A strange thing happens to some people after their first few experiences with perfectly cooked farmers market vegetables. It is not always easy to admit, but after awhile you might find yourself thinking that the veggies you grew up eating were, ahem, pretty horrible.
It is common for people of both my generation and my parents’ generation to have been raised on frozen spinach, canned beets, over-steamed carrots and boiled broccoli—foods that would make anyone with taste buds pick up their fork and run to the nearest steakhouse.
Is it any wonder that vegetables rarely rank on anyone’s favorite foods list?
Unfortunately, sometimes these negative early experiences can create life long food aversions that could have been avoided with a little extra TLC in the kitchen. They also help propagate the unhealthy eating habits that are now so common in America.
But our exposure to bad vegetables isn’t really Mom’s fault. Over the past 50 years America has been seduced by the allure of convenience. We’ve come to believe that meals come in packages and cooking is too hard and time consuming to bother with. We rely on supermarkets for our fruits and vegetables, which we expect to be the same year round.
The watering down of our food culture is directly responsible for our vegetables losing flavor (they are bred for shelf life, not taste) and us losing our ability to make them palatable. As a result vegetables have become an afterthought, something we eat from guilt and obligation, not from love.
But the good news is that this trend is reversing. People are starting to understand that where food comes from is important and has a tremendous impact on how it tastes. We are learning that it is worth it to go out of our way and spend a little extra money (at least occasionally) for the best ingredients. Restaurants are beginning to pride themselves on serving locally sourced foods–it is no longer uncommon to see farm names printed next to ingredients on menus here in San Francisco.
Focusing on quality ingredients and real foods is forcing us to reexamine cooking as well. I remember how surprised I was the first time I realized that instant oatmeal only saves about 3 minutes compared to real oatmeal and that sautéing fresh spinach is easier than making a bag of the soggy frozen kind. Not only are we starting to understand that taste is worth sacrificing a little convenience for here and there, but also that the inconvenience we feared isn’t as big a deal as we might have guessed.
But not everyone has been converted quite yet.
Learning to shop for and cook seasonal foods does involve a learning curve, and the first steps are always the most difficult and intimidating. (These aren’t exactly skills we pick up in school or learn in our daily lives.) To get and cook real food requires finding local farmers markets and knowing how to work a stove, for starters. Since farmers markets don’t usually run daily, a bit of foresight and planning are necessary if you hope to make it a part of your weekly routine. Working a stove demands some basic understanding of how food reacts when heated.
One of the reasons I wrote Foodist is to show you that these things aren’t actually as difficult as they may seem at first. And once you acquire just a few basic cooking skills—stir fry in olive oil, oven roasting, basic grain and legume preparation—expanding your culinary repertoire to include dozens of your favorite dishes isn’t much of a stretch.
One of the perks of starting with great ingredients is that messing up a meal is much more difficult than it is when you start with low-quality ingredients and rely on additional hacks and seasonings to mask the lack of flavor. Bad vegetables are almost always either over-cooked or under-salted, so if you can get these right you are most of the way there. Just a few extra seasoning tricks like garlic, chili flakes or lemon zest can elevate almost any green vegetable into something worth building a meal around.
Cooking vegetables well is neither an art nor a science. Learn to prepare a few of your favorites well, then branch out from there. Then next time you visit your parents, maybe you can volunteer to cook dinner and show them how broccoli is supposed to taste.
Modified since originally published on March 8, 2010.