Food: Zap your veggies

My favorite vegetable choices for microwaving are satisfying, dense-fleshed ones.

MICORWAVE 88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Everyone knows the microwave oven is a convenient tool for reheating leftovers and thawing frozen foods. In my kitchen these are its most frequent uses, but there are also a few cooking techniques I find it does well. It's quite good for cooking fish, melting chocolate and softening hard ice cream. Obviously, the microwave is most practical for cooking a small number of portions because the larger the quantity of food you microwave, the longer it takes. It's common knowledge that microwaving is a time saver for preparing potatoes. According to Victoria Wise and Susanna Hoffman, authors of The Well-Filled Microwave, "The microwave should win a laurel wreath for its treatment of vegetables. They come out flashcooked, in sparkling color, ideally done." My favorite vegetable choices for microwaving are satisfying, dense-fleshed ones like sweet potatoes, carrots and winter squash. Corn (technically a grain but eaten as a vegetable) is also fantastic in the microwave. Indeed, microwaving one or two ears of corn is so easy that it's surprising that people cook it the conventional way in a pot of boiling water, unless, of course, they have a lot of corn to prepare. We eat corn on the cob plain, with herbed butter as in the recipe below or with hot pepper olive oil. When I want a shortcut for sautéing onions with less mess and much less oil, I use the microwave. The onion slices don't usually brown, but they acquire a pleasing sweetness and desirable richness. Wise and Hoffman microwave their onions uncovered and can get them to brown after quite a long time but, to avoid splatters, I cover them and forgo the brown color. They also "microwave-sauté" eggplant cubes in oil in an uncovered dish. To my browned onions I might add diced eggplant, summer squash, sweet peppers and/or tomatoes to make vegetable medleys or quick stews (but not soups, because the liquid takes too long to heat). I prefer Pyrex-type dishes and not plastic, which can be finicky in the microwave - if there are tomato products or oil in the food, the dish gets discolored, and sometimes the lid gets warped. Wise and Hoffman recommend microwaving whole eggplants, then splitting them and adding a little olive oil or butter, and serving as is. An Indian woman I met at a market also advocated this method for preparing eggplant bharta, or spicy eggplant puree. I microwave-cook whole eggplants only when I am in a big hurry, as they taste so much better when grilled or baked, although for bharta I find microwaving acceptable because the spices used make up for the eggplant's loss of flavor. As in baking, it's important to prick the whole eggplant with a fork before you microwave it so it won't explode. I don't use the microwave much for delicate fresh green vegetables - those that you want to cook precisely so they come out perfectly crisp-tender, like asparagus, green beans, broccoli and cauliflower (which isn't green but is cooked like a green vegetable). I prefer them the traditional French way, cooked uncovered in a pot of boiling salted water. Frozen vegetables come out fine in the microwave, however, as they have already been precooked. Although the microwave was once touted as a great way to cook artichokes, I prefer them cooked in boiling water too. The exception to my green vegetable rule is cabbage, which I microwave with little or no water. Often it comes out even better than when cooked by other methods. The cabbage stays crisp-tender and doesn't seem to acquire that odor that some find objectionable. The same is true of red cabbage, with I like to combine with "microwave-sautéed" onions and apples or raisins, and finish with raspberry vinegar. In the summertime I use my microwave most often because it doesn't heat up the kitchen. There's also much less cleanup than with conventional cooking techniques, since I use the same microwave-safe dish to cook, store and serve the food. I choose a dish or bowl that can go into the freezer too, in case we need the cooked food for another day, when I can simply pop it in the microwave. MICROWAVED CORN ON THE COB WITH CHIVE BUTTER When it comes to ease of preparation, few summertime treats can compete with these enticing golden grains. Once the corn is microwaved, the silks come off easily. If you prefer, substitute olive oil for the butter. 2 or 3 Tbsp. butter, softened 1 or 2 tsp. chopped chives squeeze of fresh lemon juice Pinch of cayenne pepper Salt 2 fresh ears of corn, in their husks Beat butter in a small bowl until smooth. Stir in chives, lemon juice, cayenne pepper and salt to taste. Bring to room temperature before using. Wash the corn, still in its husks; if the corn comes already shucked, wrap the ears in microwave plastic wrap. Put 1 or 2 ears in center of oven. Microwave on high; 1 ear takes about 2 or 3 minutes, 2 ears about 5 minutes. Check to see if it's cooked enough for your taste. If you cooked corn in husks, remove husks and silk after cooking. Serve corn hot with seasoned butter. Makes 2 servings. MICROWAVE-BRAISED CABBAGE WITH GREEN PEPPER I don't bother to measure the cabbage. I simply add enough to fill up the dish I have chosen to microwave the vegetables. You can also prepare it without the tomato, or with a red or yellow pepper substituted for the green pepper. We like this dish sprinkled with tiny bits of sharp cheese and microwaved until the cheese melts. This is a lazy-day version of the Romanian braised cabbage below. That recipe is convenient when you are preparing a whole cabbage. 1 large onion, halved or quartered and sliced 2 to 3 tsp. extra virgin olive oil or vegetable oil 1 small green pepper, cut in strips salt and freshly ground pepper about 4 cups cabbage, cut in strips the size of medium or wide noodles 2 plum tomatoes or other small tender, fresh or canned, diced Put the onion slices in an 8-cup microwave-safe container or baking dish. Add the oil. Cover and microwave on high for 5 minutes. Stir in green pepper strips. Cover and microwave for 2 minutes. Add cabbage and mix to combine it with onions and peppers. Add salt and pepper. Cover and microwave for 5 minutes. Stir, add tomatoes, cover and microwave for 2 minutes or until none of the cabbage pieces have the color of raw cabbage. Stir, taste and, if you'd like the cabbage more tender, microwave for 2 minutes and check again. Taste and adjust seasoning. Makes 2 or 3 servings. ROMANIAN STOVE-TOP BRAISED CABBAGE WITH TOMATOES AND PEPPERS Boiling the cabbage before braising it helps it to cook more quickly and gives it a more delicate taste. 1 medium head of green cabbage (about 900 gr.), cored, rinsed and shredded salt and freshly ground pepper 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil 1 large onion, chopped 1 green bell pepper, cut in thin strips 2 Tbsp. tomato paste (optional) 1⁄2 cup water 2 medium tomatoes, sliced or diced In a stew pan, boil enough water to cover cabbage. Add a pinch of salt and the cabbage and boil it for 3 minutes, or until just tender. Drain in a colander, rinse under running cold water, and drain thoroughly. Gently squeeze cabbage by handfuls to remove excess water. Heat oil in the same pan, add onion and peppers and sauté about 5 minutes over medium heat. Add cabbage and sauté lightly for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Mix tomato paste with 1⁄4 cup water and add to the pan. Add remaining water and sliced tomatoes. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring often, for 15 minutes or until cabbage and peppers are tender. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot. Makes 4 or 5 servings. Faye Levy is the author of Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home and of Faye Levy's International Vegetable Cookbook.