I Love You Mom, But You Suck At Cooking Vegetables

by | Jun 18, 2012

Photo by Telephone Melts

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.

Have bad childhood memories turned you off to any foods?StumbleUpon.com

Modified since originally published on March 8, 2010.

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46 Responses to “I Love You Mom, But You Suck At Cooking Vegetables”

  1. Ryan Smith says:

    Great post Darya! I think you hit the nail right on the head with this one.. and no wonder our current generation has been put off of putting in the time to cook a meal since it almost seems the rewards are not worth the effort.

    When I finally started to experiment and cook my own way I started enjoying the process and enjoying eating the food I prepared. Even something as simple as olive oil frying onions, tomatoes and peppers (part of last night’s supper!) is so yummy..

  2. I can only say this on someone else’s blog where it won’t be seen by many people who know me. But I know a woman of a certain generation who believes vegetables aren’t done until you can eat them through a straw. And oh by the way, the roast has been in the oven all that time, too. Instead of meat and veggies it’s more like chips and dip. Yumm.

  3. Laurie says:

    I am one of the few people that actually had a mom that served all veggies cooked in great ways (not mush) so my brothers and I all love our veggies. But they also made us eat everything and clean our plates. That obviously worked. Kudos to her!

  4. Daniel Cowan says:

    Yes, I agree with all this, though my mom has since been won over to cooking vegtables al dente.

    What baffles me though, is how the convience model ever won out in the first place. I was talking about this with my mom the other day. We all seem to agree about the vast improvement of eating seasonal foods from local farms. But my grandparents we’re both raised on farms, and their parents were farmers who immigrated here from Europe. Most everything they ate came from their own farms or very locally.

    Any yet when they married and moved into town, apparently they were won over by Wonderbread, Spam & Klick, and canned vegetables. How did that happen, it baffles me. The advertisers must have been geniuses.

  5. Daniel, I think a lot of it was wanting to be “modern”. Marketers have always known — at least since The Emperor’s New Clothes — that the way to sell something is to say it’s what all the cool, famous, rich people are doing.

    TV dinners are the classic version of this. It’s how the “modern” family eats. Not much in the commercial about how it tastes, just that it’s modern. That was the whole pitch. And it worked.

    Then once there was a whole generation raised on packaged food, they could start advertising how much easier it was than cooking. Which was now true, because no one knew how to cook any more.

  6. Cindy Bidar says:

    Lucky for me, my dad had a fabulous garden when I was a kid. I grew up eating (and loving) the vegetables everyone loves to hate: broccoli, asparagus, and Brussels sprouts. I’ve learned better ways to cook them – roasted sprouts, yum! – but without the great veggies I grew up with, I never would have tried them at all. Thanks Dad!

  7. Kirsten says:

    My stepmother did things to food, vegetables included, that no one should have to endure. After her cooking, I looked forward to the basic canned veggies my mom would serve. My grandma got fresh produce from the supermarket but boiled it to death. It wasn’t until I started cooking for myself that I realized how vibrantly green broccoli could be instead of the grey-green stuff I grew up on.

    Las Vegas is a tough town to find fresh produce in, and my husband, whose family owns a farm in the central valley of CA, says he fed better looking produce to the hogs than what we can get here. I shop the organic stores for produce, but can’t wait until we can move back to a place that actually has farmer’s markets, or farm stands like where I grew up in New England.

  8. Matt Shook says:

    Hahaha, there’s a lot of truth in the title! My mom was just okay at cooking veggies, but one of my relatives takes the cake…severely overcooked broccoli with gobs of mayonnaise throw in (blech)! Just the thought of it almost makes me dry heave… ;)

  9. Brenna Waack says:

    I had a food science prof tell our class that 10-15 years ago she didn’t have to teach the basics (boiling water, peeling a potato, knife skills). But today she has to start from the simplest concepts because our generation never learned how to dice an onion or steam carrots. I’ve met a lot of people who want to learn to cook healthy but are afraid; mostly because they do not know where to start.

  10. Brenna, I had that conversation with some people running a site about natural foods. They thought I should focus more on the source and quality of the ingredients I was using. But my position is that there are lots of people who don’t know how to cook *at all*.

    First they have to learn to cook meat and vegetables, *then* they’re ready to hear about organic, local, grass-fed, etc. So yes, local organic ingredients are better than industrial. But even industrial veggies are better than TV dinners.

    If eating healthier starts with knife skills, I don’t mind teaching that. It’s a shame how often that doesn’t get any respect from people immersed in the real food movement.

    • Darya Pino says:

      I agree Drew. But I think starting by exposing them to how good veggies can really taste makes a huge impact on their willingness to work with any vegetables. A delicate balance for sure.

    • Brenna Waack says:

      I also think it’s amazing the number of parents who swear their kids don’t like vegetables. As this post has been discussing, it’s really more about how the veggies are prepared. I’ve made pico de gaio with two groups of elementry aged kids (with parents watching and swearing up and down that their kids don’t eat tomatoes or onions). I then have the kids count out a serving of tortilla chips, and devour their plate of homemade pico saying that it was the best salsa they have ever had. Their parents are stunned.

      I’m not sure what it is about cutting, boiling, steaming, and roasting that is so scary. Other than cutting yourself… Maybe some of it is just laziness. As an RD, if getting people to microwave frozen veggies is as far as I will get with them, that’s ok. At least it’s better than canned.

  11. Philip Bundman says:

    My personal nightmare (food category) is of the canned asparagus I had as a child. Like the left-behind drippings from Swamp Thing visiting your dinner plate. I thought I knew what asparagus was, and wanted no part of it. Luckily for me, a friend and excellent cook introduced me to the real thing one evening, though I had to wait until I was 25 for this gift. I was more than surprised. Stunned! An eye-opening moment! I remember this instant, with the asparagus still in my mouth, wondering what else about really delicious food I knew nothing about.

    Invite your friends to come for dinner. Feed them real food. Who knows who’s life might change forever?

  12. Madison says:

    I consider myself lucky that my parents are great cooks and I never had to eat a yucky vegetable. I am also Vietnamese so I was expose to a large variety of fruits and veggies growing up. You are so right in pointing out that our early exposures to how vegetables are prepared for us makes a huge impact on how we feel about them later on in life.

    I also wanted to thank you for turning me on to farmers markets. Before I found your site, I was pretty much only eating veggies because I had too. I love shopping at the farmers market now. Each week, I cannot wait to go and pick out something fresh and see what I can make with it in the kitchen that week. The day I realized that I was obsessed with shopping at the farmers market was when I woke up one morning, looked out the window and saw that it was pouring rain and I still went out to shop. It has truly changed my life!

  13. My mom had three veggie modes: 1) salad, 2) boiled until soggy, or 3) in the crockpot with a roast. I loved the roasted veggies and was always the type of kid who pretty much ate anything, but I’ve realized lately that oven-roasted veggies are SOOOOOO much better. I love Darya’s roasted cauliflower recipe – I never knew cauliflower tasted that good!

  14. Hester says:

    This was a great article, Darya! You hit all the points! I love veggies and was fortunate enough to have grown up with fresh veggies. I don’t know… it seems bizarre to pick up frozen or canned veggies at the Asian supermarket. I don’t recall us every getting any of those. And your tips are perfect for the beginner cook!

  15. George says:

    Like Matt, I think a big factor here is overcooking. Fresh vegetables need a little seasoning and even less cooking. I didn’t enjoy collard greens until I was 25 because of chronic overcooking.

    • Darya Pino says:

      Love your collard greens example. Even at “fancy” Southern restaurants here in SF the collards are overcooked to death and nauseatingly sweet. But they’re so tasty when I make them at home.

      • George says:

        Thanks Darya. The best collard greens I know how to make are nothing more than greens, olive oil, garlic, and a splash of red wine vinegar sauted very hot and very fast in a cast iron skillet.

  16. Benjamin says:

    I don’t think I have ever eaten a fruit or vegetable and then thought to myself, “Yum, this tastes like it was grown by a local farmer.” I don’t taste the origin in the food I eat. All that matters to me is freshness and the produce at my grocery store is pretty good regardless of where it comes from. I do, however, notice the difference between canned and fresh vegetables. I especially notice the difference with jalapenos!

  17. Hags says:

    I grew up in a Korean household and my mom was an AMAZING cook, especially with vegetables. But somehow, I still didn’t eat veggies until much later in life. I think for a lot of guys it just takes time. It started with a little lettuce in college, then i started liking the smell of sauteed onions and garlic, then started putting some green onions and tomatoes into my omelets.

    Now I can eat a full meal of vegetables – a useful skill considering I got engaged to a vegetarian!

  18. Satu says:

    I’m from Finland, and I don’t remembe eating that much vegetables when I was young. We mostly had potatoes, carrots, onions, beets, berries. Salads, tomatos and cucumber became part of our diet in the 80’s…

  19. M2 says:

    Great piece here on mom’s not cooking vegetables right. I have so much to say about this – wondered if I was the only one this happened to! Not really but it was quite an awakening when I had my first raw farmers market vegetables when I was about 12. My mom (learned to cook in the 40’s/50’s) believed veggies should come from the freezer or a can and be boiled at least 20 mins. before serving. Awful! All that changed in my family when I learned to cook at 12…and following a lot of what you’ve put down here.

    Your site is great btw – been meaning to write you and tell you that – great information and insight. I get a lot out of it.

    thanks!
    m2

  20. julie says:

    I can’t remember my mom even trying to cook vegetables, probably a good thing considering how horrible anything she cooks tastes. She hates garlic, spices, butter, high heat, anything that might help things taste good. We ate canned or raw, and I avoided cooked veggies until I accidentally bumped into a farmers market in Santa Cruz, and the stuff was so pretty that I bought it. Now I eat some lightly cooked veggies, though still prefer them raw. I’ve even learned to like brussel sprouts, if cooked right. I have friends who boil the hell out of asparagus or other veggies, I won’t eat that.

    In my case, I was probably lucky that almost everything I ate as a kid was out of boxes and cans, because now I don’t have too many strange aversions to most food (except some boiled veggies and meat), though I had to learn to cook everything except toast and pasta, which I managed to learn as a kid.

  21. pajh says:

    I agree with everything you say here (except for the bit about loving your mom; I’m sure she’s a nice lady, but I’ve never met her), but at best it’s vegetablist apologia, isn’t it? (“Vegetablist Apologia” will be the name of my next band.) If you only take the time to learn as little as three dozen fairly complex culinary techniques, you too can learn to love vegetables that don’t taste entirely of stale alkaloids!

    Meanwhile, I can tear a chunk off a cow and stick it in my mouth, and it will taste delicious. I’m thinking that vegetables still have some way to go on the basis of sheer convenience.

  22. ChuckEats says:

    The Art of Cooking with Vegetables by Alain Passard & Tender by Niles Slater will breathe new life and inspiration into anyone’s vegetable cooking game

  23. Jason says:

    My mom never had a wok and a high btu burner. The wok is wonderful tool for flash roasting edible plant matter of any kind. In all fairness to moms everywhere, canned vegetables are better than no vegetables. I’m pretty sure my mom never had access to Shiitake mushrooms, Napa cabbage or lemon grass either. Mom always took a detour to the local farm stand for sweet corn and “summer” tomatoes. The farm stand taught me to appreciate real food as a child. I guess that’s what draws me to your site

  24. Dee says:

    Well my mom never made a point of veggies. She was an average cook – now shes alot better. An everyday meal was say rice, with some kind of beans or peas with chicken – no greens, no veg. Actually occassionally (rarely) she would place 1 whole lettuce leaf on top of the meal and call that veg – I hated that, I never used to eat it. On a Sunday she typically made stir fry and Callaloo and rice with veg in it that’s mostly when we saw veg in the meal. She loved juice, snacking, bread, cakes and all bakery products – what I learnt caused me to be overweight… But now I know better

  25. Katherine says:

    Reading this makes me realize I was pretty lucky to have a mom who is a good cook. Most of what my mom cooked when I was young was from scratch with the help of the occasional packet of sauce or mix. She was a good cook too. Vegetables were not the main element of our meal but they were always present, mostly fresh too. I rarely ever ate frozen vegetables as a kid although we did eat some vegetables almost exclusively canned (corn, peas). We didn’t eat particularly seasonally but there were a few things that we only ate in season, in particular corn on the cob. My mom always bought seasonal produce when it was available and she really did appreciate the pure delight of a summer tomato. Her taste in vegetables was limited though so she rarely if ever cooked squash, beets, sweet potatoes; they are all things I discovered on my own. She is becoming more and more adventurous though and still cooks most things from scratch, makes bread, jam, pickles, salted herbs, pasta sauce etc.
    I think it’s interesting to mention that my mom came from a very rural region of Quebec where cooking traditions were very strong. Although her style of cooking has shifted from the traditional heavy meat pies; she still cooks most things from scratch. I wasn’t very interested in cooking until recently but she is definitely my biggest influence. I love to share my new discoveries with her and so does my sister so now we learn off each other and it’s great.

  26. April says:

    This made me laugh because it describes my mom’s cooking so well. I still remember my first taste of real asparagus (a vegetable I had previously loathed with all of my being) in a restaurant as a young adult. I’m happy to say I bucked the trend in my family and my kids love veggies – except when they are eating at grammy’s house (or school, unfortunately)!

  27. MsB says:

    Ironically, I have returned to a few selective frozen vegetables. For a busy mom, it can be great. My younger child prefers veggies that are past al dente so they can be good to have around. You just have to ignore the directions on the box. Many frozen veggies are blanched so all you have to do is let them defrost on the counter or fridge. Then just saute in oil, butter and garlic. My favorites are Trader Joes Organic Green Beans which are more like haricots verts, brussels sprouts, and bags of frozen spinach (not the solid block) for quesadillas.
    I do occassionally like to cook chopped brocolli and cauliflower to an almost mush stage (if it is superfresh and the bad smelling compounds are cooked off). With a bit of oil or butter and some salt, it is pretty tasty comfort food
    This stuff supplements my CSA box which is mostly local, fresh leafy greens.

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