This spring when I asked what nutrition topics folks would be interested in reading about on the blog, the subject of vegetables came up repeatedly. Specifically, several readers wanted more ideas for how to cook them—with a mind to preserving (or enhancing) both nutrition and taste. As much as I love my big-ass salads, I get it. Sometimes you need to mix it up, and moving toward the cooler seasons only underscores the point.
With that in mind, let me offer a few points that help folks have their vegetables and a hot meal, too. See what you think and if it might offer some ideas for this week’s Primal dinners.
Don’t Overcrowd the Skillet
Almost any vegetable can be prepared by slicing the vegetable thinly, heating oil in a pan over medium-high heat, and then sautéing it until tender. Add a little garlic if you like, and finish with sea salt. Easy, right? However, if you want the sautéed vegetables to be genuinely tasty instead of mediocre, here’s the trick you need to know: Don’t overcrowd the skillet.
Use a wide skillet and only sauté a single layer of vegetables at a time. Vegetables release water as they cook, especially softer vegetables like zucchini and mushrooms. If you put too many veggies in a pan at once, they’ll steam and turn to mush in their own liquid instead of sautéing to golden brown.
The same goes for roasting vegetables. Don’t pile vegetables on a sheet pan. Spread them out evenly in a single layer. Take the plunge and buy another sheet pan so you can make more at a time.
If you’re not in the mood for a big pot of “clean out the fridge soup” then the easiest way to use up vegetables is roasting. Make a habit of roasting a sheet pan’s worth every week, using any vegetables that are past their salad prime. Roasted vegetables are a delicious side dish for any meal, and they’re great added to any Big-Ass Salad you pack for lunch the next day.
Here’s the best way I’ve found to roast veggies:
Peel if needed, then cut all the vegetables into pieces that are basically the same size so they’ll cook at the same rate. Group the vegetables by texture and/or type, so that shorter cooking veggies are on one sheet pan and longer cooking veggies are on another. (For example, root vegetables, squash and potatoes can be grouped together, and cauliflower, broccoli and Brussels sprouts can be grouped together, and onions, zucchini and bell peppers can be grouped together.)
Coat the veggies generously with avocado oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper (or your favorite spice blend). I like fresh rosemary, but I use a lot of herbs depending on my mood.
Spread the vegetables out evenly in one layer on a sheet pan, with a little room to spare. Don’t overcrowd the sheet pan. (For easier cleanup, line the sheet pan with parchment paper first.)
Roast in the oven at 425º F for 20 to 45 minutes, depending on the type of vegetable. Veggies are done when they can be easily pierced with a fork and are lightly browned on the edges.
Mix the vegetables only once or twice while they roast. Use a rimmed baking sheet, so the veggies don’t fall off the pan when you mix them.
Simple and quick, steaming vegetables is perfect for busy weeknights. The great risk with steaming is sogginess (unfortunately how most of us think of steamed vegetables), so always set a timer. Stop steaming the veggies before they’re completely soft; they’re done when still slightly firm in the center. Most veggies take 5 to 10 minutes. Harder ones like sweet potatoes, carrots and squash steam in 10 to 20 minutes. For the best results, steam different types of vegetables separately.
A collapsible steamer basket is an inexpensive kitchen investment, and most rice cookers and Instant Pots have a steamer tray. Or, if you have one, use the microwave. Put cut-up vegetables in a bowl, add about 3 tablespoons water, and cover the bowl with a plate. Cook 2 ½ minutes, then check for doneness. Be careful of hot steam when removing the plate. Or, try this method of microwave steaming with wet paper towels.
Hands down, the most delicious way to flavor piping hot steamed vegetables is a generous pat of salted pastured butter. Once chilled, steamed veggies are a convenient add-in for salads, and also great dipped in Primal Kitchen® Mayo or dressings.
Grilling Isn’t Just for Meat
If you’re firing up the grill for meat, it makes sense to cook the entire meal on the grill. From zucchini to sweet potatoes (and even kale), vegetables are amazing with the smoky flavor and charred edges that only a grill can impart. It’s true that some vegetables are easier to grill than others, but with a few tips, you can expertly grill almost anything non-animal.
Heat-stable oil and salt should always be used, lightly coating the vegetables before grilling, then pouring on more oil and salt when the veggies are done. For even more flavor, marinate veggies in vinaigrette before grilling, or drizzle vinaigrette over warm, grilled vegetables.
Softer vegetables, like mushrooms, zucchini, onions and bell peppers are easy: Cut into smallish chunks and skewer, or cut into long, wide pieces that won’t fall through the grates. Grill until tender and lightly charred.
The easiest way to grill hard vegetables is to give them a head start. Firm vegetables can be brined before grilling. Or, simply parboil the vegetables before grilling. Potatoes (regular and sweet), carrots, beets and other root vegetables can be cut into medium bite-sized pieces and boiled in water until just barely tender. Drain the vegetables, toss with oil and salt, then finish on the grill to char the veggies and cook to full tenderness.
Stalks of kale and Swiss chard, even wedges of Romaine lettuce, can be transformed on the grill into smoky, charred versions of their raw selves. Coat lightly in oil and salt, and grill the leaves 4 to 6 minutes (leaves can be ripped from the stalks before or after grilling)
For the least amount of fuss, place single layers of thinly sliced vegetables on a large, lightly oiled piece of foil, then fold the foil around the vegetables like a loose packet. Grill the packet 8 to 12 minutes for quicker cooking vegetables, and 12 to 15 minutes for things like potatoes and onions.
Cooking Dark, Leafy Greens
This doesn’t just mean kale, Swiss chard, and collards. Radish leaves, beet greens, turnip leaves…they’re all edible. As mentioned above, greens can be grilled, but sautéing is the most common cooking method.
Sautéing is easy. Greens + oil + garlic is all you need. The challenge is coaxing greens into tenderness so you don’t end up with a pile of chewy leaves.
Try this technique: Tear the leaves off the stems. Stack the raw leaves in a pile, roll the pile up, and use a large knife to slice the leaves into thin ribbons. Heat olive oil and garlic over medium, then add the sliced greens by the handful, until it all fits in the skillet. Add 1/3 cup stock, water, or coconut milk. Turn heat up to medium-high and cover. Cook 3 to 5 minutes. Remove the lid and cook 2 to 3 minutes more until the liquid has evaporated.
Frozen Greens and Flavor Cubes
Despite good intentions to eat more greens, who among us hasn’t thrown away a limp bunch of kale after ignoring it all week? What about a soggy bag of baby spinach?
Instead of wasting greens, blend them. Put handfuls of greens in the blender. Add a little water or coconut milk if necessary (to keep the blender moving) until the greens are pureed into a smooth consistency. Pour into an ice cube tray. Freeze, then remove and store cubes in a sealed plastic bag. Throw frozen green cubes into smoothies, soups, stews, and chili.
For savory flavor cubes try this:
3 handfuls loosely packed herb leaves (mix herbs like basil, cilantro and parsley, or just choose one herb)
3 handfuls baby spinach or other chopped green
3 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon grated ginger (optional)
Combine herbs, greens, garlic and ginger in a blender until smooth, adding a little water or chicken stock as necessary, again, to keep the blender moving. Pour the puree into an ice cube tray. Freeze, then remove flavor cubes and store in a sealed plastic bag. Instantly add flavor to your meal by melting frozen flavor cubes in a hot skillet of sautéed vegetables or meat, or melt a flavor cube into a bowl of hot cauliflower rice or soup.
Using Frozen Vegetables
Fresh, seasonal produce is best, but when it comes to convenience, frozen vegetables are a part of modern life, especially if you’re looking to do Primal on a budget. They don’t need to be washed, sliced, or prepped, and they cook in a matter of minutes. The importance of convenience can’t be underestimated. If keeping frozen veggies on hand means you eat more veggies, then stock up the freezer.
Frozen vegetables are usually picked at peak ripeness and flash frozen, preserving all the nutrients. The best way to cook frozen vegetables is to steam, microwave, or simmer them for just a few minutes. For soups and stews, add frozen vegetables straight from the freezer in the last minutes of cooking.
Making Vegetable Stock
Dedicated makers of vegetable stock keep a gallon Ziploc bag in the freezer and fill it throughout the month with veggie scraps from cooking (stems from greens, nubs of carrot, celery, onion, etc.) The rest of us can simply scavenge the crisper drawer for veggies about to turn bad.
Throw veggie odds and ends into a stock pot. Any mix of veggies will do, just make sure you’ve included 1 onion (quartered), 6 garlic cloves, a few stalks of carrot and/or celery, and a handful of fresh herbs (leaves and stems). Cover with water, sprinkle in salt, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, and partially cover. Simmer 1 to 2 hours. Drain and discard solids. Add salt to taste. There you go….
Now let me turn it over to you all. Got some cooking tips or favorite vegetable recipes to share? Let’s hear ’em! Thanks for stopping by, everybody.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.