5 Tips for Tasty Vegetables and an Umami-Laden Green Bean Recipe

Chase William Merritt Still Life with Vegetable
Vegetables were popular with 17th c. Baroque painters but alas, have yet to win over many kid-fans today  (Chase William Merritt, “Still Life with Vegetable”)

My earliest memory of eating vegetables involves my mother chasing me around the living room balancing a plateful of stir-fried spinach and rice in one hand, and desperately trying to shove dinner spoonful-by-spoonful past my uncooperative lips with the other.

I must admit I’ve come a long way since then. In fact, I even consider myself a flexitarian, preferring a larger portion of vegetables to meat (which, by the way, is the Asian way).

I’ve come to love previously abhorred greens such as ladies finger (okra), mustard cabbage, and choy sum (Chinese flowering cabbage). Even spinach, my childhood nemesis, tastes sweet on my adult tongue!

The trick, I’ve learned, is to select the freshest specimens you can find, and to cook the vegetables well. This means no wilty leaves, or brown, mushy spots on your bok choy. And heaven forbid you should overcook your broccoli! These tactics are even more important now that I have a child. As many a parent has come to realize, little people are the most persnickety of vegetable eaters.

I have some tips to offer any mom or spouse with a veggie-cynic on their hands, none of which involve hiding zucchini or Brussels sprouts (a technique I don’t quite approve of). However, I don’t disapprove of embellishing with ingredients that will make vegetables more palatable for naysayers big and small.

1. Roasting can make even the most banal of vegetables as addictive as candy (just think of the roasted kale chips craze). Roasting turns kale, cauliflower, broccoli crisp and crunchy and concentrates their sweetness through caramelization.

2. Pickling vegetables is another great way to get them to slide easily down your child’s throat. My son devours pickled cucumbers and carrots by the bushel.

3. Experiment with umami-laden ingredients like oyster sauce, soy sauce, fish sauce, miso, anchovies, and pickled veggies to amp up the flavor in a salad or stirfry. (My recipe below uses both soy sauce and pickled radish). And trust me, sambal terasi/belacan (shrimp paste and chilies) can transform ho-hum spinach into yum-yum!

salted radish
It comes in a big bag but preserved radish adds such a wonderful flavor and crunch. You’ll use it up in no time in pad Thai, omelets and numerous stirfries! Find it at Asian markets.

4. Toss vegetables like cauliflower, eggplant, okra into curry and they will soak up all that tasty goodness.

5. If all else fails, add bacon.

6. Oh, and here’s one more suggestion: buy Joe Yonan’s latest book, titled coincidentally, Eat Your Vegetables.

What’s your secret trick or dish that has been known to win over the most hardened of vegetable-haters? Please share below!

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Haricots Verts with Preserved Radish

green beans with radish

Haricots verts and preserved radish are an unlikely combination but this dish is a hit with both my 3-year-old son and husband. Read: there are never any leftovers! I adapted this recipe from Steamy Kitchen’s green bean stir-fry recipe. On a whim, I used haricots verts, also called filet beans, the green bean’s slender French cousin (crikey, even their veggies are skinnier!). These beans are very tender and “beanier” in flavor when young but can turn tough if allowed to mature.

As for the preserved radish, you can buy either the sweet or salted kind at the Asian market—it will say on the bag. It doesn’t make too much of a difference as both are preserved with salt and sugar. I know it’s a big bag but you’ll use it up in no time in pad Thai, omelets and numerous stirfries! If you can’t find preserved salted radish, use more garlic or add some chopped shallots.

Time: 15 minutes
Makes: 4 to 6 servings as part of a multicourse, family meal

1 pound haricots verts, trimmed
1/8 cup preserved salted radish
1 tablespoon canola oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1/8 teaspoon sugar

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the haricots verts and parboil until crisp-tender, 4 to 5 minutes. (You can also microwave (3 to 4 minutes) or steam them for the same amount of time.) Don’t overcook as you will be stirfrying them later. Drain in a colander and rinse under cold running water.

While the beans are cooking, soak the preserved radish in a small bowl of water for a couple of minutes to get the excess salt off. Squeeze them dry then mince.

Swirl the oil into a large wok or skillet and heat over high heat until it starts to shimmer. Add the preserved radish and garlic and stir and cook until the garlic is fragrant, about 1 minute. Toss in the cooked haricots verts and drizzle with soy sauce and sesame oil. Sprinkle the sugar and stir and cook until the beans are coated with sauce and heated through. Serve immediately with hot cooked rice and/or a main dish.

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This post is part of the monthly Let’s Lunch Twitter blogger potluck. This  month, we celebrate the launch of Washington Post food and travel editor, and fellow Let’s Luncher, Joe Yonan’s latest cookbook, Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook (Ten Speed Press, August 6, 20123). 

EatYourVegetablescover (1)

For more Let’s Lunch veggie-centric posts, follow #LetsLunch on Twitter or visit my fellow bloggers below: 

Annabelle‘s Farmer’s Market Gazpacho at Glass of Fancy

Cheryl‘s Egg-Drop Broccoli with Ginger-Miso Gravy at A Tiger in the Kitchen

Eleanor‘s Green Beans Two Ways at Wok Star

Grace‘s Vegetable Tempura at HapaMama

Jill‘s Fusilli with Corn Sauce at Eating My Words 

Joe‘s Guaca-Chi at Joe Yonan

Linda‘s Chocolate-Zucchini Twinkies at Free Range Cookies

Linda‘s Gateway Brussels Sprouts at Spicebox Travels

Lisa‘s Totally “Free” Veggie Soup at Monday Morning Cooking Club

Vivian‘s Kangkong (Water Spinach) with Fermented Beancurd, Chili and Garlic at Vivian Pei

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What’s your secret trick or dish that has been known to win over the most hardened of vegetable-haters?

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Vietnamese Sour Soup Flavored With Spring’s Secret Ingredient–Rhubarb

Vietnamese sour soup
A big bowl of canh ca plus rice makes for a satisfying spring supper. Do you notice the delicate blush of the broth from the rhubarb?

Rhubarb ranks way up there, together with ramps and fava beans, as a local vegetable I have absolutely no clue how to tackle.

In Singapore, where I didn’t eat my first fresh, fuzz-covered peach until I was 14 and imported smoked salmon cost $50 an ounce (okay so maybe not that much, but you get the point), there was nary a stalk of rhubarb in sight.

Every spring since I moved stateside, when a friend waxes lyrical about grandma’s strawberry-rhubarb pie, or my inbox overflows with emails linking to the latest and greatest rhubarb recipes, I’d be as elated as a ladybug chewing on a leaf. I simply didn’t get all the hoo-hah that swirled around spring’s first fruit (right, it’s a vegetable but many American cooks think of it as a fruit because it’s a common ingredient in dessert).

After all these years of being reticent about rhubarb, I wondered if I just might be missing out. I also wanted to truly enjoy the Pacific Northwest’s bounty, so I decided to reexamine my feelings toward the pie plant, so named because it’s most commonly used in pie. Of course I had to find a way to use it in an Asianesque preparation. No easy task, mind you.

Inspiration eventually came in the form of a Vietnamese sour soup (canh chua).

We were celebrating my mom’s birthday with about 20 (!) of her friends at a Vietnamese restaurant in Seattle’s Central District when a big, steaming bowl of soup was placed in front of me. I scooped up some of the crystal clear soup brimming with bright red tomatoes, brilliantly-green baby bok choy, bean sprouts as white and unblemished as a bride’s wedding dress, and of course, the requisite bac ha (aka taro stem) into a bowl. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting the broth to have that much flavor. I didn’t think a clear vegetable soup could! But the tamarind-soured soup was tempered by the right amount of sweetness, and the vegetables tasted as fresh as morning’s first dew. I shamelessly ate four bowls!

When I next saw rhubarb at the market, it all came together. Rhubarb is sour. Canh chua is sour. Why not bring them together?

I contemplated the best way to bring out rhubarb’s pucker power in my soup and decided to stirfry it with the aromatics before adding the rest of the ingredients. I liked the subtle tang of the soup as well as the resulting texture of the rhubarb. In a cool coincidence, Marvin at BurntLumpia devised a different method to extract rhubarb’s sourly delights for the Filipino sour soup, sinigang. Have a look. (We didn’t plan this, I swear!)

Perhaps next year when spring rolls around, I’ll have another stroke of genius, this time on the sweet side. At the very least, I’ll be joining the masses in cheering the joys of rhubarb.

If you have an idea for an Asian preparation using rhubarb (especially a sweet one), do leave a comment!

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Vietnamese Sour Vegetable Soup with Rhubarb (Canh Chua Chay)

If you are unfamiliar with rhubarb (like I was!), do read this tutorial about handling and preparation. Be sure to remove all traces of the leaves as they contain toxins. The rhubarb imparts a tang that’s a little more coy than tamarind but you end up with a pretty soup tinged a delicate pink. Plus, the rhubarb develops a soft, spongy texture akin to bac ha (taro stem), the vegetable traditionally added to canh chua.

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, chopped (3/4 cup)
2 small stalks rhubarb, halved lengthwise and chopped into ¼-inch pieces (1 cup)
6 cups vegetable stock (I made mine using Harvest brand MSG-free vegetable bouillon)
2 large firm, ripe tomatoes, cut into eighths
1/2 small Chinese (napa) cabbage, sliced, green leaves and white stalks separated
1-1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
8 ounces bean sprouts, tails snapped off
Chopped cilantro and green onions for garnish
Lemon wedges to serve (optional)

Time: 20 minutes
Makes: 4 to 6 servings as part of a multicourse family meal

Swirl the oil into a large pot and heat over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the garlic and onion and stir and cook until the onion turns translucent, 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the chopped rhubarb and stir and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until the rhubarb pieces soften and turn a shade paler. Pour in the vegetable stock and bring to a boil.

Add the white cabbage stalks and cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the cabbage leaves and the tomatoes, and cook for another 1 to 2 minutes until the tomatoes soften a little and the cabbage is cooked but still crisp (or for however long you may like).

Stir in the sugar and the fish sauce. Taste and adjust the flavors as needed. Turn off the heat and add the bean sprouts, they will cook in the residual heat but still be crunchy. Sprinkle with cilantro and green onions with or without abandon.

Serve immediately on the table family style, or in individual bowls with steamed rice and another dish or two. Or just have a huge bowl of it with rice. You can also have lemon wedges on the table if you’d like to spritz some juice on your soup

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If you have an idea for an Asian preparation using rhubarb (especially a sweet one), do leave a comment!