Do Chefs Eat their Greens?
So you’re sitting in a posh restaurant and the Côte de Agneau aux Morilles has been served – but wait, where are the greens?
It seems vegetables in restaurants are either non-existent or used as sparse scatterings to decorate a dish. This style of eating throws me – the staggered multiple courses together with a light hand on the vegetable box leaves me feeling bloated. What we need is a yin and yang approach – a little richness offset with loads of veg! Most restaurants will serve veg as a side dish – but ordering a side of vegetables invariably draws raised eyebrows from fellow diners – and certainly patronising smirks from the waiter – as if thinking, you silly man, you are eating in a fine dining room not a canteen…
Meat and seven veg
At home, I try to provide a balanced diet. That means two or three vegetables with each meal. In fact for a Sunday roast, the number of vegetables can rise exponentially: potatoes, parsnips, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, beans, peas, etc.
Most people think vegetables are bland, boring or pointless. This is not the case. Vegetables, can be full of flavour and texture – delicious even. They just need to be prepared and cooked carefully. Grey, mushy overcooked broccoli is spoiled as best used for soup.
I consider one of my best qualities as a home cook is to cook vegetables – it requires just as much attention and skill as any other aspect of cooking. The following is a quick guide to how I cook normal side-dish style vegetables:
Broccoli and beans: Like all green vegetables the most important thing is appearance. They should be bright green and attractive. The easiest way to ensure they look their best is not to overcook – err on the side of very slightly under-cooked. Boil in plenty of salted water, keep the heat on full-blast so that it quickly boils again and cook until just tender and still a bit firm – no more than 4 minutes or so. Then drain and keep warm uncovered and serve soon.
If you cannot cook your greens just before serving, try cooking as above but immediately plunge the drained greens in ice-cold water, then drain. Just before serving – reheat in a large frying pan with lid and a small amount of water or stock – butter is optional, but often finds its way into my green veg. This is a hangover from my childhood – but go easy on butter – it’s not to everyone’s taste.
My final method of cooking broccoli or beans is to steam in a wok or covered large sauce pan. Use a small amount of liquid – stock preferably and season with salt and pepper. I add might also add that small knob of ‘optional’ butter. This method keeps the nutrients in the veg, but they need to be served right away.
Carrots: More butter! But there is a scientific reason here… Vitamins and taste molecules are water soluble, so boiling carrots in water will drain the carrots of taste and goodness. Use a half & half method. Put carrots in a heavy-based sauce pan (Le Creuset is ideal), then add a good knob of butter and about 80ml of water or bone stock, season with salt and pepper. You can also add ground cumin or coriander or both. Some recipes will include sugar as in ‘Vichy’ or American ‘glazed’ carrots. But the carrots are really sweet enough as they are.
NB: Chopping carrots: I ring the changes: thin or thick discs, thick or thin or julienne, big or small chunks. A favourite cut is a 3D random rhomboid shape created by rotating the carrot and chopping at an angle.
Peas: It doesn’t matter how you cook frozen peas – just make sure they are not overcooked – a minute or two is good. Use frozen peas for a salad but boil just for 30 seconds or so.
Courgettes: We like these cut into discs and fried in a large pan. But as a side for another dish, steam in a wok or covered large saucepan using a small amount of water or stock. Season at this stage with very little salt and pepper – and perhaps that small knob of ‘optional’ butter.
Spinach and very fresh young kale: It’s impossible to have too much spinach. Use as much as will fit in a large wok with a lid. Wash and drain well and cook on high heat, stirring every minute until it all the spinach has wilted. Drain and squeeze-out excess moisture. It then goes back in wok with a small amount of olive oil and butter (more science here – dairy in spinach helps avoid the metallic itchiness spinach can leave on the roof of the mouth). The spinach is then fried briefly on medium-high heat and excess liquid (and butter) drained.
Kale and cavalo nero (both types of kale): Avoid old kale or kale that is chopped. The stalks are virtually inedible – but in any case they are not nice to eat – so why producers put them in with the leaves in bags of chopped kale? Boil until tender without a lid to retain colour – this will take longer than you might imagine. Refresh kale in cold water for a salad or mix with a dressing whilst still warm. It can be braised with oil or butter – bring out of the boiling water just before it is completely cooked.
Cabbage: Cut a savoy or green cabbage into wedges keeping the root intact. Steam for a few minutes or until just tender then drain – then add a little butter (this time it is not optional) and braise briefly.
The microwave: The microwave turns out to be an excellent way to cook vegetables. Put vegetables in a bowl and cover with cling film or use a specially designed microwave cook bag (heed the warnings about opening – the steam is super-heated!). Vegetables in the microwave will never take more than a few minutes.
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