Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The World's Most Interesting Vegetable

I wrote about what I think the world’s most boring vegetable is, and one of my friends asked me, then what's the most interesting vegetable? I replied that that would depend on your definition of “interesting” and that I’d give it some thought. So I did.

The first point to address is, what’s the definition of interesting that we’re using. For the most boring vegetable, it was the one with the greatest limitation in terms of preparation. I think it’s fair to say that for the most interesting vegetable, it ought to just be the reverse: the vegetable with the greatest number of possible preparations. Personally, I think that’s a no-brainer, and the potato wins. Breakfast, lunch, dinner; baked, fried, mashed, boiled, steamed; salad, soup, side dish, main dish…they’re a dream come true.

But what if you want to eliminate potatoes from the running and ask what non-potato vegetable (since potatoes are sort of considered a starch these days) is the most interesting? I still feel that the criteria should be the most versatile vegetable, the one that can be served at any time of the day, and can be prepared many ways.

I could be a smart ass and say that the most versatile vegetable in the world is the sugar beet. Since the sugar beet accounts for about 30% of the sugar produced in the world, and sugar is an endlessly useful product, the sugar beet could be considered the most useful vegetable in the world. However, it’s not like the sugar beet in its raw state could be eaten in any variety of ways. Pretty much the sugar beet can be used to make sugar, and that’s it. So I’ll eliminate the sugar beet and consider only vegetables that can themselves be prepared and eaten in a variety of ways.

In thinking of various vegetables, four sprang to mind as the most useful, but they could be divided into two categories—those that can stand alone, and those that tend to be more in a supporting role. So let me review my list.

Tomatoes were the first very useful vegetable I thought of. They can be eaten raw or cooked, and are used in countless dishes like pizza and pasta sauce. They can be served for breakfast, as the British do, or they can be served at any other meal or snack. They can be made into a drink, as in tomato juice or V-8. They can be their own thing, like stuffed tomatoes or roasted tomatoes, or they can be part of another thing, like tomato and onion tart, or tomato and mozzarella salad. They can be a garnish, like tomatoes on a salad or the tomato on a sandwich, or they can be a condiment, like ketchup or chili sauce. The tomato is the overall winner for most useful vegetable ever.

Squash, interestingly, also came to mind as a very versatile vegetable. When I say squash, I’m really speaking of winter squashes, not zucchini and summer squash. If you add those two into the mix, then it’s really a tough call between squash and tomatoes. I think tomatoes would still win, because squash (even summer squash) can’t really be eaten raw. However, unlike tomatoes, squash can be made into desserts, such as pumpkin pie or pudding. It can also be roasted, stir fried, baked, or used in muffin batter.

I started thinking about mushrooms, and how many ways there are to use them. They’re fine raw in salads (not my favorite, but I’m trying to keep personal bias out of this decision), cooked in stir fries or casseroles, used in sauces, stuffed as an appetizer, or used as a substitute for meat (such as a portobello burger). The mushroom is flexible and can go many places, either on its own or as a supporting player. It’s still not quite the superstar that tomatoes or squash are, because it doesn’t get check marks in either the dessert or condiment column, unless you count mushroom flavored condiments, such as soy sauce (which, for the purposes of this exercise, I did not).

Onions are probably the most ubiquitous vegetable going. I can’t think of a cuisine that doesn’t use onions in some way or other. Mostly they’re lending a hand on flavor, rather than carrying the show, but in baked stuffed onions, or something like a caramelized onion tart, they do an outstanding job. As Nora Ephron said in her book Heartburn, “You really can’t cook without onions.”

So there you are, a sort of four way tie. Tomatoes and squash take the prize for Most Useful Vegetable, and mushrooms and onions walk away with Most Useful Vegetable in a Supporting Role. If we’re mixing our award show metaphors and giving a Best in Show prize, I’d have to say it’s the tomato that will wake up tomorrow wondering if it was all a dream until it sees the headlines in the newspaper.

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