Vegetables


You don’t need a recipe to make a fantastic stir-fry.  You just need to follow a few simple steps:

1. Get your pan good and hot.  I don’t have a wok or a stove with an impressive number of BTUs, so I use a well-seasoned cast iron skillet for stir-frying.  It handles and retains high heat and is naturally non-stick.  If you’re adding meat, poultry, shellfish, or tofu to your stir-fry and like a nice sear on it, as I do, cook it first.  Then remove it from the pan before you add the vegetables.

2. Cut your veg into bite-sized pieces so they cook quickly and evenly.  Take the various cooking times of different vegetables into consideration.  Put tougher or meatier vegetables (like carrots, eggplant, and mushrooms) in the pan first, then add tender vegetables (snow peas, scallions) toward the end of cooking.  Go easy on the salt if your sauce is soy based.

3. Add a killer sauce.  I like a sauce that’s a little salty, a little tangy, and a little spicy.  Make sure you have enough — your stir-fry shouldn’t be soupy, but it shouldn’t be dry, either, especially if you’re serving it with rice.

Tofu vegetable skillet

Serves 4

For sauce:

5 cloves garlic

Salt

2 tablespoons grated, peeled ginger

4 teaspoons unseasoned rice vinegar

2 tablespoons tamari (or other soy sauce)

2 tablespoons canola oil

2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

For tofu and vegetables:

1 tablespoon canola oil

12 oz. package extra-firm tofu

12 oz. shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and sliced

Salt

2 cups snow peas, trimmed

1 red bell pepper, diced

1 bunch scallions, white and tender green parts, sliced

2 heads baby bok choy, sliced

Make sauce:

Finely chop the garlic.  Sprinkle the garlic with a pinch of salt and use the flat side of a chef’s knife to mash it into a paste.  Put garlic in a small mixing bowl.  Add ginger, vinegar, tamari, and oils.  Whisk until well combined.

Cook tofu and vegetables:

Drain the tofu and wrap it in two layers of paper towels.  Press the tofu between two heavy dinner plates to remove excess moisture.  Cut the tofu in half through its equator to make two thin slices the same length and width as the original block.  Blot the cut sides dry.

Heat half the oil in a cast iron or non-stick skillet over medium-high heat.  Sear the slices of tofu until lightly browned on both sides.  Remove tofu to a cutting board and cut into bite-sized cubes.  Set aside.

Drizzle the remaining oil into the skillet and add the mushrooms and a pinch of salt.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms are softened, 3 or 4 minutes.  Add remaining vegetables and continue cooking until peas are bright green, about 2 or 3 minutes more.  Add cubed tofu and sauce and stir to combine.

Serve over brown rice.

Not too sweet and just spicy enough, these quick pickles will keep for weeks in the fridge.  Outstanding with egg salad, cream cheese on toast, or just straight from the jar, in our house they’re gone in a matter of days.  You can use the brine to pickle string beans or green tomatoes, as well.

Sweet and hot refrigerator pickles

Makes about 3 pints

2 lbs. pickling cucumbers, sliced 1/4-inch thick

1 yellow onion, halved and thinly sliced

3 tbsp. kosher salt

3 c. ice cubes

2 c. cider vinegar

1 1/2 c. granulated sugar

1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper (or more, if you like your pickles really hot)

1/2 tsp. coriander seed

1/4 tsp. tumeric

8 whole cloves

In a large mixing bowl, toss together cucumbers, onion, and salt. Cover mixture with a clean, dry dishtowel, then cover surface with ice cubes (keeping the salted cucumbers very cold ensures crunchy pickles). Refrigerate for about 3 hours, until vegetables have released some liquid.  Rinse well under cold running water to remove excess salt.  Drain and set aside.

In a large saucepan, combine vinegar, sugar, and spices.  Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Add vegetables to pot and bring to just under a boil.  Remove pan from heat.  Using a slotted spoon, transfer vegetables to jars or other containers with tight-fitting lids.  Cover vegetables with brine, cover containers, and refrigerate.

Pickles keep, refrigerated, for several weeks.

Hot, sultry, and downright oppressive, July has but one redeeming feature: vegetables.  (No, make that two: vegetables and peaches!)  And that bountiful summer harvest is all the sweeter when it comes from one’ s very own garden.  Yesterday’s haul from my modest vegetable patch was the inspiration for this fresh and colorful three bean salad.  Long, slender French gold beans, plump and juicy rattlesnake beans, a few early tomatoes, a fat red onion, and a handful of herbs made planning dinner easy.  A grilled flank steak and cornbread from the freezer rounded out the meal without heating up the kitchen.

Three bean salad with tomatoes and herbs

Serves 6

1/2 lb. green beans, cut into bite-sized pieces

1/2 lb. wax beans, cut into bite-sized pieces

1 lb. tomatoes, chopped (and seeded, if you like)

2 stalks celery, chopped

1/2 red onion, finely chopped

1 15-oz. can red kidney beans or chickpeas, rinsed and drained

10 fresh basil leaves, torn or chopped

10 fresh mint leaves, torn or chopped

3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

3 tbsp. red wine vinegar

Pinch of sugar

Salt and freshly ground, black pepper, to taste

Cook green and wax beans in boiling, salted water until just tender, about 2 minutes.  Drain, run under cold water to stop the cooking, and drain again.

Combine beans and remaining ingredients in a large mixing bowl.  Toss.  Let salad stand at room temperature, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes before serving.

The vegetable garden is humming along nicely, producing a bounty of fat, sweet sugar snap and shell peas, peppery mache, and tender red and green leaf lettuces, plenty for salads every day. Our pole beans, cucumbers, and tomatoes are in bloom. There are ripe black raspberries to pick each morning and the resident squirrels are feasting on our strawberries (next year I will wrap the barrel in chicken wire). There are mountains of cilantro and mint and a steady supply of creeping thyme and oregano.

Clockwise from top left: sugar snap peas, mache, pole beans, leaf lettuces

Clockwise from top left: potted tomatoes, strawberries, cucumber blossoms, black raspberries

Flowers are in full bloom along the front and side fences. Finally, my novice landscaping efforts are starting to pay off — next year, the perennials will be large enough to divide and replant in new areas of the yard.

Clockwise from top left: coneflower, pineapple mint, potentilla, rudbeckia Indian summer

Sweet corn, juicy tomatoes, smoky bacon, and fragrant basil make a superb summer salad.  Serve with grilled chicken, fish, or steak and crusty bread for sopping up the juices.

Summer succotash

Makes about 7 cups, serving 6-8

4 thick or 6 thin slices bacon

1 1/2 lbs. fresh shell beans in pod (or use 1 1/2 c. shelled, frozen lima or soybeans)

1 small sweet onion, finely chopped

Kernels from 4 ears fresh corn (about 4 c.)

1 1/2 lbs. tomatoes, seeded and chopped

10 basil leaves, thinly sliced

2 tsp. apple cider vinegar

Salt and freshly ground, black pepper, to taste

Cook bacon in a large, non-stick skillet over medium heat until crisp.  Remove to a paper towel-lined plate to drain.  If you’re using fresh beans, shell them while the bacon cooks.  If you’re using frozen beans, pour a kettle of boiling water over them to thaw, then drain.  Place beans in a large mixing bowl.

Pour off all but 2 tbsp. fat from skillet, raise heat to medium-high, and cook onion and corn with a pinch of salt until just tender, about 4 minutes.

Add onion and corn, tomatoes, basil, and vinegar to bowl with beans.  Crumble in bacon.  Toss well, taste, and season with pepper and additional salt, as needed.  Serve immediately.

Planting is nearly finished for the season in our ever-expanding herb and vegetable (and as of this year, fruit!) garden.  It’s been a busy month.  To last year’s perennial herb patch of mint, sage, and lavender I added oregano and lemon thyme.  An especially sunny spot along a side fence is now home to a black raspberry bush (coming soon to keep it company:  a strawberry barrel!).  And we installed a second, 4×6-foot vegetable bed, terraced below an identical bed built last year in the sunniest corner of the yard.

Clockwise from top left: pineapple mint; black raspberry; lemon thyme; sage & mint

I planted the first vegetable box with English and sugar snap peas, three kinds of pole beans (French gold, rattlesnake, and purple), red and green leaf lettuce, mache, dill, red and white onions, and white radishes.  The second box has basil, parsley, cilantro, pickling cucumbers, red bell peppers, and 6 tomato plants (black cherry, sungold, san marzano, sweet plum, and two heirloom varieties).

Clockwise from top left: cucumber seedling; peas; lettuce; beans, radishes, onions, dill

And aside from a bunch of daffodils that never bloomed, this season’s perennial flowers are off to a delightful start.

Clockwise from top left: creeping phlox; armeria red ballerina; bachelor's button; wildflowers salvaged from a 2009 preschool potting project

This hash goes nicely with everything from salmon to steak.  I like to balance its smoky sweetness and vibrant colors with a side of lemony sauteed spinach.  The recipe makes a lot:  for a hearty breakfast,  reheat leftovers in a non-stick skillet or spread in a single layer on a sheet pan in a moderate oven, and serve with eggs or grapefruit and sliced avocado.

Sweet potato hash

Yield:  Makes about 8 c., serving at least 6

4 good-sized sweet potatoes, scrubbed and cut into ½” dice

6 oz. sliced bacon

Olive oil, as needed

1 red bell pepper, finely diced

1 bunch scallions (white and light green parts only), thinly sliced

1 tbsp. maple syrup

1 tsp. cider vinegar

Salt and freshly ground, black pepper, to taste

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Add diced sweet potatoes and cook until barely tender, about 3 minutes.  Drain in a colander, then return potatoes to pot to steam off excess moisture.

Brown bacon in a large, non-stick skillet (or, better yet, use a large pancake griddle, if you have one) over medium heat.  When crisp, remove to a paper towel-lined plate to drain.  When cooled, crumble and set aside.

Pour off and reserve all but 2 tbsp. bacon fat from pan (or discard bacon fat and use olive oil instead).  Add half the potatoes and cook, undisturbed, until bottoms of potatoes are nicely browned, about 7 minutes.  Turn potatoes with a spatula, season generously with salt, and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until potatoes are evenly browned and soft in the middle, 5-8 minutes more.  Remove potatoes to a large mixing bowl and lightly cover to keep warm.  Add 2 tbsp. reserved bacon fat or oil to skillet and cook remaining potatoes in the same manner. (If you have a large griddle, you can cook the potatoes in a single batch.)  Remove second batch to the mixing bowl.

Add 1 tbsp. bacon fat or oil to skillet, raise heat to medium-high, and cook pepper and scallions until just softened, about 2 minutes.  Return potatoes to pan and toss gently until hot throughout.  Stir in crumbled bacon, syrup, and vinegar, and season with additional salt and pepper as needed.

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