Vegetable Basics

Simplifying Vegetables

You can cook a different vegetable every day of the week and go a whole month without eating the same one twice. There are so many varieties that even an expert can’t know everything about all of them. To make vegetables more manageable in the kitchen, I lump them into three groups—greens, tender vegetables, and hard vegetables —based on how fast they go from raw to mushy. This helps you substitute one for another in recipes and try things that may be unfamiliar. So when you encounter a new vegetable that resembles another, more familiar vegetable in the same group—think broccoli and cauliflower, for example, or beets and turnips—you have a point of reference. This method is far from scientific, but it works together with the techniques, tips, and variations in this chapter to demonstrate how easy it is to cook all sorts of vegetables.

Think of Vegetables in Groups

Greens These vegetables cook in a flash—anywhere from 30 seconds to several minutes. In addition to the salad greens described in Salad Greens (you can even cook lettuces!) and the greens shown in Boiled Greens (chard, watercress, collards, kale, mustard greens, and different bok choys), this group includes tatsoi and whatever you might encounter at farmers’ markets and international grocery stores.
     They all cook the same way. What varies is the time: The more delicate the leaves, the faster they soften. You can separate firm stalks from the leaves and give them a head start (see Boiled Greens). Boiling, steaming, stir-frying, and sautéing are the best cooking methods. Check them frequently and immediately remove them from the heat when they reach the softness you want.

Tender The vegetables in this group are firm but pliable when raw. The cooking time ranges from a couple minutes to 30 minutes or more, depending on how high the heat is. Celery, green beans, asparagus, snow and snap peas, broccoli, cauliflower, and mushrooms are examples. I also count vegetables that are pliable when you chop or slice them, like eggplant, zucchini, cabbage, onions, leeks, shallots, and fennel.
     You have more options with tender vegetables than with greens; boiling (in some cases), steaming, stir-frying, and sautéing are all good choices, as are frying, roasting, grilling, and broiling. At high temperatures they soften quickly, so you still need to keep a close eye on them. When you lower the heat and let them progress more slowly, they can brown and become downright silky.

Hard This mix of root vegetables, tubers, and winter squashes (including potatoes, turnips, carrots, beets, celery root, and pumpkin) take much longer to become tender. Figure 5 to 10 minutes if they’re grated or cut small and up to an hour if whole or in big chunks.
     Like tender vegetables, you can boil, steam, stir-fry, sauté, fry, roast, grill, or broil them. Hard vegetables tend to work particularly well cut or sliced, then roasted or deep-fried, where their outsides will brown and crisp while the insides get soft. All can be roasted whole until soft (a knife or skewer can be inserted easily when they’re ready). Then, after they cool a bit, it’s easy to peel them and remove any seeds. (Winter squashes are great cooked that way.)


One of the reasons to love vegetables is that you can cook them as much or as little as you like. All the recipes in this chapter offer ranges of time for proper cooking, but it’s more valuable—and fun—to learn to recognize doneness by looking and tasting. Here’s how:

A RAW Raw vegetables are crunchy and hard; they’re colorful but will become brighter as they cook.

B BARELY COOKED These vegetables are less crunchy, easier to eat, and often brighter in color than raw. If you’re pan-cooking, they’ll start to get golden.

C CRISP-TENDER Crisp-tender vegetables are bright and mostly tender, with just a little bit of pleasant crunch at the center. (If pan cooked, they’ll start browning.)

D SOFT Soft vegetables have lost all crunch, and their color has faded slightly. (Pan-cooked vegetables will get more brown.)

E SUPER-SOFT Super-soft vegetables will mash easily with a fork. This is how you want vegetables for puréeing.

F MUSHY The color is dull and grayish and they’re so soft that they break apart when you try to pick it up; there’s no reason to cook them to this stage!

10 Easy Toppings for Any Plain-Cooked Vegetables

You can cook vegetables without any seasonings (and little or no fat) and still make them super-appealing. Mix and match ingredients from the list below, then just before serving, sprinkle or splash them on top—and don’t forget to add the salt and pepper!
1 A drizzle of olive oil or sesame oil
2 A pat of butter or drizzle of melted butter
3 A squeeze of lemon or lime juice
4 A splash of soy sauce
5 A handful of chopped fresh herbs
6 A dusting of grated Parmesan
7 A sprinkle of chopped nuts
8 A handful of toasted bread crumbs
9 A pat of compound butter
10 A splash of vinaigrette

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