The Secret to Cooking Amazing Vegetables

CC BY 2.0. Kelly Sue DeConnick -- Brussels sprouts roasted with kumquats

Clue: It has to do with another food group.

Once in a while I encounter some cooking advice that makes a light bulb go off in my head. In this case, it was a headline on Mark Bittman’s cooking blog: “Treat Your Veggies Like Meat.” Writer Emily Stephenson describes dining at a friend’s house, eating deliciously crispy roasted vegetables. When she asks her friend how it’s done, the friend replies: “I’ve never understood why people don’t treat vegetables like meat.”

It’s a brilliant revelation. Why don’t we? Meat eaters, for example, would never put a steak in a lukewarm pan or in a steam basket over a pot of simmering water. There’s a reason why cooks take time to brown stewing beef meticulously before braising. Doing this creates a glorious brown crust and an explosion of flavor.

“A nice, browned, crisp sear is one of the best parts of eating meat, vegetables, bread, and pretty much anything else. This browning is known as the Maillard reaction that happens between amino acids and sugar as they are heated... The important thing to know is that browning and caramelization—the process that forms a crust—is what makes cooked food taste great.”

Vegetables are no different. They respond wonderfully to heat. They can develop charred edges, caramelized sides, mouthwatering sweetness, and a perfect softly crunchy texture. And yet, many home cooks either ignore this knowledge or are unaware of it.

There’s almost no limit to what can be roasted at high heat and transformed into a sublime version of its everyday self. Take cabbage, for example. When I get a big head from my CSA share, it takes weeks to get through if I make coleslaw. But if I chop it into chunks, toss with oil and salt, and roast at 450 F, it turns into a golden, sweet treat that I can’t stop snacking on. (It also shrinks down considerably, which helps me get through it faster.)

Broccoli, cauliflower, kale, spinach, green beans, tomatoes, rapini, scallions, bok choy, zucchini – these aren’t the usual veggies that come to mind when you think of roasting, but they’re all excellent in roasted form. Take Stephenson’s advice and preheat your pans in the oven while prepping the vegetables. You should hear a sizzle when you toss them in, coated in oil and seasonings. That’s a good sign. That’s where the magic happens.