10 Tricks to Make Your Boring Ingredients Exciting Again
Ugh. You’ve opened the fridge yet again, and nothing has changed. Just the same old familiar vegetables, including that pile of zucchini the CSA keeps sending you, and that broccoli you’re so tired of eating, you could scream. It can seem like a pain sometimes to come up with creative, tasty, healthy recipes using fresh fruits and vegetables, especially when the same cast of characters seems to keep parading across the stage over and over again.
Here are some ways to change up your dinner table without breaking the bank, going to culinary school or causing a food riot.
Tired of steamed zucchini? Over zucchini bread? Done with zucchini stir fry? Did you know you can use zucchini and other long summer squash like pasta? Yes, really. It helps to have a mandoline, but a steady hand with a sharp knife works just as well. Cut the zucchini into thin strips and dress it with your favorite pasta sauce; you can quickly steam the “pasta” and heat your sauce, or serve it entirely chilled, which can be refreshing in the summer months. It might seem kind of weird, but zucchini pasta is actually pretty darn tasty.
If cutting zucchini into strips isn’t your bag, consider a zucchini crudo, a cold salad made with thin rounds of zucchini. Slice up your zucchini and toss it with any dressing you like; a simple dressing with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper can be fantastic. Serve it as a side or main course. If you’re using it as a main course, you might want to consider adding crumbled fresh cheese or another garnish to make it more hearty.
Rice is a useful staple to keep around the kitchen, because it keeps for a long time and it’s a great complement to a variety of dishes. But, let’s face it, there are only so many things you can do with it.
…or are there?
Have you considered adding leftover brown rice to bread, pancake, or muffin doughs and batters? It will add fiber and body, and can make the dish much heartier in addition to healthier. How about using it to make pie crust? No, seriously. Mix leftover rice (brown is best) and egg for a hearty whole-grain crust that works well with quiches and other savories. Make sure to prebake it for 10 minutes before adding the filling to prevent leaks.
Sandwiches. Salads. That’s all you can do with a hefty head of lettuce, right? Nope! Lettuce actually has a lot of fun uses in the kitchen, if you’re willing to think outside the box a little bit.
Large-leaf lettuces like Romaine and butterleaf can be used for making wraps and rolls, eliminating the need for bread altogether, which can be a concern when you’re cooking for gluten-free diners or people trying to eat a low-carb diet. You can also use lettuce in summer soups, like a refreshing fennel, lettuce and avocado soup; briefly cook your fennel to make it translucent, add your lettuce and cook until it wilts, and then blend with avocado and stock to make a cool soup that will go down smooth on a hot summer day.
You can also try a lettuce buttermilk soup (yes, really). Start by cooking shallots in butter and blending with buttermilk, and then braise some shredded lettuce in a second pan (it’ll take you around two minutes). Blend together for a rich, creamy soup that can be consumed warm or cold with dressings like croutons or, for the meat-inclined, bacon bits.
One of the most versatile proteins in the kitchen, eggs can be baked, broiled, fried, poached and almost anything else you can imagine. They’re also a critical binder in tons of recipes, including savory options like potato pancakes and salmon cakes, as well as, of course, scores of sweets; numerous cookies, pies and other desserts rely on eggs as a key ingredient. Whether we’re talking chicken, duck, goose, quail, or even emu, eggs come in all sizes, colors and flavors, and they keep for a long time, so they’re a great kitchen standard.
When it comes to cooking outside the box, well, the world is really your oyster. Take, for example, baked eggs. You can line muffin tins with potato hash, prosciutto, brown rice, or other ingredients, bake to set the “crust,” and then fill it with a single egg or a mixture of eggs beaten with veggies and other ingredients before baking again to create tiny personal baked eggs or quiches. Pretty cool, eh?
Need more inspiration? Endless Simmer came up with more than 100 ways to cook an egg.
I happen to love brassicas (broccoli, mustards, Brussels sprouts, and their kin), but some people hate them, especially kids. That tart, slightly hot, mustardy flavor isn’t to everyone’s taste, and brassicas are sadly often overcooked into a mushy green mess. Blech! No wonder people dislike them. But they happen to be loaded with useful vitamins and minerals, making them an absolutely fantastic addition to your diet, so you might want to give them a second chance with some recipes that won’t bore you to tears.
Sure, you can give broccoli a quick steam (quench it in cold water when you’re done so it will stop cooking and stay crisp). But you can also grill and roast it, when gives it a more complex, interesting flavor, especially if you try marinating it first, or dress it afterwards with something tasty like cheese shavings. Try cutting broccoli into slivers and tossing briefly at medium heat with toasted almonds and sesame oil for a crunchy Chinese-inspired side dish that retains the fresh, crispy flavor of broccoli.
You can do the same with fennel, cauliflower, brussels sprouts and dark leafy greens like kale. These are often overcooked to the point of inedibility, but they don’t always have to be that way. You can turn them into crispy, flavorful foods that will explode with flavor in your mouth, and the prep and cooking time are often quite fast!
These guys tend to be love or hate foods, because many people find their texture and earthy flavor unappealing. The first thing to know about mushrooms is that there are tons of cultivars with very diverse flavors and textures, including offerings like oyster mushrooms (yes, they taste slightly fishy) and rich, highly-prized morels. These aren’t always available at your local grocery store, so you might need to visit a specialty store or look into dried mushrooms. If you haven’t tried much other than your basic criminis, you might be surprised.
There are tons of fun ways to use mushrooms. For example, portabellos make great buns for people who can’t eat bread; grill, roast, or broil the mushrooms and stick burgers, roast veggies, and anything else you want between them. You can also use them in open-face food preparations, because a portabello makes a great base for all kinds of things, including mini-pizzas and eggs Benedict. Heck, you can even use a mushroom to replace a tortilla in a taco! Pretty wild, eh?
Another food that tends to attract very polar opinions, eggplant’s famously used in eggplant parmesan, baba ghanouj and on the grill. But where else can it show up? Well, for starters, in eggplant with garlic, a dish popular in both China and Thailand made with eggplant, garlic, and spring onions served in a savory sauce. It’s pretty delicious, and makes the eggplant sweet and tender, without the slippery texture some people dislike — though you should note that this dish uses the smaller, slender so-called “Japanese eggplant,” not the big versions we’re used to in the West.
You can also use eggplant in curry; baingan bharta is a popular eggplant dish made with eggplant and a variety of spices, simmered together to create a rich, complex dish with a creamy texture and flavor. Rounds of eggplant also make a great base for mini pizzas. Salt them first to draw out the liquid so they’ll cook evenly and without turning into mush. Thin slices of eggplant can be wrapped around foods for the grill, and you can also try your hand at moussaka, a traditional Greek dish with eggplant and lamb.
On or off the cob, corn sometimes seems like a pretty limited vegetable, which is a shame, because it’s sweet, flavorful and delicious. Kids and adults alike tend to love it, especially when it’s slathered in butter with some salt and pepper to boot. But you can do a lot more with corn than steaming, grilling, or roasting it on the cob, if you want to get a little more creative and have some fun with it.
One option is corn fritters, made with corn, egg and flour to bind them together. You can play around with additions like a goat cheese filling, spicy peppers and other ingredients to make the flavor more interesting, and they can be served with a variety of sauces. Maple syrup is a classic, but other dipping sauces can work just as well, and can be a fun way to liven things up. Consider corn salsa, too, made with corn, fresh tomatoes, onions, peppers and cilantro. It’s a great summer side for a variety of dishes, including steamed and grilled fish.
You’ve got your pies, your fruit salads, your jams and sweet fillings, your yogurt parfait, your smoothies, and your…savory dishes? That’s right, berries and other sweet fruits can be fantastic in salads, roasts and a variety of other foods. You certainly can use them to make desserts or jams, which can be fantastic in the winter when you’re longing for the taste of summer and a well-made berry jam smeared on your morning toast can be just the thing, but that’s not the only way to use them.
Berries, for example, can be cooked down into a reduction sauce for serving with grilled meats, tofu and other foods. Berry reductions can also be great for glazing fish and other proteins while they’re cooking, to help keep them moist and infuse them with flavor. The berries add a rich sweetness with some acidity, and can give the resulting dish an unexpected vibrant flavor. Try throwing some fresh berries into your salads, too, where they’ll pop to add mouthfeel and a burst of juicy sweetness.
10. Stone Fruit
If you’re suffering from a surfeit of peaches (truly, we pity you), plums, or other stone fruit, don’t despair. Not only are they great to eat out of hand and turn into desserts as well as preserves, they’re also fantastic in other ways. Try grilling peaches, nectarines and other hardy stone fruit, for example, and adding them to salads as well as main dishes. You might find yourself liking the way the grill brings out a caramelized sweetness in the fruit. Stone fruit can also be used like berries in reductions, sauces and glazes to liven things up without adding sugars.