Crisp vegetables are often prized, but long-cooking them into tenderness can bring out their deepest flavors.
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Every now and then, I’ll start to tell a story before I realize it isn’t mine. Never mind that it feels like a memory of my own; it isn’t. I have to remind myself it belongs to someone else — say, a character in a novel (stealing a wallet while on a date), or my mother (visiting a rock star in the hospital after he was stabbed), or my best friend (getting sick from a poisonous mushroom in the backyard).
Here’s a better example: I’m haunted by the sickening plop of soggy broccoli on a school lunch tray, and the horror of graying cabbage in a pot of its own stinky water. But it was my father who went to a boarding school with terrible, tightly rationed food. I wasn’t raised on overcooked, underseasoned vegetables. I only heard the stories and relished in the deliciously violent language. See, in the retelling, vegetables are never just overcooked. They are clobbered, hammered and bludgeoned. They are bullied, persecuted and tortured until, finally — as a kind of mercy — they are boiled to death.
But a quick reference of my own memories, instead of someone else’s, reveals that so many of my favorite vegetables are cooked to death, or more accurately, properly cooked, for quite a long time: the mustard greens in saag paneer, simmered until the leaves sort of disappear into one another, swapping their bright green for a darker hue, going slippery and almost sweet; the eggplant in kashke bademajan, smashed into an unrecognizable and impossibly luxurious pulp.
But the real violence isn’t overcooking — I see that now. It’s shocking vegetables, a popular technique in French cuisine that usually involves halting the cooking process before a vegetable is done. Freezing it in time, but also quite literally: To shock a vegetable, you take it straight out of boiling water and drop it into ice water. The vegetable chills quickly and stops cooking exactly where you want it. That’s the idea. And an entire school of French-leaning cooks is devoted to par-cooking and shocking. It’s especially popular in restaurant kitchens, where bright color and crispness are so valued. But unless the vegetable is perfect in its raw state — brand-new sprouts and shoots, just-picked peas and in-season ripe tomatoes — heating the vegetable longer, and maybe even a little longer after that, can often bring out the best in it.
“People get it wrong with green beans, and it’s the greatest offense of summer,” says Clare de Boer, a chef at King in Manhattan. “They blanch them so they’re still squeaky in the 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 is unafraid of sloppy-looking vegetables if they taste good. She often employs the Italian technique of ripassati when she’s cooking for herself at home in upstate New York. She chops a vegetable like broccoli or broccoli rabe and boils it in heavily salted water, then lets the steam roll off and warms it again in olive oil with garlic, red pepper and anchovies. The line between cooked and overcooked is different for every vegetable, but undercooked can be worse. “Swiss chard, if it’s undercooked, has a kind of pond-scummy flavor,” de Boer says. “But cook it longer, and it hits a point where it gets sweeter, and tastes more vegetal. Kale goes from grassy to almost noodle-y, and peas become so, so sweet, just blindingly sweet and creamy.”
In Nigella Lawson’s most recent book, “Cook, Eat, Repeat,” she shares a recipe for peas sautéed with shallots and some herbs, then roasted in water or wine in a 300-degree oven for four hours — four whole hours, like a massive shank or oxtail — adding that she’d happily give the dish another two hours in the oven when reheating it. It does sound a bit bonkers, but this technique completely transforms a bag of frozen peas, making every single one taste like something special.
If you still need to be convinced, try the long-cooked broccoli in “Chez Panisse Vegetables,” by Alice Waters, to do the trick in just a quarter of the time. Slice the broccoli right through the stem, and put in a pot with chile flakes, garlic, olive oil and water, and after about an hour of bubbling away with the lid on, dress it with anchovies and lemon juice, and cover it in grated cheese. It sounds excessive, particularly if you carry around your own, or like me, maybe someone else’s, mushy-veg trauma. But after an hour, the broccoli is beautiful, and only just starting to crumble. The stems are a pale green, and tender, and the tops are not yet disintegrating. The broccoli is sweet, so sweet you could eat it just like that, with a fork, or pile it on toast. If you want something really substantial, stir it into hot pasta with a piece of butter, but do it a little aggressively, roughing up the broccoli so it really falls apart.
Recipe: Long-Cooked Broccoli