Make Veggies The Stars Of Meals

When planning meals, cooks often overlook vegetables.

But, points out Early Show contributor Katie Lee Joel, they don't have to always be side-dishes: They can be main events! Not only that: Veggies are, of course, good for you, they can taste great -- and they can save you money compared to making meat the main course.

Joel, who wrote "The Comfort Table," says almost any veggie can be made into a meal's centerpiece. "It's about being creative," she observes. "If you throw in something like beans, that will automatically add protein. Having a vegetable-based meal gives you lots of vitamins and, in the summertime, you have a bounty of vegetables to choose from."

Farmers' markets appeal to Joel, who notes that lots of the offerings there are less expensive than elsewhere, because the veggies "usually haven't traveled as far to get to you. So, you're saving on the cost of gas (to ship them). Shopping ... local ... is keeping it in the community, and you get to support" area farmers.

When shopping for veggies, Joel suggests not only buying local when you can, but organic. Farmers' market organic vegetables may not always be certified organic, but they're fresh.

If you don't have access to fresh veggies, Joel says, frozen is fine -- vegetables are usually frozen right after they're harvested.

Once you buy vegetables, what are the best ways to keep them fresh until you cook them? "You should keep fresh herbs in a damp paper towel," Joel says, "roll them up, and store them in a plastic baggy. Tomatoes should not be stored in the refrigerator out of the sun. I typically use corn the day I buy it; the longer it sits it loses its sweetness".

RECIPES

GREEN BEANS

Joel created two dishes with green beans, a salad and a green bean casserole.

The salad is an Asian Green Bean Salad. Use a little vinaigrette; oranges gives it some sweetness; nuts are in there for crunch.

The main course is the green been casserole. The recipe is interchangeable, so you can substitute other vegetables or add whatever you want. It's my take on the green bean casserole, a lighter version. When you make the homemade cream sauce, you reduce the sodium in your meal.

The green bean casserole can be prepared and taken out of the fridge when it's time to bake it. A salad is better to make the day of, to keep the crispness.

Asian Green Bean Salad

1 lb. green beans, cooked and cooled
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 cup mandarin orange segments
2 Tablespoons sliced almonds
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 Tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated
Salt and pepper

In a large bowl, combine beans, tomatoes, oranges, and almonds. In a separate bowl, mix remaining ingredients until emulsified. Add dressing to green beans and toss until combined.

Green Bean Casserole

1-1/2 pounds green beans, trimmed and cut in into bite-size pieces
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter
1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
1 pound white button mushrooms, sliced
1 can of tuna, packed in olive oil and drained
5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
Kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Hot sauce, like Tabasco
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup dry bread crumbs
6 large shallots, thinly sliced
2 to 4 cups canola oil

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Butter a 13 by 9-inch baking dish. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Cook the green beans just until tender, about 5 minutes. Drain and set aside in a large bowl.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until translucent, about 4 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook until most of their liquid has evaporated, about 8 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low and stir in 3 tablespoons flour. Cook until golden brown, about 4 minutes. Add the milk, slowly at first, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until the milk has incorporated. Continue stirring occasionally until the mixture has thickened, making sure to scrape all over the bottom of the pan. Stir in 2 teaspoons salt, the pepper, and hot sauce to taste. Pour the mushroom mixture over beans. Add in tuna and toss to combine. Stir in the Parmesan.

Pour bean and tuna mixture into the baking dish. Sprinkle the bread crumbs on top. Bake until the breadcrumbs are golden, about 10 minutes.

While the casserole is baking. Heat about 1 inch of canola oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Toss shallots in 2 tablespoons flour. Fry the shallots until golden brown. Drain on a paper towel and sprinkle with salt. Top the casserole with fried shallots.

FOR MORE OF JOEL'S RECIPES, GO TO PAGE 2>

TOMATOES

As an appetizer, Joel used tomato and pesto. She says they're really easy appetizers that look elegant. You take a paring knife and take out the center. The pesto goes into a pastry baggy, snip off the end, and squeeze the pesto into the hollow tomato. It's a great cocktail dish that can be done in advance. It's better cold, anyway.

The main dish is tomatoes with pasta -- a no-cook tomato and basil. While the pasta is cooking in the water, chop up your tomato. You can use any -- make sure they're ripe. Cut up the tomatoes , basil, garlic, and put in the bottom of the pasta bowl and add cooked pasta. You can have a hot dinner in eight to ten minutes. It's also cooked served at room temperature.

Bite-Size Pesto Cherry Tomatoes

2 dozen cherry tomatoes
1/2 cup prepared pesto

Use a pairing knife to remove divot from each tomato. Place pesto in a zip-top plastic bag. Use scissors to snip the corner from the bag. Fill each tomato by squeezing pesto from plastic bag.

Pasta with No-Cook Tomato Basil Sauce

1/2 pound fusilli, penne, or bow-tie pasta (any pasta works)
3/4 pound ripe tomatoes, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 Tablespoons Parmesan, grated
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Handful fresh basil, chiffonaded
Pinch crushed red pepper (optional)

Cook pasta in salted water. Drain and reserve 1/4 cup pasta water.

While the pasta is cooking, in a large bowl, combine remaining ingredients. Add pasta and pasta water and toss to combine. Serve with additional Parmesan, if desired.

CORN

As an appetizer, Joel has corn chowder. You can serve it with a salad. Or put it in an espresso cup and people can take one and sip it. Don't over boil the corn -- cook it for about two-to-three minutes.

The main dish is Southwestern Corn and Bean Stuffed Peppers. It's a real crowd pleaser. You can make these peppers up until the point of baking them. It's a pretty hearty meal, since it has rice, the bean protein. Kids tend to love it. You don't have to have a lot of fancy spices -- just a packet of taco seasoning is enough. You can play around with it and even add guacamole and chips. The whole is inside that pepper.

Corn Chowder

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
1 large carrot, finely diced
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 sprig of fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
One 14-ounce can low-sodium chicken broth
4 cups fresh corn kernels (about 6 ears)
2 cups milk
Crumbled cooked bacon and sliced scallions, optional

In a large Dutch oven over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onions and carrots. Cook until onions are translucent and carrots are tender, about 8 minutes. Stir in the flour and cook 2 minutes. Add the salt, pepper, thyme, bay leaf, chicken broth, and 2 cups of the corn. Stir to combine and bring to a simmer.

Meanwhile, in a blender combine the remaining 2 cups corn and the milk. Add to the soup. Let simmer about 5 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and thyme stem. Garnish with bacon and scallions, if desired, and serve immediately.

Southwestern Corn and Bean Stuffed Peppers

4 large red or green bell peppers, cored
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 yellow onion, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 package taco seasoning
3 ears of corn, cut from the cob
1 cup canned black beans, drained
1 cup cooked rice
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup cheddar cheese, grated

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Heat olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and sauté until translucent, about 10 minutes. Stir in taco seasoning and 2 tablespoons water. Cook until water is absorbed, about 3-4 minutes. Remove from heat.

In a mixing bowl, combine corn, black beans, rice, onions, sour cream and cheese. Mix well. Spoon mixture into peppers and bake until tender, about 30 minutes.

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