Kick Up the Flavor on Vegetables

Tips and recipes for vegetable side dishes you'll love

Does this year mark yet another when your resolutions include improving health? If you’re like many Americans, losing weight, exercising, eating healthier, or even possibly something as specific as adding more vegetables to your diet may be on your list. But like many, you might find yourself bored with the same flavors over and over, and without some strategies to elevate the flavor of vegetables, it’s often easier to give up on those heartfelt resolutions before the year has barely begun.

Hang on! Vegetables certainly don’t need to be boring, and there are multitudes of ways to make them interesting and delicious without sacrificing their inherent health benefits. Check out these tips for vegetable side dishes with pizzazz.


Herbs are available in most every grocery store all year, and chopped fresh herbs add flavor and brightness to vegetables. Try mint with peas, tarragon with green beans, rosemary with root vegetables, thyme with mushrooms, parsley with carrots, and, my favorite, basil with corn. Simply blanch, steam or quickly sauté your vegetables until they are tender but still slightly crisp, then toss with herbs and either a little extra virgin olive oil or butter if desired. You’ll find you need less fat and salt for flavor when you use herbs to enhance the vegetables.


Both the zest and the juice of citrus fruits add punch to vegetables, and the acidity makes them mouth-watering good. Citrus zest is packed with essential oils that actually add as much or more flavor than the juice of the fruit, so invest in a quality fine zester (I like the Microplane™ citrus zester) and experiment with zest on a wide variety of vegetables. Lemon zest and garlic sautéed with broccoli make one great combo. When using the juice instead of the zest, add it right before serving or the acidity will turn the vibrant colors of the vegetables dull.



If you’re one of those people who rarely cooks with anything but seasoned salt, it’s time to break out the spices! Adding a sprinkling of spices lends an exotic flair to many vegetables. Cinnamon and cumin work beautifully on carrots or squash. If you like things spicy, a little cayenne pepper adds a kick. Fennel pairs nicely with potatoes and onions. Chili powder, cumin and coriander add Mexican flavors.


Aromatic vegetables like onion and garlic add layers of flavor to other vegetables. Start by sautéing chopped onions until slightly soft, then add the other vegetables to the onions. Only cook the garlic for a minute or two to prevent it from burning. When making a vegetable soup, always start with onions.


A few nuts go a long way to adding healthy flavor to a dish. Toast nuts first in a dry skillet until you can smell the aroma in order to bring out the nutty flavor. Pine nuts and raisins with spinach is a classic Spanish combination. Or simply add some toasted nuts to your salads to up the wow factor.


Does plain corn put you to sleep? Simple combinations of vegetables take your food from boring to bold. One of my favorites is combining corn, black beans, diced red onion and diced red pepper with a little lime juice and minced garlic for a great vegetable side dish or salsa that works well with fish or chicken. Asian stir frys are another great way to combine vegetables — try baby bok choy with onions and red peppers and top the vegetables with a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds.


I know what you’re thinking — isn’t this supposed to be about healthy vegetables? Well, for the carnivores among us, a small amount of bacon added to certain vegetables can’t be beat. I like pancetta — cured but unsmoked Italian bacon — best, but any bacon will do. The trick to keeping it healthy is to cook it slowly until all the fat has rendered out of it, then drain off the fat on paper towels. What you are left with is a crispy topping that’s packed with flavor — and remember that a little goes a long way! Try crispy pancetta crumbled on green beans and you may never eat them “naked” again!

Flavored Oils

A foolproof technique for cooking vegetables is to first steam or blanch them until they are nearly cooked, then quickly sauté them in a nonstick skillet with a small amount of oil. Using oils with flavors can dramatically enhance the vegetables. Some popular ones are sesame oil (which also adds spicy heat), roasted garlic oil and herb oils.


Oven-roasting or grilling vegetables introduces an earthy, charred flavor to your food. Many vegetables work really well, but some of my favorites are grilled zucchini and eggplant, roasted asparagus, grilled sweet onions, roasted or grilled red peppers, roasted root vegetables, and roasted cherry tomatoes. Looking for a quick one-dish meal? Chop up an assortment of grilled or roasted vegetables and toss with cooked pasta and a little Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. You can always add diced chicken or sausage to this dish, but you’ll find it’s plenty satisfying on its own.

Try these recipes that bring out sparkling flavor in veggies!

Stir Fried Sugar Snap Peas

Serves 6

This recipe uses a combination of techniques — flavored oil, aromatics and nuts — to produce a zesty vegetable dish.

 3/4 pound sugar snap peas, stems removed

1 tablespoon butter

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1 teaspoon minced ginger

1 clove garlic, minced

1/4 cup cashews, roughly chopped and toasted

 Bring a large pot of water to boil. boilpeas until barely cooked, about 3 minutes. Drain. While peas are cooking, heat oil and butter over medium high heat in a large skillet. Add ginger and garlic and cook for 1 minute, stirring frequently so it doesn't burn. Add peas to skillet and cook for 2 minutes more or until peas are tender crisp, stirring frequently. Pour peas into a serving dish and top with cashews. Serve immediately.

 Per Serving: 79 Calories; 5g Fat; 2g Protein; 6g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 5mg Cholesterol; 24mg Sodium


Oven-Roasted Asparagus with Balsamic Glaze

Serves 4

Oven-Roasted Asparagus

Roasting brings out a wonderful flavor in asparagus and the balsamic glaze is packed with flavor but virtually no calories. It’s also wonderful on fish, chicken, pork, strawberries and vanilla ice cream.

1 cup balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 1/2 pounds asparagus

1 tablespoon olive oil

salt to taste

Combine vinegar, brown sugar and soy sauce in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer until thick and syrupy, about 20 minutes.

While glaze is cooking, snap off tough ends from asparagus, then toss with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Spread in a single layer on a foil-lined baking sheet and roast at 400 degrees F until asparagus is cooked to your liking, about 5-10 minutes. Alternatively, grill over medium high flame until grill marks appear, about 2 minutes per side. To serve, drizzle a small amount of balsamic glaze over the spears and pass extra glaze at the table.

 Per Serving: 79 Calories; 4g Fat; 2g Protein; 13g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 0mg Cholesterol; 261mg Sodium

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jenboda's picture
User offline. Last seen 7 years 13 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 12/03/2008

Thanks for the great suggestions. I think that so many people are at a loss as to how to make vegetables the main focus of a meal and yet they are so versatile and tasty if used well. Roasting root veggies with whole cloves of garlic is one of my favorite winter meals served over quinoa. Warming and nutritious.

Stephanie422's picture
User offline. Last seen 7 years 27 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 01/13/2009

This is a great article. It's hard for me to enjoy the sulfiric veggies such as broccoli and cauliflower, so I like to mask the taste with tomato sauce or coconut milk...

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