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Volume III
September 9, 2011

Weekly Home / Cook'n & Eat'n

Cook'n 101: Savvy Vegetable Cooking

By Alice Osborne

We all know that vegetables are the foundation, cornerstone, lynch-pin, backbone, etc. etc. of a healthy diet. "Eat more veggies" is what our mothers and doctors usually tell us for whatever ailment we're dealing with. But what we might not know is that the method used in cooking them plays a key role in just how many nutrients veggies can actually contribute to our diet.

Some vegetables - harder root vegetables - are best baked - potatoes, winter squash, jicama, and beets. For these, we leave the skin on to preserve most of their nutrients. Watch the baking time closely and be sure that the vegetable has high enough water content or it will dry out in a very short time period.

The method most preferred by health advocates is steaming - cooking for a short period above boiling water, in a steamer basket (with lid on). This method retains most of the nutrients. Start with the more solid vegetables such as carrots then add the softer to the streamer later. Here are approximate steaming times for the more common vegetables (I steam for a much shorter period of time because I like everything almost raw):

Artichokes: 6-10 min
Green beans: 45 min
Beets: 45 min
Broccoli with stalk: 25 min
Brussels sprouts: 20 min
Cabbage: 15 min
Carrots: 25 min
Cauliflower: 12 min
Corn on the cob: 15 min
Green peas: 20 min
Green peppers: 5 min
Onions: 20 min
Potatoes (all): 35 min
Tomatoes: 15 min

Great cooks and most chefs report that pressure cooking vegetables needs to be controlled more and can be too difficult because overcooking is a common occurrence. So we won't worry about that.

Lots of folks today are cooking their veggies in a wok. This is a fast method providing the pan is well heated with a very small amount of vegetable oil first. The only problem that may occur is that if we cook the vegetables too long in oil, some of the fat soluble vitamins are lost.

I have a neighbor that swears by her waterless cookware. This is best for green leafy vegetables and uses only the water that adheres to the leaves after washing. Usually this cooking method takes only 3-5 minutes.

Then there's the method I always saw my mom use - boiling. When boiling veggies, there are a few good rules to follow. First, they should only be placed in the water after the water has started to boil. The shorter the time in the water, the more nutrients will be retained (vitamin C, for instance, is one vitamin that's lost almost immediately). Also, the water should be allowed to boil for 2 minutes to release a percentage of the oxygen, which will also cause a reduction in nutrients. Finally, veggies should be cooked in large pieces, with skins on. The more surface exposed, the more nutrients are lost (and the quicker the loss).

And we can't forget the trusty crock pot. There's one cardinal rule to follow with it: Vegetables should never be placed in a crock pot for prolonged cooking. Almost all nutrients will be lost to the heat and the liquid. If I have a recipe that calls for vegetables, I add them the last 20 to 30 minutes of cooking.

Finally, how about the microwave? The movable turntable allows rotation so that the food will not have "cold spots." We all know by now that we better be sure our food is in microwavable dishes. One thing I didn't know is that the dish should always be preheated first for best results. We also know now that food continues to cook after it is removed from the microwave, so it's best to undercook the veggies just a smidge to allow for this continued cooking. I'm not a fan of microwaving - there's a lot of controversy around whether or not the high temperatures destroys the nutrients. I tend to think it does.

So what's the bottom line to all this? Scrub the veggies well so they can be cooked in their skins, cook as quickly as possible and in as little water as possible to retain the most nutrients we can. If we follow these few tips, we'll prove our moms and doctors right - "More veggies, more veggies for better health!"

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