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How to Properly Prep Puzzling VeggiesBy Vicki McClure Davidson
Properly preparing vegetables for cooking or raw for salads or side dishes can be a puzzlement. Here are some techniques for preparing a variety of vegetables.
Artichokes: To prepare an artichoke for steaming, slice off the stem. Rub the exposed base with lemon juice to prevent browning. With a serrated knife, cut across the artichoke, removing about a third of the top. With scissors, cut off the pointed tip of each outer leaf.
Bell Peppers: To cut a bell pepper into even slices, with a chef's knife, cut off the top of the pepper just below its shoulder so you remove the entire stem end, exposing the ribs inside the pepper. Squarely cut off the narrow bottom. The pepper will now be shaped like a cylinder. Set the pepper on one end and make one vertical slice to open the cylinder. Set the pepper cut side up, and work the knife along the inside of the pepper (with the blade parallel to the work surface), removing the ribs and seeds while unrolling the pepper so that it lies flat. Now you have a nice rectangle that you can cut up as you wish.
Broccoli: Place the head of fresh broccoli upside down on a cutting board and slice downward, cutting off the florets. Slice the larger florets into 1 to 1 1/2-inch pieces by slicing them through the stem. Square the stalks by cutting away the tough outer 1/8-inch from the stalk. Slice the stalks into 1/4-inch-thick pieces. Cut stalks and florets into similarly sized pieces to ensure uniform cooking times. When cooking, be aware that over-cooking broccoli robs it of its flavor, nutrients and color. Steam or stir-fry it until just tender, or, if it must be boiled, cook just to the point of tenderness, and then plunge into cold water to preserve the vibrant green color. Raw broccoli requires good air circulation, so if you aren't going to prepare it right away, mist the floret heads with water, wrap all of it loosely with paper towels, and store the broccoli in the fridge in a perforated plastic bag. Broccoli can be stored like this for up to three days.
Brussels Sprouts: Because Brussels sprouts are so dense, cooking them as whole veggies long enough to cook them all the way through them will result in unappealing gray-green sprouts — are mushy on the outside while nearly raw on the inside. By cutting the larger ones in half, through the stem end, the sprouts cook rapidly and evenly, without a hint of the sulfurous aroma many people associate with Brussels sprouts. For the mildest flavor, boil prepared sprouts in plenty of salted water. For more pronounced flavor, steam them; their color will pale, though. Brussels sprouts can also be stir-fried or braised. When preparing, pull off any loose or yellowing leaves and trim their bases if they extend below the bud. Soak all sprouts for about 10 minutes in a bowl of lukewarm water (weighted with a plate to keep them submerged) to rid them of hidden insects. When cooking Brussels sprouts, overcooking is just as bad as undercooking. It's difficult to time their cooking because of their differences in size and density, so the best way to test for doneness is through tasting. When adding cooked sprouts to stews and other dishes, add during the last few minutes of cooking.
Cabbage: To trim and core a head of cabbage, after peeling away any tough outer leaves, cut the cabbage into quarters through the base. Then cut the core out of each quarter. This technique also works for fennel bulb.
Chard: Prepare chard (also called Swiss chard or sea kale) by rinsing off the bunch, trimming off the leaves from the thickened leaf-stalks, cutting these into 3-inch or so lengths, then quickly blanching them in boiling salted water. Save the leaves to add, coarsely chopped, to minestrone or other vegetable soups. Cook chard until just barely tender, and it can be served by itself with butter, freshly ground pepper, and if desired, with a touch of wine vinegar.
Cauliflower: To prepare cauliflower for cooking, pull the leaves away from the head and discard them. Chop off the bottom of the core to just under the head of the florets. Cut the core in half without cutting into the florets. Do the same with each half. then, cut through the core and pull the two halves apart with your hands if you need to. Slice the thickest part of the core away from each quarter. You can either discard the core and thicker stems, or slice them thinly and cook them along with the florets (they have a lot of nutritional value). Pull the florets apart, to their desired size, with your hands. You may want to trim away some of the thicker stems with a pairing knife.
Load the florets into a colander and rinse them well with cold water. When cooking, add a tablespoon of milk or lemon juice to the cooking water to retain the vegetable's white color. Don't use an aluminum or iron pot when cooking, as cauliflower will take on a yellow tint. Iron pots will turn it brown or blue-green. For longer storage (up to two weeks), keep cauliflower in the fridge with the leaves still on. Removing them greatly reduces the timeframe of freshness.
For more cauliflower nutrition info and a dozen easy-on-the-budget, delicious cauliflower recipes, click here.
Corn: To remove corn from the cob for fritters, pudding, and chowder, stand the corn upright inside a large bowl. Carefully cut the kernels from the cobs using a paring knife. Grate the ears of corn over the large holes of a large box grater to release both more intense corn flavor and starch (which helps to thicken corn pudding and chowder). Before discarding the stripped cobs, scrape any remaining corn milk from them, using the back of a butter knife, and add it to the cut kernels.
Eggplant: When purchasing eggplant, select two or more of the smallest, firmest, most unwrinkled ones you can find in the supermarket bin, rather than a single large one. There is no need to peel an eggplant for cooking unless your recipe specifies it, if the vegetable has been waxed, or if the eggplant isn't young. Younger eggplants' skin is firm, but still soft enough to be eaten. If you're going to grill, stew, bake, or roast eggplant, don't bother salting it. Salt the raw flesh if you know the eggplant has gotten old or if you'll be frying or sautéing it. Older eggplants tend to have more seeds, making the eggplant taste bitter. Salting helps draw out some of those bitter juices found in globe eggplant. The bitterness is believed to be caused by alkaloids, bitter-tasting compounds concentrated in and around the eggplant's seeds. Long, thin Japanese eggplants, however, are rarely bitter. Salting also helps collapse the eggplant's spongy texture, so it won't soak up as much oil when fried or sautéd, making it cook up with a silky texture rather than a soggy one. Salting dries the eggplant flesh so that it isn't quite as mushy when cooked. When salting, using a coarse salt like kosher salt works better than table salt because its larger flakes have more surface area.
Some eggplants are waxed prior to selling. To test for wax, scratch the eggplant with a fingernail. If the eggplant is waxed, peel it. The skin of some white eggplants may need to be peeled because it is so thick, though not necessarily bitter. To prepare, remove the stem and cut the eggplant in the shape you want (cubes, steaks, etc.), set the pieces in a colander and sprinkle generously with salt, then toss to coat each piece. Eggplants can be difficult to slice, so using a serrated knife works best. Let the colander of eggplant sit for about an hour in the sink or over a bowl. Another method is to salt it, then weigh it down with a heavy pan to press the juices out. Before cooking the eggplant, remove the salt by rinsing and then squeezing by hand. Merely brushing off the salt isn't very effective and could make your dish too salty.
Fennel Bulb: See the directions for prepping cabbage.
Jícama: Mildly sweet and crunchy, jícama (pronounced HEE-kah-mah) is a humble-looking, tan-colored tuber that grows underground, like potatoes, and is native to Central America and Mexico. It's a very versatile vegetable and can be served raw or cooked, cut into slices, cubes, rounds, or sticks. It can also be shredded. The texture and color of jícama, after it has been peeled, is similar to that of water chestnuts. While not as well-known in the United States, it is popular in many countries, including Mexico, China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, India, Japan, Malaysia, and the Philippines. When selecting jícama at the grocery store, choose relatively unblemished tubers with a slight silky sheen. Select young tubers, which will be juicy (prick the skin slightly with a fingernail to test for juiciness; old tubers will be drier, and will be fibrous and tasteless).
To prepare, always peel jícama's skin. Halve, quarter, or cut the tuber into as many lengthwise chunks as are easily handled for peeling. Use a paring knife instead of a vegetable peeler, to pull the skin from the sections. There is a fibrous underlayer that should also come off easily. The fresher the jícama, the easier it is to remove the skin and underlayer. The vegetable should be stored whole unwrapped and uncut, in the refrigerator, and should keep up to 2 weeks. Once it has been cut, cover the cut side with plastic, keep it cold, and use it within a week. When cooked, jícama pieces absorb sauces without softening. Even paper-thin slices stay sweet and crunchy when cooked. The peeled and sliced tubers are excellent in spicy or tart dishes (the sweetness of jícama offsets or balances the tartness of citrus and other foods), salads, stir fries, meat dishes, and vegetable medleys with noodles. Jícama is fat-free and low in cholesterol and sodium. It is also a good source of potassium and is a very good source of dietary fiber and Vitamin C.
Leeks: After cutting off the tough green top, slice the leek lengthwise without cutting through the bottom layers. Fan open the layers while rinsing out the grit under lukewarm running water, then submerge them in lukewarm water, shaking vigorously. Leave the leeks for 5 to 10 minutes so that any remaining grit settles in the bottom. Lift the leeks out, pat dry, and slice as the recipe instructs. You can also chop the leeks, submerge them in a bowl of cold water, swish the water about, and let the sand and dirt settle to the bottom of the bowl before extracting the chopped pieces of leek.
Okra: One of the more sticky vegetables, you should prepare okra as soon as possible after it has been picked. However, if necessary, okra pods can be stored in a refrigerator after first placing them in a paper bag or wrapping in an absorbent paper towel. Do not attempt to keep them in closed plastic bags or containers, as this will cause the pods to "weep" and become oozy. Three days is about the limit for storing fresh okra in the fridge and for the pods to retain their freshness and texture; after a week, toss the pods out. Okra is a mucilaginous plant, which is characteristic of the slippery, sticky substance it exudes when cut. This sticky substance gives okra its thickening properties and is why it is so useful in thickening hearty soups, gumbos, and stews. However, when okra is to be served raw or as a cooked vegetable, be careful to not cut it into very small pieces. The more it is cut, the stickier okra becomes.
Okra is indigenous to Africa, and was brought to the United States and the West Indies by African slaves 300 years ago. Since then, okra has become a popular food vegetable, especially amongst African Americans in the southern United States and it is a prevalent vegetable used in Cajun cooking.
Onions: Cut an onion in half through the root end and remove the peel. Place it on the cutting board and make lengthwise vertical cuts (thin or thick, depending on how finely or coarsely you want it chopped) that go almost, but not, through the root. Then, make horizontal cuts parallel to the board, again being careful not to cut through the root end. Now cut across the width of the onion, making cuts as thin as you wish or as the recipe instructs.
Parsnips: While parsnips closely resemble a carrot in shape, they are sweeter and taste more like a sweet potato. When purchasing, choose medium-sized vegetables with uniform beige skin that are fairly smooth and free of pitting. Avoid parsnips that are soft or have deep ridges. Don't wash parsnips before storing. Store in the coldest spot of the refrigerator, and if kept wrapped well and cold, parsnips will last in storage for months. Surprisingly, unlike many other vegetables, the flavor and tenderness of a parsnip is not dependent on its size. Small parsnips are not more tender than large ones. Toughness of a parsnip is linked to prolonged storage and type of parsnip... not to size. Parsnips do best in chilly climates; roots that have spent several months out in the cold are the most flavorful, according to growers. So, buy fairly large parsnips to save time peeling and to maximize the amount of "meat." Buy parsnips that have no sprouting at the top seed stalk, because this indicates that the parsnip is aging and will have a tough, woody interior.
Peel parsnips, except in a few cases: if you're planning to steam them, the skin slips off easily after cooking. Or, for parsnips that are to be puréed, peeling isn't necessary if they are thin-skinned, fresh, and preferably, organically grown. For other cooking methods other than puréeing, trim and peel as you would fresh carrots. Slice off the narrow end in one piece, then halve or quarter the thick end lengthwise to cut pieces that are fairly uniform in size. Parsnips can be steamed, roasted, simmered, and sautéed.
When adding parsnip chunks to meat or vegetable stews or soups, don't add until the final 15 to 20 minutes of cooking. Be careful to not overcook parships, and do not ever microwave them. Microwaving will destroy the texture and flavor of parsnips, turning them stringy, spongy, flabby, and usually unevenly cooked. Parsnips are very low in saturated fat and cholesterol. They are also a good source of potassium and a very good source of dietary fiber, Vitamin C, folate, and manganese.
Rhubarb: Never eat rhubarb leaves, cooked or raw. Fatalities have been recorded from ingestion of the leaves (from A Bibliography of Rhubarb and Rheum Species). Eating the stalks raw doesn't bother most people, but moderation is recommended. Rhubarb is usually melted into a sauce, soup, or stew. The tartness is excellent when paired with oily game, poultry, or fish.
To prepare rhubarb, cut off and discard any leaves. Rinsing and trimming from the base and tip are usually enough. Whether you peel rhubarb or not is a personal decision. The vivid color of rhubarb usually pales when cooked. However, due to a chemical reaction, when rhubarb is partially cooked, then allowed to finish softening in its warm juices, the bright ruby color usually revives. When purchasing, choose deep rose stalks of equal width. Some experts suggest cutting up and tossing rhubarb pieces in a little sugar for a few hours to remove moisture and reduce acidity. Cook rhubarb in non-aluminum pots only, as aluminum will discolor the vegetable.
Snow Peas: Snow peas are at their best if they are eaten soon after purchase, but can be kept in a perforated plastic bag in the fridge for up to three days. To prepare, remove the strings from the snow pea pod by breaking off the stem and pulling along the length of the pod shell. Some snow peas have strings only on one side of the pod; others have strings on both sides. Blanch snow peas in boiling water for just 30 seconds, then toss them immediately into cold water to preserve their bright green color.
Squash: The word "squash" is derived from the word askutasquash, which literally means "a green thing eaten raw" in the language of the Nahahiganseck Sovereign Nation, the native Americans who lived in the area surrounding Narragansett Bay in present-day Rhode Island, parts Connecticut and eastern Massachusetts. Squash is actually a fruit (it grows on a vine above ground and has seeds inside), but is prepared like a vegetable.
There are two basic terms used for classifying squash: summer squash and winter squash. The terms can be confusing because both are grown during the hot months of summer. "Summer" squash is grown in the summer and is available in supermarkets often through early winter. They take less time to mature and their rinds are usually less tough than winter squash, allowing many summer squash types to be eaten raw with the rind/skin left on. Winter squash takes longer to mature and has a thick, inedible rind. It's harvested during the cooler days of fall, and winter types are in supermarkets from late summer, through fall, and into winter. Winter squash, if properly stored, can be kept for months in a cool, dry place, like a basement or the fridge. Check often for signs of rotting.
Winter squash can be roasted, baked, and puréed. When buying winter squash, avoid soft rinds. You want the rind firm and tough, indicating it is mature. To prepare winter squash, wash the outside, then peel off the rind with a vegetable peeler, then scoop out the fibers and seeds (the seeds are tough, but can be roasted later). Cut the squash into halves or cubes and cook it. If simmering on the stove, use as little water as possible to keep the vitamins from leaching out. An easier method is to cook the squash halved and unpeeled, and once done, scoop out and discard the undesirable fibers and seeds, then scoop out the squash. One more method is to put the uncut winter squash into the microwave (poke first a few times with a knife to keep it from exploding), cook at high power for about 3 minutes, then cut it and remove the seeds and fiber. Your cutting and cooking methods will depend upon your recipe. Once winter squash is cooked and mashed or cubed, it can be used in soups, main dishes, vegetable side dishes, quick breads, muffins, pies, and custards. Squash freezes well.
Winter squash types include acorn, ambercup, autumn cup, Australian blue (aka Queensland blue winter), banana, butternut, buttercup, carnival, calabash, cheese wheel (aka cheese pumpkin), Cinderella pumpkin (aka red etampes), delicata (aka peanut, sweet potato squash, or Bohemian), fairytale pumpkin (French name is Musquee de Provence), gold nugget, gooseneck, green-striped cushaw, Hubbard, jarrahdale (aka Australian pumpkin), kabocha (aka Japanese pumpkin), pumpkin, red kuri (aka uchiki kuri), spaghetti, sweet dumpling, turban (aka Turkish or Turk turban), and valenciano.
Cooking Tips: How to Prepare Butternut Squash
To prepared winter squash seeds: Separate and remove seeds from the pulp, toss with olive oil and salt, and roast on a baking sheet in a 250 deg. F oven until lightly browned. They're great as a low-cal snack or tossed into a salad.
Summer squash is easier to prepare than winter squash, but they rot faster (last up to only 2 weeks in the refrigerator). They are moister and have thinner skins that can bruise easily. To prepare, scrub thoroughly each squash under running water until the skin feels clean. Remove and discard the stem end and scrape off the bottom end. Only if the skin is tough or the surface feels gritty after washing is it necessary to peel the squash. Most summer squash are now ready to be cooked or used in any recipe. Steaming is a good method of cooking for summer squash. Place the slices/pieces of squash in a strainer or rack over 1/2-inch of boiling water. Cover and steam just until barely tender; be careful to not overcook. Remove from heat and drain well. Toss with melted butter or a sauce. Summer squash types include chayote (aka Christophen), Chinese okra, crookneck, cucuzza (aka Italian), eight-ball, gold ball, pattypan (aka sunburst squat or baby summer squash), yellow, and zucchini. The common cucumber is also a summer squash type.
Squash is very versatile. Depending on your recipe, you may cut, slice, or grate squash into pieces of various shapes. Any type of mashed or puréed squash can be used in the place of canned pumpkin in soups, pies, cookies, quick breads, and many winter squashes can replace sweet potatoes in recipes. Chunks of squash can be added to soups, stews and casseroles. Every part of the squash plant can be eaten, including the leaves and tender shoots, which can be cooked in omelets or made into soup. There are even recipes for coating and deep-frying zucchini squash blossoms. Zucchini squash blossoms, uncooked or barely wilted, are wonderful in salads.
Tomatillos: The tomatillo is not related to the tomato, but resembles a small, green or yellow tomato (some varieties are purple). The flavor and texture differs tremendously from tomatoes. Tomatillos are tart, firm, and fruity and are most often cooked, although are becoming popular when diced and used raw in salads (but in moderation). When shopping for tomatillos, choose dry hard fruits with husks that fit tightly. Avoid those that are damp or show darkening or mold. To store, spread them on a paper-lined dish or basket in the fridge. If in good shape when purchased, they should store well for several weeks. To prepare, tear the the webbed covering and pull upward toward the stem, twisting to remove both the husk and stem. Rinse well to remove the sticky coating. When cooking, simmer them gently until tender and check often to prevent them bursting. Let them cool in their cooking liquid. For many recipes, tomatillos are precooked before being added with other ingredients. Tomatillos can also be roasted and freeze well if simmered until slightly softened first. When freezing, it's best to freeze them in their cooking liquid. Tomatillos are excellent in gazpacho, salsa, sauces, casseroles, and other dishes. To roast tomatillos, set the oven to 450 degrees F. Rinse and roast the fruits with their husks intact in a pan in the oven until soft, about 10 to 15 minutes.
Tomatoes: These tomato prep directions are for preparing tomatoes that will be stuffed. Using a sharp knife, cut off the top 1/8 inch of the stem end of the tomato. Using your fingers (or a paring knife), remove and discard the core and any seeds of the tomato. Sprinkle the inside of the cored tomatoes with salt, then invert the tomatoes to drain before stuffing. Salting the inside of the tomatoes and allowing them to drain may seem like an extraneous stop, but trust us—it is the only way to keep the tomatoes firm and the stuffing palatable. If the tomatoes are not salted, they will release their juices during cooking, which will make for watery tomatoes and a soggy filling.
Turnips: Turnips sold with their greens attached are freshest, and you can gauge the freshness of the turnip by examining the freshness of the greens. Select hard, solid globes, and select small- to medium-sized types because they are usually the sweetest. Globes that are spongy at the stem, dull, lightweight, or dull are to be avoided. Turnips dehydrate quickly and turn bitter, so store them in plastic in the coldest part of the refrigerator for no more than a few days. Although turnips are sold all year, the best-tasting ones are sold during the cooler months — those sold during summer are typically more bitter. To cook turnips whole, scrub each to dislodge dirt and sand, especially around the neck.
Turnips are excellent served raw in julienne, shapes, medallions, or small cubes on a vegetable platter. For relish, salsa, or slaw, cut turnips into shreds or julienne, then salt and drain for a half hour. Rinse, dry, then mix with other shredded vegetables, fresh herbs, and dressing. When used for cooked dishes, they must not be overcooked, as they will lose their wonderful sweetness and become bland quickly. Cover and cook in boiling water until just barely tender, about 3 to 6 minutes. For steaming, small or halved turnips are done in about 10 to 15 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Turnips can be served hot with a dash of salt and optional butter and pepper. Do not ever microwave turnips, which will make them tough and gassy tasting. Cooked turnips taste better if peeled first. Fresh, sweet-flavored, superior-quality turnips slice easily and smoothly like potatoes; older turnips, which may be bitter, won't slice as well.
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