Forget recipes. Learn a few basic cooking techniques that can be applied to any food you find at a good price.
This was one of my 13 tips for for the Washington Post. After years of clipping magazine recipes and ponying up for specialty ingredients which went mostly wasted, I settled into simple food prep. Sure, I still like to do an elaborate recipe every once in a while, but I realized that the time and effort involved was not necessary for every day.
All I need on hand to get almost any meat or vegetable hot and yummy is butter or oil, salt and pepper. Maybe onions or garlic. And I can buy whatever the grocery store has on sale or is in season — not what I have a recipe for.
By just heating whole foods, I’m also less stressed and more present for my kids because I’m not worried about creating something, or convinced I need to run out to the store to get tarragon or leeks.
So I thought I would share my three favorite ways to cook vegetables, especially since reader Ruth Brandt asked me recently, “I wondered if you could share with your readers in a little more detail about your approach to cooking using techniques and methods as a basis for creating meals as opposed to recipes in order to keep meals and shopping simple and economical.”
Out of all the methods, I love oven-roasting the most because it requires the least amount of work. The high heat in the oven caramelizes the vegetables, making them slightly sweet and crispy, a taste sensation that the whole family loves. Because of the large surface area of baking sheets, it’s also the best method for cooking up big quantities of veggies at once.
Just chop or slice your vegetables, and toss them with olive oil, salt, and pepper, in a bowl or right on the baking sheet. Unlike baking, quantities in cooking are much more loose. I just pour a big circle of oil over the vegetables and sprinkle a healthy pinch of salt.
Spread evenly and bake at high heat (like 450 degrees) until browned and crispy on the edges. Halfway through, loosely turn the vegetables so they get evenly browned. Taste and adjust for salt and fat.
Try oven roasting with:
- cauliflower and broccoli
- root vegetables like carrots, potatoes, beets, turnips, and onions
- green beans
- cherry or Roma tomatoes
- bell peppers
- winter squash, like butternut
- eggplant slices
- kale (at a slightly lower temp because it’s so thin)
Baking times will depend on the water content and hardiness of the vegetable. For example, green beans take about 20 minutes, but dense or water-heavy veggies like potatoes and zucchini could take more than an hour. Just check periodically to make sure they’re not burning; if the cooking is going too slowly, turn up the heat.
2. Blanching and Tossing with Butter
Think of how you cook corn on the cob. We boil it for a few minutes, then butter and salt it, and serve. The same method works with other veggies, especially ones that are eaten whole, like green beans, brussell sprouts, lima beans, and peas, or vegetables that are hard and dense like carrots or potatoes.
Blanching means quickly dropping a food in boiling water — usually a minute or two or until tender. Most cookbooks also call for plunging the veggies in ice water afterwards, to stop the cooking and avoid sogginess. However, if you are eating right away, this step is not necessary.
We also cook spinach (frozen or fresh) this way: blanching, cooling, then squeezing out the water (either in a kitchen towel or by the handful). Small potatoes or cut large potatoes can be cooked this way, although blanching is extended to boiling for as much as 20 minutes, or until tender when poked with a fork.
All these vegetables benefit greatly from a generous dollop of butter and then some salt. Taste before serving, and then add more of either if the dish seems bland.
Everyone knows this classic French method of cooking cut-up foods in a small amount of butter or oil. But I never imagined that I would be sautéing sliced celery in butter, and hearing my three-year-old ask for more.
One way to boost flavor with sautéing is to start with some chopped onion or garlic. Once this flavor base is mellowed a bit over heat, add your main vegetable and some salt. (I like to add salt early in the game so that it has time to seep in, or “marry,” with the vegetable.)
The smaller you chop your vegetables, the quicker the dish will cook. And also the longer you cook the dish, the smaller the vegetables will become (they will slowly lose their moisture and become more rich in flavor).
Here are some vegetables I like to sauté:
- fennel (especially delicious with butter, which I learned from my Italian mother-in-law)
After seeing Enrico’s mom make a ziti sauce with sautéed zucchini, I started looking at all vegetables as clothing for pasta. In fact any of the vegetables I’ve mentioned that end up soft and slippery when cooked are great over pasta, sprinkled with parmesan cheese.
Learning simple cooking methods saves money and time, and it also helps us try new foods. Sure, I’ve memorized a few recipes that I make over and over, and I still consult my cookbooks now and then when I’m not sure what to do with Jerusalem artichokes or swiss chard. But most of the time, all I really need are oil, salt, and a flame. With those basic building blocks, we can cook anything.