Six New Ways to Cook Vegetables and Bring Variety to the Table

Regular readers to this blog may know that I’ve been trying to eat less meat and reminding myself that once-hated vegetables taste great when they’re properly cooked. But when you’re spending a lot of time in the kitchen, it’s far too easy to fall into the same ruts of blanching broccoli, grilling asparagus, and steaming green beans. That’s why I was excited to come across Thomas Keller’s series of instructional videos about new ways to cook vegetables on MasterClass. Keller demonstrates a few less familiar techniques for working with carrots, parsnips, eggplants, zucchini, beets, and more, using methods that help bring out the best flavor and texture from each ingredient.

Keller explains that it’s worthwhile to select vegetables when they’re at their seasonal peak, especially while they’re young (i.e., newly picked), and to use the cooking method that’s most appropriate for each one. For preparations like roasting zucchini or baking beets, the cooking process aims to remove moisture from the vegetable, which helps concentrate their flavor. Keller also discusses how different methods of preservation can make good-quality vegetables available to you even when they’re not in season.

Here are few of the new ways to cook vegetables that I’m looking forward to inserting into my rotation:

  • Glazing carrots: This method highlights the vegetable’s natural sweetness. Cook your carrots over high heat, with just enough water to cover them, and a teaspoon each of butter and sugar. The water will evaporate as the butter emulsifies and the glaze reduces. Don’t overcook the carrots or you’ll start to caramelize the sugars instead of leaving the vegetable shiny.
  • Pureeing parsnips: For this root vegetable, as well as others like rutabaga or celery root, Keller suggests simmering it in a pot with cream and water. Once it’s fully cooked, transfer the vegetable and its cooking liquid to a blender. Add butter and process until it’s completely smooth.
  • Roasting zucchini: First, slice the vegetable in half, score it with a crosshatch pattern, season it with salt, and let it sit for half an hour to draw out the moisture. Then, sear the flesh in a hot pan with neutral oil for about five minutes. After the zucchini is well-caramelized, roast it in a hot oven for another 25 minutes, which makes the interior come out soft and creamy.
  • Baking beets: This technique is preferable to boiling beets, but it may take a while, depending on the size of your vegetables. After you clean them, season, and sprinkle with oil, wrap them in foil and bake until you can insert a knife and feel very little resistance. Then, peel the beets while they’re still warm (using gloves to protect your hands from stains and parchment paper to cover your cutting board). Season with salt and dress with your favorite vinegar.
  • Preserving eggplants: Similar to a preparation you might use for duck, you can confit this vegetable by slow-cooking it in oil at a low temperature. First, as with zucchini, it’s best to score the eggplant and season it before cooking to draw out as much moisture as possible. Place it in a baking pan, cover with warm, neutral oil, and cook at 300 degrees for about 45 minutes. You can add flavor to the dish by using the same technique to preserve garlic. The vegetables will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week if they’re stored submerged in oil.
  • Pickling radishes: You can endlessly vary this preservation technique by using different vegetables and flavor profiles for your pickling liquid. In one preparation, just combine water, sugar, white wine vinegar, garlic, thyme, and mustard seeds in a pot and simmer until the sugar is dissolved. Then pour the hot liquid over your vegetables (radishes, peppers, onions, and cauliflower all work well) and chill in the refrigerator until you’re ready to eat.

With each of these techniques, make sure you have the right amount of seasoning to bring out the best flavor of each ingredient. And to make your vegetables taste even better, it’s often worthwhile to complement them with additional fresh herbs. Or, for many preparations, you can’t go wrong with some extra melted butter.

What are your favorite new ways to cook vegetables? Leave a comment and let me know!

What I Ate: Roasted zucchini garnished with parsley

Roasting zucchini is one of my new favorite ways to cook vegetables

‘Worst Cooks’: The Best (and Most Entertaining) Culinary Education on TV

A Sunday night staple in my house is the Food Network show “Worst Cooks in America,” which premiered in 2010 and is now in its 21st season, including a handful that have starred B-level celebrities. On Worst Cooks, a dozen or so contestants who start out with few if any cooking skills go through a series of challenges in a culinary “boot camp” that’s led by two professional chefs. Each week, a pair of contestants are eliminated until the final two compete for a cash prize by cooking a “restaurant-quality” meal for a panel of judges.

Like many reality shows, “Worst Cooks” casts some oddball characters and emphasizes their personality quirks as they proceed to set pans on fire, cut themselves – sometimes repeatedly – while chopping vegetables, and recoil at having to break down whole chickens or handle live lobster. But the show separates itself from the pack by operating with a surprising amount of education, entertainment, and just plain heart that has kept me watching for over a decade.

On this week’s episode, Chefs Anne Burrell, a Food Network personality who has starred on every season of Worst Cooks, and Carla Hall, who previously appeared on two seasons of “Top Chef” as well as a talk show called “The Chew,” led the recruits through a series of baking and cooking challenges. First, the contestants had to mimic the decorations on a layer cake, following a demonstration by Zac Young, a well-regarded pastry chef. Then, after Burrell and Hall show them how to bake cupcakes, they create their own versions with creative flavor combinations.

While some contestants struggle with the challenge – one uses powdered sugar instead of flour in his batter and has to start over – another works with Hall, who supportively helps her develop a version of carrot cake and gives just enough information to make the at-home viewer think they can do it too. Meanwhile, on-screen graphics punctuate certain moments with creative animations and sound effects like a talking unicorn or a salt shaker that buzzes like a fly, providing both entertainment and whimsy. (Whoever at Food Network is responsible for these graphics definitely deserves a raise.)

Related: Toss Your Useless Cooking Gadgets and Eliminate Kitchen Clutter

During the final segment, the contestants make their own pasta and sauce, and on-screen graphics provide educational tidbits about the different shapes Burrell and Hall demonstrate. And throughout this episode and the entire series, both chefs return to cooking mantras that have become imprinted in my brain over the years. Burrell often emphasizes the proper way to hold a knife, and the importance of chopping vegetables consistently for even cooking, by cutting them into “slices, sticks, dices.” She shows the contestants how to “blanch and shock” broccoli, or when cooking a sauce, that you need to “bring to boil, reduce to simmer.” And she repeats “brown food tastes good” so often that it’s hard not to think of that phrase whenever I’m searing a piece of meat. (The show also provides a surprising number of ideas for good dishes. I can’t tell you how often I’ve cooked a meal based on what I’ve seen on a given week’s episode.)

While the show sprinkles in culinary education and entertainment throughout each hour, yet another reason to watch “Worst Cooks” is to see how the contestants gain confidence in the kitchen as they transform from “culinary zeroes to kitchen heroes.”

This week, a teacher named Tiffany struggled with her dish and didn’t get to continue in the competition, but she says, with a tear in her eye, “I had the worst pasta dish, but I’m heading home with my head held high.” Another eliminated contestant, a model named McKayla, says proudly, “I’ve learned more here than I ever thought I would. I will absolutely continue to cook … and I’m making lobster, because I know how to cook it now.”

While these contestants might still be among the worst cooks in America, their stories make it seem likely that they will no longer poison their loved ones with undercooked chicken or disgust them with dishes like bologna quesadilla. And the home viewer, while being entertained and informed, might just also be inspired to get up off the couch and start making dinner.

What I Ate: Jambalaya with chicken, shrimp, and sausage

Contestants on Worst Cooks learn how to make complex dishes like jambalaya

Toss Your Useless Cooking Gadgets and Eliminate Kitchen Clutter

The German word “eierschalensollbruchstellenverursacher” translates as “eggshell predetermined breaking point cause.” It describes one of the most useless cooking gadgets I’ve ever heard of, a tool that lets you remove the top of an egg without cracking the rest of the shell.

If you want to present a softboiled egg in an elegant cup during breakfast, I suppose this tool will get the job done. But it strikes me as the quintessential example of something that only serves to add clutter to your kitchen drawers.

A quick survey of my own kitchen reveals at least 20 devices collected over the years that, while often evoking fond memories of travels or cooking adventures, could mostly be replaced by some essential kitchen tools. These cooking gadgets range from single-use to the practically useless to the completely whimsical (but super-fun!). If you’re a home cook like me, with precious drawer and cabinet space, you might consider relegating some of these items to the storage closet — or the dustbin.

Single-use gadgets

  • The wooden fork with holes that help you measure the right amount of pasta before cooking
  • The ceramic tortilla warmer
  • The quesadilla maker
  • The empanada press
  • The matcha tea whisk
  • The tea ball infuser
  • The cherry pitter
  • The apple corer
  • The pie beads and silicone crust wrapper
  • The cheese shaver

Practically useless tools

  • The battery-operated automatic stirrer called, well, Stirr that I recently received as a gift. I tried using it to mix a cake the other day and it barely stood up in the bowl. A whisk or a stand mixer would have been a much better choice!
  • The battery-powered ice cream cone that, I guess, rotates so you don’t have to turn the ice cream while you’re licking it. As an alternative, I’d suggest using your wrist.
  • The hot chocolate frother that aerates the drink after mixing. Again, a whisk would do a better job here.
  • The Slap Chop that slices! And dices! And minces! I think that’s what knives are for.

Whimsical but fun

  • The bagel guillotine (although, I have to admit, it slices my bagels perfectly every time)
  • The bear claws for shredding pulled pork or other meat
  • The hedgehog-shaped cheese grater
  • The dinosaur-shaped taco holder

Essential tools

In a recent video on Master Class, Chef Thomas Keller explained that both professional chefs and home cooks can benefit by eliminating unnecessary tools in their kitchens. And in this category he includes measuring cups and spoons, which he says can be completely eliminated when you measure by weight instead of volume. “I’m happy enough to be able to use my essential tools to accomplish anything that any gadget can do for me, or any convenience a gadget can offer,” Keller said.

So what are the essential tools a home cook needs? With inspiration from Keller, I’d take these items, along with my digital scale, to my desert island kitchen:

  • Good knives and kitchen shears
  • Cutting boards
  • Spatulas, spoons, ladles, and whisks
  • Tongs and tweezers
  • A microplane grater
  • A vegetable parer
  • A strainer
  • Cheesecloth and kitchen twine

What other cooking tools do you find essential, and what are the most ridiculous gadgets that take up space in your kitchen? Let me know in the comments!

What I Ate: Lemon snacking cake with coconut glaze

No cooking gadgets were used while making this snacking cake


Elevate Your Breakfast Game With Jacques Pepin’s Perfect Fried Eggs

In a video circulating on Twitter this week, French chef Jacques Pepin demonstrates a technique for fried eggs that lifted my breakfast to a whole new level. Pepin starts by melting a tablespoon of butter, then slowly cooks his eggs in a covered skillet with a teaspoon of water for about two minutes. This results in a barely cooked yolk and delicately tender whites that don’t resemble any egg I’ve ever eaten.

The 85-year-old Pepin, perhaps best known for the PBS cooking series he did alongside Julia Child, Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, as well as for authoring more than 30 cookbooks, offers a couple of other important tips in a three-minute video that’s about as long as it took me to cook my incredible eggs. First, be sure to crack them against a flat surface rather than against the side of a bowl, as this prevents the yolks from breaking. Second, season your eggs with salt before putting them in the pan. And finally, top them with black pepper and fresh herbs after they’ve been fried, which will make them taste even better. I didn’t happen to have any herbs on hand, but even without a sprig of tarragon or parsley, they were still delicious. 

What Pepin doesn’t say in his video is that aside from the delicate cooking technique, the main reason these fried eggs taste so good is that the underside is gently bathed with melted butter. As the French know perhaps more than most, everything tastes better with butter.

Related: The Easy Way to Make a Perfect Poached Egg

What are your favorite ways to cook eggs? Do you prefer them fried, boiled, poached, or over easy? Leave a comment and let me know!

What I Ate: A perfect fried egg on an English muffin

This genius technique for fried eggs produces a barely cooked yolk and delicately tender whites

Thomas Keller Teaches That Local Can Mean Anything

Renowned chef Thomas Keller, proprietor of high-end restaurants like The French Laundry in California and Per Se in New York, shares his expertise in a series of videos on MasterClass in which he teaches fundamental cooking techniques. Through the first half-dozen or so Keller MasterClass videos, I’ve learned some game-changing information that surprised even an experienced non-professional cook like myself.

For instance, did you know that restaurant kitchens tend to use universal lids for their cookware, rather than matching a cover to each piece? Or that asparagus cooks best after it’s been peeled, and is typically bundled before it gets thrown in a pot for blanching? Anyone who’s been trained in a professional kitchen likely knows these classic cooking tips, but your average home cook probably does not.

Those who invest in a Keller MasterClass tutorial will certainly gain something from the timeless lessons taught by the chef. But it was his lecture on sourcing ingredients that made me question whether his philosophy is keeping up with the times.

Keller begins by explaining that his goal is to acquire the best possible ingredients for his restaurants, regardless of where they come from. And he believes that words like “local,” “farm-to-table,” and “sustainable” are nothing more than culinary buzzwords. For Keller, it’s more important to support the fishermen and farmers who use best practices, regardless of their geography.

While that sounds like a responsible philosophy, Keller goes on to attempt to redefine the word local as being not about geography, but about quality. “Think about local as an ingredient,” he says. “Think about local as a farmer who is growing those products, a fisherman who’s catching them, a lamber who’s raising lamb, a forager who’s going out to get wild mushrooms.”

But words have meanings, and it’s not right to co-opt the buzzword local and decide that it means something other than geographic proximity. Being able to describe your food as local might be appealing to a certain set of customers who (at least in pre-pandemic times) would make the trek to Yountville for a pricey prix fixe meal. But if your focus is on providing the best quality ingredients regardless of where they come from, then it’s better to simply embrace that philosophy. Why not forego using the word local for anything that doesn’t come from your own gardens, or from nearby farms and fisheries?

Related: Six New Ways to Cook Vegetables and Bring Variety to the Table

The bigger problem isn’t about Keller’s definition, though. While I had one of the best meals of my life at The French Laundry in 2011, I recognized even then that it seemed slightly off to serve lobster tail that was flown in from Maine, when some of the world’s best seafood could be fished within a few dozen miles. And a decade later, with the planet continuing to heat up, that choice seems even more perplexing. It’s no longer defensible for a chef to use the world’s best ingredients while ignoring where they came from.

Chefs, like all of us, have a responsibility to recognize the impact their choices have on the environment. They need to consider not just whether they are working with purveyors who harvest responsibly, but whether their sourcing methods are contributing to the destruction of our planet through global warming.

By continuing to fly in “local” ingredients from afar, Keller strikes me as being out of touch with the values of the modern high-end dining customer. Ultimately, when the pandemic subsides and Keller is able to re-open his restaurants, the biggest problem I’ll have with The French Laundry may not be a linguistic one.

What I Ate: Sweet butter-poached Maine lobster tail with spinach, parsnips, and saffron-vanilla emulsion

The Keller MasterClass made my question whether his food philosophy at The French Laundry is keeping up with the times