You may have noticed when cooking vegetables that you spend a lot of time with the simplest tasks imaginable — washing, peeling, chopping. The truth is, for most of what we eat everyday, prep and a little cooking is all there is to it. It’s not hard, it just takes some time. There’s something to be said for doing it all at once. After preparing many meals in our cabin without running water, I’ve gotten in the habit of doing as much in my city kitchen as possible. Here are a few ways to prepare vegetables that makes cooking meals much easier, especially when you know you’ll be short on time or in my case, not having water, an oven or even a reliable hot plate. Making your own “prepared foods” will not only save you money, it’ll remove time-consuming steps and get a nutritious dinner on the table faster giving you more time to eat and enjoy your food.
My first and simplest suggestion is to pre-wash your greens. If you can manage it, do it as soon as you get home from the farmers market or grocery store. For a long time I thought that pre-washing would make greens wilt and go bad faster. Not so, if you follow my simple method. I do this with most of my greens, everything from lettuce to spinach and kale and trust me, it works like a charm. This may sound like a no-brainer but I’ll tell you anyway, just in case.
How to Pre-Wash Greens
Break lettuce into bite-sized pieces and wash in cold water/ Put in a salad spinner (if you don’t have one, get one. You can find a perfectly good spinner at a thrift shop)/ Spin the water out of the lettuce. I do it twice, just to get it as dry as possible/ Lay out paper towels on the counter and loosely wrap the whole bundle up/ Place in a plastic bag, I like the crinkly ones for this/Grab each corner in a hand and flip the whole thing over several times. I’m not sure why I started doing this but do it anyway just because it’s fun/ Gently press most of the air out of the bag and tie the corners together.
Once you start doing this, making your daily salads will become much easier and you’ll never have a soggy head of lettuce buried in the fridge that you never got around to eating.
The next easiest vegetable preparation is roasting. Roasted vegetables are delicious hot or cold, in soups, salads, marinated or just plain. Practically every vegetable can be roasted and if you have the oven going, you may as well do several trays at once. The recipe is simple. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut vegetables, peeled if you like, into chunks. Toss with olive oil, salt & pepper. Roast anywhere from 30 – 50 minutes, turning once after 20 minutes or so.
You can even roast cabbage, kale and other sturdy greens. They only need about 25 minutes to brown nicely. Go a little longer and you can make cabbage or kale chips. Roasting intensifies the natural sweetness of vegetables and almost everyone loves the crispy texture. Check out Sally’s post on roasted vegetables for more complete recipes.
While some of your vegetables are in the oven roasting, pull out your frying pan and make what Alice Waters calls a soffritto or base of aromatic vegetables. This usually consists of carrots, celery and garlic, added toward the end of cooking, but fennel, potatoes, peppers and herbs, whatever you have will be good. This is what I add when making a homemade soup after removing the vegetables that were cooked to death to make the broth. Chop smaller that you would for roasting, cook in olive oil for about 20 minutes, season with salt & pepper. What to do with your soffritto? Add to soups, stews, risotto, scrambled eggs, a frittata, beans, etc, etc.
Now that you’re cooking, you may as well make a pot of caramelized onions at the same time. They’ll take about the same amount of time — 40 minutes — as your roasted vegetables. Onions are the most often caramelized allium but I’ve added leeks and shallots with good success. You’ll need to stir from time to time. I like to use a combination of olive oil and butter, cook for a while with the lid on, then take it off. If you don’t feel comfortable just winging it, here’s Sally’s post on caramelized onions to help you out. Think french onion soup, burgers with caramelized onions, as a pizza topping, on pasta or in risotto — so many delicious possibilities.
Now that you’ve cleaned all your greens, roasted your roots, made an aromatic soffritto and caramelized onions, you can let them cool completely and then store in the fridge for at least a work week. Glass containers are the best, especially if you can find wide-mouthed jars or bowls. Plastic will work too but we’re all trying to phase them out, right??
I put everything (except the lettuce) into a pot of chicken broth topped it off with some stale toasted bread and parmesan cheese for a combination cabbage-french onion-vegetable soup and ate it for a couple of days. Keeping each dish to use separately gives you more flexibility and variety throughout the week but there’s something to be said for having a big pot of homemade soup, pre-made.