Top chefs share their best advice for making vegetables taste incredible

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

Even for avowed produce lovers, getting your recommended daily intake of fresh vegetables can be a chore. The task is even harder for home cooks without experience in working with fresh vegetables. But even though Southern food has a reputation for being all about the meat, people who live below the Mason-Dixon line have long built meals around what comes out of their gardens.

Here, we've rounded up some of the best tips we've learned from Southern chefs over the years, creating a guide to some of our favorite go-to vegetable advice and recipes.

Grilled Mexican Street Corn

Don't be afraid of fat

Some ingredients, like summer tomatoes, don't require much to make them sing. But if your vegetables need some oomph, try adding fat, whether it's cheese, butter or a dollop of sauce on the side.

"That's an easy tactic," Husk Nashville executive chef Ben Norton told Southern Kitchen. "Whether it's mayonnaise made with something cool or cooking something in butter, sometimes making something taste good means pairing it with something great to help it shine."

Try these recipes: 

Be aggressive

While there's a time and place for simple seasonings, some of the most memorable vegetables I've ever eaten popped with nearly aggressive flavor. Stock your larder with fresh spices and bright condiments to wake up simple vegetable sides in a hurry.

Vivian Howard is the queen of simple shortcuts, and she's not afraid to advise you to buy grocery store condiments.

Chef Vivian Howard recommends creating flavorful meal building blocks, which she calls flavor heroes, to make cooking weekday meals easier.

Some chefs will tell you to make your own everything, but Howard is not most chefs. She's busy and has twins. So just buy the jarred tapenade if you want, OK?

"Think about condiments in the grocery store as a quick way to build flavor," she said. Chili crisp, olive tapenade or store-bought pesto can transform leftovers into something more enjoyable.

For basic pantry staples, Howard likes the following:

  • ACID: Rice wine vinegar is perfect for its unobtrusive flavor. White wine vinegar can work in nearly any recipe that calls for a type of vinegar you don't have. Red wine vinegar is another essential.
  • OIL: Choose a neutral olive one for cooking and a more floral olive oil for salad dressings and call it good.
  • SALT: Kosher salt works well for general purposes and that fancy flaky Maldon is perfect for sprinkling on finished food.
  • SPICE: Howard has a few favorites, particularly cumin and coriander seed, which pair well together. Whole spices have a longer shelf life. Toast them to bring out the flavor and then grind.
  • HEAT: Having something on hand for heat is key. "I always have red chili flakes and black peppercorns," Howard said. "It's also important to have a hot sauce you love."

Chef Howard also likes to preserve citrus to make a distinctive condiment with an exceptional shelf life and deep flavor. Get the recipe here, then use it to make these amazing coconutty collards.

You also don't have to rely solely on spices for flavor; you can also use fire.

"The deep caramelization that a hot fire can give your food is, for me, the payoff for doing all the work to prepare the grill in the first place," writes Nashville pitmaster Pat Martin in his cookbook "Life of Fire," which covers everything from whole-hog barbecue to charred carrots with sorghum and buttermilk. Get the recipe here.

Oven-fry for healthier crispness

While healthy fats are fine, deep-fried everything, every day, is not.

Even so, eating the food you crave can be good for your soul. Keeping that in mind, Eric Jones and Shanna Jones, authors of the blog "Dude That Cookz," specialize in healthier takes on Southern food with plenty of homestyle comfort.

A healthier take on fried okra.

Though the theme of Dude That Cookz is healthier fare, none of it comes across as austere. Recipes cut down on butter, but don't omit it altogether. Salt is still present, but some of it gets replaced with flavorful herbs and seasonings. 

"So you still have a little bit of the flavor, but it doesn't take over the dish," Eric Jones said. 

Eric and Shanna Jones of Dude That Cookz and the recently released "Healthier Southern Cooking" cookbook.

In the same vein, you can mimic perfectly crispy fried okra by baking it in the oven. You can even completely eliminate the oil. The trick is using panko bread crumbs for a lighter, crispier crust. Get the method right here.

Looking for more vegetable recipes? Try these:

Potato salad that pops:Classically trained chef shares the secret to making the best potato salad ever

Pit-roasted vegetables:A Cherokee chef turned to tradition for this stuffed squash recipe

Grill your veggies:How to grill lettuce and 5 other weird things you didn't know you could cook over fire