Vegetables, renewed

Late-winter inspiration

March 6, 2009

I know all about the culinary doldrums of late winter, a state characterized by boredom and, in my case, predictable dinners. The lackluster month of March challenges cooks who take their cues from the season. For many of us, it’s still a long wait for local peas, strawberries, or morels. Winter squash is nearly a memory, and root vegetables are almost gone.

What — besides pure hunger — can motivate you to cook in this in-between season? Most of the time, I just want to eat out; I crave foods and cuisines that are as foreign to me as possible. I want dishes that I have little or no experience cooking.

This impulse toward novelty suggests how to get back to the cutting board. When I ditch my assumptions about how to cook, I remain enthused, even in not-quite-spring.

Here are some ways to prepare vegetables that may help you, too, to break out. These techniques are nothing new; most are rooted in the world’s various culinary traditions. But it’s approaches like these that recharge me when seasonal inspiration is faint, and I find renewal instead in technique.

Fresh collard greens.

Let salads sit

Here’s a salad technique I like because it makes easy use of late-winter vegetables. It comes from a fellow CSA member who makes a green salad with seasonal vegetables every night. He found it in an old French cookbook whose name he can no longer remember. Here’s how it works:

  1. Rub your salad bowl with a cut clove of garlic, leaving a light film of garlic flavor on the surface of the bowl.
  2. Slice vegetables (such as carrots, turnips, and radishes) very thinly.
  3. Put the vegetables in the salad bowl. Douse generously with salt and lemon juice or wine vinegar. Stir.
  4. Cover the sliced vegetables with salad greens and chopped fresh herbs. Do not toss. Let sit while you prepare the rest of dinner.
  5. When you’re ready to serve, splash on extra-virgin olive oil, pepper, and more salt if needed, and toss.

As the vegetables steep in the salt and acid, they shed some of their juices. The raw, firm roots soften a bit and become more toothsome. Finally, the vegetable essences mix with the olive oil, which harmonizes the finished salad.

Cook certain vegetables more

Slow, even cooking brings out sugars and flavors in a vegetable that remain hidden when you flash-cook it.

For years, I’ve been throwing together Marcella Hazan’s spinach pasta sauce with tomato and garlic — from her book Marcella’s Italian Kitchen — and then letting it bubble quietly on the stove for about 45 minutes, or until the dish’s olive oil rises to the top, signaling that all excess liquid has evaporated.

At this point, the spinach is olive-colored and silken. Overlook its appearance and focus instead on how deeply satisfying it feels to enjoy a bowl of broad egg noodles with this sauce and Parmesan cheese.

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Recently I had my first taste of carrot halva, the Indian dessert and tea-time treat. A co-worker plunked down a cup as I wrote my workday list, which was all about Italian food. In this frame of mind, I experienced the halva — a dish of grated carrots gradually cooked down with milk, sugar, and cardamom — as pure revelation, a wonderful way of turning sweet carrots into a dessert without the camouflage of cake-baking.

Cook other vegetables less

There’s no denying that collards boiled for an afternoon with pork are musky, tangy, and scrumptious. But a friend from Brazil told me that when he cooks collards, he does nothing more than give them a brief sauté.

His secret? It’s all in the knife. When you slice collard leaves into thin strips (1/16 to 1/8 inch), they cook much more quickly. Add plenty of mashed garlic and red-pepper flakes to stand up to these assertive greens, and you may not miss the pork.

Make vegetable slaws

By “slaw” I mean, loosely, any thinly sliced (or julienned) multi-vegetable salad with a vinaigrette or lightly creamy dressing.

While it’s still cold out, try salads made of green cabbage, cilantro, and red onion; carrots, turnips, lime, and harissa; and red cabbage and jicama with orange. These salads complement grilled or roasted meats, and lighten the overall feel of the meal.

Once they appear in the markets, add the first spring vegetables and herbs to your slaws — pea shoots, fennel bulbs, radishes, mint, chives, and tarragon.

Slaws are perfect for just-plucked vegetables, which taste brightest in their raw form with little adornment.

Try these vegetable techniques, and spring — and then summer! — will be here before you know it.

Kelly Myers is a chef and writer in Portland, Oregon. She is also the co-director of Market Chefs, an organization dedicated to inspiring and teaching consumers to cook local foods.

Related recipe: Quick Collard Greens; recipe: Carrot Halva

There are 8 comments on this item
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1. by WheatFreeMeatFree on Mar 6, 2009 at 6:21 PM PST

What great suggestions. I’m really intrigued by the salad technique. I’ll definitely give it a go.

2. by sj.breeze on Mar 7, 2009 at 10:58 AM PST

Great ideas. Vegetable slaws are what get me through a winter without lettuce salads. My usual is shredded carrots and fennel, red wine vinegar, maybe some chopped parsley.

On a somewhat related note, early season rhubarb is usually what gets me through late winter, but this year, I haven’t seen it anywhere. New Seasons had it on February 15th of last year--this year, nothing. :(

3. by kelly on Mar 7, 2009 at 1:28 PM PST

My friend who’s a pastry chef also uses rhubarb to satisfy her craving for fresh fruit until the berries start. I’ve been asking the produce companies about rhubarb; they’re all saying, “Not yet.”

4. by emyers on Mar 9, 2009 at 5:37 PM PDT

The collards are great, don’t know why I didn’t try it before. Thanks for the tip.

5. by Barbara on Mar 11, 2009 at 12:34 PM PDT

I recently joined Jenny Craig and there is a tremendous emphasis on vegetables. Especially without much fat included. Your suggestions excited me beyond description. Thank you so much and I am on it!!!

6. by kelly on Mar 11, 2009 at 6:27 PM PDT

Thanks, Barbara! It sounds like you are about to enjoy many vegetable discoveries. The Italians are great vegetable lovers. You may want to try these Italian-inspired vegetable cookbooks: Verdura by Viana La Place and Red, White and Greens, The Italian Way with Vegetables by Faith Willinger. The Savory Way by Deborah Madison is great, too.

7. by Katherine Deumling on Mar 11, 2009 at 9:05 PM PDT

Great ideas. I also do a salad of grated carrots with cumin, a little onion and parsley and lots of lemon juice. It’s a great tonic this time of year.

8. by Sara on Mar 20, 2009 at 10:59 AM PDT

One of my favorites is a morroccan carrot dish I learned in highschool - slice carrots thinly, then sautee with a bit of oil (or fat of your choice), lemon juice, cinnamon, a bit of brown sugar and a pinch of red curry. The natural sweetness of the carrots comes out in a big way, and the spice of the curry is so unexpected and delicious, wakes your mouth up! :)

I like the salad recipe, I’m going to have to try that! And yay for a carrot halva recipe, I’ve had it in restaurants but never thought to make it myself :)

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