Cooking your veggies to their flavorful peak

Blanching is a quick and easy way to preserve freshness

April 26, 2006|By AMY SCATTERGOOD | AMY SCATTERGOOD,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Asparagus, fava beans, fiddleheads, ramps: These are the prizes of early spring. Amazing as they are, they're here just for a fleeting time and they beg a light touch, a deft response.

They demand a cooking technique as ephemeral as the season itself, one that preserves the intrinsic nature of the vegetable in all its sudden glory. To make the transition from raw and earth-clad to cooked and on your dinner plate as merciful as possible, the best thing to do is to blanch your spring bounty.

Julia Child called blanching "the great secret of French green-vegetable cookery," and you soon see why. It's a forthright, extremely easy method that requires only a pot of water, a healthy dose of salt (no, that's not a contradiction in terms) and a brief moment of consideration.

And the result is brilliant: The vegetables are preserved at their height of freshness, their rough-hewn nature tamed by the brief baptism, their flavor perfectly articulated, their color and crunch preserved. It works for baby carrots and turnips, as well as for the more fragile spring offerings.

The intense heat of the water cooks the vegetables so quickly that the freshness remains intact, while any raw harshness is softened.

Shock the vegetables in an ice-water bath, and the essence you've captured lasts for hours. Think of it as a momentary freeze-frame. Blanch a bundle of asparagus for five minutes, quickly douse it in cold water and the glory of the asparagus can last all afternoon. Drain the bundle, pat dry and either eat it right then or keep it in the refrigerator until you're ready for it.

There are a few tricks to proper blanching. First, use a big pot of water. James Peterson, in his book Vegetables, suggests using at least three quarts of water per pound of vegetables. The idea is to keep the water as close to the boiling point as possible during the critical minutes when you're adding the produce to the pot. Not enough water and everything will cool down too much; you want things to cook as quickly as possible.

Salting the water heavily (Peterson says about 1 tablespoon per quart of water) also ensures quick cooking, because salt raises the boiling point and also works to preserve the color.

In The French Laundry Cookbook, Thomas Keller writes that when you're blanching vegetables, "the water should taste like the ocean." And anyone worried about salt needn't be, because almost all of it remains in the water. Keep the stove turned up as high as possible.

The third caveat is critical, because carry-over cooking can ruin a beautifully blanched vegetable in minutes. Have a bowl of ice water ready, or a running cold tap. As soon as the vegetables are done (five minutes, say, depending on the type and size of what you're blanching), remove them from the pot and plunge them into ice water. This stops the cooking instantly.

From the ice water, dry and refrigerate what you've blanched. Blanched vegetables can stay like this for hours, though after six or so, they'll begin to wilt and discolor. If you want to use your vegetables cold, in a composed salad or under a splash of vinaigrette, you needn't do anything else to them. If you want to serve your vegetables warm, under a hollandaise, say, you will need to reheat them.

Resist the urge to throw the blanched vegetables back into a boiling pot or into a microwave. Instead, heat a few tablespoons of water to boiling in a saute pan and quickly toss in the vegetables. As soon as they're hot, you're done. Blot on a paper towel and serve them with their accompaniment. Or, after they're heated through, add butter or olive oil into a new hot pan and toss them quickly.

If you're making a quick spring ragout, such as Deborah Madison's, blanching becomes the critical transitional stage, enabling the spring vegetables to be cooked before they get to the dish itself.

If asparagus is your pleasure, use kitchen string to tie it into a bundle; that keeps the tiny spears from getting too buffeted by the roiling water. Blanch them for a few minutes, then put them into an ice bath. Serve them simply with a vinaigrette, with a hollandaise or in a composed salad.

Or take ramps, wild leeks. Plunge them into your pot and the result is a brilliant paean to spring. A rich, fruity vinaigrette is all they need.

Fiddleheads, which you can find only for the next few weeks, are the coiled part of a new fern that hasn't yet unfurled. They are culled from forest beds and riverbanks in New England and along the California-Oregon border.

Blanch them for about five minutes. Dress them with melted butter and herbs and serve them, like a gift from the forest floor.

Amy Scattergood wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.

Ramps in Walnut Vinaigrette With Orange Zest

Serves 4 -- Total time: 45 minutes

Adapted from Vegetables From Amaranth to Zucchini, by Elizabeth Schneider. Look for ramps at farmers' markets.

sea salt

4 dozen ramps (about 1 pound)

1 teaspoon (optional for bread crumbs) plus 2 tablespoons olive oil

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