I was in college when I finally realized that vegetables were available in forms other than frozen blocks.
Maybe that's what has stunted my vegetable-cooking growth. Though frozen vegetables are fine for some dishes, there is only so much you can do with them.
I sometimes struggle with ideas for the veggie side. I've served plain steamed broccoli, simmered green beans and sauteed spinach to my family more nights than I'd like to admit. The afterthought is often evident when the dishes are cleared: Main dish and salad are gone, but the green stuff forlornly remains. Some people cook vegetables beyond recognition; I bore them to death.
Lately, I've tried to jazz up the vegetable portion of the meal, knowing how important it is to increase our plant-matter intake. And when I say plant-matter, I am leaving out potatoes. We get plenty of those in the form of fries, mashes and salads.
I have had success with roasting, which deepens and sweetens the taste of many vegetables, especially Brussels sprouts. But I don't do it often enough.
Cooking techniques bring variety to veggie offerings. Besides steaming or simmering, there is the aforementioned roasting, plus grilling and sauteing. Fresh herbs, nuts, grated cheeses and finishing oils such as sesame, truffle, walnut and avocado, among others, add flavor and interest. A sprinkling of lemon or orange zest before serving makes it all pretty and pretty good tasting.
Nutritional experts say our plates should be more about vegetables and fruit than animal protein. That's the opposite of how Americans have eaten for years, with the big steak or oversized chicken breast crowding out everything else.
Perhaps increased attention to vegetable preparation will make this idea more appetizing to the meat-obsessed. After all, vegetarians have understood the power of the plant for years.
The following 25 vegetables sides, gathered from magazines (Food Network and Saveur), Internet recipe sites and my cooking buddies, will work wonderfully with roasted chicken, sauteed seafood and grilled meats. In fact, several could stand in as the main course with an added grain or bean salad to complete the meal.
The frozen block of produce has its place, but there's so much more out there.
BAKED ALMOND CARROTS
Bring 2 pounds of peeled and sliced carrots to a boil; reduce heat, cover and let cook for about 5 minutes. Drain. Return to pan and add ½ cup raisins, 4 tablespoons melted butter, 6 tablespoons honey, 2 tablespoons lemon juice and ½ teaspoon ground ginger. Mix so that carrots are evenly coated, then place in a baking dish. Cover and bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Sprinkle with toasted almonds before serving.
STIR-FRIED ASPARAGUS WITH SPICY ORANGE SAUCE
Mix ⅓ cup orange juice, 1 ½ tablespoons soy sauce and ½ teaspoon (or to taste) red pepper flakes and set aside. Wash and cut asparagus spears into 2-inch pieces. Heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil in skillet or wok over medium-high heat then add asparagus, stirring while it cooks. Add several cloves of minced garlic and 1 tablespoon of fresh, minced ginger. Cook until fragrant; add orange sauce. Cook for 2 minutes, then remove tender asparagus. Turn heat to high and let sauce thicken. Pour over asparagus.
BROCCOLI WITH GARLIC
While 1 head of broccoli florets are steaming, mix 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil with 1 medium, finely minced garlic clove. Toss cooked broccoli with oil-garlic mixture and season with coarse salt.
BROCCOLI RABE WITH SAUTEED PEPPERS, OLIVES AND GARLIC
Simmer trimmed broccoli rabe for 2 to 3 minutes; drain well and set aside. In a large skillet, saute red peppers that have been sliced thin in extra-virgin olive oil until soft. Add minced garlic, cook for another minute, then mix in broccoli rabe and a handful of pitted kalamata olives.
Saute ½ chopped onion, 2 chopped garlic cloves and a pinch of salt in a skillet with a tablespoon of olive oil for 5 minutes. Pour in ½ cup of white wine (or chicken stock) and reduce by half. Add 2 chopped tomatoes, 2 (9-ounce) packages of frozen artichoke hearts, 2 tablespoons water, a bit of lemon zest and salt to taste. Cover and cook for about 6 minutes. Stir in green olives and torn or chopped basil leaves and season with salt and pepper.
ROASTED GREEN BEANS WITH TOMATO BURSTS
Clean green beans and arrange on a roasting pan with edges. Sprinkle with coarse salt and a bit of extra-virgin olive oil. Stir beans until all are coated with the oil. Roast in a 400-degree oven for 10 minutes, then add a pint of grape tomatoes and stir to mix. Return to the oven and cook for another 10 minutes, until the tomatoes have softened and burst.
DIJON BROILED TOMATOES
Spread halved beefsteak tomatoes with Dijon mustard and sprinkle with grated Swiss cheese. Mix dried bread crumbs with capers, any chopped fresh herbs you have on hand (parsley, thyme and oregano are especially nice) and a bit of melted butter. Sprinkle mixture on top of tomatoes and broil for 2 to 3 minutes.
SPINACH WITH SESAME AND GARLIC
Heat about 2 tablespoons of sesame oil in a large skillet, turn down the heat and add minced garlic. Then add 1 pound of spinach leaves. Stir until wilted; this will take just a few minutes. Garnish with toasted sesame seeds.
ZUCCHINI RIBBONS WITH GOAT CHEESE
Using a vegetable peeler or mandoline, cut ribbon slices from 2 large zucchini, discarding the seedy core. Heat a mixture of equal parts butter and olive oil (about a tablespoon of each) and add some finely chopped onion or shallots. Let cook for a few minutes, then add minced garlic and red pepper flakes, stirring until you can really smell them. Add ½ cup of chicken or veggie stock, then add the zucchini ribbons. Bring to a boil and cook for about 3 minutes. Remove from heat, season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with crumbled goat cheese.
BRUSSELS SPROUTS HASH
Slice Brussels sprouts thinly and set aside. Melt a couple of tablespoons of butter in a large skillet, then add the sliced Brussels sprouts. Stir while cooking, about 3 minutes. Season with coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper.
ROASTED CHERRY TOMATOES
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In a large baking sheet with sides, toss 4 pints cherry (or grape) tomatoes with a few tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil and salt and pepper. Roast for about 15 to 20 minutes, or until tomatoes are soft and beginning to brown in places. Place in a serving bowl and top with handful of sliced basil leaves and another drizzle of oil, or some Parmesan cheese, if desired. Serve hot or at room temperature.
BAKED ACORN SQUASH WITH WALNUTS AND MAPLE SYRUP
Cut squash in half and remove seeds and membranes. Place on a foil-wrapped baking dish, cut side up. Mix together maple syrup and walnut oil (2 tablespoons of each for 2 squash). Brush cut squash with mixture and sprinkle with ground nutmeg. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 1 hour, brushing every 10 minutes with mixture. When squash is almost done, brush once more and sprinkle with finely chopped walnuts. Let cook for another 10 minutes.
BUTTERED PEAS WITH FRESH HERBS
To a 10-ounce bag of cooked frozen peas, add 1 tablespoon unsalted butter and 2 tablespoons of minced fresh herbs such as parsley, basil, tarragon, chives and/or mint. Season with freshly ground black pepper.
Boil 4 cups of shredded cabbage for 7 minutes, drain and place in a casserole dish. Dice 4 slices of bacon and fry until crisp; drain and return 2 tablespoons of the rendered bacon fat to the skillet. Whisk in 1 tablespoon flour, ½ teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon paprika, some freshly ground black pepper and 1 cup of milk. Cook until sauce thickens. Pour sauce over cooked cabbage, top with 1 cup of soft bread crumbs, sprinkle with bacon and bake for 15 minutes in a 400-degree oven.
Mix 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, 2 tablespoons each red wine vinegar and lemon juice, 1 tablespoon each Dijon mustard, chopped fresh basil and chopped fresh parsley, 1 clove minced garlic and black pepper together in a large sealable bag. Add sliced yellow squash, chunks of onions, mushroom caps, red pepper slices and eggplant cubes and toss. Marinate for 2 to 3 hours. When ready to grill, thread pieces on skewers and cook over medium heat for 10 to 15 minutes, brushing with leftover marinade.
SPICED ROASTED CAULIFLOWER
Heat oven to 425 degrees. Toss together ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, 4 teaspoons ground cumin, florets from 2 heads of cauliflower and salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to rimmed baking sheets; spread out evenly. Bake, rotating pans from top to bottom and front to back, until cauliflower is browned and tender, 25 to 30 minutes.
Heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil in large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add 1 chopped red bell pepper, ½ chopped onion and 2 cloves minced garlic, and cook, stirring frequently, 2 minutes. Stir in 1 ½ cups shelled edamame, 2 cups corn and 3 tablespoons wine or vegetable stock; cook 4 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove pan from heat. Stir in salt, pepper, chopped fresh parsley and fresh basil.
LIMA BEANS WITH SCALLIONS
Cook 1 (16-ounce) bag of frozen lima beans according to package directions; drain. Return to pan and add 2 tablespoons thinly sliced green onion tops, plus salt, pepper and butter to taste.
BOILED BEETS WITH TARRAGON BUTTER
Trim all but 2 inches of stalks off 12 medium beets. Put beets into a medium pot, cover with water, and boil until soft, 45 to 60 minutes. Drain, pull off stalks, slip off skins and halve. (This can be done ahead.) Put beets, 3 tablespoons butter and 2 tablespoons fresh, chopped tarragon into a skillet; heat over medium heat until warmed through. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
GRILLED ONIONS WITH CHILI BUTTER
Cut large onions in half and remove papery skin. Cut small slice from each end so onion halves will sit upright. Melt a couple of tablespoons of unsalted butter and add 1 teaspoon of chili powder, cook over low heat for about 30 seconds. Set aside. Brush cut side of onions with extra-virgin olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill, cut side down first, over medium-high heat for 15 minutes, turning once. When soft, brush all over with chili-butter.
BAKED MUSHROOMS WITH THYME AND WHITE WINE
Whisk together 1 ½ tablespoons minced onion, 2 minced garlic cloves, ¼ teaspoon dried thyme, a splash of white wine and a tablespoon of olive oil in a large bowl. Add 9 ounces fresh sliced mushrooms and toss to coat; season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer mushroom mixture to a small baking dish, cover and bake at 375 degrees for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.
ROASTED GARLIC LEMON BROCCOLI
In a large bowl, toss 2 heads of broccoli florets with a couple of teaspoons of extra-virgin olive oil, kosher salt, pepper and 1 clove minced garlic. Spread the broccoli out in an even layer on a baking sheet. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven until tender enough to pierce the stems with a fork, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer to a serving platter. Squeeze juice from 1 lemon over the broccoli before serving.
TARRAGON GREEN BEANS
Blanch green beans in salted water, drain well and while still warm drizzle with olive oil. Add a few shakes of dried tarragon and a scant handful of chopped toasted walnuts. Season with coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Good hot or at room temperature.
ORANGE-GLAZED SHREDDED CARROTS
Whisk ½ cup each orange juice and chicken broth with 1 teaspoon cornstarch in a small bowl. Heat olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add 2 (10-ounce) bags of shredded carrots and cook, stirring constantly, until slightly softened, about 3 minutes. Stir the juice mixture and add to the carrots along with a teaspoon of butter and salt to taste. Cover and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the butter melts and the carrots are tender, 5 to 6 minutes.
RED CABBAGE AND APPLES
Heat vegetable oil in a large saucepan. Stir in 8 cups shredded red cabbage and 1 chopped onion. Cook until wilted. Stir in 2 chopped tart apples and a bit of water, plus salt and pepper. Cover and simmer about 25 minutes. Pour 2 tablespoons each vinegar and sugar into the mixture. Cook another 5 to 6 minutes.