Prepping vegetables for cooking consists of two parts: cleaning (peeling, stringing, deseeding, etcetera) and cutting (dicing, chopping, slicing, and so on).
Every vegetable requires a different preparation depending on its nature AND the dish in which it is meant to go. This lesson does not intend to cover every known vegetable in the world — that would require writing the equivalent of an encyclopedia — but, rather, to introduce some basic concepts and preparation techniques.
What are vegetables?
I always thought that the answer to that question was self-explanatory until I came across reader comments that made it apparent to me that a lot of people equate vegetables with edible green leaves. That might be a result of bad textbooks that proliferated for decades that tried to instill the habit of eating “green leafy vegetables”.
To be more accurate, “vegetables” are parts of plants consumed as food. These plants include those that grow on land and those that grow on water.
Vegetables that grow on land
Among plants the grow on land, the “vegetable” can refer to leaves, fruits, flower or pods. For example, the tomato is a fruit yet we call it a vegetable because we cook it as a vegetable, just as we label squash blossom / flower a vegetable.
Plants that grow on land that yield vegetables include:
1) root crops (potato, sweet potato, beets, radish, onion, garlic and ginger are just some examples);
2) vines that either climb upward (beans and peas, for instance) or creep on the ground (squash is the most popular example);
4) trees (like malunggay).
Vegetables that grow in the water
If you’re wondering what vegetables grow in water, think of edible seaweeds harvested from the sea and kangkong (water / swamp spinach one variety of which is called morning glory in Vietnam) which grows in swamps.
The most common first step in preparing vegetables for cooking is to clean them, often by rinsing. Rinsing is especially important if you intend to eat the vegetable raw.
What does rinsing do to vegetables?
It removes dirt which may include soil.
Rinsing also removes traces of insecticide with which inorganic vegetables are often sprayed with to get rid of pests.
Cutting off and discarding inedible portions
There’s this common saying that if you want to know how healthy a family eats, look at the trash. The more vegetable trimmings you find, the more likely that the family eats healthy food.
I’ve always found that saying amusing. It’s true to a point. If you find discarded plant skins and roots in a family’s trash, it’s safe to assume they eat fresh vegetables. On the other hand, finding nothing but packaging in the trash likely means the family eats mostly takeout, frozen or canned food, or reheated TV dinners.
However, finding vegetable trimmings in the trash — the inedible portions — can also mean that the family is discarding the more nutritious parts of the vegetables that they use in cooking.
What exactly are “inedible portions”? Okay, this gets a little controversial.
Inedible can mean any part of the vegetable that is too tough, unappetizing or simply inedible as a matter of belief or practice.
“Too tough” is easy enough to illustrate. You have to remove the fibrous string from bean and pea pods, for example, because they are too tough to chew.
“Unappetizing” is closely related with practice. Potato and carrot skins, for instance, are often considered unappetizing so they are peeled off and discarded before the vegetables go into the pot. Cilantro roots are often snipped off and thrown away.
The truth is, potato and carrot skins contain more vitamins and minerals than the parts we eat. And cilantro roots are so aromatic and flavorful that they included in the flavor base of many Southeast Asian dishes.
What part of the vegetable we discard, in other words, can be a subjective decision based on the culinary traditions that we grew up with. I cannot dictate to you what you should or should not remove and discard, and I’ll leave it at that.
If you search the web for vegetable cutting techniques, you will likely feel stupid especially when you realize that there is a French term that corresponds to every cut size. That doesn’t mean you are stupid. It simply means there is too much superfluous crap going around.
I say the terms are secondary. Unless you cook in a fine dining restaurant where exactness is a measure of your skills and the basis of the future of your career (if you are, what the heck are you doing here reading this?), there are only three terms for hacking vegetables into pieces that you need to be familiar with in order to cook a wide array of dishes: 1) slicing; 2) chopping and 3) cutting (larger than chopped pieces). All of these you can do with a good kitchen knife. Let’s leave out cutting techniques that require special tools like a box grater or a spiral cutter.
Any vegetable can be sliced, chopped or cut into larger pieces. How a vegetable needs to be cut depends on how it is meant to be used. Always remember that. Again, how a vegetable needs to be cut depends on how it is meant to be used.
When you slice a vegetable, the slices can be thin or thick. A slice can be cut further into sticks as when you cut potatoes to make French fries.
Chopping means cutting a vegetable into small irregular pieces.
Cutting into pieces larger than a rough chop includes dicing, cutting into wedges or into cubes.
The next lesson
So, when you’ve cleaned and cut your vegetables, you’re ready to cook them. Next weekend, we’ll go into some very basic cooking techniques that, once mastered, will allow you to cook so many dishes that you probably thought were too difficult to pull off. Until next weekend!