Nurture Your Vegetables . . . So They Can Nurture You

Yesterday’s post reviewed the basics of vegetable storage.  Make sense of those rules by understanding how vegetables continue breathing, even after they’re cut or plucked from the earth.

We hear a lot about how vegetables nurture us.  But did you know that it works the other way, too?  Nurture vegetables and they can do a better job of nurturing and nourishing us.

Baby Spinach from Farmers Market

Baby Spinach from Farmers Market Don't let it from cannibalize itself!

This discovery came while researching how to store spinach.  It seemed like a pretty cut and dried topic until I ran across this statement, buried in some technical research document:  “Despite having been detached from the plant, fruits and vegetables remain as living organs after harvest.”

That statement took a minute to wrap my head around.  Subconsciously I’d always lumped vegetables with all the other inanimate objects in my shopping cart.  Being severed from the ground seemed like pretty good evidence that they were dead.  What’s more, in any megamarket vegetables are lined up for sale under bright fluorescent lights right alongside aisles of kid toys, lawn chairs, socks and razors.  So who would think of produce being in a class of its own, one of living organisms as opposed to inanimate objects?

Seeing vegetables in the light of the living put a whole new spin on the topic of storage.  All of a sudden, it didn’t seem quite right to just throw them in my shopping basket and then throw them in the frig at home.  My veggies deserve more.

So back to my technical article I went.  “Like all living tissues,” it continued, “harvested produce continues to respire throughout its postharvest life.”  So quite unlike all the other packaged, bottled and canned food in my shopping basket, the fresh vegetables are still breathing.

In the simplest of terms, vegetable breathing is a process where “oxygen is consumed and water, carbon dioxide, and energy are released.”  The point of this process is to break down carbohydrates into “their constituent parts to produce energy to run cellular processes.”

Here’s the kicker, though:  When we’re talking about harvested produce, the carbohydrates being broken down to run a plant’s cellular processes are its own carbohydrates! You could say that a harvested vegetable is essentially cannibalizing itself in a valiant attempt to remain as alive as it can be.   Hour by hour, day by day, with each breath, “compounds that affect plant flavor, sweetness, weight, turgor (water content), and nutritional value are lost.”

What does all this mean for ordinary vegetable shoppers? It means that to reap the amazing flavor and essential nutrients that vegetables offer, we must handle them as depleting assets.  In other words, our job as vegetable purchasers is one of emergency triage:  What can we do to staunch the flood of flavor, sweetness, water content and nutrients streaming from our carefully selected produce?

Buying at Farmers Markets is a good first step.  It automatically puts you ahead in the depleting assets game, since produce is generally harvested either the night before or morning of the market.  (Many thanks to the farmers who are up picking at 4:00 a.m. to get us the freshest produce possible.)  This means you have at least a two to three day flavor advantage over produce picked a thousand miles away, shipped to a warehouse, delivered to the grocery store, then displayed for a while in the produce aisle.

This kind of flavor and nutrition advantage is not something you want to squander:

  1. Get your produce home as quickly as possible (skip the temptation to run errands on the way home, especially as the weather turns hot.)
  2. On hot days, bring a cooler and icepack so your veggies can ride home in air conditioned comfort.  If you forget, buy something frozen (e.g., meat)  to pack with your most delicate greens and keep them in the shadiest part of the car.  Scrounge up a cardboard box and you’ll even get a little insulative benefit.
  3. Finally, once home,  get your veggies into plastic bags, close loosely and pop into the frig immediately.

How can such simple steps be so important?  Each helps slow the respiration process, either by chilling or limiting exposure to air, so your veggies don’t expire any more of their flavor and nutrition than they have to.  It’s easy to take our incredible produce for granted, but it deserves better!

Find out more about how to reap delicious delight from vegetables with Vegetable a Month online magazine.


The Cabbage Core Challenge

4 Tricks for Taking the Sting Out of Bitter Vegetables

There’s a reason grocery store displays of broccoli rabe, rutabagas and turnips go

Cabbage Core

Does my "waste not-want not" motto really extend to cabbage cores?

untouched for hours at a time.  Some members of the vegetable kingdom are just a little harder to like than others.  But we still want the flavor and nutrient diversity they offer.  Happily, there are ways of preparing these difficult specimens that make them more palatable.  Although the following article focuses on cabbage cores, a particularly challenging vegetable, its tricks can be used to form a good working relationship with any of the harsher vegetables.

Here’s an honest admission:  I have a “waste-not-want-not” thing going on. My Twitter column is filled with vegetable dishes fast enough for breakfast and lunch—a good many made with stems, stalks, cores and leaves that normal cooks would pitch.  But not me.  I have this thing about waste, so I set myself a personal goal of starving my compost pile as much as possible.

To date, things have been going pretty well.  I’ve been turning kale stems, cauliflower leaves, broccoli stalks and other such “refuse” into tasty dishes—boosting my vegetable intake and stretching my vegetable dollars.  But then came yesterday’s cabbage core.  Couldn’t I safely pitch that without violating my self-inflicted waste code?

Tasting a piece of it triggered deep, gastronomic memories of everything bad about cabbage.  I now knew why the cabbage itself was unbelievably sweet and light:  Every bit of the head’s strong, musky, sour and harsh taste had been sucked into the core!  And that foul taste is what I got upon testing a bite.

I immediately started to scrape the whole thing towards the compost bin.  Not until the last

Cabbage Core Headed to the Compost Bin

The compost bin got the moldy end of the core, but the rest got chopped for a higher purpose.

second did my better self rise to the occasion.  The compost bin got the moldy end of the core (I do have some limits!), but the rest got chopped as I decided how to transform it into something I could stomach.  Working with vegetable parts that are frequently discarded, I’ve learned a few tricks to render them not only palatable but pretty decent-tasting.  This core was about to be my biggest challenge to date.

Trick 1:  Cook It Cooking is the best way to extract the bitterness from a vegetable.  In this case, I didn’t even consider steaming or sauteing but went straight to boiling, which is the preferred cooking method for really tough vegetable characters.

I know that boiling has lost favor over the years, probably because we get vegetables shipped in year round that are tender enough for just a light steaming or sautéing, which is generally better taste wise and nutritionally.  But imagine a pioneer farm wife faced with some garden remnant in November—it may be tough and gnarly, but it’s the closest thing to fresh that she will have for four months.  She is going to make those stalks or stems taste good no matter what, and boiling is the tool for the job.

Note, however, that boiling isn’t limited to throwing vegetables in a huge pot of water, cooking the vegetables to death and then pitching the water.  On the contrary, I simmer rather than boil my vegetables in a tiny, not a potful, of liquid.  This means any leached out vitamins and minerals get concentrated in an amount of liquid small enough that it can be fully incorporated into the finished dish, minimizing nutrient and flavor loss.  Also, I only simmer until the vegetables have lost their bitter or harsh taste, which is often when they are still crisp-tender.  My cabbage core had to be cooked beyond crisp-tender, but still far short of mush, before losing its harsh taste.

Trick 2:  Inject Flavor While water certainly works as a cooking liquid, experiment with

Simmer in Imagine's Vegetable Broth

This broth has plenty of flavor, so little additional salt was needed.

different broths.  They can inject flavor into the spaces left by the extraction of the vegetable’s bitterness.  I used Imagine’s Vegetable Broth, which has plenty of flavor to spare.

Third:  Salt Salt is also good at both drawing out bitterness and imparting flavor.  Your broth might be salty enough as is, but if using a low-sodium variety or water, try adding a little (maybe 1/4 tsp. to 1/2 tsp.) of good sea salt.  I used about 1/4 tsp. of Celtic salt in my simmer water.

Fourth:  Combine with Other Flavorful Ingredients.

I always say that sausage is a miracle ingredient.  Add just a little and the entire dish tastes great—no work, little cost and no cooking knowledge required.  Sausage was the primary tastemaker I added to my simmered cabbage core.

Sausage and Onion are Great Taste Makers

We just received a shipment of sausage from pasture-fed pigs. It I had no fat, so I had to add olive oil to saute the onion. Less than 1/4 lb. is all I needed for a great-flavored dish.

I also added sweetly browned onions and sweet snap pea shoots (I rescued a few from thegarden before last week’s snow.)  Their sweetness balanced the trace amounts of bitterness left in the cooked core pieces, as would other sweet vegetables (red peppers, corn, etc.) or sautéed fruits (like pears and apples), or just rice, chicken, tofu or some kind of sauce with a little sweetness.

The end result?  I think I met the challenge with a delicious for lunch that wasn’t just another sandwich–not by a long shot!

Cabbage Core with Sausage and Onions

For a little color, I added vivid green pea shoots at the end.

Don’t Pitch that Browned Rice

I’ll be the first to admit it:  I’ve “browned” a lot of rice.  In this case, “browning” is not like “browning chicken breasts until golden,” or “toasting nuts until brown and fragrant.”  No, browning rice means I forgot about the rice simmering on the stove so the stuff just kept simmering until a thick brown, hard crust formed on the bottom.

Fortunately, that brown crust emits a pretty fragrant smell, so I usually catch the rice before it burns completely, at which point the whole batch would have to be pitched.  As long as it’s only brown on the bottom, even a serious brown, the rice on top is fine.  Just scrape it off and enjoy.

As for the crust of hard browned rice on the bottom, I used to pitch it.  Until now.  Quite by accident (the way a lot of good cooking secrets are uncovered), I found a delicious use for it:  After scooping away the good rice from yet another browned batch, I poured in a cup or two of water to help loosen the bottom crust.  Since I forgot to turn off the burner, the mixture continued cooking.  Lo and behold, when I checked back in a few minutes, the hard browned rice had fluffed up and the intense browned flavor had been diluted and evenly dissipated by the water.  Always game for a new flavor, I tried a bite and it was quite good!  So the whole batch got thrown into a pot vegetable soup for an interesting flavor enhancer.

Yesterday, I went one step further.  Faced with yet another hard brown rice crust, I simmered it in a couple cups of chicken broth instead of just plain water.  Then I added diced kohlrabi stems and, after they had simmered a bit, chopped kohlrabi greens.  Salt and pepper were the only seasonings necessary for a delicious lunchtime soup.  Apparently, browned rice has a lot of flavor.

Here’s an even better ending to the story:  You’ve heard of self-cleaning ovens.  Cooking browned-on rice self-cleans your rice pan.  Just be sure to scrape the sides and bottom of the pan as the soup boils–which you’ll want to do anyway to scrape in all that flavor.

Of course, I’m just waiting for the comment from some clever reader who never browns (or burns) her rice because she uses a rice cooker.  Go ahead and advise me that I need to get a rice cooker–but you’ll never get to taste Browned Rice Soup!

(P.S. for kohlrabi, you can substitute the stems and leaves of any green, like kale, chard, collards, beets or even just spinach; just adjust the cooking time up or down depending upon the tenderness or toughness of your greens.)

Frugal Renaissance

David Brooks of New York Times fame wrote an editorial earlier this month titled “The Great Seduction.” It lamented the corrupting influence of wealth and how wealth has destroyed the very frugal, industrious and ambitious values that are responsible for our affluence to begin with. Based on the imperatives laid out in a recent think tank study, “For a New Thrift: Confronting the Debt Culture,” Brooks sounded a call for the re-embracement of good old-fashioned frugality.

What’s this got to do with food? A lot. If we’re looking to revive the virtue of frugality (not a bad idea in today’s economically uncertain times), the kitchen is a good—and easy—place to start. Statistically, 14% of the food we buy goes to waste. In other words, there is plenty of room for improvement.

Brooks focused on the importance of frugality and debt management for the financial soundness of our entire economy. In the happy coincidence that comes from right thinking and acting, frugality’s benefits extend to many other areas, too: The positive impact on our individual pocketbooks is obvious. Over the course of a year, our average food waste adds up to $590 per year, in 2004 dollars. With food prices soaring, the potential savings are far greater today.

While money savings are unquestionably important, there’s another equally important side to kitchen waste. Maybe it’s my upbringing by Depression-era parents, maybe I took the “starving children in China” thing too seriously, but I get uncomfortable seeing all the food that gets tossed in our culture without a second thought. Food is just a little vital to our survival, which is why it gets my utmost respect, especially when there are so many people living on a few kernels of grain and whatever other morsels they are lucky enough to scrounge up.

I don’t exactly believe in karma, but I figure it can’t hurt to do my best to avoid waste. Even if there isn’t any future payback, maybe the frugal energy I send out will inspire the same in others, and with enough people showing care and respect for food, maybe a way will be found to siphon a little more to those in need.

The environment also benefits by a reduction of kitchen waste. When food is tossed, a lot more goes in the trash can than just the rotted cantaloupe or leftover lasagna that no one ate. Also wasted are the energy that went into growing, transporting, manufacturing, refrigerating and cooking it, the polluting pesticides and fertilizers that went into producing it, and the costs of transporting and landfilling it as trash. May not seem like much for one rotten cantaloupe or a measly corner of lasagna, but environmental degradation is a numbers game. There are thousands and millions of people, all wasting 14% of the food in their households. Things add up. . . .

So how do we prevent waste in the kitchen. There are lots of ways. Stay tuned. . . .

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