Building Blocks

Against the Green

Color is one thing with green vegetables that you can just take for granted.

Green, non-leafy vegetables like asparagus and broccoli receive an enormous amount of attention in food writing and it all comes down to one thing: chlorophyll—how to highlight it, what dulls it, how to preserve it, and so on.

So let’s get that out of the way right now.

Chlorophylls are the tasteless, odorless molecules of a plant cell that exist to capture solar rays. The molecules absorb red and blue wavelengths of light, so what they reflect back to us is only the third wavelength, green.

This green pigmentation is easy to see because cell walls are transluscent like glass; obscuring our vision are only the tiny pockets of air embedded throughout a plant’s fiber. Plunging a vegetable into boiling water allows the air to escape, and presto: bright green, just like that.

If you do nothing else but remove these vegetables from the cooking water when they’re done, the green will subside back to its original intensity. For many recipe-writers and self-described foodies, this is evidently a crushing disappointment.

To save you from such calamity, they can prescribe the following:

First, have your tap water chemically analyzed to ensure that the pH isn’t overly acidic. Hydrogen atoms in acid have a tendency to displace the magnesium atoms of chlorophyll, transforming that bright green molecule into its rather less attractive cousin, pheophytin.

Also, beware of an enzyme within each plant, chlorophyllase, which dissolves chlorophyll molecules and allows them to wash away. Fortunately, the heat of boiling water destroys this enzyme. By a cruel twist of fate, however, chlorophyllase is most active at temperatures just below that. So your cooking water can never be anything less than a raging boil.

Ideally, you’ll cook your vegetables one small handful at a time in four gallons of water. Be sure to set aside a couple of hours. You won’t want to feel rushed.

Boiling temperatures keep cooking times short, which helps to safeguard the fragile chlorophyll molecule. Be advised, however, that if your tap water is overly hard, its surplus calcium will retard the softening of the vegetable fiber and therefore push the cooking time past the point of no return.

You’ll salt the water, in any case, which prevents the plant’s cell contents from leeching out. The liquid of a plant cell contains all of the vegetable’s salts and aromatic compounds—all of its flavor, in short.

Avoiding that treacherous zone of sub-boiling heat, however, must be your top priority: You must immediately and completely chill the vegetables as soon as they’re done. This step is vital. Plunge them into an ice bath with double the quantity of ice to water.

At the end of all this, your vegetables will look great.

They’ll also taste like hell.

Recipe-writers will make your vegetables look great—and taste like hell.

Unfortunately, the same principle that preserved the flavor of your vegetables while cooking worked against them while chilling. It’s a phenomenon known as osmosis, whereby the contents of densely concentrated solutions flow freely into solutions of lesser concentration.

Basically, the flavor of your vegetables leeches out into the plain ice water.

The only remedy for this is to load the ice water with salt, first by warming the water to more easily dissolve the salt, then cooling it, then adding the ice cubes.

But this adds complication on top of complication so much so that it’s all but unheard of even in professional kitchens.

Chefs spend many more thousands of hours around food that you or me, so we must respect their experience. They have observed undoubtedly that the flavor of an iced green vegetable is bland with a bouquet reminiscent of canned string beans.

Faced with any dilemma between taste and appearance, Monsieur le Chef will always feel powerlessly compelled to prioritize the latter.

With a flourish, he’ll say from time to time, You taste with your eyes.

We talk a lot about the impact that the decline in home cooking has had on our health (not to mention our waistlines). One thing that we don’t discuss is the effect that it has had on our whole concept of meal-making.

To put it simply, when you no longer cook for yourself, then your ideas about food come from the people who cook for you. If the only meals you ever manage to enjoy occur within a restaurant setting, it’s the restaurant you’ll look to for guidance whenever you decide to cook for yourself: its particular kitchen workflow, its notion of how a dish should appear, of how food should taste—the very idea of what constitutes success at your own kitchen table.

We see this in the emergence of “home chefs” with their surgical cutlery and thousand-dollar sous vide machines. We see it in the “dinner clubs” of trendy urban households, where guests receive their own little printed menus.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in recipe-writing itself, where we’re constantly told to “serve immediately” and to “plate” everyone’s portion individually, and to strive for many other quirks that are completely at odds with the habit and rhythm of a daily home cooking routine. Deliciousness itself often seems beside the point.

Recipe-writers for the most part are not home cooks, and it shows.

So let’s get back to basics. Boiling is indeed a great way to cook these vegetables, because you can season them nicely and cook whatever amount you wish, quickly and easily. (Monsieur le Chef prefers the delicate euphemism “blanching.”)

You don’t have to worry about your tap water. Don’t bother with an ice bath. Your vegetables will retain a perfectly appetizing shade of green if you simply remove them when they’re done. They’ll taste the same, regardless.

Salting the water does actually help to preserve the vegetables’ flavor. It requires no extra effort.

Boiling is the best way to prepare these vegetables for garnish, which is most often how you’ll eat them. Garnish are the vegetables floating in the soup bowl; they fill the spaces of a casserole or a pie or an omelette. A “salad” is a paradise of garnish and nothing but.

You can also sauté these vegetables. With a little liquid or a sauce of some kind, green vegetables can stew lightly for upwards of half an hour until they acquire a brownish, disintegrating appearance that we could call “unfashionable” but that’s delicious nevertheless.

You can achieve a similar effect by roasting them in a high oven, which will make them nicely browned and completely tender.

And so green, non-leafy vegetables all work the same. These include green peas and beans, cabbage vegetables like broccoli and Brussels sprouts, asparagus and green onions. They’re interchangeable. You could put tender baby Brussels sprouts in a recipe for chicken soup that calls for spring peas. You could stew asparagus in your tomato sauce instead of green beans, or stew green beans with mushrooms and onions instead of fava beans. Any of these vegetables would compliment nearly the same ingredients in a salad.

The exceptions are few but noteworthy: Peas and asparagus make a lovely soup purée, whereas string beans and Brussels sprouts do not. Also, the flavors of asparagus are water-soluble, so the taste of this particular vegetable is less pronounced after boiling.

Roasting, sautéing, boiling—one good way exists to do each of these in your own kitchen on your own time, and that’s what I’m about to show you.

Guided by Whim, Not Recipe
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