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Thanksgiving Vegetable Tips
By Charlie Burke

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A friend recently referred to Thanksgiving as “the holiday of mushy
vegetables”, and, unfortunately, this is frequently true. Previous generations
cooked vegetables until they were soft, and this prolonged cooking not only
resulted in an unappetizing texture but also ruined the flavor of many.

Cabbage, for example, has a sweet and mild taste when briefly sautéed in butter
until just tender and bears no resemblance to the mushy overcooked version
which permeated homes with its unpleasant odor. The same is true of all
members of the cabbage family and turnips, and overcooking is probably
responsible for many growing up disliking broccoli, cauliflower and other
flavorful vegetables.

I first discovered that butternut squash, steamed until slightly undercooked by
usual standards and pulsed in a food processor until finely chopped, had a
lighter, sweeter flavor, and our sons actually ate it!

Now, I “undercook” carrots, squash, parsnips and all members of the cabbage
family and find they just taste better this way. I’m not talking about the barely
cooked crunchy green beans of the “nouvelle cuisine” fad; rather, vegetables
are cooked until they are no longer hard, meaning medium resistance is met
when they are pierced with a thin knife or a fork. I err on the side of
undercooking, because cooking will continue from retained heat, and, because
this technique is ideal for doing ahead, reheating will then result in the correct
texture.

To illustrate this technique, recipes for pureed cauliflower and carrots and for
Brussels sprouts braised with garlic and balsamic vinegar are given, but both
approaches are appropriate for many other vegetables.

For holidays or when entertaining, I do vegetables ahead, leaving them on the
stove if they are to be served within a couple of hours and refrigerating if done
a day or two ahead. For the holidays, doing them ahead frees you to concentrate
on them without distraction and lessens the work on the actual day.

Cauliflower and Carrot Puree:  4 – 6 servings

1 large head of cauliflower, washed and cut or broken into equal size pieces
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces (cut upper part in half
lengthwise if it is thick)
2 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup water
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add butter and, when it is melted,
add water, carrots and cauliflower, shaking pan to coat vegetables with butter.
Lower heat so that water is simmering and cover pan. Check after 5 minutes and
then every couple of minutes and remove from heat when cauliflower is
slightly softened but some resistance is met when inserting a knife tip.

Pour vegetables, salt, pepper and any liquid into a food processor and pulse
until vegetables are nearly smooth, but tiny fragments are still seen (see photo).
Add additional salt, pepper and butter to taste.

Braised Brussels Sprouts with Garlic and Balsamic Vinegar: 4-6 servings

1 ½ pound Brussels sprouts, stems and dark outer leaves removed (halve larger
sprouts)
3 tablespoons butter or extra virgin olive oil, or a mixture of the two
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped (optional)
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup water
Salt and freshly ground pepper taste

Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add oil or butter. When oil is
shimmering or butter foaming, add Brussels sprouts and garlic and cook,
stirring for 2-3 minutes. Add water and salt and pepper, lower heat to low –
medium and cover pan. Cook, covered for 8-10 minutes then check. Again,
remove from heat when moderate resistance is met when sprouts are pierced. If
in doubt, taste one of the larger ones. Add more butter, salt or pepper, if needed.

Try these techniques, where shorter cooking times preserve the true flavors of
these great fall vegetables. They are available locally now, and will reward a
little vigilance during cooking with great results. We have had friends say they
never knew that Brussels sprouts had such mild flavor and that for the first time
they had enjoyed eating them. Experiment with other vegetables. Carrots or
parsnips, either combined or cooked individually, are two of my favorites
pureed. In addition to the great flavor these recipes produce, being able to
prepare the vegetables a day or so before Thanksgiving really lessens the work
on the holiday.

A few quick tips for making outstanding mashed potatoes:

Use Yukon Gold potatoes, which already have a buttery richness. Place them
unpeeled into a pot and just cover with salted cold water (leaving the peels on
prevents them from becoming watery). Bring to a boil and cook until just soft.
Drain the potatoes and let cool briefly.

Warm a small pan of milk – do not let it boil. Using an oven mitt or towel to
hold the potatoes, remove peels. Return potatoes to pot and heat for a few
minutes over low-medium heat to remove moisture. Pass potatoes through a
ricer or mash by hand (never use a processor which results in a gummy paste).
With pot over low heat, mix in butter to taste before adding any milk; this is
important because it permits the fat to uniformly adhere to the starch. Add
warmed milk, stirring until desired consistency is reached, and add salt and
pepper to taste. The drier potatoes resulting from cooking them with skin on,
adding the butter before the milk and not cooling them with cold milk are the
keys to making these flavorful, light and fluffy potatoes. This is one vegetable
that does not reheat well, so mashed potatoes should be cooked just before
dinner.
With little effort, using these techniques, our great local fall vegetables can be
prepared to be worthy partners for the turkey, dressing and gravy on this great
family day. We hope these tips will enhance your holiday feast, and we wish
everyone a happy Thanksgiving!

About the author: An organic farmer and avid cook, writer Charlie Burke is the vice
president of the
New Hampshire Farmer's Market Association, president of the NH Farm
to Restaurant Connection and helps run the Sanbornton (NH) Farmers' Market.  Along
with his wife, Joanne, Charlie grows certified organic herbs, greens and berries at Weather
Hill Farm in Sanbornton, NH.
 
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