Not all vegetables need to be cooked. Some work best in their natural state. Just wash and dig in...
In an old book about food, there was a chapter describing how badly the English cook(ed) vegetables. Times have changed, but in those days vegetables were merely boiled – no salads, no sautéing in olive oil and herbs, no stir fries – and served as an accompaniment to the main dish, meat. That piece said that English mothers probably taught their daughters to boil vegetables for so many hours that they turned mushy lest, to paraphrase from memory, “a dinner guest left his dentures at home”. Imagine boiled turnips or carrots or peas, maybe with and maybe without salt.
I like to blanch and freeze some vegetables before stir frying them, for two reasons. The day I buy vegetables, I bring home more than can be consumed in one meal. So they turn colour, wilt and generally lose freshness. And some, like beans and peas or greens like knol khol (kohlrabi) and methi (fenugreek) leaves, need so much cooking time to make them tender that they turn an unappetising khaki by the time they're cooked. The greenness which is the essence of their attraction – and maybe goodness – is gone. So blanching them arrests their decay, and the finished product, squeezed and packed in flat freezer bags, takes up less storage space.
Stir fry appeal
But that's for vegetables that need cooking, those which cannot be eaten raw. Others can be eaten undercooked or maybe not cooked at all. And that's where the appeal of Chinese stir fried vegetables lies. Their “chow mien” often, even in the most down-market eateries, has uncooked cabbage and carrot juliennes, which have been marginally cooked only as far as tossing them with hot, cooked noodles takes them. Capsicum, green bell peppers, are the other common addition to “Chinese” dishes, and this seems to be the only way to cook them, because when they're cooked for any length of time in true Indian style, their smell becomes unbearable, the colour turns ochre, and the membranous skin starts peeling off like polythene. Best eaten raw, or barely blanched.
Nutritionists tell us how cooking destroys vitamins, minerals and sundry other micronutrients, and that may well be true. So we eat lots of salad and cook our vegetables as little as possible. After all, what can be eaten as a crudité – cauliflower, carrots, tomatoes, broccoli - need hardly be cooked. The only exceptions are bhindi, okra, and potatoes. Since we can't eat them uncooked, we can't eat them undercooked. (But why does Western cooking require that potatoes be peeled before boiling? Isn't it much easier to boil and then peel them? It's a different matter when they must be peeled for a dry vegetable, for which they're going to be sauteéd without boiling. Then there would be no need either for the cautionary direction to not to overcook so much as to make them “wet”. Why not just boil with the skin on?)
A soup I love is this one with raw vegetables. It's flavourful, clear and light enough to be eaten even in summer.
Clear Soup with spinach and mushrooms
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 stalk lemon grass
1 large carrot
1/2 cup mushrooms
1 cup baby spinach leaves
1 small lemon
Method: In a medium pan, heat soup stock till boiling. Meanwhile prepare lemon grass stalk by washing and then pounding bottom, woody end of stalk. Cut roughly into 4-5 pieces and simmer in stock for 5 minutes. Drain and discard lemon grass. Wash and scrape carrot and slice into thin discs. Divide between four soup bowls. Scrub mushrooms and thinly slice lengthwise. Place in soup bowls. Wash and tear spinach leaves and add to sliced vegetables in soup bowls. Cut lemon into wedges and place in bowls. Reheat soup stock, taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Pour over cut vegetables in soup bowls. Serve hot.
The lemon grass and vegetables can be substituted with whatever is available. Fresh green coriander for the lemon grass, and small florets of cauliflower or broccoli for the carrots and mushrooms.
Shredded boiled chicken or small cubes of tofu can be added.
Basic Meat Stock: In a pressure cooker, boil 1 kg mutton (or chicken) bones for 1 hour (30 minutes for chicken) with water (6 cups) and flavourings – an onion, 4-5 cloves of garlic, 1 tsp roughly chopped ginger, salt, about 10 whole black peppers, 2-3 cloves, a one-inch stick of cinnamon. Strain and refrigerate overnight. Skim off the frozen fat in the morning and freeze the stock.
Basic Vegetable stock: Simmer for an hour in a pressure cooker an onion, a carrot, 2 stalks celery, a potato, a handful of mushrooms, 4-5 garlic cloves, 2 bay leaves, 2 tablespoonfuls of soya sauce, a few peppercorns and 6 cups of water. Strain and freeze when cool.
Crudités with Yoghurt Dip
4 cups yoghurt
10 cloves garlic
2 tbsp blue cheese, optional
2 tbsp mayonnaise, optional
Method: Hang yoghurt in double sieve or muslin bag about 4 hours or overnight. Remove from sieve. If it has become too stiff, moisten with some of the drained water. Season curd with salt and pepper. Pound garlic to a fine paste and stir in, along with cheese and mayonnaise, if using. Cover and refrigerate until serving.
Vegetable crudités, cut into fingers or long florets
1 cup cucumber
1 cup carrot
1 cup broccoli or cauliflower
1 cup carrots
10 small red radishes
4 hardboiled eggs, peeled and quartered
Wash and dry vegetables, scraping off any unseemly blemishes before cutting. Reserve in cold water. Drain and wipe dry before serving. To serve, place dip in small bowl in centre of platter. Arrange vegetables and chips etc. in piles or in separate bowls around dip.
Vasundhara Chauhan is based in Delhi.
Keywords: raw vegetables