Demystified: Tough-to-Prep Veggies
Some veggies can be tricky. Think ramps, artichokes, cactus, fava beans and others; they’re delicious but with lots of layers, spikes, and skins these veggies can appear problematic to prepare. So, here’s the cheat sheet on how to demystify prepping and cooking the vegetables that are popping up now in farmers markets and supermarkets.
Celery stalks and celery root (celeriac) are actually two different varieties of the same plant. Farmers aim to grow celeriac bulbs that are dense, dark and lumpy, about the size of a grapefruit and are best in late summer. Don’t be deterred by appearance; with a few swipes of a sharp knife, you can transform the root into a crunchy, herbaceous-flavored addition to any salad. The trick is to slice a chunk off the bottom to make a wide base so the bumpy brown sides can be trimmed. To bring out the nutty flavor, bake it into a gratin or puree into a soup.
Plan to Skype your mom on the day you purchase fava beans; it takes time to shuck the tender, green colored, sweet beans from their pods. After shucking, drop the beans into boiling water for one minute to tenderize and loosen the skins that are bitter in all but the smallest, youngest beans. Then simply slip off the skins to reveal a bean that’s high in protein and fiber and will help keep you feeling full longer. They are a terrific addition to soups, salads, or main dishes.
Because they are one of the last truly foraged, wild foods, morels are pricy. But the nutty, earthy aromas and flavors offered by this affordable luxury make the prep worth it. While you may have heard not to use water when cleaning mushrooms, it’s actually okay to soak morels briefly in cold water to remove the grit trapped in the honeycomb caps. Swish or brush out the dirt, drain and allow them to dry thoroughly before cooking. Pair with other spring veggies like asparagus, spring onions, and green peas or toss in pastas, sautés, or scrambled eggs. Add to a buttery sauté of shallots with garlic and finish with a spritz of lemon juice.
It’s worth seeking out ramps; folklore says they have medicinal properties to combat premature aging. Even more promising is their flavor; they are deliciously pungent with a garlicky bite. Ramps appear briefly—for only about six weeks—in farmers' markets before vanishing for another year. Edible from the bulb-like root to the lily-like leaves, they are simple to prepare. Just wash well and pair with other peak ingredients like grassy asparagus, nutty morel mushrooms, and tiny new potatoes for a feast of the season.
Is there a more foreboding veggie to tackle than one with thorns? Serving this plump green vegetable at the next picnic or Mexican fiesta can serve as an excellent conversations starter. Cactus paddles (nopales) can be found year-round at Hispanic markets or larger supermarkets. When attacking it with a vegetable peeler (and a pair of hand-washing gloves for extra care) it’s a snap to shave off the thorns. Then just slice the cactus, sauté in oil, and add to Hispanic salad ingredients, or serve with eggs and salsa.
Spring leeks are prized for their sweet, delicate flavor; choose very slender stalks. To prepare, grab a pair of kitchen shears; snip off the roots, then trim the tops, leaving several inches of young green leaves. Next, cut leeks almost in two starting two inches above the base and up through the tops. Clean under a stream of water to rinse out grit. Small leeks are delicious grilled (pre-cook first in boiling water for about 4 minutes,) or simply place beneath beef, chicken, or fish as the meat roasts.
Preparation of the prickly artichokes is well worth it; the bottom of one large artichoke has about 3 grams of fiber and just 25 calories. To “top and tail” a choke, a serrated knife (instead of a chef’s knife) works best. Slice off one inch from the top. Since the stem is an extension of the tender heart, remove only one half inch of stem, unless a flat bottom is needed so the artichoke sits up. The hearts of baby artichokes can be eaten raw in salads; steamed whole chokes are often served with dips or baked and then tossed in pastas.