4 Tricks to Coax Out Vegetables' Secret Flavors

March  6, 2018

There are countless ways to eat vegetables—smoked, braised, pan-fried, steamed, or raw—but there are a few perfect combinations that make vegetables sing. In her latest cookbook, Eating from the Ground Up, author Alana Chernila explores simple, intuitive ways to showcase the textures and flavors of vegetables, from root to leaf. Below, we’ve excerpted her expert guidance on four ways to coax out vegetables’ secret flavors.

Photo by Johnny Autry

During the time we were eating these recipes every day, my younger daughter suggested we should call my book Vegetables with Cheese. She was not complaining, of course. She’d live on cheesy broccoli if she could, and I imagine she probably will when she sets out on her own and has to feed herself. But why so much cheese and dairy?

Vegetables keep secrets, and to prepare them well we need to know how to coax those secrets out. It’s such a pleasure to eat many freshly harvested vegetables plain, and anyone who’s spent a blissful few minutes plucking warm-from-the-sun cherry tomatoes or sweet snap peas from their tangled vines will tell you this. In their best state, most vegetables don’t need a thing to be delicious.

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But even then there are secret flavors in the background, a sweetness or pucker that Parmesan cheese or cream will bring into the light. As the vegetables get farther away from the ground, into the farmers’ market or the supermarket, these secrets become more hidden, but they’re still there.

Trying to do our best with hairy carrots from the five-pound bag or a tired head of broccoli, it’s important to have tools and tricks in our refrigerator and pantry. Ingredients like butter, crème fraîche, and cheese are excellent at helping vegetables sing.

In truth, it’s not just dairy that does the job. There are several ingredients that enhance vegetables and let those secret flavors shine:

Vegetables with salt

There is not one vegetable that doesn’t perk up with a sprinkle of salt. Salt helps to bring the tomato-ness out of a tomato, and the cucumbery-ness out of a cucumber. I use two kinds of salt: basic kosher for cooking and larger flake sea salt for finishing. Salt also helps to draw water out of vegetables to quick-pickle cucumbers, tenderize cabbage, or to dry out broccoli before roasting.

Vegetables with fat

We’ll use oil and butter to cook, but fat also functions as a flavor enhancer. Add butter to quickly braised collards or cabbage to provide richness without heaviness, calling out the nuttiness and sweetness in each leaf. Tomatoes drink in olive oil and use it to their best advantage, infusing it and transforming it into the ideal dressing. Oil and butter also soften the bite of bitter vegetables like arugula, radicchio, and broccoli raab, making way for the floral flavors that hide below the initial wave of bitter.

Vegetables with acid

Common cooking acids are lemon or lime juice, vinegar, ferments like tamari or soy sauce, and some dairy items like buttermilk or yogurt. Acids provide a counterpoint to sweetness, which helps to bring out that very same sweetness. Often when a dish is missing something, it’s an acid that fills the void. I use several vinegars, but the most commonly used are rice vinegar (which adds acid without too much pucker), red wine vinegar (which is inexpensive and versatile), and balsamic. Balsamic is a treat, and it’s easy to find a good one for not much money. Look for balsamic vinegar without any coloring or additives, and with “cooked grape juice” as its first ingredient.

What's your favorite way to cook vegetables? I love to eat snap peas by the handful.

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Alana Chernila writes, cooks, sells fresh vegetables, teaches cooking and cheesemaking, and blogs at EatingFromTheGroundUp.com. She is the author of two books, The Homemade Pantry:101 Foods You Can Stop Buying and Start Making, and The Homemade Kitchen: Recipes for Cooking with Pleasure. She lives with her husband and daughters in western Massachusetts.