An End to Al Dente: Lightly Cooked Can Be Exactly the Wrong Way to Taste Vegetables

I ONCE SHOWED OFF to a group of Italians by serving a first course of fat fresh local asparagus I had bought at the Florence market. I peeled a very great number of them, and watched carefully once the water came to the boil lest they cook too long. After much anxious piercing with a knife I drained them at just the right moment and brought them forth. Fora while there was concentrated, puzzled chewing. Then a young woman broke the silence. “But these are raw,” she said.

I felt bad, both because my friends weren’t impressed and because they couldn’t appreciate the glory of a noble vegetable cooked to display its perfect freshness. Italians are simply used to overcooked vegetables, I thought with some scorn—times have changed, and we know better.

I’ve since come to realize that out of rebellion against the gray and acrid “green” vegetables many of us were served in our youth we have come to value bright color over taste, and to think that the only acceptable texture for vegetables is somewhere between celery sticks and dowels. It’s time to admit that some vegetables taste a lot better when they’re more pliable, even if they’re not a comic-book green. It’s time to protest crudites served with the main course.

Of course, not all vegetables benefit from long cooking. The pioneers of nouvelle cuisine, with their mantra tender-crisp, did liberate us from soft and smelly brussels sprouts, for instance, one of the least attractive overcooked vegetables. It does seem a very long time, though, since I’ve had a boiled potato that wasn’t hard in the middle and gluey. Eggplant is delicious grilled, but it’s terrible when tough and fibrous, which is how it always seems to be served. I’m also tired of chewing and chewing pretty carrots that are supposedly cooked. Visual appeal is crucial in making foods appetizing, especially vegetables. But they should taste like more than cellulose.

I worst NOMINATE undercooked TWO vegetables in the belief as the that color and texture are paramount: string beans and broccoli. String beans, which are more logically called green beans, since so few need stringing anymore, don’t have much taste when they’re boiled for a few minutes and drained just after they turn a bright grass green. This is the way I have always cooked them, thinking that when their color is at its most intense their flavor must be too. I’ve had to season them heavily with salt and pepper, and to add lemon juice and oil too. And it has been work to eat them.

I was recently given pause when friend from North Carolina, enlightened in culinary matters, became dreamy while recounting the pressurecooked green beans of her youth. I queasy as she enthused over their vor and the ease of cutting through them with a fork, thinking instead brown and musty they surely tasted. lot of fatback in the pot gave what flavor they had, I reasoned. then I remembered that every bean I had ever been served in was dark green and tender, and ed that perhaps rich European couldn’t account for my fondness them.

Like most people, I had always that flavor somehow fades with Harold McGee, the author of the sential On Food and Cooking and of a lightful new series of essavs on science and cooking, The Curious Cook, to published next month, set me straight. “The chemical reactions that and color involve are distinct,”he plained. “There’s no necessary relation between them.” Chlorophyll, which gives vegetables their breaks down quickly. (And if plunge green vegetables in ice water stop the breakdown and keep the bright, a common trick among you risk making the vegetables taste waterlogged.) But flavor compounds, he said, can take time to develop, and the compounds present after forty-five minutes of cooking can be very different from those at five, say, or twenty minutes.

But are they welcome flavor compounds? I telephoned Anna del Conte, a writer whom I greatly admire—she is the best historian of Italian food in either Italian or English, and has a highly developed sense for good food too. Her recently published Italian Pantry is full of everyday recipes that are easy and unusual, and have the just-right simplicity of great home cooking. (The recipes are grouped by ingredients, which explains the title; they’re full of fresh vegetables, fish, and meat.) She said that green beans are better long cooked, and that the real way to tell when they are done is not by color but by smell. “It’s pervasive,”she said. “Don’t you know it? My moth used to get up suddenly and sa ‘Oh, the beans, they must be nearly done’—just the way you can smell a cake baking near the end.”I couldn’t conjure the smell, because I had for so long drained green beans before they began to release it.

That night I made a recipe that she called her favorite way of eating green beans (it’s from an earlier book, unfortunately not available here). When the simple Tuscan stew, with onion, tomato, and crushed fennel seed, was done, I ate every bit of it, amazed that I was tasting Italy in my own house. Maybe it wasn’t the soil. Maybe it was better to eat a green bean that hung in a curl when you lifted it instead of one that stayed stiff. Certainly these were succulent, an adjective I had never thought I’d use for green beans.

I’ve since made the recipe in a number of other ways, but find that Del Conte’s method is best. Trim a pound of fresh green beans that have lively color and a firm, slightly furry surface. Bring two to four quarts of water to a boil. While the water is heating, separately chop one medium onion and four or five plum tomatoes (this should yield about a cup and a half of chopped tomato; you can stitute drained and chopped canned tomatoes). Crush a teaspoon of fennel seeds in a mortar and pestle, or with the end of a knife handle in a small bowl; the seeds need not be ground to a powder, just broken into small pieces. Even if you have no fennel seed on hand, you’ll still see the pleasures of long, slow cooking. Heat a film of olive oil in a wide saute pan and sweat the onion for five minutes, until it turns translucent; it should not brown. When the water boils, add more salt than you usually would. “Beans take a tremendous amount of salt in the water, more than any other vegetable, more than pasta even,” Del Conte says. Beans are often insipid; try two tablespoons of coarse salt. Boil the beans for four or five minutes, until they just begin to soften. Drain them and add them to the onions, with the tomato and fennel seed. Cook, covered, over low heat for thirty-five to forty minutes. The beans will darken and soften, and absorb the liquid exuded by the onion and tomato. They might even look brownish. Their rich flavor, heightened but not masked by the tomato and fennel, will be generous recompense.

Southerners cook green beans even longer. Bill Neal, a chef and historian in Chapel Hill and the author of Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking, my favorite introduction to the subject, recently researched green-bean recipes for his new book, Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie. He quotes Azilee Edwards, who wrote in a 1976 book of food from one section of Atlanta: “A green bean is supposed to be cooked at least three hours anyway if you want to make them taste good.”

Neal told me that all the recipes call for the liquid to be nearly evaporated by the end, whether the beans are cooked for a half hour or three hours. Most call for unsmoked or lightly smoked bacon. “My mother can cook them that way and they’re so good I can’t stand it,” he said. “There’s nothing like those well-cooked beans. They’re not overcooked. They’re wellcooked, and that’s not the same thing.”

I when DON’T it’s HAVE cooked MUCH lightly, use for and broccoli think it’s far better after longer cooking. But that’s my opinion; it’s not necessary to cook it a long time to taste its real flavor, as it is for green beans. The taste of broccoli changes completely with long cooking. It becomes sweeter, milder, smoother, and richer, but not old or cabbagy (broccoli is a member of the cabbage family).

A standard pasta sauce in Italy can also be served as a vegetable dish: broccoli braised for a long time with olive oil, garlic, and hot pepper. (Braising is slow cooking in a covered pan with a small amount of liquid.) Del Conte offers a recipe for broccoli stu-fati, and Alice Waters and Paul Bertolli, in Chez Panisse Cooking, offer one for long-cooked broccoli. They are very similar. To make broccoli stufati, cut a pound of broccoli into florets and stems, and peel the stems and cut them into small pieces. Blanch the broccoli pieces in lightly salted boiling water for three minutes. In a saute pan heat one to three tablespoons of olive oil with five peeled garlic cloves (you can put a toothpick through each clove to help you find it later) and a dried chili. After a minute or two take out the chili and put in the broccoli. Cook, covered, for about forty minutes. This can also be done in a microwave oven, heating the oil, garlic, and chili uncovered for two minutes and then the broccoli covered for about twenty minutes. To make sure that the flavor is concentrated and the texture that of a chunky puree, Waters and Bertolli cook the broccoli for an hour and fifteen minutes; I find that forty minutes is enough. Remove the garlic before serving.

WHAT cooking OF NUTRITION? best way Isn’t to long lose precious nutrients? Not entirely. “The nutrient content of string beans is pretty low,” says Jelia Witschi, a lecturer in nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. “You have some vitamin C and a smattering of B vitamins, but not a huge amount.” Heat and time and oxidation destroy these nutrients. The most efficient way to preserve vitamins is to cook whole vegetables quickly in a small amount of water. Small pieces allow more surface area to come into contact with heat, and if the vegetables are boiled, they leach nutrients into the water.

I tried cooking raw green beans with sauteed onion and tomato and fennel seed, but it took them an hour to acquire the flavor I wanted, and they still seemed woody. That woodiness is a problem I haven’t been able to overcome in the microwave oven, which is why green beans are among the few vegetables I don’t cook in it. A little research led to the reason, and explained whv undercooked and old green beans are almost as tough and stringy as pea pods from garden peas (as opposed to snow peas or sugar snap peas, grown to be eaten whole). Green beans are immature beans in their casings, bred to be edible; the casings of mature beans that are meant to be dried are not tasty, even when picked young. All these casings contain lignin, a substance found in wood, hemp, and linen, but in few other green vegetables.

Boiling seems best at breaking down the lignin, better than braising, steaming, or microwaving. If you want to boil green beans plain, wait for that smell, which is indeed pervasive and, depending on the age of the beans, starts in about ten minutes; taste beans until they seem done. I find that after twelve to fifteen minutes boiled beans seem to have had all the flavor cooked out of them, and that slow braising, in which the beans absorb the small amount of liquid used to cook them, gives them the most flavor. It doesn’t turn them to mush, either, probably because of that lignin; even after an hour they remain slightly firm.

Broccoli doesn’t present the lignin problem, and so it’s easily cooked by several methods. I think it’s worth getting used to mushiness for better taste, but you’re giving up more than firmness with long cooking. Broccoli is high in vitamin C, which is especially susceptible to heat. You lose a fair amount if you cook broccoli for more than five minutes, and you continue to lose it as you cook it. Not all is lost, however, and with long cooking you can leave on the thick skin of the stalk, which contains additional nutrients. (The skin should be pared if you blanch the broccoli, for even cooking).

I was surprised by a 1980 study cited by David Haytowitz, a nutritionist specializing in vegetables at the Human Nutrition Information Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Six vegetables were tested for nutrient content when canned, frozen, or bought fresh from the supermarket (and then boiled lightly, in little water). All came out similar. Jelia Witschi says, “Almost any vegetable from large packers will be off the vine and in its first processing mode within an hour. They don’t fool around with it.”She stresses the difference between garden-fresh and market-fresh vegetables, which have usually been in transit for a few days, slowly losing vitamins the whole time.

This is the time of year when you can have truly garden-fresh vegetables, and I wouldn’t want to interfere with what’s most healthful. Enjoy tender-crisp sugar snap peas. But try a few cooked vegetables with real flavor. □