You Have No Excuse For Disliking Vegetables
9:40 AM EST on February 4, 2023
Welcome to, uh, I dunno, let's call it Ask A Chefector, the column in which your internet food buddy (me) answers all of your questions about cooking and eating and food and pretty much anything else. Got questions about any of those things? Email me.
So I’m feeling 42 in the kind of way that just makes you lie down on the floor because the enormity of the universe and all the bullcrap on my plate, and we haven’t even legalized weed yet nor are we ever going to because what is a tax base. Back to the particulars; I find vegetables to be one of those mysteries, specifically at the moment, that feel like they take a long time to cook and also tend to be an either/or proposition about tasty versus healthy/not going to contribute to my waistline. Please help me figure out efficient cooking methods that are really designed for the laziest person you’ve ever known, and I will want to eat them with relish without giving me gout.
Megan, I bring good news. Vegetables do not take a long time to cook! In fact in many cases, in their very best preparations they are hardly cooked at all. And although in their tastiest incarnations they are not quite as healthful as when raw, they still generally are far better for you than a chocolate-chip cookie, which isn't nothing.
So, that's a few different points. Let's separate them.
Point Number One: The best way to cook most normal vegetable-type stuff is in an extremely hot pan or under an extremely hot broiler, quickly, so that good stuff happens to it before bad stuff has had a chance to happen to it. This certainly is true of the familiar cruciferous vegetables—the various broccolis, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower—and it's also true of asparagus and zucchini and green beans and bok choi and frankly many other vegetables that I am not going to bother listing here. In some cases, with the very toughest of stuff—thick broccoli stalks, say—it might help to blanch it quickly in boiling salted water beforehand, but also you can skip that step by simply slicing the broccoli into thinner stalks.
From the bottom of my heart: Viciously sautéing the living shit out of some asparagus spears or green beans in a screamingly hot stainless-steel pan with just the smallest amount of durable fat, shaking the pan and tossing the contents in the air and blasting some black onto them, is perhaps the single most fun and thrilling form cooking can take, and the result is delicious. Plop the defeated veg onto a plate, drizzle it generously with fresh extra-virgin olive oil, sprinkle some flaky salt and freshly cracked black pepper over it, and serve it while it is still profoundly hot. This is a perfect food. You can do this with broccoli or rapini or chunks of zucchini or any number of other vegetables. If the olive oil is an infraction against the laws of your Self-Punishment Diet, that is the diet's problem: Extra-virgin olive oil is good for you.
The Second Point: Many other vegetables do their best work only minimally steamed or very lightly sautéed. Here I am thinking about many cooking greens, like spinach, escarole, and chard. Spinach is glorious cooked only briefly in a hot pan: Cook an immodest amount of sliced raw garlic in olive oil just until it starts turning golden, then add raw spinach a fistful at a time, tossing it around to coat it with the oil and garlic just until it is fully wilted, then pile this onto a plate and discover, two minutes later, that you should have made five times as much of it because it is insanely good to eat. Last night we went out to eat and my wife's dinner came with a lil' pile of spinach so perfectly cooked, so lusciously green, that it was all I could do not to reach across the table and snatch it off her plate with my bare fist.
Another Point I Just Thought Of: This is all leaving aside salad, and salad should not be left aside. A lovingly made salad absolutely can be, by miles, the most exciting thing on a table that also contains greasy meat, and you will never find a cooking method more efficient than not cooking at all. Particularly when you are feeling very 42-years-old about everything, a salad is nice because its preparation demands almost nothing from you.
Here is a guide to salad-making that I wrote back in 2012; in retrospect the writing is a thousand times clumsier and try-hardier than I'd like, but I stand by that blog's admonishments. The easiest way to enjoy vegetables is to assemble a kick-ass salad. It doesn't even have to be hard or painstaking work: Probably three or four nights a week on average I throw together a salad that is just romaine lettuce or baby arugula, thin-sliced onion, and one or two other things (tomatoes when appropriate, or cooked beets, or candied nuts, or avocado, or citrus fruit, or cucumber, or cannellini beans, or gorgonzola, or whatever looked good when was at the grocery store last), plus olive oil, black pepper, and either the juice of half a lemon or a drizzle of good vinegar. I spend not more than five minutes making this salad, and fully one of those minutes is just tossing and tossing it to get the liquid evenly distributed over everything. And then everybody wolfs this salad down like it is manna from heaven! Even kids like it.
And Furthermore: Diet culture unfortunately has filled many weight-anxious people's minds with an idea of healthy eating that is oriented entirely toward what any given food doesn't have—fat, or sugar, or calories, or whatever—rather than what it does have. This mirrors the culture's diseased and deranging conception of good body health, which again is all about what a body lacks (fat, spatial dimensions) rather than what it contains (muscle, for one thing, but also "a human being who is not miserable and starving and feeling terrible about themselves all the time"). To me this is foolish. Vegetables that have been prepared deliciously are better for you than vegetables that are served bare and cooked only with an eye toward minimizing their calorie count, for the simple reason that the former are the ones that you will actually eat. If the choice is between loving and feasting upon savagely roasted Brussels sprouts with generous application of shaved hard cheese and olive oil, or despising and eating the bare minimum of hateful puritanical Brussels sprouts steamed away to grey mush and dressed with nothing at all, eat the ones bedecked in fat! Brussels sprouts gussied up to party are not going to give you gout! But eating no vegetables at all because you hate them, and thus filling yourself only with every other type of food, very well might.
So what’s up for your dislike of sous vide cooking? It isn’t something I use often, but when I do (namely cooking hunks of meat) it’s a great tool for achieving reliably perfect results every time. The set it and forget it nature is also super nice. I can throw a bunch of steaks in bags, let them cook for a couple hours, and whenever people are ready to eat they get a super quick sear on the grill and they’re done.
I have no objection to other people sous vide...ing(?) (sousing vide?) (Vidal Sassooning?) their food. For that matter, given the trends in restaurant cooking over the past few decades, particularly in preparing those hunks of meat you referenced, I've almost certainly eaten dozens of sous... vided(?) foods and enjoyed them. It's fine. It's fine to sous vide stuff. You should sous vide to your heart's content, Matt! I just don't want to sous vide stuff myself.
A thing I have learned about myself is that there is an upper threshold on how technologized and laboratory-like cooking procedures can get before they turn me off and/or fill me with revulsion. However corny or dumb or philosophically problematic this may be, I can't deny that a huge part of the appeal of cooking, for me, is the sense of connecting myself to simple analog human stuff that has proven itself durable across vast expanses of time, and so also to the lineage of humble normal people of no particular expertise or technological access who also cooked their food that way. People cooked dinner for their families in hot metal pans over fire 3,000 years ago, and 1,000 years ago, and 200 years ago, and 20 years ago, and I will cook dinner for my family in a hot metal pan over a fire this evening. That's cool. (I suppose in latter days I am also thinking, maybe ridiculously, of the people who might prepare food in these same simple ways at some point in the future after, I dunno, the earth runs out of superconductive minerals for dinguses to jam into tools never previously hindered by any lack of digital readout or wifi connection.) I grind my coffee in a silly little hand-cranked mill every morning, and then I brew it over a flame on the stove. I am, I am sorry to report, That Guy.
I like a medium-rare steak as much as anybody else, but if I could get one in three seconds by popping a freeze-dried pellet into a gizmo, pushing a button, and having the gizmo turn that pellet into a medium-rare steak, I wouldn't want to do it. I would prefer to cook it in a hot metal pan, or on a grate over a fire—not because of any confidence that the results will be better, nor because of any macho idea that This Is How A Dang Man Does It, but because I like that kind of cooking. I enjoy it. Knowing how to do it, and doing it, have meaning for me. Skipping the doing-it part would be sort of like, I dunno, downloading and printing a nice image off of the internet instead of painting one: If you like painting, those two procedures are not equal!
On top of that, sous vide just kind comes off as horrifying and anti-food, to me. Like just right at the descriptive level. Step 4: Extract wet plastic bag from tepid water bath. Step 5: Extract semi-cooked meat from wet plastic bag. Gross, man! No plausible level of precision is great enough to lend appeal to cooking food that way. It's a procedure that seems like it should end with an alien bursting out of somebody's chest.
Please help me fix my attitude toward cooking. I am currently so burned out and exhausted from the whole process. I am a married mother of two teen girls and I have a full-time job (college professor and administrator). I am a good cook, according to everyone except half the people who live in my house and for whom I am responsible for feeding. I'm pretty adventurous when it comes to choosing recipes, and I like big flavors and trying new recipes (as long as they aren't too difficult or time consuming). My husband will tolerate whatever I make because that means he doesn't have to deal with it or think about it. My daughters, on the other hand, would rather eat fast food, spaghetti with jarred sauce, boxed mac and cheese, etc. And they're vocal about their displeasure with my cooking. Coming home after working all day to cook a nutritious (and actually tasty!) meal, only to be met with complaints and begging to DoorDash Taco Bell has me at the end of my rope. What am I doing wrong? How can I get back to enjoying the process of meal planning and cooking? I cannot subsist on Annie's White Cheddar Shells and Crunchwrap Supremes!
Emily, I very deeply relate to your situation. My sons are 12 and (days away from) 14, respectively, and have the appetites of teen boys, both in volume and discernment. That is to say that they are ravenously hungry all the time, and all the time they are ravenously hungry for absolute trash. I'm a good cook! I am not friggin' Joël Robuchon, but I feel confident that I am at least an 85th-percentile cook relative to the populace at large. Moreover I am not out here serving, like, friggin' pickled dickweed in baby-eel slime or whatever; my cooking choices at dinnertime tend toward very easy-to-like stuff from very near the absolute middle of the culinary road. And yet, if my sons had their way no fewer than 19 out of any 20 dinners would come from a dang drive-thru.
I try not to hold this against them, and I think mostly I am successful at it: After all, I too had the appetite of a garbage disposal when I was their age, and now I (mostly) don't, or anyway now I at least like my indulgent death-food prepared with some care by someone who values technique and ingredient-quality. But it's dispiriting anyway. Half the time, when either of them asks me what I'm going to make for dinner, I just say "food," because I know that their face will fall in disappointment if I say that I'm roasting a chicken and making a salad, two things I do very well that at their ages they are all but programmed to regard as profoundly inferior to a bag of Doritos.
(When they follow-up with a wiseass "What kind of food?" my answer then is an even more wiseass "The kind you eat." Sometimes my younger son will then ask, in exasperation, "But what is it called?" and then I hit him with "Dave." I'm never going to see them again once they get drivers' licenses.)
Another thing I'd wager is weighing heavily on your attitude toward cooking, if you are like me, is the pandemic. Depending on where you live and your personal levels of caution and social responsibility, you likely endured a very long (and possibly still ongoing) stretch of time when you couldn't really even consider the spontaneous choice to go out to a dang restaurant for dinner and have somebody else do all the cooking. I found that this blasted big chunks out of my enjoyment of the whole cooking process, which I could no longer even imagine I was doing because I wanted to, and which I had to do even on days and nights when I was exhausted and uninspired and just wanted to go sit in a comfy booth in front of a bowl of pho the size of a swimming pool.
Only very recently have I started to feel like I'm recovering some of that shriveled enthusiasm. The cure, turns out, is ... going out to dinner more! And/or getting carryout! Not as a concession to my sons (who, I must now note, are actually very gracious about this stuff nearly all of the time), but because it's fun to do. This is part of what I recommend. Give yourself a break, and give cooking a chance to start to feel like one of a range of appealing options again, rather than the grim thankless chore it feels like right now.
But there is another part to this whole thing, and that's your daughters being "vocal about their displeasure" with your cooking. That fucking sucks. It's fucking rude and hurtful toddler shit to complain about something somebody made for you; whatever else it is, cooking for your family is also an act of love, rooted in all the rough and wobbly but genuine searching parents must do to arrive at some idea of what's best for the people they care about, and your daughters are receiving that care appallingly. You deserve better, and they deserve a prompt to learn this stuff now, before they become rude and shitty adults.
I'd guess your daughters, teens that they are, are seeing this conflict—Mom's cooking vs. the Crunchwrap Supreme—as an issue of agency and independence: They feel they've grown into the freedom to choose what they eat, and feel confined by not having it. As they (likely) see it, what they're expressing displeasure with is you making a choice for them that they feel it's time they make for themselves. And, sure, it's partly that. But it's also an issue of them being unkind and unappreciative toward something you created, of work that you did, of something you gave them. If you painted a painting, even a lousy one, and they were "vocal with their displeasure" about it, that'd be horrible. If you gave them a present, even not the one they wanted, and they complained about it, that'd be inexcusably rude.
I'm sorry to say that I think it necessitates a discussion—one your husband, if he is not a derelict, will help you with. (This may be a separate issue, but if he is not vocally sticking up for you and chiding your daughters for their rudeness when they complain about your cooking, then he deserves to eat some shit as well.) Not in the moment when they're making stinkfaces about your food, but later on, possibly individually with each of them. What I would say to them is what I once had to say (not quite verbatim) to one of my kids: "I appreciate that you generally would prefer something else for dinner, rather than what I cook. But us eating home-cooked dinners together is important to me, and when I cook for us and you [groan/roll your eyes/complain], it hurts. It makes me feel like shit. And as your parent, it's my job to tell you that that's a shabby way to treat someone. I know you can't flip a switch and just start liking the food I cook, but I know you can be kind, and that's what I expect."
And then if you haven't tried this yet, try involving them in the process of planning meals and cooking them. Invite them to decide what you'll all have for dinner, say, twice a week, with the provision that one of those dinners must be home-cooked and they must help cook it (or cook it entirely themselves). This doesn't have to be an everyday thing; just do it a few times, at least to start. Maybe they'll want to keep going or maybe not, but in either case this will help them to get a sense of what that responsibility is like, and give them a hit of the agency they're looking for; it will be a clear instance of you seeing them as more grown-up than they once were. But it won't be the shitty F-grade freedom teens think they want, where they get to make choices but only in the absolute most offhand and irresponsible way, where they simply grouse and whine about what's being offered to them until the other party gives up.
And seriously, whack your husband on the back of the head! If my kids were complaining vocally about some form of care their mom was giving them, they would catch hell from me! The shitty punks! They can go to hell!
I love seafood, I live on the Georgia coast where I can get great fresh ingredients, but my wife doesn’t like shellfish. I would like to make a paella. Can I make one that doesn’t have shellfish, and do I have to have a pan the size of a tractor tire? Thanks!
Congratulations on your easy access to good fresh seafood! Condolences on having married a weenie. I kid! We love to joke, don't we folks. I'm sure your wife is wonderful. I dearly hope someday she can know what it's like to have an adult's palate. (I kid!)
My sense, sort of affirmed by your question, is that Americans tend to associate paella very closely with seafood, and with shellfish and bivalves in particular. I myself am this way, more-or-less: I love shellfish and bivalves, and I always want to eat them, and so when I think of paella I tend to picture it with mussels and clams at the very least, and probably also with shrimp, and, what the hell, maybe I will envision some seared sea scallops on there too. (I picture just about everything else this way, too.) In fact just last night I ate paella with clams and mussels and shrimp at a nearby Spanish restaurant, and then because the portion was pretty big and I'd already had some tapas (chorizo and squash fritters, so good), I brought some of the rice home and had it for breakfast this morning. Hell yeah. Paella rules. I would eat that paella all over again right now if I could.
Where was I. Oh right. The thing is, paella is not actually a seafood dish. In fact, in its early days paella probably tended not to contain any aquatic life at all, apart from maybe (gulp) water vole, which is basically an amphibious groundhog. Horrifying! The point is, paella is a rice dish. It is rice with stuff: The idea was that around lunchtime field laborers would gather whatever tasty stuff they could get, and they would cook that stuff with rice in a big pan and share it around; I do not think that these field laborers were in all cases, like, hauling in shrimp nets or wading out to harvest mussels off of breakwater rocks for their dang lunch. The stuff you pair with the rice in your paella certainly can be seafood, but that is no more right or correct than Spanish chorizo, or poultry, or beans, or vegetables, or friggin' snails. What I am saying here is that yes, you can make paella without shellfish. The paella I had last night had mussels and clams and shrimp, yes—but it also had small quantities of sliced chorizo and impossibly delicious chunks of chicken thigh, both of which had been seared to crispiness on the surface of the pan, down under the rice, so that finding one was like unearthing a priceless diamond that uh also happened to taste real good. Oh man. Ohhhh man.
Where was I. Ah yes. As for the pan part of your question: In my experience, so long as you exercise some restraint with quantities, you can achieve reasonable paella success in a straight-sided stainless steel sauté pan. Width (or, uh, diameter I guess) is good. You do not want the rice piled up any deeper than necessary, or it will cook unevenly and come out sticky and wet; the deeper grains will boil while the topmost ones steam, and you will have no chance of developing the prized socarrat, the layer of crispy scorched rice at the very bottom of the best paellas. (In fairness, a good socarrat is pretty unlikely in nearly any paella procedure configured for a normal kitchen.) So it's best if your pan is pretty big; if you don't have a real big pan, you might do better to cook two smaller paellas in separate pans than try for a family-sized paella in an ordinary-sized vessel.
I suppose there's another way of looking at it, which is that even if you toss out these admonishments and pile the rice deeply and end up with mushy porridge, it probably will taste fine. Suit yourself! It's not like I just wasted half an hour trying to help you or anything.
What is the worst piece of cooking equipment you've ever used?
I'm not totally sure this counts, as strictly speaking it didn't do any actual cooking, but the worst piece of equipment I've ever used in any kind of food preparation, by ten thousand light-years, is the automated countertop pasta-making machine I splurged on foolishly during the pandemic's deepest early depths when I was going out of my mind from being stuck at home day after day. I wrote a little bit about this in a blog back in March of 2021, so I hope not to go on about it too much here, but the machine sucked absolute shit, the pasta produced by it was insultingly terrible and utterly unsuitable for humans, and in general it came off as though developed by somebody whose entire body of pasta knowledge came from half-overhearing a cooking novice's description of what a noodle is while riding a crowded subway and reading a paperback book.
The thing is, kneading and rolling are hugely important to pasta. It isn't enough for the flour and water and egg to be mixed together, and the kneading and rolling are not just a tedious analog method for combining them. The dough must be kneaded and rolled and kneaded and rolled and kneaded and rolled, long after the flour and water and egg are all fully combined, in order to develop long stretchy gluten strands so that the pasta will hold its shape and not be mushy bullshit. The more you roll it, the stretchier and more durable it gets: A lovingly and completely worked pasta dough can be rolled out thin enough that, if the rolling surface had words printed on it in 12-point font, you could see them (if perhaps not quite read them) through the sheet of dough. People spent thousands of years learning this and perfecting it.
When I was a kid, sometimes at seemingly random intervals, my dad would go on a pasta-making excursion. He was the son of a Sicilian-American mom, and this showed over what wound up being an all-day affair. My siblings and I would come home from school to find the kitchen turned into a maze of delicately balanced broom-handle bridges, stretched between chairs, each one coated in flour and draped with sheets of fresh pasta, and our father so crazy-eyed and flour-festooned that he looked like Jacob Marley come to warn Ebenezer Scrooge against his wicked selfishness. Pasta-making can be like this, and probably should be like this, because good pasta is heaven, and heaven simply cannot be extruded from a machine the size of a drip coffeemaker in under five minutes.
The pasta machine either was made by an incurious clod who didn't know any of this, or by a cynic who did, but took for granted that the pasta machine's target purchasers—moneyed clods—would not. It didn't knead the dough, or roll it, except incidentally and for mere moments; it just mixed the ingredients with an auger and then proceeded directly to extruding this shabby Play-Doh shit in pasta shapes, which instantly fell apart. Moreover, you couldn't pre-knead the dough and then add it to the machine, or the auger would just spin it around and around in there and never move it even one centimeter in the direction of the exit. I cooked one crappy, crumbly, worthless, hideously depressing batch of pasta made by this lousy ripoff and knew that I would never use it again. I hope a crocodile bites its creator's arm off.
Well, look at that. I went on too long about it. I blame you, Mike, and I condemn you to hell.