It’s Easy Eating Green!
‘It ain’t easy being green,’ declared the infamous amphibian Muppet. Perhaps if his diet had consisted of summer’s fresh green vegetables that are so simple to prepare, he would have had less to complain about. It IS easy eating green when farm stands are about to bust at the seams with freshly harvested produce radiating every shade of green that you can recall from your childhood mega-sized box of crayons. While Muppets and Crayolas may evoke positive memories of your youth, it is time to cast aside another set of recollections, the negative ones, the ones that insist to this day that you abhor vegetables!
Now that most of you have presumably grown up, it is time to introduce the flavors and textures of green vegetables into your diet. For years, many Americans shunned the concept. Considering the way vegetables were typically prepared during the early twentieth century, that was understandable. They were unappetizing, smelled bad and tasted worse. That’s what happens when you boil all color, crunch and nutrients out of anything. When broccoli has been cooked until the verdure is no longer bright and alive, resembling the shade of your Dad’s old army fatigues, and it has been broken down into a mushy substance that requires little chewing, it really can’t taste appealing either.
Luckily, in a growing awareness and quest to eat healthier than our ancestors, we have learned to prepare vegetables in a way that maintains their original color, flavor and texture. Today’s youth is more accepting of vegetable consumption when no longer faced with unpalatable variations. We now embrace the entire spectrum of bounty the whole year through, but what better time to get better acquainted with produce than the present, during a season that offers a vast array of choices.
Some of summer’s starring green vegetables includes spinach, green beans, sugar snap peas, asparagus and zucchini. During the colder months, roasting vegetables is a savory option as the cooking process imparts a tasty caramelizing facet to eggplant, winter squash, fennel, beets, carrots, etc. Ninety-degree days are not conducive to firing up a beastly hot oven, however. Luckily, delicate fresh summer vegetables lend themselves best to light steaming, grilling, sautéing and incorporation into salads.
While the occasional elaborately prepared vegetable with a saucy accompaniment is certainly enjoyable, vegetables really require minimal fuss, rendering them perfect weekday side dishes. Green beans and asparagus are perfect when steamed just long enough that a knife can pierce through without resistance, yet the color is still a lively jade or emerald. A light sprinkling of sea salt provides just the right finishing touch. Both vegetables can be enjoyed this way with healthy dining in mind. You may wish to add a little something on occasion to boost the flavor experience and change things up. Since asparagus and lemon are a winning pair, whisk together some extra-virgin olive oil, salt, pepper and finely grated lemon zest and pour the mixture over the steamed asparagus. For the green beans, toss them with a drizzle of hazelnut oil and some toasted hazelnuts.
Sugar snap peas and zucchini are ideal for sautéing. Sugar snap peas do require a bit of prep work. The stem end needs to be snipped off, and a ‘string’ that runs the length of the pea needs to be peeled off. It sounds tedious, but it’s really not that labor intensive and it goes quickly. Put some favorite music on. My favorite way to enjoy sugar snap peas is to sauté them in sesame oil and then toss with either black or white sesame seeds. For occasional flare I’ll add some cashews to the mix. It is imperative to fight any tendencies toward attention deficit disorder and stay focused when sautéing sugar snap peas – they cook FAST! They should not brown, they should stay a vibrant jewel-toned green and they should remain a little crisp. Remember, these can be consumed raw in salads or with dips, so very little cooking is needed here. The sautéing is more to warm them up and impart the sesame oil. Zucchini can be thinly sliced crosswise – use a food processor, you have better things to do with a beautiful day outside – and then sautéed in olive oil with a hefty amount of minced garlic. For an occasional dimension of heat, toss in a few crushed red pepper flakes.
Spinach can be savored raw, as a palette for salads, or sautéed. As spinach wilts under the heat of the sauté pan, it shrinks considerably. My rule of thumb says that approximately six ounces of fresh spinach leaves will yield one serving of cooked spinach. If you’re cooking spinach for a family of four, that’s going to look like a frighteningly enormous mountain of spinach! It will shrink dramatically, I promise! You will likely need to cook that amount in two batches. Simply sauté in olive oil in a large, deep pot until the leaves have all been well wilted, but still bear a bright hunter green hue. Season with salt and pepper and the spinach can be eaten as is. For added flavor enhancements, remove the pot from the heat as soon as all of the spinach is cooked. With the spinach still in the pot, stir in hazelnut oil, salt, pepper and Dijon mustard.
Zucchini is also fabulous off the grill. It can be sliced lengthwise into slabs and then grilled, or it can be cut into chunks and threaded onto skewers, alone or with other vegetables and/or meats.
Other green vegetables to appear on the scene of fresh summer crops include lettuces, cucumbers and green bell peppers. Here is my recipe for a green salad that showcases several of summer’s best green ingredients. To keep it healthy, a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt is all it needs for dressing. Since I only take healthy dining so far – hey, I am eating my vegetables, aren’t I? – I love this salad with Brian’s homemade creamy garlic dressing.
Summer Green Salad (4 servings)
1 head romaine lettuce, sliced crosswise into 2-inch pieces
2 green bell peppers, cored and cut into 1-inch squares
8 ounces sugar snap peas, ends trimmed and strings removed
1 hothouse cucumber, halved lengthwise, seeded, then cut crosswise into ½ inch slices
1 head broccoli, cut into bite-sized florets
1 ½ cup mayonnaise
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons white vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
3 large cloves garlic
2 tablespoons assorted chopped herbs (i.e. Basil, oregano, sage, rosemary)
salt and pepper to taste
Working in 2-4 batches, layer the romaine, green pepper, sugar snap peas, cucumber and broccoli. Place all remaining ingredients in a food processor and process until smooth. Pour the dressing over the salad and top with freshly cracked black pepper.