Let’s Start with Vegetables

June 8, 2018

Having returned to the kitchen after a spell, I have found that vegetables are one item that young cooks often don’t deem worthy of their time and effort.  This is a big mistake.  I worked at a French restaurant in my youth and had to prepare the six different vegetables that accompany a Rack of Lamb, each one distinct and lovely.  I started at Buckhead Life Group as the vegetable cook at 103 West, when it was still a Parisian style restaurant.  Steamed, sauteed, fried, blanched, shocked, etc.

It’s hard to write a recipe for vegetable cookery.  If you are sauteing simple old summer squash or zucchini, you want to have the right size pan so the vegetables get a little brown and not steam together becoming mushy; the right amount of oil, so they get a light coating of oil on the outside only, and not greasy; and the right amount of squash in the pan so they don’t burn.

When you cook a green vegetable such as a bean or broccoli, you must have plenty of boiling water so the vegetables stay green, with a little salt; to bring out the flavor, not to make them salty.  If you put too big a handful of the vegetables in the pot of boiling water, the water will take too long to come back to a boil and you will lose the color.  If you put too little in the pot, the chef will be ticked off that you are spending all afternoon, blanching some frigging green beans.  You want the vegetable to be al dente, meaning to the tooth. Your tooth should just break through the vegetables.  Most people understand this with pasta, but are careless with the vegetables. This means you can’t set a timer, you must continually test the vegetable with a little knife or by eating a piece.

If they are cooked too long in the water, they will become limp, off color and  just sad, especially when reheated.  Most new cooks just pull the vegetable out of the water way too early so I will see them bright green and leave them alone  But then the veg are under cooked and have very little flavor.  I once had a cook say to me, “but I like crunchy vegetables”.  I told him he was wrong.  They should be cooked au Point  (to the point)  which really means perfectly.  Not soft, not crunchy, full of flavor and able to stand (not literally) on their own.  If a guests wants crunchy vegetables, I will make them crunchy vegetables.

But if you cook broccolini long enough to get the stems tender, then the pretty little flowerets will be limp, gray and fall away.  This is a big conundrum for me, with which I have yet to come to terms.

When we cook green vegetables in the restaurant, we blanch them in boiling water and then shock them in a generous amount of ice water (enough so the ice doesn’t melt until the vegetable is cold).
So many times in the last few weeks, I have had to harangue my staff about getting the vegetables drained when they are cold and stored away instead of them swimming in the albeit ice water.  It just makes them waterlogged.   Yes?

When we grill the corn for our Chowder, I found a long time employee cutting too close along the cob.  Somehow he didn’t get the message years ago.  Just cut the corn kernels about halfway deep along the cob and then scrape all the lovely guts and milkiness off and into the pile of corn.

Roasting baby carrots must be cleaned very well and SEPARATED into different sizes and if they are multicolored, into different batches of different sizes.  Yes, this means 4 or 5 separate little pans of carrots going into the oven with different amounts of oil and water, so they steam and caramelize evenly and completely.

Oh, and asparagus…..how lovely would it be to take the bunch and just cut if off halfway.  Unfortunately the packers have cut them evenly at the base, not at the top, so if you would like to have them evenly splayed out on a plate to serve, you must take the rubber bands off, even them up from the top of the stalk and cut the irregular bottoms off.  And that is after you have either peeled them, or soaked them in water for 20 minutes.  We all know that we should take an individual stalk of asparagus and holding both ends, break it in half.  This will tell you where the ripe part starts and ends.  Realistically in a restaurant setting, we don’t want them different sizes, because that means different cooking times, and an unruly presentation on the plate.  We just cut them shorter than necessary, thereby contributing to the waste of food on this planet.

All our other trimmings go in the stock pot, but asparagus does not.  Neither do the green feathery leaves of the celery.  I had a chef tell me they would make the stock bitter.  Life’s too short to question everything.

And so it goes.


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