Stories / Guides and Tips, Recipes

Why You Need to Squeeze Your Vegetables

James Beard thought it made all the difference

James Beard

September 16, 2019


James Beard's tomato sauce photo and styling by Judy Kim
Photo and Food Styling: Judy Kim

In his iconic tome, Beard on Food, which was first published in 1974, our namesake wrote prolific prose on a vast landscape of culinary topics, from a lesson in chicken anatomy to a sandwich manifesto to an articulate plea to squeeze your produce, which we share with you today. Humorous, erudite, and timeless, this collection of essays remains an indispensable resource for the home cook. Stay tuned for more! 

Beard on Food: Please Squeeze the Vegetables

The longer I cook vegetables, the more I learn about them. In the last year I have discovered a great deal about purées and shredded vegetables, which are among the most delicate and delicious of preparations. I’ve also found out the advantages of squeezing certain vegetables before cooking them. Why squeeze vegetables? Mainly to remove most of the excess liquid they contain, which makes them much pleasanter to eat.

Zucchini, for instance, becomes a totally different vegetable when it is shredded and squeezed. I like to use a Mouli julienne, a marvelous gadget with three interchangeable disks that you can find in the better kitchen shops. By simply turning the handle, you can shred vegetables from extremely fine to fairly coarse. After shredding the zucchini, I put it in a clean dish towel and squeeze until the water oozes out. Then I quickly sauté the zucchini in a mixture of oil and butter, maybe with a little garlic and grated cheese, either cooking it until it browns on one side, turning it, and browning the other side, or covering and steaming it. Either way it comes out wonderfully crisp and bitey, with none of that soggy, droopy quality one usually associates with zucchini.

Another vegetable that takes well to this treatment is the cucumber. Thoroughly squeezed, then steamed in butter with a touch of chopped fresh dill or tarragon and some lemon juice, it is an unbeatable accompaniment to fish, veal, or pork.

Squeezing also benefits chopped mushrooms. If, after chopping, you squeeze the mushrooms well in a dish towel, you’ll find they cook more quickly and don’t leave a soupy residue in the pan. This is true of any dish that calls for chopped mushrooms, and don’t, for heaven’s sake, throw away those squeezed-out juices—they are just great for flavoring soups, broths, or sauces.

Chopped parsley for a garnish will be much nicer and fluffier if you give it a good squeeze after chopping. Squeezing also benefits tomatoes, which today seem to have much more water content than they used to, whether they are those semi-red cannonballs we get in winter or the luscious garden-ripened ones of summer.

Peel the tomatoes, cut the top slice off, then grasp them firmly in your hand and squeeze, so the seeds and most of the liquid dribble out, leaving only the firm flesh to be chopped for a tomato purée or a sauce. Sauté the chopped tomatoes in butter, letting them just melt down, and you’ll find they take on another quality completely.

I have a standard Tomato Sauce, which I use for all kinds of dishes. For this you scald 3 pounds of tomatoes in boiling water, then peel them, cut a slice off the top, and squeeze out seeds and juices. Chop the flesh rather finely, and put to drain in a colander. Heat 4 tablespoons butter and 2 tablespoons olive oil, or 6 tablespoons olive oil, in a heavy skillet, add the tomatoes, and let them just melt down over medium heat. As they begin to heat through, add 1 crushed garlic clove (it need not be peeled—all you want is to impart the flavor) or 2 or 3 garlic cloves, if you like garlic extremely well. Season with 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon dried basil or several leaves of fresh basil, and a few grinds of black pepper. If the tomatoes are very acidic, you can add a tiny fillip of sugar, which will give them a better flavor. [Editor's note: in this usage, a "fillip" means "a pinch."]

Cook the sauce very slowly for 3/4 to 1 hour. Then, if you feel it is too liquidy and needs strong binding flavor and texture, add a 6-ounce can of tomato paste, which will give you a very thick sauce. (Be careful it doesn’t splash on you when it boils up.) Taste for seasoning before using.

If you can’t get decent tomatoes, you can use the 35-ounce can of Italian plum tomatoes, cooking them down well to eliminate the excess liquid before adding the tomato paste. They don’t have quite the same flavor as fresh tomatoes, but the quality is excellent.

This is a good, honest, basic tomato sauce, perfect for seafood such as lobster, shrimp, or crab, for cooking chicken, or with vegetables, rice, or pasta. Add a little fish broth, and you have a richly flavored fish sauce. Or add meat broth, or mushroom broth and some chopped cooked mushrooms for enrichment. You might also try this perfectly wonderful luncheon or supper dish, a very great favorite of mine:

Poach big fat Italian sausages in water or white wine, drain, then smother them in the tomato sauce and let them cook a little. Serve with rice or pasta, or put them on top of polenta, that Italian cornmeal delight, cover with the sauce, grate Parmesan cheese or a mixture of Parmesan and Gruyère over the sauce, or put some slices of mozzarella on top, and put in the oven until melted. 

Get James Beard's recipe for Tomato Sauce.

Read more essays from Beard on Food.