The most common — and frankly, best — ways of heating food are all undeniably primitive: An oven is nothing more than a metal box with a fire underneath it; a range is just a slightly controlled open flame; and, given the slightest opportunity, we would all happily ditch even those minor refinements for actual raw fire, in the form of a grill. Most of us don’t have thermal immersion circulators — I mean, I do, but I’m insufferable — but almost every kitchen in America has one amazing piece of technology that serious cooks largely scorn: the microwave.
Microwaves work by spitting out a particular kind of electromagnetic radiation that causes some types of molecules, like water and some fats, to go nuts, rotating and bouncing around and shit, which generates heat. This is a bonkers high-tech thing to have in your house! And yet there are very few ways to use the microwave that will provide food with the textures we’ve come to most enjoy in our food, like crispy, roasty, toasty, and fried.
This is because microwaves are too good at what they do: They’re too efficient and they heat the food too evenly. In an oven, hot air has to work its way from the outside of, say, a head of cauliflower, to the inside. That takes time, and while the inside of the cauliflower is brought up to a temperature that would render it tender, the outside continues to heating up; the water inside the outer bits of the cauliflower has more time to evaporate, so the exterior desiccates, or dries out, leaving it crispy. With the aid of some oil, which will mess with the specific chemical reactions that are going on with the cauliflower’s sugars and fibers and amino acids, you’ll get what’s called the Maillard reaction, which is sort of a more complete term for what’s usually called “browning.”
Microwaves don’t do that. They aren’t heating the air, for one thing; the air in a microwave never even changes temperatures, no matter how long it’s on. (And you can’t actually control how much radiation it produces; putting the microwave on fifty percent just means it’ll cycle on and off at full power.) What this means for our cauliflower is that the entire head is cooked throughout all at once, so the exterior never browns. And we love browning! It’s a textural variation, but it also changes the flavors, burns sugars and softens fibers and makes the food taste good. (Another problem with microwaves, while I’m at it is that they are inscrutable creatures; each one is totally different. It’s not like I’m inclined to give any specifics in recipes, but microwaves make it impossible, because they simply vary too much to even try. In some microwaves, a minute will send water boiling, while in others, you need three.)
But there are a few uses for the microwave that make use of its strengths: It cooks incredibly quickly and easily, and it has a strong affinity for heating water. In fact, what it’s best at is steaming, or cooking items that you want to be mushy. Weirdly, it is also good for making vegetable chips. That’s because, if your vegetable item is sliced thin enough, the ambient heat in the chip will cause whatever water is left over in your chip to evaporate, leaving it dehydrated. It won’t be as tasty as a deep-fried chip, but it will be crispy. Here are the ways in which you now have permission to use the microwave (besides leftovers, which, go nuts).
Microwaved but Somehow Crispy Vegetable Chips
Shopping list: Vegetables to be chipped (potatoes, sweet potatoes, Swiss chard, cavolo nero or red Russian kale, beets), olive oil, paper towels, spices
For root vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, or beets, use a mandoline to slice very, very thinly into rounds. (Remove the peel for beets; under no circumstances should you ever remove the peel for potato or sweet potato.) Place slices in a single layer between two paper towels and press as dry as you can (don’t go nuts, everything will still work if they’re not perfectly dry). Toss in olive oil, not enough to cause a drip, just enough to coat. A spray bottle will do fine here, too. Place on another paper towel on a microwave-safe plate and microwave for about three minutes, then flip them and microwave for about three more. They’re done when lightly browned in the middle, though they might still feel soft as soon as the microwave dings. Let ’em sit for another minute or two to allow the ambient heat to evaporate the remaining water, and they’ll crisp up. Salt and add spices, maybe even more oil if you want. Curry powder is good on sweet potatoes. Ginger is nice on beets.
For dark greens like kale and chard: Remove the stem (retaining the chard stem, chard being a superior green to kale and having a delectable stem that’s excellent for pickling or adding crunch to salads or stir-fry dishes) and tear into chip-sized pieces. Spray or toss with oil and microwave in the same way you did the root vegetables.
(A note on types of kale: You should stay away curly kale, the most common kind. I’ve never had this happen, but apparently their weird shape can cause what’s known as arcing, which will send sparks flying in your microwave and possibly damage it. Use the flat kinds instead. Don’t bother patting them dry.)
Steamed Broccoli with Nuts and Lemon
Shopping list: Broccoli, walnuts or pine nuts, butter, neutral oil like canola, lemon
Remove broccoli florets from the stem of a large head of broccoli. Do not discard the stem. What is wrong with you? The stem is the best part of the broccoli. Slice the stem lengthwise and then slice it thinly widthwise. Separate the florets into small pieces. Put all of this in a bowl with a pat of butter and a few tablespoons of water, and cover. Glass tupperware, like Pyrex, is good for this. Please don’t microwave plastic. Microwaved plastic is going to kill all of us one day. Anyway, microwave this for about two and a half minutes; it’ll be done when it appears brighter green and is tender but still has a bite to it. Broccoli should never be soft, merely softened.
From the excellent J. Kenji López-Alt: Toss nuts lightly in neutral oil and spread evenly on a microwave safe plate. Microwave for about a minute at a time until browned evenly. Combine nuts with broccoli, add another pat of butter on top, squeeze a bunch of lemon over, and season with salt and pepper. This whole thing takes like five minutes and tastes super fresh and great.
Microwaved Eggplant Recipe Shamelessly Stolen from Mark Bittman
Shopping list: Eggplant, za’atar spice mix, olive oil
I prefer eggplant roasted; it takes longer, and is oily and unhealthy, but on the plus side, it’s oily and unhealthy. Still, I can respect Bittman’s eggplant recipe, which is more like steamed eggplant; it achieves the same buttery texture without a gallon of oil. His recipe calls for a blend of south Indian spices like asafoetida and tamarind, but I actually prefer Middle Eastern spices for eggplant. Za’atar is the name of an oregano-like herb but it’s also the name of a spice blend made with that herb, along with sumac (which tastes like lemon juice), thyme, and sesame seeds.
Slice the eggplant into inch-thick rounds. Make little gashes in the slices, not going all the way through. Mix the za’atar with some olive oil to form a messy paste-like substance and press this paste all over the top of the eggplant slices and into the gashes. Cover loosely and microwave for about six minutes, then uncover and go for another three. Let it sit for a minute or two in the microwave; when done, you should be able to stick a knife through it with basically no resistance.
If I had to give up any kitchen appliance I own, I’d probably opt for the microwave, even over the molcajete I bought a year ago and have maybe used twice. It seems to encourage bad cooking, lazy cooking, cooking that relies on pre-packaged or frozen foods. But once you start experimenting with it, you find that it’s weirdly good at a few things. I would venture to say it is better at steaming than any bamboo or mesh steamer; more precise, more thorough, and certainly both faster and easier. And it’s easy to feel virtuous about eating chips when they’re made of beets or chard, and when you made them yourself.
Do not fear the microwave. I mean, don’t use it that much. But sometimes, you can use it.
Crop Chef is a column about the correct ways to prepare and consume plant matter.
Photo by Kim Love