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Give them a hot minute

Blanching, done right, can capture the freshness of spring vegetables -- right down to the telltale crunch. The trick is in the timing.

April 12, 2006|Amy Scattergood | Special to The Times

ASPARAGUS, fava beans, fiddleheads, ramps: These are the prizes of early spring. Amazing as they are, they're just here 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 them right then or keep them in the refrigerator until you're ready for them.

Tried and true tips

THERE are a few tricks to proper blanching. First, use a big pot of water. James Peterson, in his exhaustive and brilliant 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 one tablespoon per quart of water) also ensures quick cooking, as 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, as almost all of it remains in the water. Keep the stove turned up as high as possible, but don't succumb to the temptation of covering the pot. You want a quick boil, not a violent steam bath.

The third caveat is critical, as 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 -- unless you have guests waiting with lifted forks and can eat them immediately -- 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. This is what restaurants do, though remember that this is when you can inadvertently reduce your perfect emerald spears of new asparagus to a sodden, overcooked, gray-green mass.

Please 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 a trace of butter or olive oil into a new hot pan and toss them quickly -- if they're already hot, they won't become greasy, the way they inevitably would if you reheat them in butter from the start.

A critical juncture

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. A few minutes, then into an ice bath. Serve them simply with a vinaigrette, with a traditional hollandaise, or in a composed salad.

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