Growing up, I was aware of the kids-don’t-like-vegetables trope, but it didn’t make much sense to me. I never had any choice; all the traditional Iranian dishes my mom cooked teemed with herbs and vegetables. There was no eating around the fava beans, celery and eggplant that made up the fragrant rice and stew dishes she served each night, though my younger brothers certainly tried. I ate the food but didn’t think much of the vegetables one way or the other. Then I moved to Berkeley for college, and for the first time, I understood how someone could hate her vegetables: The pallid, overcooked steam-table brussels sprouts and zucchini served in the dining hall were depressing at best. So when I started busing tables at Chez Panisse a couple of years later, I wasn’t prepared for the daily sight of grown men and women cooing over fruits and vegetables.
Soon after, I began working in the kitchen and quickly learned why each produce delivery was met with such excitement: flawless, just-picked vegetables are sweeter and more flavorful than anything you can get at the store. I learned to cook vegetables with the aim of preserving that perfection. That usually meant doing as little to them as possible. Much of the time, we’d simply boil the haricots verts, marble-size turnips or thick spears of asparagus in ample, salted water until they were barely cooked through, then pull them out and let them cool on a baking sheet in the fridge. We’d later quickly reheat them in boiling water or a sauté pan, then drizzle them with immoderate amounts of fruity olive oil before serving. No matter the vegetable, the only rule in the kitchen was ‘‘do not overcook.’’ The memory of that dining-hall mush was enough to scare me straight; my green beans were always perfectly crisp.
Then I went to Italy. I apprenticed myself to Benedetta Vitali, a Florentine chef who ran a tiny trattoria on the outskirts of town. Eager to please my new boss, I tried to work ahead on the prep list one morning while she was upstairs in the office. I found the filet beans among the vegetable delivery, set a huge pot of water on the stove and trimmed away the stems while the water came to a boil. I cooked them just as I’d learned to in California, careful not to let all of the crunch boil away. I pulled them, vibrant and sweet, from the water and let them cool.
Benedetta came downstairs. She cocked her head and picked up a green bean. ‘‘Who cooked these beans raw?’’ she asked, her voice incredulous, while the inch-long ash from her dangling cigarette threatened to fall onto the tray.Continue reading the main story
Mortified, I took responsibility. She chuckled and poked fun at my American way with vegetables. ‘‘The only thing that should be cooked al dente here,’’ she said, ‘‘is pasta.’’ Then she heated a big, shallow pot, added a generous splash of olive oil and garlic, tossed in the green beans and lightly browned them. She turned down the heat, handed me the wooden spoon and told me to keep an eye on the pot for two hours. I was simultaneously horrified about how overcooked they’d be in that time and deeply ashamed about how far off I’d been.
But I did what Benedetta asked and tended to the beans. As they cooked, they changed from firm and bright to limp and gray, just as I’d feared. For over an hour, the beans tasted forgettable. I worried I’d ruined them a second time. But right around the two-hour mark, they transformed again, into a dark, tangled mess, soft but defined. They were extraordinarily rich, deliriously sweet and dense with flavor. I’d never tasted anything like them. I wondered why.
The classic French blanch-and-cool technique I learned at Chez Panisse yields the kind of brilliant, picturesque vegetables we all want to see on restaurant plates. Long-cooked foods, on the other hand, fall firmly into the ‘‘ugly but good’’ camp of the Tuscan cucina povera, where flavor far outshines looks. Peasant cooks developed methods like long cooking to turn the overlooked into the irresistible. They knew that the best cooking is guided by all the senses, but if one must trump the rest, it should be taste.
Whenever you do get your hands on immaculate baby carrots or fennel, preserve their flavor. Boil them until they’re just barely cooked, then serve them with flaky salt and melted butter or good olive oil. The delicate sweetness of just-picked vegetables is always worth savoring. But on all the many other days of the year, when you’re cooking with whatever you’ve got, perfect or not, know you can manufacture your own sweetness by long cooking.
While you can use the technique with almost any vegetable, it works particularly well with the shunned, the fibrous and the forgotten-in-the-fridge. All it takes is time and courage. Since browning begets browning, wait until the end to gently caramelize the vegetables; that way you won’t have to constantly stir the pot. Heat a little oil with some garlic and a sliced shallot, throw in whichever vegetables you have on hand and add a tiny splash of water. Set the pot over low heat. Cover it, and do your best to step away.
When your curiosity inevitably gets the best of you, don’t panic. Without any initial browning, the pale, bland, half-crunchy, half-tender broccoli or green beans will shock you. Replace the lid, and give yourself a pep talk, knowing that even experienced cooks usually become alarmed at this point, too. Every time I employ this method, I spend at least an hour convinced I’ve completely forgotten how to cook.
But reliably, that incredible transformation will eventually occur. Overgrown fennel will grow buttery and soft enough to eat with a spoon. Broccoli rabe, stems and all, will become mildly bittersweet. Time and gentle heat will weave even celery — hardly ever considered worthy of its own platter — into velvet. Standing at the stove, you’ll eat forkful after forkful of these vegetables, marveling as you think, ‘‘If only vegetables had tasted like this when I was a kid.’’
Recipe: Long-Cooked VegetablesContinue reading the main story