When I was in grade school, the neighbor kids and I would play the would you rather game as we wandered in and out of each others yards. Would you rather freeze to death or die of heat? Would you rather win a zoo or an airplane? Some of these queries led to some pretty fine discussions, and the thought of them always conjures up a memory backdrop of brilliant green grass and bees buzzing in and out of hedges.
Last year my daughter bought a book full of pre-fabricated would you rathers at her school’s Scholastic Book Fair appropriately titled, “Would You Rather…? Gross-Out Edition.” Under my protests, she subjected me to horrifically extreme bodily-function torture scenarios as I drove her to school insisting, as the book does, that I MUST CHOOSE. But I rebelled, and banished the grossest chapters from my hearing. From one of the tamer pages she posited this choice: which food would you rather give up for the rest of your life, ice cream or vegetables?
Well, dear reader, without even trying to play the good-example-setting mom, I threw ice cream overboard in favor of vegetables. It came as a surprise even to me.
It wasn’t always thus. I was as much a vegetable dreading kid as the next guy. For most of my life vegetables were the pain in the neck obligation, the do-we-have-to-have-a-vegetable? question as I planned what I’d be making for dinner as a single woman or as a wife and mother. As a younger Angeleno I heedlessly favored the great Los Angeles junk food giants like Tito’s Taco’s, Pink’s and The Apple Pan, though I had something of a breakthrough experience when my vegetarian roommate at the time taught me how to make sautéed Brussels Sprouts in sesame oil, lemon and soy. A gateway stir fry. Deeeelicious. And certainly not the clichéd preparation of the late 20th century – overcooked, mushy and bitter – that gave my favorite spherical veggie such an undeserved, bad reputation.
My progress toward vegetable enthusiast wasn’t meteoric, however. It was only a mere five years ago that I made it a New Year’s resolution to try to eat more vegetables. As I’ve mentioned previously, we just have to gain the habit of committing to the extra bit of prep time needed to put a better class of vegetable dishes on the dinner table. For me it has gotten easier with practice. That steamer insert should be easily accessible and put to use often. My daughter enjoys steamed carrots, the natural sweetness comes through much more with steaming than boiling. Broccoli tastes so much better if you steam/blanch for about 5 minutes then sautee in a skillet with some olive oil and garlic. If that seems too fussy, then go the route that I only discovered during my Passover week when I couldn’t eat bread – the roasted veggie.
I’m a little embarrassed that I am coming so late to this classic method of rendering vegetables delectable. I can read thousands of recipes on a wealth of beautifully illustrated blogs that are out there but until I just do it myself, it doesn’t get through my head that, wow, tossing my cut up vegetables in a little olive oil and kosher salt and parking them in an oven (425F) for 30-40 minutes (on a baking sheet) while I get the rest of the meal together is like having a fairy waving her magic wand over them and making them amazingly tasty. I should have known this. I’ve had great roasted veggies at restaurants and pot lucks; but I’ve also had the version that comes on the catering platter that are served room temperature and just seem a little clammy and limp. The roasting- your-own method, though, if it’s not super hot outside and you don’t mind running the oven, is a great passive recipe – one that allows you to do other things or do less labor to put on that particular meal. I think we all need more of those.
What vegetables roast up well? So many. My favorite mix at the moment are root vegetables – carrots, celery root, potato, onion, turnip with kohlrabi (not technically a root veg, it grows above ground). Yes, I was going to make chicken soup and had all these in my crisper, but then plans changed and I had to do something with them and got this great combo plate. Asparagus, Brussels Sprouts and fennel roast up better solo, I think, because they need to be watched more carefully as the loose leaves on the sprouts can get charred up in a hurry, fennel has such a strong flavor and asparagus will just roast up much quicker than the rootier guys. Kohlrabi deserves special mention, too, as being especially complex and tasty when roasted. It’s got almost an artichoke heart note going on. Check it out.
A brief side note before I sign off – my daughter and I went to see the delightful Pirates! movie this past weekend and it introduced us to the pirate crew in the midst of a “less filling/tastes great!” style debate on the topic of what’s the best thing about being a pirate. Then the Pirate Captain breaks up the fight and declares that the best thing about being a pirate is, of course, ham night!, whereupon a very silly opening number ensues. I love the films the Aardman Studios produces, and as I was giggling to myself over the depiction of warm-heartedly domestic, ham-loving pirates, I remembered another wonderful Aardman film of recent years, The Curse of the Were Rabbit. Wallace & Gromit, the two lead characters (man and dog) who also appear in a number of shorter animated films, live in an idealized world where their North Country neighbors idolize the vegetable.
Their community, where everyone seems to have an elaborately alarmed vegetable patch, is thrown into an uproar when a monster-sized rabbit with an outsize appetite for fresh veggies raids their gardens in the dark of night. Is this speculative fiction, or do people around York, in the UK, really take their veg and their vegetable patches that seriously?
It’s a good joke to put veggies on a pedestal, especially for a family film, but wouldn’t it be nice if this were the reality of our own parallel universe? I certainly never thought that I’d be the one to throw ice cream under the bus in favor of caesar salad, avocados and broccoli rabe. But then again, it’s not that rough a choice when I consider I’d still have pie, cookies and cake to fall back on when I’d been a good girl and eaten all my vegetables.