On the first day of 2011, our Facebook and Twitter feeds were glutted with friends' New Year's pledges to graze through hectares of leafy greens, ferry home wheelbarrows of winter roots and bunk down with Brussels sprouts and broccoli.
Celebrity chef and Meatless Monday booster Mario Batali publicly resolved to make and eat dinner with his kids, and "master more vegetarian dishes, like simple bruschetta, that are fun to cook as a team." By January 3rd, the Wall Street Journal aided George Ball, chairman of the W. Atlee Burpee Co. in dubbing it yea and verily to be the Year of the Vegetable.
Yet within days of the work week commencing (or the Champagne finally wearing off) that fervor wilted, giving way to an apologetic trickle of, "Yeah...I give up. Vegetables are too much work." "Too...cold...for...farmers...market..." "zOMG the organic stuff is sooooo expensive!" and "#resolutionfail Back to Lean Cuisine. I don't know what to DO with vegetables."
That's not good enough.
Vegetables aren't just rich in the vitamins, minerals, fiber and healthy carbohydrates it takes to build and maintain healthy bodies. They're often wallet-friendly, fat-free and most importantly to us (we're a food site, not a health site - though we know a really great one) they're packed with incredible flavor and can be prepared in endless ways. We'll share a few of our favorite ways to cook vegetables that are in season right now, but first, a few tips:
Food Police? Puh-leez
Michael Pollan is not going to come into your kitchen and smack the hothouse cucumber out of your hand and Alice Waters (probably) won't rappel into your dining room and mace you for serving non-organic melon. So long as you're trying to incorporate as many simply-prepared vegetables as feasible into your diet, you're ahead of the game.
Fresh Is Best, But...
The world will not end if you have some frozen kale at at the ready (Whole Foods just announced a new line of flash-frozen veggies today as a part of their Health Starts Here program), nab a bagged salad on your way home (just wash it thoroughly) or pick up a pack of pre-chopped cauliflower. It doesn't mean you're lazy, an insufficient parent or, heaven forfend, a "bad foodie."
Someday, we'll all have that heirloom, from-seed, pesticide-free, Martha-esque garden just steps from the back door and oodles of hours to while away in veggie prep. Until then - just do the best you can.
Winter vegetables in current rotation chez Eatocracy:
Kale chips - Pre-heat oven to 350°F, strip leaves from the center stalk, spray or brush with cooking oil (we dig olive oil, but use what you've got), sprinkle with kosher salt and spread in single layers on baking sheets. Bake for 10-15 minutes, or until crispy but not burnt. Eat 'em like potato chips.
This method also works well with spinach or chard leaves, and benefits beautifully from a sprinkling of sesame seeds or a spritz of soy sauce or tamari.
Cauliflower florets - Pre-heat oven to 400°F, trim florets from the center stem, spray or brush with oil, place on a baking sheet and sprinkle with a mixture of equal parts cumin, paprika, curry powder and salt - or your favorite spices. Bake for 5 minutes, flip florets with a spatula and bake for another 5 minutes or until tender and very lightly browned. Serve immediately as a side or a snack.
Pre-heat oven to 400°F, slice acorn squash in half vertically and scoop out the seeds. Score the insides of the squash a few times on each side and brush with melted butter. Sprinkle some brown sugar and a pinch of salt on the cut sides, along with a drizzle of maple syrup if you'd like it a bit sweeter.
Place the halves, cut side up in a baking dish with 1/4 cup of water at the bottom of it. Bake for 1 hour, then check for tenderness; the flesh should be quite soft and the tops browned. Check again at 10 minute intervals until they reach desired doneness. Let the halves cool slightly and serve as-is, cut-side up, with a fork to scoop out the deliciousness.
Want to stick to the savory side? Nix the brown sugar and syrup and go with butter, grated parmesan and a bit of nutmeg. Cumin and coriander also play well with most squashes' nutty sweetness.
Roasted root vegetables - Pre-heat oven to 400°F, then peel and cut your favorite root vegetables - this works well with carrots, sweet potatoes, rutabagas, parsnips, onions and celery root - into roughly 1-inch pieces and place them in baking dishes. In a bowl, whisk together equal parts olive oil and beer or apple cider and brush this over the vegetable pieces. Sprinkle with kosher salt and place baking dishes on separate racks in the oven for 30 minutes.
Stir the contents of the dishes, swap racks and check after another 30 minutes. Vegetables should be tender and browned. Stir as needed and check at 15 minute intervals for doneness. Scoop into a bowl and serve hot.
Sweet potato mash (a.k.a. the deeply delicious dish that began a romance) - Pre-heat oven to 425°F, pierce sweet potatoes several times with a fork and bake until tender and can easily be pierced with a knife. Depending upon your feelings on potato skin, either scoop out the flesh into a large bowl, or cut the potatoes into chunks and place those in a large bowl.
With a masher or a large fork, work in butter (we dig yogurt butter), a pinch of salt, a few splashes of orange juice and a few drizzles of maple syrup to taste. Sprinkle in some smoked paprika if you're feeling wacky and mash to desired consistency. Fall in love as desired.
Brussels sprouts - These are fabulous sauteed with stock, wine and shallots, blanched by boiling for a minute or two, then shocked in a bowl of ice water, served in raw ribbons with a vinaigrette dressing and countless other ways.
Our go-to method, though, is to pre-heat the oven to 350°F, slice off the stem, cut them in half, place halves on a baking sheet, then brush or spray them with oil and sprinkle with a bit of kosher salt. Then they go into the center of the oven for about 10-15 minutes or until tender, but not browned. Then boom – on goes broiler, the pan goes on the top rack and those babies sizzle until the tops are browned. Keep a close eye so they don't burn up - it'll only take a minute or two. Remove from heat and gorge.
Note: the roast-then-broil method also works well for broccoli and cauliflower - just keep an extra-close eye during the second phase so the florets don't crisp away to nothing.
Collard greens - We could write an entire treatise on these (many have) and you owe it to yourself to nab a copy of The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, which houses our favorite method ever. Until your copy arrives, grab a smoked ham hock or about 4 oz of your favorite smoked bacon (we like hog jowl) and place that at the bottom of a heavy, lidded pot with a tablespoon of oil. Place over medium heat until some fat is rendered off. CAREFULLY add 8 cups of water (it will pop, so stand back), a tablespoon of kosher salt and a tablespoon of red pepper flakes if you like heat (less if you don't.) Bring that to a boil, then cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
In the meantime, thoroughly wash the collard leaves (or dandelion, turnip or beet greens), strip out the hard spines and stack the leaves together. Tear them into pieces, or roll up and cut into 1-inch ribbons.
When the water is ready, add the greens a handful at a time, stirring until they have wilted in, and add the next handful. Once they're all in, cover, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for one hour.
Once they're ready, scoop them out with a slotted spoon and serve with a bowl of vinegar into which a few red pepper flakes have been added. And don't you dare discard the cooking liquid; the nutrient-rich broth is called "potlikker" and it's an excellent base for soup and simply dynamite with cornbread.
Do the best you can with the time and cash you have, and it will get easier. And hey - if you want help, we're here. Post your veggie queries or favorite winter produce tips and recipes in the comments below, and we'll do our darndest to get you through 'til springtime.