In the spring a young man’s fancy may lightly turn to other things, but I know at least one old dude who has nothing but vegetables on his mind. Tiny little carrots, big fat asparagus, fava beans, artichokes, fresh peas and delicate greens ... who’s got time to think of anything else?
I’ve been on a vegetable-cooking orgy the last several weeks. Not only is there so much raw material to choose from, but I’ve got one of my favorite toys: a new cooking technique. It’s about as simple as you can get--all it takes is a skillet with a lid, a half-cup or so of water and (of course!) a little fat for flavor. The result is quickly cooked vegetables that taste intensely of themselves.
All you need to do is place the trimmed vegetables (cut to roughly similar sizes so they get done at the same time) in a cold skillet. Add just enough water to cover the bottom of the pan, some butter or olive oil and a little salt. Bring the mixture just to a boil over high heat, and as soon as you see the bubbles forming, clamp on the lid and keep cooking, shaking the pan occasionally, until the vegetables are just tender enough to be pierced with a paring knife.
Then take off the lid and continue cooking over high heat. As the liquid in the pan reduces, you’ll hear the sound change from the soft bubble of boiling to the sharp sizzle of frying. When all of the liquid is gone, what’s left behind will be a flavorful glaze made up of the fat you added and the reduced essences of the vegetable.
Add a squeeze of lemon to freshen things up and you’re done. The whole thing takes about five minutes.
That’s the bare outline anyway. You can add minced garlic at the beginning (so good it really ought to be required, especially with green beans, fennel or artichokes) and you can add fresh herbs at the end. If you like, you can use good-quality vinegar rather than lemon juice, but there’s not much that complements spring vegetables better than lemon. Interestingly, the only difference in the formula seems to be the amount of water--and that varies with the size of the pan, not the density of the vegetable. Adding just enough to cover the bottom of the pan always seems to do the trick.
Here’s how the technique works: Vegetables are made up mainly of water and cellulose. Cellulose is the tough stuff that makes up the walls of the cells and it’s the reason raw vegetables are hard. Cellulose breaks down very quickly when it’s heated with water. As the cellulose breaks down, the water inside the cells is freed, carrying with it much of the vegetable’s flavoring compounds (you may notice that halfway through the cooking, there seems to be more water in the pan than you started with). When you finish the cooking with the lid off, the water evaporates, leaving behind the flavoring compounds. The fat captures them and fixes them onto the vegetables.
This final “glazing” step is what makes this recipe different than plain old boiled vegetables. With boiled vegetables, all of that flavor leaks out into the water, never to be recaptured. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing--with some very forward-flavored vegetables, a slight taming of the taste is welcome. But in most cases, glazing is an improvement.
I’ve cooked green beans this way, and carrots and fennel (especially good with lots of garlic and when you add some chopped fronds at the end). It’s my absolute favorite way to cook asparagus (in this case, you’ll want to use the fat spears and peel them well--but don’t bother snapping off the ends, they’ll be tender after peeling).
But artichokes may be the very best, especially the so-called “baby” ones. These aren’t really immature artichokes, rather they’re simply fully developed ones that happen to be small. Every artichoke plant produces one or two giant artichokes, a half-dozen or so secondary sized artichokes (the ones about the size of your fist) and then about the same number of “babies.”
These can be a great buy--probably because they’re too small to be boiled and served with mayonnaise, which seems to be about the only way most people know how to cook artichokes. We don’t normally make endorsements, but in this case, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that Trader Joe’s sells these little artichokes in 2-pound containers for only a couple of bucks--a spectacular bargain.
Cook those up with some garlic and a little fresh mint and see where your fancy turns.