Savor well-cooked veggies

October 03, 2007|By Russ Parsons | Russ Parsons,Los Angeles Times

Walk into a hopping tapas bar in Spain or a little osteria in Italy, and right at the front door you're likely to find a table full of bowls of vegetables. At first glance, you might think this is just one more sign that the end of the world is near: a salad bar in Europe?

But there's one big difference: Most of the vegetables will have been cooked, and not just a little bit - they'll be almost limp. And they will be delicious.

While modern cooks have made a cult of crispness since the introduction of nouvelle cuisine in the 1970s, it pays to remember that sometimes long cooking brings out flavor.

Well-cooked vegetables have depth and richness. Even better, they are usually served at room temperature. Though some of their bright colors might have faded, and their crisp textures softened to the point that they flop lazily on a fork, this gives them a cool languor that is infinitely appealing.

You can serve these vegetables as the Spanish and Italians would, as appetizers (and the more the merrier - mix and match vegetables to make an assortment of flavors).

Or you can complement them with sliced salami, prosciutto, chorizo or a piece of good cheese.

Under the common heading of "long-cooked vegetables" is a variety of ingredients and techniques.

All sorts of vegetables can be grilled. Brush slices of eggplant and zucchini with olive oil and grill them over a medium-hot fire until they are tender. As they come off the grill, layer them on a platter with fresh herbs and sprinkle with olive oil and good vinegar.

You can prepare vegetables the way the Italians do in scapece. Fry eggplant, zucchini and even carrots in hot oil until they're just brown, then dress them with vinegar and fresh herbs and set them aside so the flavors can marry.

Even more simply, grill whole bell peppers until their skins are shriveled and start to blacken. After they have cooled, peel away the papery skin, discard the seeds and toss the peppers with olive oil, sliced garlic and sherry vinegar. A generous grating of black pepper gives a nice bottom to the flavor.

If you're tired of grilled and fried eggplant, try steaming it. This sounds crazy, but it really works. Cut the eggplant (peeled or not) into chunks and steam until the flesh is extremely tender (7 or 8 minutes). The flavor stays pure and clean. After it's cooked, toss the eggplant with minced garlic and herbs, olive oil and lemon juice.

Or roast tomatoes: Grind fresh bread cubes to crumbs with garlic and basil; slice off the top third of fresh tomatoes and squeeze out the seeds. Jam the tomatoes tightly into a well-oiled baking dish, sprinkle with bread crumbs, drizzle with olive oil and bake at 400 degrees until the crumbs are brown and crusty.

The tomatoes will shrink and shrivel in their own juices, concentrating the flavor and becoming custardlike in texture.

My favorite method for fixing well-cooked vegetables is braising. As the flesh softens, it not only develops flavor, but absorbs the flavors of other ingredients cooked with it.

In general, vegetable braises proceed this way: Saute onion and garlic in a little oil to build a flavor base.

Next, add the main ingredient. Be sure to cut the vegetable in large pieces so it will cook long enough to develop flavor without falling apart. Cook briefly in the flavoring mixture and add a little water to start the braising (the vegetable will release its own moisture).

Finally, reduce the heat to low and cook long enough to coax the flavor out of the vegetable. This can take as little as 20 minutes for a soft vegetable such as zucchini or as long as an hour for meaty Romano beans.

As Romanos cook, their texture changes. At first, they are like fatter, denser green beans; a little longer and they turn rich and meaty. Braise them until the pods start to separate and fall apart, though, and they turn positively silky.

You can braise zucchini that way, too. The texture becomes downright buttery. Brighten the rich, sweet flavor with mint and lemon and add toasted pine nuts for crunch and contrast.

You've probably noticed that some sort of acid - vinegar or lemon juice - is a prominent component of these dishes. The acidity gives the dish the backbone it needs to avoid feeling flat and heavy. Because the acidity is so important, be sure to taste and add more, if necessary, just before serving.

Russ Parsons writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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