A Minotaur in the Garden: Or, A Meathead’s Guide to Vegetable Cookery
This is a little bit hard for me to admit, so I’m just going to go ahead and say it.
I have started cooking, and eating, vegetables.
I’m not proud of it. Only the toxic bloat of my once-robust carcass brought it about. But that said, having now committed to trying to cook plants, it seems only fair to share the process with you. After all, Rachael cooks vegetables all the time, and pretty goddamned well. Of course, she’s been doing it for her whole life. I have never done it for a single day. But armed with a few good cookbooks and a determination not to die before the age of fifty, I decided to go to the greenmarket and see what looked good. I could braise artichokes, maybe, or glaze little roasted carrots the way they do at ABC Kitchen, or I don’t know, make one of those mushroom lasagna I’ve so often not eaten. It wasn’t so bad; it would be an adventure!
Then I went to the greenmarket. Nobody told me there were no vegetables in winter! It was all weird roots, potatoes, and various kinds of pointless lettuce. This was what I had to work with? There weren’t even any broccoli! It was a daunting business, let me tell you. So I got what they had, which was cauliflower. This is a white, bulbous object that looks like an alien’s brain and has no flavor to speak of. I had planned on doing Rachael’s cauliflower gratin, but then I realized that loading up a casserole with butter, flour, and breadcrumbs, despite its obvious benefits, sort of defeated the purpose of my new healthy-eating program. So I said the the hell with it, cut up the cauliflower with my new knife, and roasted it in a big pan with chopped up garlic and white pepper and salt. I tossed it around from time to time and even tossed in a little butter to help with the browning. Why not! Think how ahead of the game I was. I had planned on making zucchini bagna cauda, a recipe I got from Urban Italian, my favorite non-Ray cookbook, but it turns out that zucchini only grows in summer. Again, who knew? So I bought some small cucumbers and sliced them up and dressed them with (what else?) salt and olive oil. They were cold and crunchy, the cauliflower was hot and soft and brown, and I finished the “meal” with my hunger neutralized if not exactly sated. I had some wine afterwards and wiped up the little last bits of garlic and cauliflower with an old piece of half-stale challah I had lying around. I wasn’t really cooking, I know that, but I felt better about myself.
It’s hard for me to be outside of my comfort zone. It’s hard to cook things that may or may not be available at any given time. It’s hard to cook things that don’t have parents. But I’m learning, and have even been able to formulate a few basic rules to guide me. These will seem hopelessly obvious to all you expert vegetable cooks out there, but I know there are a few meatheads out there like me, groping for a few maxims to guide them in this bewildering new world of edible flora. Here is what I have been able to figure out to date:
- Almost any vegetable is edible if you cook it with salt, oil, and garlic.
- Thick things like carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower will turn sweet and soft if you cook them long enough in a slow oven. Smaller piece cook better, and taste better, than bigger ones.
- Unlike meat, which only requires salt, vegetables need aggressive seasoning. (And salt.) I am typically looking, as per Mr. Recipe’s instructions, to use pepperoncini, white pepper, Sicilian oregano, and whatever spices I have at hand to add oomph, especially to things like cauliflower that have little or no flavor. I steer clear of black pepper, which seems to somewhat overwhelm most of these things.
- Fresh herbs are indispensable to vegetable cooking, particularly if used to flavor or infuse things like olive oil, wine, or other cooking liquids. Brussels sprouts, to take one example, are infinitely better if rolled in sage oil before roasting than not.
- You are allowed to use chicken broth, butter, bacon fat, and other good things, albeit sparingly.
- There are some things, like leeks and artichokes, that are far too complicated to mess with.
Now I need to ask you: what else do I need to know about cooking vegetables? I don’t claim to be an expert here, or even competent. I have a few maxims to go by, but I know I don’t know anything. Which, I guess, is the first, best thing you can know about any kind of cooking.