for most people. Habaneros are good in extreme moderation in sauces. Dried hot peppers are also very common, they are the fully ripe, dried version of all these, but usually carry a different name. The can be reconstituted or crushed, and are normally used in mexican dishes.
While I don't consider potatoes a true vegetable, I'll still cover them. They are better classified as a starch, and should be used instead of pasta or rice, but not with them. Potatoes of course are pretty versatile, and have the longest cooking time. You can have them alone, by itself with a meat, or with nearly any other vegetables. There's no wrong way to cook a potato, unless you are using the wrong KIND of potato for the dish you are cooking! Those buttery potatoes with the yellow-brown skins are the most versatile, and can be used in many ways. I use them in soups, stews, mashed, baked, or fried. The large potatoes with thick brown skins are best baked or on the grill. Stab over with a fork, rub with olive oil, sea salt, and pepper, and bake in the oven, or wrap in foil for the grill. The light red-skinned potatoes are best cut up and baked with herbs, or used in stews. They have a shorter cooking time than the brown-skinned potatoes, and tend to get sticky if overcooked or mashed.
The carrot's long-lost ancestor. Use parsnips much like you would carrots, but they aren't very good for eating fresh. I have had a really good side of mashed parsnips and celery root...it was like mashed potatoes, but with a much different flavor.
But eggplant is purple, you say! Eggplant is huge, massive, intimidating even....but it is very delicate. Eggplant bruises and spoils easily, and cooks very quickly. It can be added to tomato-based Italian stir-frys at the last minute...after the zucchini...baked, or fried. We prefer it parmesan-breaded and fried in olive oil. It gets mushy and disgusting quickly, so be careful! Eggplant is very bland, and absorbs flavors easily, so use it with a strong sauce or seasoning. Good with acidic flavorings like tomato or lemon.
Some people eat them alone, others prefer onions as an aromatic or flavoring. Red onions are best used fresh, but sweet onions can also be used without cooking. I cannot eat raw onions, myself. For use as a flavoring in soups, stews, and sauces, add your onions very early. They will cook down to almost a translucent nothingness. If you like more substance to your onions, add them later. Try sauteeing with butter and other vegetables or meats. Most onions are fairly sweet when cooked.
I don't like it. You can try it.
These are closely related to the tomato, and often called Husk Tomato. They resemble small, green tomatoes and are covered with a papery husk. They have a tangy flavor and make good sauces. Green salsa or enchilada sauce is made from tomatillos. As far as I know, they are not eaten raw. Remove the husk, wash, boil until the skin splits, and then use as desired. I have never used store-bought tomatillos, but the ones I have grown needed to be washed with a few drops of dishwashing liquid in warm water to remove the sticky film. Flavor was not affected if rinsed well. The sauce goes well with chicken.
Yucca Root --
This can be very difficult to find and prepare, but very good for the joints. Peel the tough skin and wax off the outside with a knife, and prepare in a stew much like potatoes. The cook time is longer than potatoes.
I've never cooked artichokes myself, and find their flavor a bit strong, but they are good with Italian and Greek recipes.
Black or green olives are usually available canned or in jars, and should be used in moderation. They contain a lot of healthy fats and oils, and have a very robust flavor. Best in Italian dishes. I have not cooked with green olives, but black olives go well with both cream or tomato sauces, no sauce at all, or as a salad topping.