The best way to cook vegetables: weak and slow
But real violence isn’t too stinging – I see it now. These are shocking vegetables, a popular technique in French cooking that usually involves stopping the cooking process before a vegetable is cooked. Freeze it on time, but also literally: to shock a vegetable, you take it straight out of boiling water and immerse it in ice water. The vegetable cools quickly and stops cooking exactly where you want it. This is the idea. And a whole school of French-style cooks is dedicated to partial cooking and shock. It is especially popular in restaurant kitchens, where bright colors and crispness are so appreciated. But unless the vegetable is perfect in the raw state – brand new sprouts and shoots, freshly picked peas and ripe seasonal tomatoes – heating the vegetable longer, and maybe even a little longer after that, can often bring out the best in it.
“People go wrong with green beans, and that’s the biggest offense of the summer,” says Clare de Boer, a chef at the King in Manhattan. “They blanch them so that they still squeak in your mouth when you eat them, but if you cook them longer, if you cook them properly, they become a deeper version of themselves.” De Boer isn’t afraid of sloppy-looking vegetables if they taste good. She often uses the Italian technique of ripassati when she cooks for herself at her home in upstate New York. She chops a vegetable like broccoli or broccoli root and boils it in very salted water, then lets the steam drain and reheats it again in olive oil with garlic, red pepper and anchovies. The line between overcooked and overcooked is different for each vegetable, but undercooking can be worse. “Swiss chard, if it’s undercooked, has a sort of pond flavor,” de Boer explains. “But cook it longer, and it reaches a point where it becomes sweeter and tastes more. The kale turns from grassy to almost noodle, and the peas get so, so sweet, just blindingly sweet and creamy.
In Nigella Lawson’s latest book, “Cooking, eating, rehearsing” she shares a recipe for peas sautéed with shallots and herbs, then roasted in water or wine in a 300-degree oven for four hours – four whole hours, like a massive oxtail or shank – adding that she would gladly give another dish to the dish two hours in the oven while reheating it. It sounds a little crazy, but this technique completely transforms a bag of frozen peas, giving each one a special taste.
If you still need to be convinced, try the long-cooked broccoli in “Chez Panisse Vegetables,” by Alice Waters, to get around in just a quarter of the time. Cut the broccoli through the stem and put it in a saucepan with chilli flakes, garlic, olive oil and water, and after about an hour of boiling with the lid on, dress – it with anchovies and lemon juice, and cover it with grated cheese. Sounds like overkill, especially if you’re carrying your own, or like me, maybe someone else’s, vegetarian trauma. But after an hour, the broccoli is gorgeous and just starting to crumble. The stems are pale green and tender, and the tops do not disintegrate yet. Broccoli is sweet, so sweet you could eat it like that, with a fork, or stack it on toast. If you want something really substantial, toss it into hot pasta with a lump of butter, but do it a bit aggressively, grating the broccoli so that it really falls apart.
Recipe: Long-Cooked Broccoli