By CeCe Sullivan
The Seattle Times
Why does the subject of vegetables inflame such passionate feelings?
A brief, innocent mention of Brussels sprouts in a casual
conversation can lead to long-winded diatribes about their vile
smell and foul flavor.
One colleague even abhors "green things" to such a degree that he's
limited his vegetable choices to three: tomatoes, corn and lettuce
(which is also green but evidently bland enough to please his picky
Then there's the contentious matter of a cooked vegetable's texture.
To some, asparagus that's been cooked al dente is perfectly sublime.
But to others, those same asparagus spears aren't tender-crisp at
all but downright raw and inedible.
Fortunately, the field of vegetables is so vast, and their cooking
methods so gloriously varied, that there's something for everyone.
In Vegetables Every Day (Harper Collins, 2001) author Jack Bishop
divides cooking techniques for vegetables into dry and moist heat
methods. It's a good starting point, because each will produce its
own flavor and texture.
So here's a guide to the best cooking methods for seasonal produce.
Blanch: Vegetables are briefly put into a saucepan of boiling water
and the timing begins immediately. This method doesn't fully cook
the food but softens the texture.
To stop the cooking and set the color, "refresh" vegetables by
immediately draining and plunging them into ice water.
Vegetables can be blanched a day in advance of serving. Once they're
refreshed, pat with paper towels, then wrap in dry towels, place in
a plastic bag and refrigerate. Finish cooking by sauteing or stir-
frying the vegetables.
Blanching and refreshing are also necessary before freezing
vegetables to keep the enzymes from breaking down both color and
Boil: Here's a myth buster. Adding a pinch of baking soda to boiling
water may indeed help keep vegetables green, but the soda's alkali
destroys cell walls, causing a mushy texture -- so skip that idea.
There is, however, a real solution to holding the vibrant color.
"Essentially, with most green vegetables, you can count on having 7
minutes of heat before there is a major color change," says Shirley
Corriher, author of CookWise: The Secrets of Cooking Revealed
(William Morrow, 1997). "Cooking longer will cause the natural acids
present in vegetables to turn them yellow-brown."
Vegetables should be added to rapidly boiling water and the timing
should begin only when the water returns to the boil. Always leave
the pan uncovered. If boiling vegetables for a salad, be sure to
refresh them to stop the cooking.
Braise: Vegetables contain lots of natural moisture, which releases
in cooking. Lightly brown the vegetable in a little fat, than add a
tablespoon or two of liquid to start the cooking process. Cover the
pan and cook slowly over medium-low heat. Once the vegetable has
released its moisture, add only enough additional liquid to keep it
Poach: This technique is similar to boiling but uses less liquid and
a lower heat to gently cook more fragile vegetables.
Steam: A large pot and a simple steamer basket are the tools needed
to cook vegetables with this method. Don't pack the basket too
tightly with food or the cooking will be uneven. Bring the water to
a boil before placing the covered basket above the pot.
These evaporate moisture in the vegetables quickly, which causes the
juices to brown and the natural sugars to concentrate and become
Broil: The heat source is above the food, making this a great
technique for blistering the skins of sweet peppers or chilies for
easy peeling and a smoky flavor. Sliced vegetables such as eggplant
should be brushed lightly with oil to keep them from drying out
under the high heat.
Grill: This technique is similar to broiling, but the heat source
comes from below, and a basting liquid is needed to keep food moist.
Grill baskets or a perforated stainless-steel grid are perfect for
keeping small vegetables such as mushrooms and cherry tomatoes from
falling into the fire below. For indoor cooking, heavy grill pans
caramelize the vegetables and give them a wonderful smoky flavor.
Roast: This has become a favorite technique for cooking vegetables.
Toss with a light coating of olive oil and sprinkle lightly with
salt, then roast in a single layer in a shallow, rimmed baking
sheet. The high temperature of 400 degrees or above causes the
vegetables to shrink and loose their natural moisture, which
concentrates the sugars and deepens the flavor. (Baking uses a
temperature of 375 degrees or lower.)
Saute: The pan size should be large enough to cook the vegetables in
a single layer without crowding. The bottom of the pan should have a
light coating of oil, or a mixture of oil and butter. A no-stick
cooking spray can also be used. Set the pan over medium heat and
wait for the oil to become hot before adding the vegetables. Blanch
tougher vegetables such as green beans first to speed the cooking
Stir-fry: Basically, this technique is similar to a saute, but
vegetables are cut into smaller pieces. Use medium-high to high heat
for quick cooking, and toss often.
Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Companion: The A to Z Guide to Everyday
Cooking Equipment and Ingredients (Time-Life, 2000); Vegetables
Every Day (Harper Collins, 2001) by Jack Bishop; Perfect Vegetables
by the editors of Cook's Illustrated Magazine (America's Test
Kitchen, 2003); CookWise (William Morrow, 1997) by Shirley Corriher.