Veggie Fails

Where should an adult picky eater start with the alien world of roughage?

A crate of delicious fresh vegetables.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

The Pickle, a food and cooking advice column, was written by The Art of Gay Cooking author Daniel J. Isengart. You can follow all of his work at his website.

Should you allow your guests to help with clearing the table and/or doing the dishes at your dinner party, or should you spurn all offers and insist on doing it yourself?

Some of my fondest and earliest food-related memories are linked to my parents’ dinner parties. I did not attend them, but I was the one who witnessed the remains of them in the morning hours when everybody else was still asleep. In those days, the 1970s, dinner parties were boozy and tended to last into the wee hours, and by the time the guests had smoked their last cigarettes and were leaving, no one, neither hosts nor guests was inclined to clear the table and do the dishes. The result of this mild excess was a stealthy, very grown-up early breakfast for me: cold slices of lamb in congealed pan juices, burnt ends of potato gratin, and not least a greedy spoonful of boozy leftover Charlotte Diplomate, oozing away with its kirsch-soaked ladyfingers and crème anglaise. I wonder if kids still get to vicariously experience their parents’ hedonistic side as even people without children are calling weeknights a “school night,” and dinner parties rarely stretch into the magic hour past midnight?

Nowadays, when a dinner party begins to unwind, someone will inevitably say, Can I help you with the cleanup? It’s a gracious offer but should always be gently, but firmly, turned down, for three reasons: One, as the song goes, when the party’s over, it’s time to call it a day. Two, one should never put one’s guests to work, and cleaning up after a dinner party is work, especially if your kitchen, like mine, doesn’t have a dishwasher. Three, you’re probably ready for some quiet time, even if there are chores to be done before you can fall into bed.

On the other hand, it makes perfect sense to let guests help bring food to the table if you need a hand, as does letting them help clear away plates between courses only: It’s efficient, should not feel like a big deal, and helps get the next course to the table faster. But there should be absolutely no helping on the guests’ part (or, in fact, any clearing of dishes at all) once dessert, coffee, tea, chocolates, cookies, cognac, or whatever else you have chosen to serve at the end of the meal are on the table. After all, you are not in a restaurant, where clearing away dessert plates is a way to nudge you swiftly toward asking for the check. You may invite the party to move from the dining table back into the living room to linger a bit more comfortably, but it should preferably not move toward the kitchen—unless you’ve all come full circle, and everyone is ready to start all over again, picking at leftovers and rummaging for another bottle of wine.

There is, however, one possible exception to my rule: If you had all cooked the dinner together, say, at a weekend house, where everyone is sleeping under the same roof, then cleaning up together might be an option. But if it’s your house, you might still want to turn down offers to help. I certainly would, for one more reason: It’s my kitchen, and I can handle the cleanup better and faster on my own.

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What would be a good starting dish or dishes for an adult picky eater who wants to dip his or her toes into the world of vegetables?

You know that famous John Updike quote, “The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding”? That’s how I feel about people who profess not to like vegetables.

The word picky, I’m afraid, is misplaced here: Prissy is more like it. For there really is no reasonable excuse for not including a fair amount of vegetables and leafy greens in every meal, especially since they offer such a rich variety in terms of color, taste, and aroma, not to mention texture. Do not underestimate the sensual pleasure we can derive from seeing bright colors on our plate, like a vibrantly purple wedge of grilled radicchio laced with balsamic vinegar, or the thrill of biting down on something crunchy like a snappy string bean gleaming with olive oil. So, don’t be squeamish! Never mind dipping your toes into the matter: Jump right into the field and plow it with your hands. Come to think of it, the one single act that might turn you into an instant vegetable fan would be pulling a carrot right out of the soil, giving it a quick rinse under the garden hose, and sinking your teeth right into it. I promise you’d swoon at the burst of sunshine in your mouth, borne from dark soil, and come back for more.

Your aversion to vegetables may be related to one (or both) of the following: the naturally occurring bitter or sharp notes most commonly found in some dark leafy greens like arugula or watercress but also radishes and green bell peppers; or the denatured, slightly foul taste and smell of overcooked or canned vegetables. The latter is easy to prevent, the former merely a matter of acquired taste.

Proceed systematically: Acquaint yourself with fresh vegetables (ideally from a farmers market; never pre-cut or shrink-wrapped) of all kinds, especially some you’ve never had, and figure out through your own trial and error which preparation suits which vegetable best to slowly tame your challenged palate. And if you don’t like one of them right away, don’t give up: Some flavors take some getting used to before you learn to appreciate them. I remember the first time I had cilantro and not being able to decide whether I liked it or not, until my brain eventually took a U-turn, asking for seconds.

Start with raw vegetables: whole carrots, celery, fennel, bell peppers, tomatoes, radishes, kohlrabi, cucumbers, endive. Cut them into sticks as needed, and try them on their own first. A dip is fine, but crudité should not be an excuse for gorging on store-bought hummus, guacamole, blue cheese dressing, and the like.

Next, move on to those that benefit from blanching: sugar snaps, snow peas, garden peas, and string beans (snap or cut off the stems), broccoli and cauliflower (cut into florets), and certain hearty leafy greens (spinach, Swiss chard, collards). Drop them, one kind at a time, into rapidly boiling salted water and cook them for as little as one minute, perhaps a tad more, before immediately transferring them into ice water. That ought to take off the edge, bring out their sweetness, and brighten their color.

Boiling and steaming will point you toward beets, rutabaga, artichokes, celery root, cardoons, and turnips. Each of them requires a different cooking time, and you will have to pay attention to figure out when they’re done (tip: piercing them with a thin knife blade ought to tell you.) Roasting might become a favorite method as it practically turns vegetables like yams and butternut squash into caramel-like candy and does wonders to eggplant, sweet bell peppers, and sunchokes. Then there is stir-frying, grilling, and, yes, frying.

In a way, I almost envy you, for you are about to experience the kind of thrills one gets when visiting New York City for the first time and realizes that there truly is something for everyone here. There are no rules—only a variety of principles. And remember: Preferences and standards change. Thirty years ago, most restaurants served vegetables we would now deem overcooked. Today, charring them is all the rage. Don’t be afraid to burn your fingers, it’s all part of the learning curve of growing up.

Some of my co-workers are really great cooks and hosts. Sometimes I’ll ask them for advice, but then my skills aren’t up to it or I misunderstand, and my version of their recipe doesn’t work out. Should I be honest about that, or should I just say, “Oh, man, it was awesome!” when they ask how my version of their boeuf en croute recipe turned out?

For the sake of good faith, let’s assume that your colleagues were happy to share their recipes with you and did their best to write them out as comprehensively as possible. Such a generous attitude is, by the way, not necessarily the norm in the food industry, where some chefs and companies jealously guard their recipes—or willfully omit crucial details. One of the most famous examples is the highly secretive recipe for the legendary and highly profitably produced Viennese Sacher torte. The company that owns the nomination once came out with a cookbook in which it literally pronounced that it would not publicize the original recipe, offering instead a semblance of it for the home baker. Too bad someone else later stumbled on a vintage, handwritten note of the real recipe and made it public so that everyone could see that the company’s “semblance” was painstakingly, pettily geared toward yielding results that would disappoint in comparison with the original sold at the famous bakery.

But to get back to your foodie co-workers: Do you ever ask them to talk you through the recipe in addition to giving it to you written out? That ought to make a big difference and give you a first opportunity to ask questions. Now, assuming that you harbor the ambition to eventually nail the dish, what prevents you from asking them more questions after your initial failure? After all, you seem to trust them and hold their skills in high esteem, or you would not have asked them for a recipe in the first place. Through overcoming your insecurities and talking about your experience, you could create an engaging dialogue from which both of you can benefit or at least be entertained.

A final word: No recipe, no matter how Julia Child–ishly detailed, is ever more than a guideline, and the single most important ingredient that determines a dish’s success is always the person who cooks it. How? By paying close attention. Not so much to the recipe per se, but to what you are doing with it in real time.