Tricks, recipes to help you enjoy eating vegetables. Yes, even kale and broccoli

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

Most people who claim to hate vegetables most likely grew up eating them cooked in unimaginative ways. If you first experienced Brussels sprouts boiled half to death instead of crisp-fried and studded with glistening pieces of pork fat, you're not likely to get terribly excited about eating them.

And if you're eating kale out at restaurants these days, you have about a 50% chance of hating it, too, because kale salads are awful about half of the time. 

Kale is a perfect example of a vegetable that's not very forgiving if it's poorly prepared. I'm part of the last generation to know the leafy greens chiefly as part of the buffet decor at Ryan's Family Steakhouse. I did not grow up with an inherent fondness for a vegetable now widely found in smoothies and even ice cream

Don't forget the fat, acidity

Few vegetables won't benefit from a hit of acidity. Even potatoes love plain Greek yogurt or sour cream. Pickled jalapenos are better than fresh, at least in my house. Most green vegetables are begging for a squeeze of citrus. For that reason, my refrigerator is almost always stocked with lemons.

Kale especially excels with the addition of acidity, flavor and fat. If you're eating or serving it raw, give it a good rub down with some kosher salt first to break down the leaves, and then rinse the salt away and pat dry. Restaurants: For the love of your customers, please do not skip this step and then dump Caesar dressing all over a bunch of torn greens and call it good. But a properly broken down kale salad with lots of creamy Caesar and good parmesan is delicious. 

More:Caramelized Brussels Sprouts with Apples, Bacon and Pecans

Broccoli is another vegetable that loves fat and acidity. It also loves a good roast. Next time you end up with a head of broccoli, try cutting it into bite-sized pieces and tossing it with some chopped garlic, salt, pepper and olive oil, and then roasting that on a sheet pan at 425 degrees. When it's nice and crisp, take it out of the oven and toss it with some grated parmesan and a squeeze of lemon. It's delicious.

Green beans are a bore without fat and acid. Try blanching them first and then sautéing them in good olive oil with tomatoes and garlic. Add some lemon juice and fresh dill at the end. Or, try the lemony-buttery-nutty green bean recipe I've provided below. 

Don't forget the seasoning

Simply salted vegetables are boring, though they sometimes have a time and place. Play around with strong flavors and fresh herbs to make your vegetables sing.

I get tired of plain cauliflower, yet it's delicious when it's roasted at high heat with some harissa paste. Carrots are amazing when roasted with some butter, a little honey and a good curry blend with lots of warming spices. I like Spicewalla's Chai Masala for carrots and other orange-fleshed vegetables.

More:This smoked bean dip with pickled jalapeños is rich and spicy

More:Rethinking Southern vegetables: Husk Nashville chef Ben Norton on how to make produce sing

To get started playing with flavor, try Kevin Belton's method for Creole-spiced okra, adapted from his 2021 cookbook "Cookin' Louisiana." We shared the recipe, which Belton pairs with catfish, on Southern Kitchen last year. You can find even more great Southern recipes with a twist at www.southernkitchen.com.

Creole-spiced okra

The recipes in "Kevin Belton's Cookin' Louisiana" include Louisiana catfish with okra and corn. (Courtesy of Gibbs Smith)

This recipe is adapted from "Cookin' Louisiana" (Gibbs Smith).

Serves: 4

Ingredients

2 cups sliced okra

1 3⁄4 cups corn kernels, fresh or frozen 

1 onion, diced

1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt 

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon Creole seasoning

Instructions

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. 

Combine okra, corn, onion, salt, 1 tablespoon oil and 1 tablespoon Creole seasoning in a large bowl. Spread the mixture out on a large rimmed baking sheet. Roast, stirring twice, until the vegetables are tender and beginning to brown, 20–25 minutes. 

Really good spicy kale

This kale gets sauteed with tomatoes and chipotles and finished with a squeeze of lemon.

Kale can be boring. This version is not. It's smoky, spicy, acidic and satisfying. While many people just saute kale in oil and hope for the best, a little liquid helps render it soft and supple.

Note that the cooking time is flexible here. I like to cook my kale until it's wilted but still retains a bit of crispness. You may continue to simmer it until it's super soft, but you might need to add more liquid if the pan dries out.

Makes 2 large portions

Ingredients

1 large bunch of any kind of kale, washed, dried, destemmed and chopped

1 tablespoon good olive oil

1-2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1 small tomato, chopped

1 chipotle pepper in adobo sauce, minced

1/4 cup chicken or vegetable stock

Salt and pepper to taste

Squeeze of lemon or lime

Instructions

Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until it just begins to shimmer, add the garlic and tomatoes, and stir until they become fragrant. Do not brown the garlic.

Add the kale and chipotle and stir. When kale begins to wilt, add the stock and turn the heat to medium-low. Add salt and pepper to taste. Remember to taste and adjust as you go.

Continue to cook, stirring, until the kale is the texture you want. This should take 5-10 minutes. Remove from heat, add a squeeze of lemon or lime, taste and adjust seasoning. This is excellent served with chicken. 

Almond brown butter green beans

Green beans pair beautifully with nutty almond brown butter.

The freshness of green beans works beautifully with earthy, nutty almond brown butter. 

Take the time to properly follow all the steps for blanching green beans, and avoid overcrowding the pot to ensure the beans maintain their vibrant green color. Perfectly cooked green beans will have a good bite, but no discernible crunch.

Serves: 4 to 6

Ingredients

Kosher salt

1 pound green beans, trimmed

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 clove garlic, peeled and smashed

3/4 cup sliced almonds

Zest and juice of 1 lemon

Instructions

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. When the water reaches a boil, add 1/2 cup of the salt and return to a boil. Fill a large bowl with ice water.

Working in batches, add the green beans to boiling water, making sure the water remains at a boil the entire time. If the water stops boiling, you’ve added too many beans. Cook until beans are just tender and no longer crunchy, 3 to 4 minutes.

Transfer to the ice bath to stop the cooking process. Repeat with the remaining green beans. Transfer the blanched beans to a colander to remove any excess water.

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. When the butter is foamy, add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Remove the garlic clove. Add the almonds and cook, stirring occasionally, until the almonds are lightly toasted on both sides and the butter has turned golden brown, about 5 minutes. Stir in the green beans and continue to cook, stirring, until the beans are heated through.

Add the lemon juice and zest, season to taste with salt, and serve hot.

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com