The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service recommends eating three to five servings of vegetables each day. For those who aren’t familiar with many vegetables, or who have dismissed some from previous bad experiences, that’s a lot of boredom on a plate.
“I think with the industrialization of food, all those local vegetables got pushed off to the side. I think a lot of stuff got lost and a lot of the way people prepared food got lost,” said Blackwell Smith, chef at Blacksmith’s Bistro & Bar on St. Elmo Avenue. “If you don’t know how to cook something, you might not end up with a good result.”
We asked local chefs to weigh in on a few underused vegetables you should be eating.
High in antioxidants and flavonoids, “kale is a colorful leafy green vegetable that may be one of the healthiest foods you are not eating,” said Brian Jones, registered dietitian at Memorial Hospital. One serving of kale supplies 100 percent of the daily value of vitamins A and K.
Smith likes to sauté bacon and onions, add black pepper and wilt kale in some water to soften, then sprinkle cider vinegar on top.
“It’s kind of a traditional way to do it,” he said, “but you’re not overcooking it. You’ve got a fresher flavor than more traditional greens that are just simmered for hours.”
Kale chips, an alternative to potato chips, are easily made by sprinkling kale leaves (remove the stalks) with olive oil, salt and pepper, and cooking in the oven at 350 degrees for 10 minutes.
Erik Niel, executive chef at Easy Bistro on Broad Street, believes fennel “is one of the kings of the underappreciated vegetables of this world. Its flavor is unique. It has this anise sweetness.”
Fennel, he said, pairs particularly well with fresh seafood, as well as citrus.
The white bulb can be sliced thin and added to salads raw, or the bulb can be cut and roasted, sautéed or grilled. The green fronds can be used to flavor stocks and sauces or sprinkled over dishes, similar to how one might use dill.
Niel uses leftover trimmings from the fennel bulb in stocks so as not to waste any of the vegetable.
“It adds this sort of ethereal, perfume-y quality to food that I think is kind of recognizable to people but is still a little bit unknown.”
Look for small white bulbs with bright green, feathery fronds. Cut out the center core. Prepare as desired.
What vegetable has a worse reputation than Brussels sprouts?
Often served overboiled, Brussels sprouts can take on an almost sulphur-like quality. But when prepared correctly, foodies insist, the dreaded mini-cabbages have a lot to offer.
Susan Moses, executive chef at 212 Market on Market Street, compared Brussels sprouts to pasta. “It’s the same ingredients, but depending on how you shape it, it tastes different with different sauces and different applications.”
In a similar vein, she prefers to shave the sprouts, rather than serve them whole.
“I think when you shave the Brussels sprouts, it changes it. You can do a quick sauté on it, or even eat it raw in a salad with toasted walnuts and some sherry vinaigrette, and if you’re not vegetarian, some crumbled bacon on top,” she said. “These things make the vegetable more appealing for people who think they hate Brussels sprouts.”
Brussels sprouts should retain their green color. If they start turning yellow or brown, they’ll lose their flavor.
A sweet, root vegetable, jicama is indigenous to Mexico and South America. Cooked or served raw, jicama is often paired with chili powder and lime. It can be used in Chinese cooking as an alternative to water chestnuts. With a crunchy, sweet taste, peeled and sliced jicama is a simple grab-and-go snack, similar to carrot sticks.
“Jicama’s great,” said Smith. “It can be sautéed or served in slaws.”
Raw jicama can be mixed into a salsa or slaw, or cut thin and mixed into a salad. “You can do carrots and jicama with red bell peppers and snow peas,” he said, “with an Asian-inspired vinaigrette with ginger, sesame oil and a little bit of sugar.”
Any vegetable, he said, that tastes good raw can be turned into salads. “Salads are a great way to incorporate vegetables and just be creative. Then you don’t have to worry about ‘oh, am I cooking it right?’ ”
Broccoli florets are a popular vegetable, but the stems are often discarded.
“It’s totally unknown that you can peel the broccoli stalk, slice it, eat it, and it’s delicious,” said Niel.
Pairing the sliced or shaved stalk with other raw vegetables, such as carrots, cucumber, fennel and jicama, and marinating in rice vinegar and sesame oil provides a fresh salad with ingredients that retain all their nutrients.
“I love the broccoli stalk,” said Smith. “There’s an under-used part of the broccoli. It’s good. It’s got a little more flavor. It tastes like broccoli, but it’s almost like a chip. It’s crunchy, and it’s got a little bit of a bite. I love that stuff.”
Beets have long been a staple among the epicurean crowd — “People who like food have always loved beets,” said Niel. But for many, an exposure only to canned or pickled beets has left them soured to the earthy root vegetable.
But beets have been making a comeback.
At Blacksmith’s, beets are steamed until they can be punctured with a butter knife, peeled, diced and marinated in honey, grapefruit juice, vinegar, salt, pepper, tarragon and diced shallot. After sitting to let the flavors marry, the beets are added to a salad with goat cheese and walnuts.
“It’s simple. It doesn’t need to be complicated. You lose the flavor of the ingredients by doing a bunch of stuff, and you’re not gaining anything,” Smith said.
Turnips and turnip greens
In August 2011, Consumer Reports cited turnips as one of the most overlooked vegetables in America.
Ill-cooked turnips can be bitter and unappealing, but when prepared properly, said Niel, they act as a delicious side dish.
Roasted until caramelized is an ideal way to cook turnips, he said, but they can also make a wonderful substitute for mashed potatoes.
Combining two parts potato and one part turnip, boil until soft, then work into what Niel called a “nice, fluffy mash.”
At the Nitty Gritty Cafe on Dayton Pike in Soddy-Daisy, chef and owner Lorraine Knox uses turnip greens as a side dish. “Not a lot of people request [the bulb],” she said. “They only want the greens.”
To prepare the turnip greens, she boils them down until they’re soft and seasons them with a house blend of spices. The greens are best the same day, she said.
Kale and Mango Salad
1 bunch kale (stalks removed and discarded, leaves thinly sliced)
Juice of 1 lemon, divided
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
2 teaspoons honey
Freshly ground black pepper
1 mango, diced small (1 cup)
2 large tablespoons toasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
In large bowl, add the kale, 1⁄2 of lemon juice, a drizzle of oil and a little kosher salt. Massage until the kale starts to soften and wilt, 2 to 3 minutes. Set aside while you make the dressing.
In a small bowl, whisk remaining lemon juice with the honey and lots of freshly ground black pepper. Add in the 1⁄4 cup of oil, whisking until the dressing forms. Can alter to taste.
Pour the dressing over the kale, and add the mango and pepitas. Toss and serve.
— Brian Jones
1/2 cup cloves garlic, whole
1/2 cup fresh ginger, peeled, cut into 1⁄2-inch slices
1/4 cup canola oil
Combine garlic, ginger and canola oil in a mini-food processor, and process until it forms a semi-smooth paste. There will still be tiny little pieces, but overall it should resemble a paste.
— The Food Network
2 fennel bulbs (thick base of stalk), stalks cut off, bulbs halved lengthwise, then cut lengthwise in 1-inch-thick pieces
Heat oven to 400 F.
Rub fennel with just enough olive oil to coat. Sprinkle on some balsamic vinegar, also to coat. Line baking dish with a silicone pad or aluminum foil. Lay out the pieces of fennel and roast for 30-40 minutes or until the fennel is cooked through and beginning to caramelize.
Beet and Jicama Salad on Endive with Garlic Yogurt Dressing
32 ounces whole-milk plain yogurt
2 to 3 teaspoons minced garlic
1/3 cup chopped fresh mint
Salt, to taste
2 pounds trimmed beets
2 1/2 pounds jicamas (about 11⁄2)
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon finely grated fresh orange zest
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons crushed fennel seeds
Salt, to taste
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
8 Belgian endives
To make dressing: Drain yogurt in a large sieve lined with double thickness of cheesecloth at least 8 hours, chilled. Stir drained yogurt with garlic, mint and salt.
To make salad: Heat oven to 425 F.
Wrap beets in foil, and roast in middle of oven 11⁄4 hours or until tender when pierced with a knife. Cool beets. Peel beets and jícamas, and cut into 1/4-inch dice. Toss with sugar, orange zest, orange juice, vinegar, oil, fennel and salt.
Stir lemon juice into a large bowl of cold water. Cut ends from endives, and separate into leaves. Soak in lemon water 10 minutes to keep endive from discoloring. Drain and spin dry.
Spread some dressing on each leaf, and spoon beet salad over it.
Note: Dressing may be made 2 days ahead and chilled, covered. Beets may be roasted, and beets and jicama diced, 1 day ahead. But keep separate, chilled, in sealable plastic bags.
Holly Leber is a reporter and columnist for the Life section. She has worked at the Times Free Press since March 2008. Holly covers “everything but the kitchen sink" when it comes to features: the arts, young adults, classical music, art, fitness, home, gardening and food. She writes the popular and sometimes-controversial column Love and Other Indoor Sports. Holly calls both New York City and Saratoga Springs, NY home. She earned a bachelor of arts ...