The Vegetable Imperative

Like many people, I don’t eat enough vegetables, despite having year-round access to some of the finest and freshest produce available.  It’s not that I dislike this cornucopia of goodness, and it’s not that I wouldn’t know how to prepare and serve vegetables, because I’ve got an entire library of cookbooks, plus the Internet, at my fingertips.  I really have no good reason.

I came to realize that, no matter how plentiful the produce items were in the market, I would always take a pass, simply because I didn’t have a recipe in mind for them.  Mind you, if you asked me what was for dinner, I would have gladly embarked on a lingering soliloquy about my plans for a pork loin, or a roast chicken, or a steak.  But inquire about a vegetable, any vegetable, and I would have replied with an uninspired shrug.  Vegetables certainly don’t deserve this kind of indifference – after all, they’ve done no personal harm to me and, to the contrary, are the gateway to a plethora of health benefits. So, starting about two weeks ago, I sought to change my attitude with a new mental strategy that I call The Vegetable Imperative.

The first glimmer of The Vegetable Imperative came to me while I was cruising through the produce aisle to pick up my usual stockpile of onions and garlic.  The realization was so simple and obvious, yet it has materialized into a very real impact on my cooking and eating habits.  I decided that the first step towards eating more vegetables was just making sure that I always had them on hand, regardless of whether I had any idea of what I planned to do with them.  I picked up enough vegetables for a week’s worth of dinners – cauliflower, zucchini, brussels sprouts, and carrots, all of which came to around $7.  Did I have any clue what I was going to do with them?  Not a one.

During the week, just knowing that I had these vegetables waiting at home for me was enough motivation to seek out recipes for them.  Instead of thinking of ways to prepare a protein, and then devising vegetables as an accompaniment, The Vegetable Imperative compelled me to actively shift my focus so that the vegetable would be the highlight of the meal.  The result?  Cauliflower risotto, paired with a simple sauteed chicken breast.  Strands of zucchini, tossed quickly in olive oil and garlic.  A recasting of the risotto, this time molded into patties, floured, and seared until crisp.  Ribbons of carrot, parboiled and tossed with butter and balsamic vinegar.  Many of these recipes yielded so much food, there was enough for two and sometimes three meals.  When was the last time you made chicken, and the recipe unexpectedly produced four times as much as you needed?

For each of these dinners, the protein accompaniment was served simply – a chicken or pork cutlet fried in a bit of olive oil, topped with salt and pepper, or a modest serving of salmon.  By focusing my efforts on creating a meal that was centered on the vegetable, with the protein assuming the role of side dish, I was able to incorporate a greater number and variety of vegetables into my cooking without any real additional effort.  Given the cost of produce versus the cost of meat, I was able to achieve a marginal cost savings at the checkout counter.  And, personally, I found myself much more amenable to reheating a vegetable dish with a new protein than eating a rehash of a full-fledged chicken or pork recipe with a new side.