Cauliflower

A One-Two Punch for Knockout Vegetables

March 21, 2018

This article is part of Change The Way You Cook part 2, the next installment in our series to help anyone (yes, you!) become smarter, faster, and more freewheeling in the kitchen.


A couple seasons ago, there was this episode of The Bachelor—relevant in just a sec, I swear—where the contestants were in Finland and they hung out in a sauna only to sprint outside and jump in an ice bath. Apparently, this spa treatment has a lot of benefits for people. And vegetables. In kitchens, we call it blanch and shock. Blanching is another way of saying briefly boiling. Shocking means plunging into an ice bath. (See? Just like The Bachelor.) The goal is to halt the cooking, so the vegetables don’t get mushy and overcooked, and their color stays bright and vibrant.

But, there’s something even better. Meet, blanch and shock 2.0: blanch and sauté. Instead of transferring the vegetables to an ice bath, you transfer them to a hot, oily skillet. In other words, do the exact opposite. This increases flavor—and efficiency.

Why cut the shock, you wonder? Well, it has some issues. In Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, Samin Nosrat writes: “The less time a vegetable spends immersed in water, the less chance of its minerals and nutrients leaching out,” which means less chance of flavor leaching out, too.

So, what’s the alternative? (Remember, we still don’t want mushy, dull vegetables.) It’s simple—just blanch for less time. When the vegetables are out of the boiling water, you can transfer them to the fridge or freezer or even a chilly windowsill. Or not. Either way, pull them a couple minutes before they’re fully tender. Instead of the carryover cooking making them overcooked, it will now make them perfectly cooked.

Next, to make the vegetables feel extra special, they’ll take a quick, drive-by visit to a sizzling skillet, where they’ll bathe in flavorful fat, hang out with aromatics, and bask in seasonings. Nosrat applauds this method for its efficiency: “To save time in the kitchen, combine blanching with other cooking methods.” Anything—from chopped greens, like kale or collards, to sturdier root vegetables, like carrots or potatoes, or brassicas, like broccoli or cabbage—can be blanched, then kept on call in the fridge for à la minute sautés and stir-frys. Here’s how to get the most out of this technique:

Blanch

Prep the vegetables. Some ingredients, like green beans or carrots, can be blanched as they are. While you could blanch a whole head of broccoli or cauliflower, halving or quartering these hefty fellows will make them cook quicker and more evenly. Plus, they’ll fit better in the pot.

Use the biggest pot you have. If this seems like way too much water—say for a lil’ head of cauliflower—it’s not. When you add the room-temperature or cold vegetables, the water’s heat plummets, turning your rolling boil into a bleak simmer. Now, what was supposed to be a quick blanch is draaaaagging out. Not what we’re going for. By starting with a great volume of water, we can work around this.

Salt the water heavily. Like, even more than that. More. More! Think of it like pasta. We aren’t just boiling here, we’re seasoning. And most of the salt that you add to the water, which seems at first like too much, stays in the water. I start with a few tablespoons, then taste and adjust. A lot of people say the water should be as salty as the sea, which sounds pretty, but is actually too salty. Aim for over-seasoned soup broth—not a mouthful of ocean, but still too salty to slurp straight.

Sauté

Choose a flavorful fat. Olive oil and butter are MVPs here. The only catch is smoke point. Both of these begin to burn at relatively low temperatures, which means if you’re trying to get a dramatic, colorful sear over medium to high heat, you might run into some trouble. To get around this, cut the olive oil with a neutral cousin, like canola or grapeseed. You can do the same with butter. Or, use all clarified butter or ghee.

Add in some aromatics. Maybe you sauté some chopped onion and minced garlic before the blanched veg joins the party. Perhaps a fennel bulb and some fennel seeds. Or ground cumin or crushed red pepper flakes. This flavorful foundation will welcome all vegetables with open arms.

Finish with a flourish. When the vegetables are almost as tender as you’d like—give a poke with a fork, or taste!—toss in some bonuses. This could be something acidic, like a lemon squeeze or vinegar splash, to up the contrast. Or, it could be something sweet, like dried fruit, for that little something-something. Or, it could be torn herbs, like parsley or dill, basil or chives, for freshness. Or, anything crunchy, like breadcrumbs or toasted nuts, for texture.

What's your vegetable-cooking secret? Tell us in the comments!

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