Get A Load Of These Babies
Baby vegetables offer a big reward in a bite-size package

By Kimberly Lord Stewart
Photos by Rita Maas

Sometimes the best things come in small packages. This adage certainly applies to one of nature's most playful, diminutive offerings: baby vegetables. Petite versions of garden-variety veggies, baby vegetables deliver huge taste and over-the-top eye appeal with their vibrant and sometimes surprising colors—imagine orange-yellow peppers, candy cane-striped beets, purple cauliflower and scarlet tomatoes the size of grapes.

Contrary to what most people think, baby vegetables are not younger renditions of their grown-up counterparts. Rather, these miniscule munchies have been designed to grow small. And while they're no more nutritious than their full-size culinary cousins, they are packed with natural sweetness, providing a pleasant temptation to eat more than your five-a-day requirement.

"Chefs prefer using baby vegetables for reasons of taste and visual presentation," says Robert Schueller of Melissa's/World Variety Produce based in Vernon, Calif. "The great thing is, most baby vegetables are now available for home cooks to enjoy."

Most baby veggies can be steamed or grilled simply and garnished with olive oil or herb butter. But to give ordinary meals a gourmet twist, try these recipes. You'll agree that when it comes to freshness and taste, little things can make a big difference.

Marinated Baby Eggplant Pizza

Serves 4 / This marinated eggplant is also wonderful on sandwiches. Eggplants soak up oil like sponges; try salting them before cooking to reduce the amount of oil needed.

6 baby eggplants (about 8 ounces)
2-4 tablespoons olive oil
4 individual prebaked pizza crusts
1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese

3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
2 cloves garlic, crushed
Large pinch crushed red pepper
Salt and pepper, to taste

1. In a medium bowl, mix together all marinade ingredients. Set aside.

2. Thinly slice eggplant lengthwise. Sprinkle both cut sides of eggplant with salt. Allow eggplant to sit on a paper towel for 15 minutes, until paper towel is saturated. If desired, brush eggplant to remove excess salt.

3. In a cast-iron skillet, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Cover bottom of pan with eggplant (do not stack) and fry until golden brown, 2-3 minutes per side. Set aside and fry any remaining eggplant. Add more olive oil if needed.

4. Add eggplant to marinade. Let it sit for at least 30 minutes.

5. Preheat oven to 400°. Brush pizza crusts with marinade. Layer eggplant on each crust. Brush with more marinade and top with cheese. Bake for 10 minutes until eggplant is hot and cheese is melted.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 626 calories Fat: 45g % fat calories: 65 Cholesterol: 12mg Carbohydrate: 45g Protein: 11g

Mixed Baby Vegetables with Chicken

Serves 6 / Preparation time is minimal for this comforting meal. Keep in mind that tender baby vegetables cook much faster than their larger counterparts; if you use regular veggies, cooking time will be longer.

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, coarsely chopped
3 pounds chicken, washed and cut into serving pieces (remove skin, if desired)
1/2 cup white wine
2 cups chicken broth
2 teaspoons dried thyme
12 new potatoes, washed
12 baby carrots, washed
1/2 pound baby asparagus, ends trimmed
1/2 pound haricot verte (baby green beans), ends trimmed
4 tablespoons red plum jam
Salt and pepper, to taste

1. Heat olive oil in a medium Dutch oven or large covered skillet over medium heat. Add onions and sauté until opaque, 3-4 minutes. Add chicken; brown on both sides.

2.Remove chicken from pan and add white wine. Turn up heat to medium-high and scrape any brown bits off pan. Simmer until wine reduces by half, 10-15 minutes. Add chicken broth, thyme, and chicken. Cover and simmer over low heat, 35-40 minutes.

3. Place potatoes on top of chicken; cover and simmer 10 minutes. Add carrots and simmer 5 minutes more. Add asparagus and green beans; cover and simmer just until vegetables are tender, 3-5 minutes more.

4. Remove chicken and vegetables to a serving platter and keep warm. Turn heat to high and reduce broth to just less than 1 cup. Add jam, salt, and pepper. Cook until jam melts and sauce begins to thicken. Pour sauce over chicken and serve.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 396 calories Fat: 12g % fat calories: 27 Cholesterol: 95mg Carbohydrate: 37g Protein: 35g

Grilled Snapper Tacos with Baby Tomatoes and Baby Peppers

Serves 4 / Use a cast-iron skillet or broiler pan if you prepare this on the grill so that veggies don't fall through the grate. This dish can also be prepared on the stove using a frying pan and any mild-flavored fish.

2 pounds red snapper fillets
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1/2 pound mixed baby green and red peppers, stems and seeds removed
1 bunch green onions or scallions, thinly sliced
1 pound baby tomatoes
Corn or whole-wheat flour tortillas (2 per person)
Low-fat sour cream
2 cups grated cabbage
Lime wedges

1. Sprinkle fish with chili powder, oregano, salt, and pepper. Set aside.

2. Heat grill to medium-high. Heat broiler pan or skillet over coals. Add oil, garlic, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, and cumin to pan; heat 1 minute. Add peppers and onions; sauté for 5-8 minutes. Add tomatoes and cook until heated through, 3-5 minutes. Set pan aside.

3. Grill fish for 10-15 minutes until it flakes when tested with a fork.

4. Fill tortillas with pieces of fish and vegetables. Garnish with sour cream, cabbage and lime.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 480 calories Fat: 13g % fat calories: 23 Cholesterol: 84mg Carbohydrate: 40g Protein: 53g

Fingerling Potato Salad

Serves 6 / Buttery baby potatoes combined with anise-flavored fennel make a refreshing salad that goes well with grilled fish or chicken.

1 pound baby fingerling potatoes, washed
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 small fennel bulb, washed and sliced
1/2 cup thinly sliced Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon coarse-ground mustard
Salt and pepper

1. In a small bowl, combine all vinaigrette ingredients and set aside.

2. Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. Add potatoes and salt. Cover partially and cook until tender, 15-20 minutes.

3. Drain potatoes. When cool enough to handle, slice thickly and place in a serving bowl. Add fennel and cheese; combine gently. Pour vinaigrette over mixture. Chill before serving.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 205 calories Fat: 11g % fat calories: 48 Cholesterol: 5mg Carbohydrate: 22g Protein: 5g

Warm Baby Spinach Salad with Goat Cheese

Serves 4 / Organic baby spinach is now available year-round. If you're not using the prebagged variety, be sure to wash leaves well to remove all dirt.

2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
2 tablespoons finely chopped onion
2 tablespoons raspberry vinegar
1 teaspoon honey
1/2 pint fresh raspberries, divided
Salt and pepper, to taste
5-6 ounces fresh young spinach leaves, washed well
2 ounces goat cheese, crumbled

1. In a small saucepan, warm oil over medium heat. Add onion and cook until soft, 3-4 minutes.

2. Add vinegar, honey, and half of the raspberries. Raise heat slightly and simmer until fruit is warm. Season with salt and pepper.

3. Place spinach in a serving bowl. Pour dressing over spinach and toss lightly. Top with crumbled goat cheese and remaining raspberries.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 159 calories Fat: 12g % fat calories: 62 Cholesterol: 11mg Carbohydrate: 11g Protein: 5g

Penne with Baby Cauliflower, Olives and Capers

Serves 6 / This light and refreshing dish is equally good cold and makes a fine take-along dish for a picnic.

1 tablespoon salt
1 pound penne pasta
1/2 pound baby white cauliflower, leaves and stems trimmed
1/2 pound baby purple cauliflower, leaves and stems trimmed

2/3 cup Greek olives, pitted and sliced
1/4 cup capers, drained
3/4 cup olive oil
3/4 cup lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon dried oregano

1. Mix all vinaigrette ingredients and set aside.

2. Fill a large pot with salted water and bring to a boil. Add pasta; cook until nearly al dente. Add cauliflower and cook another 2-3 minutes until pasta and vegetables are just tender.

3. Drain pasta and vegetables and place in a shallow serving bowl. Pour vinaigrette over pasta and toss well.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 550 calories Fat: 31g % fat calories: 49 Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 62g Protein: 11g

Kimberly Lord Stewart is a former caterer who specializes in recipe development, freelance editing and media consulting. She is currently at work on her first cookbook, about preparing quick and healthy meals.