How to make veggies the star of the show.

Vegetables, they don’t always get the best rap, do they?

“Finish your broccoli!”

“Eat those brussels sprouts!”

Mom never once had to ask you to scarf down that chocolate bar, that’s for sure. Sometimes you can’t help but feel sorry for vegetables. With some people, they don’t even get a chance. If you grow up expecting to dislike them, you are never going to give them the time of day.

If you are a sceptic now, you definitely won’t be after these helpful hints from local chefs that are known for working their magic with vegetables. Given that Alberta-raised vegetables are at their peak, you don’t have to work too hard to make them taste amazing. Here’s how you can get started.

Photo by Ingrid Kuenzel

Corporate Chef Andrew Keen, Vintage Group

“To me there is nothing better than fresh, perfectly cooked carrots.” explains Chef Andrew Keen, who is all about simplicity when it comes to preparing his vegetables.

No glazing them with honey or brown sugar or emptying out the spice rack to jazz them up with cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice – we are talking carrots, not carrot cake. Instead he prefers to cook them in their own juices, steaming until tender. Carrots should taste like carrots. His other go-to vegetables are the “old school” (his own words), cauliflower and broccoli. If he is feeling adventurous, he may just switch to broccolini instead. Just roast them with salt, pepper and olive oil and you are ready to serve, easy as that.

Another one of Chef Keen’s tips is to look for what is cheapest at the grocery store. “When it’s cheap it is usually way better [at this time of year]. It’s all about the harvest,” Chef Keen points out. “When they have a terrible harvest you get terrible produce and it’s expensive. If something is cheap at the supermarket, it’s usually a really good product actually.”

In the fall months, you will find him loading up on squash, especially his favourite, red kuri. Again, there is no need to get too fancy when preparing it, a straightforward purée with salt, pepper and butter is his method of choice.

When asked what sets a restaurant’s purée apart from that of a home cook, he points to two distinguishing factors. First, you have to ensure that your squash is completely cooked. Overcooking it is fine here as it is going to get puréed anyway. Second, it is critical to purée the squash properly. If you have a high-powered, industrial blender or food processor that should do the trick, but nothing beats an old-fashioned, hand crank food mill. Oh and don’t skimp on the butter or seasoning either!

Does it ever verge on being too simplistic? Well, according to Keen, “At the end of the day, it has to taste good. That’s what people are looking for!”

Photo by Ingrid Kuenzel

Executive Chef Andrew Winfield, River Café and Boxwood Cafe

“It’s hard to get my brain out of the season we are currently in. You kind of fall in love again every time a new season comes around each year,” says Chef Andrew Winfield.

This quote whole-heartedly reflects the chef’s mentality when it comes to food. To him and the rest of the people behind sister restaurants River Café and Boxwood Cafe, eating fresh and local isn’t a trend – it’s the norm. Needless to say, he embraces all that nature has to offer, especially vegetables.

Alberta is not always thought of for its agricultural bounty but as Chef Winfield points out, “Fall is one of those intriguing times. In Alberta so much is going on. A lot of crops are still finishing. Chanterelles are popping up across Canada. It’s a good time for mushrooms in general. We also tend to get a lot of beans still. A lot of different varieties are popping up.”

When it comes to mushrooms, Winfield is an advocate of not over-cooking them, allowing them to retain their juices, rather than becoming tough and rubbery. Portabellos especially, he treats similar to a beautifully aged steak. Grilling them gill-side up ensures that all of the juices remain cupped in the mushroom, rather than losing the moisture through the grill. Bring them to “medium-rare”, where the centre still retains some its texture and then let the mushrooms rest so that the juices are reabsorbed.

Chef Winfield also loves a perfect tomato. “September is the ideal tomato season. Everyone thinks about summer and tomatoes but realistically it’s more towards late August or early September when they’re at their peak. Certain varieties just need so much heat to produce and that’s why it takes so long to get them ripe.”

Nothing is better than a tomato sandwich with a touch of salt in Winfield’s books. Good bread, good tomato, that’s all you need for a satisfying snack or light meal. Gazpacho is another option that is fresh and cleansing, even on a fall day, while the warm days linger before the frost comes.

Overall when it comes to cooking vegetables, Chef Winfield points out that if you can eat an ingredient raw, you probably don’t need to cook it that much. However, that’s not to say that a carrot cooked so soft that you can cut it with your fork isn’t good. If your end goal is simply to let the vegetables speak for themselves, you are probably already on the right track.

Check out the following recipes that feature vegetables front and centre:

Roasted Cauliflower

Poêlée Carrots

Nasturium Leaf Pesto

Mallory is a food writer and blogger living and learning in Calgary, Alberta. Check out her blog becauseilikechocolate.com and follow her on Twitter @cuzilikechoclat 

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