Thursday, April 28, 2011

Kitchen basics: vegetables aren't all braindead

The current line of thinking in activist circles is that we eat too much meat and not enough vegetable, or at the very least, not enough plant matter. To which I can certainly agree; look at your average plate at most restaurant, and you'll see a large amount of what's on it taken over by two groups: meat and starch. This certainly affects our perception of what we eat at home, as we tend to focus a lot of the food items around a large piece of meat (and accompanying fat), which dings the grocery budget by quite a bit, and a large helping of rice/potato/pasta/bread or combo thereof.

For a restaurant, there is a simple logic to this: people love their meat, so that's the star of the plate and what draws the customers in, and starches and cheap and filling, making sure that the customer feels full; the vegetables on the other hand, tend to be mostly used as decoration (like that piece of tomato on the classic diner breakfast) or as a flavor bit, just to give the illusion that we are eating some veggies. That bit of salad on the plate is alright, but not particularly nutritious. That's why many salad offerings in most restaurants have cheese, croutons or bits of meat added in, to convince our programmed minds that we have a "real meal."

Truth is, there's not a lot of plants on the offering because of the costs: most vegetables have to be fresh, so they must be bought and used withing a few days of purchase, and most people are drawn in by the meat, which also dings the budget... you get where this is going.

So, what vegetables should be part of the kitchen staples then? To keep with the running heme, the ones that will be the most adaptable, and will provide the most bang for your buck by keeping well and making you want to eat them while they are fresh. And will make you want to save them if they start to go on the blink.

while technically they are classified as fruits, tomatoes are most often used in savory preparations. One thing that makes them so awesome is the variety of ways in which they can be used, sometimes in the same dish. For example, in a pasta sauce you could well use a can of diced tomatoes, some coulis and some tomato pasta, all bringing different actions to the dish. Pretty much any methods of preservation will be worth picking up, but my recommendation is to have a can or two of either whole or diced tomatoes, a tube of tomato paste (like toothpaste, it allows for only using a small amount at a time) and some sun dried, in oil or not, your choice. If you get them in oil, check the differences between brands, as they are not equal. Sometimes paying a dollar more will really pay off in the quality of the product.

Making a habit of getting fresh tomatoes when possible gives you a few more choices of preparations; this is where the variety of fruits becomes important. There is quite a bit of difference between Roma, beefsteak and simple vine-grown, and they are not all used for the same purpose, as they all have different characteristics. Roma are going to be firmer and fleshier, mostly used for sauces and for cooking; beefsteak are going to be large, lumpy and flavorful, perfect for sandwiches and to complement burgers; vine-grown would most likely be used for salads, but they can well be used instead of other varieties. These are but examples, so just be aware that there are several varieties and go from there.

String beans:
an easy way to add veggies to your plate, steamed beans, whether yellow of green, are as great fresh and or frozen. This is one of those items that you can pick up a large bags and keep in your freezer, to be used whenever you need that extra hit and forgot (or couldn't afford) the fresh stuff.

Corn and peas:
I toss those two together, as they can easily be picked up in large bags in the frozen section and kept around to be steamed and added to the plate, as they can be tossed into other preparations, like soups or stews. Don't buy canned peas, its not worth it, but if you make shepherd's pie, then you may want to have a can of creamed corn and add a few handfuls of kernels, as a a good binder between the meat and mash.

if there's a green guy you should always have hand, then spinach is your man.When fresh they could be turned into a salad, or stems removed, sauteed with a bit of olive oil and pinch of salt for some great side dish; frozen have the added advantage of being pre-stemmed, come in a variety of formats (whole, shredded loose, shredded and lumped into balls) and are ready to be added to a variety of preparations. Soups, pilaf, risotto, stews, pizza, pasta, the list is long and they certainly are delicious and healthy for you. Just don't believe the common notion that they are packed with iron, that stems from a century old misprint...

Bell peppers:
when in season, they are a great friend to have around; they can be used raw or cooked, served as crudites, sliced on pizza, sliced and sauteed, stuffed and stewed, roasted... they serve as a basis for both Cajun and Spanish cooking, and they are also common in Eastern European cuisine, so there is certainly some room to play with variety here.

also known in more refined (and Frenchified) circles as courgette, this is a soft member of the squash family, having the distinct advantage of not requiring peeling. While you can certainly eat them raw as part of a salad, you would most likely enjoy them sauteed, in soups, in pasta sauce, roasted... you get the idea. Don't pick them too small or too big, the optimal size is pretty much a small cucumber.

if you've done some stocking of your pantry, then you should definitely have some of those around; onions, carrots, potatoes, garlic, rutabagas, those can all come into play, especially when combined with some of their fridge friends. It can be pretty amazing what a simple trio of these guys can do when they gang up in your pot!

I'll be honest and admit that I dont use fruits a lot, especially in winter. These are generally the guys that you'll want in season, when they're not ridiculously expensive, and as local as possible, so that you get the stuff that got to ripen in the field instead of a transport truck from three countries away.

In the event that you should keep stuff around, then frozen is a good option. They are more likely to have been picked when ripe, and if you can swing it, look for those brands who are flash frozen (withing a couple of hours from harvesting.) Otherwise, lemons and lime can always come in handy, even if its just to give and extra kick to your bar.

Of those that are available most of the year, bananas are a good go-to, especially for the breakfast smoothies, or those of you that can handle some baking. Along with apples like Cortland, they make handy snacks. Try to stay away from such varieties like Macintosh, Red or Yellow Delicious and the like, as they don't have good shelf live and don't hand the qualities that you want if you want something that can be cooked as well as eaten as is.

Did I miss something? Feel free to comment and add your suggestions. Remember, its your plate, its your fridge, so eat it, don't waste it.

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