The Soft Approach: In Praise of Soft-Cooked Vegetables
A cook ventures past the point of al dente
Enlarge Image Credit: Todd ColemanI blame Julia Child for our national aversion to soft vegetables. It wasn't until she started urging American cooks—in her books and on her PBS series, The French Chef—to blanch everything from green beans to kale and then shock them in cold water, that a bright green color and firm texture were programmed in our minds as the platonic ideal. Well, I grew up on soggy broccoli rabe, and that's still my favorite way to eat it. Granted, broccoli rabe that's cooked just beyond its bright green state yet is still unpalatably bitter is a foul punishment. But something happens if you keep cooking it past that point. Eventually it becomes mellow, unctuous—creamy, even—the stems melting away in the mouth as ethereally as the florets.
That was how my grandmother, who hailed from the Abruzzi region of Italy, prepared it, but early on I noticed that broccoli rabe like my nonna's was nowhere to be found outside our home. In restaurants and on cooking shows, it was prepared one way: blanched, then sautéed. And served one way: safely on the firm side of tender. When I got a kitchen of my own and started collecting cookbooks, I realized that the most respected food authorities were opposed to certain long-cooked vegetables. In the vegetable volume of Time-Life's The Good Cook series (1979), the editors advised to "keep the cooking time brief" for all crucifers lest they "become sulfurous." Yet I knew full well that Nonna's broccoli rabe—and my own—never had that offensive smell. And then there was food science writer Harold McGee, whose On Food and Cooking (Scribner, 1984) proclaimed, "Prolonged cooking makes members of the onion family more sweet and mellow, but the cabbage family gets more overbearing and unpleasant." Full stop.
You've got to really push the envelope, push through the just-cooked stage, and you arrive at that sweet complexity
McGee explained the chemistry behind that cabbagey stink, but he failed to account for the sweetness that comes around if you brave through that stage and keep on cooking. But, I thought, what about the greens that simmer to sweetness for hours in kitchens across the American South? Or the many Middle Eastern dishes of vegetables rendered luscious via long stewing? None of my heroes acknowledged these foods; none of them, it seemed, had ever left the pan on the heat for too long and made a happy discovery. What did they serve, I wondered, in the heart of winter, when everything else on the plate was roasted, and a bit of squishy comfort was warranted?