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The Food Lab Lite: How To Put Spring On A Plate
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Spring is here, the weather outside is awesome, and I got some dogs that need a walkin', so I'm going to keep this as short and sweet as possible.
Here's a game: Go up to any chefs and ask them what their favorite season of the year is. Chances are "Spring. Right now," is the answer. Why is that? Well, they might get all poetic and claim that it's because of what spring represents—those first shoots of tender life that burst forth through the ground after the long, cold winter and all that.
But here's the truth: Chefs love spring because it makes their job easier.
Sure, winter's great, and a good chef'll be able to coax flavor out of those cellared parsnips or overgrown leeks, but it takes an awful lot of work to do so. Spring is just about the complete opposite. You want to make great food in the spring? All you've got to do is find some perfect ingredients and not mess 'em up.
My favorite way to do it? Blanching. A bit of knife work, a quick bath in well-salted boiling water, a cool down in an ice bath, and a few sparingly applied aromatics and seasonings, and you've got the essence of spring in a perfect, simple salad.
A poached egg doesn't hurt either.
The Rules of Blanching
There are no set rules for exactly what vegetables to use, but there are some basics to bring them together perfectly. Here are the rules I go by when blanching vegetables. This method will work for many of spring's finest green vegetables, including but not limited to: peas, fava beans, asparagus, fiddlehead ferns, snow peas, and snap peas.
Rule #1: Use A Big Pot With Lots of Water at a Rolling Boil.
When you drop a green vegetable into a pot of boiling water, a number of changes occur.
Firstly, blanching will destroy enough cellular structure to just barely tenderize your vegetable to the point that it has lost its raw, fibrous edge, but still retains crunch.
Secondly, intercellular gasses will expand and escape from the vegetable (you'll notice small bubbles coming out of, say, your asparagus stalks for a moment or two after dropping them into hot water). This initial escape of gas is what causes the color of a vegetable to change from pale green to a vibrant, bright green—the gases pockets that had been diffusing light suddenly disappear, allowing the full color of the chlorophyll pigment to stand out. At the same time, enzymes that would naturally break down green pigments into brown ones are destroyed.
That's why blanched vegetables appear brighter green and more importantly stay bright green much longer than fresh vegetables. Of course, continue cooking too long, and the chlorophyll will eventually break down and your vegetables will go from bright green to a drab olive green or even brown.
The goal is to effect those changes as quickly as possible, without allowing time for the chlorophyll to begin breaking down. That's why you want to use plenty of water—it retains its temperature better after adding the vegetables, which subsequently cook faster.
Rule #2: Blanch Vegetables Separately
Asparagus isn't exactly like a snap pea. Snow peas are thinner than fiddleheads. Vegetables all take a slightly different amount of time to cook depending on their size, density, etc. The only way to get all of your vegetables cooked perfectly is to cook them separately (you can use the same pot and same water, of course). This takes us to...
Rule #3: Cut All Your Vegetables The Same Size
That is, each type of vegetable should be trimmed to pieces that are all the same basic size and shape so that they cook evenly. With snap peas, for instance, I like to trim out the string, cut of the tips, then slice it at a bias into nice, pea-sized pieces that cook quickly and evenly.
For asparagus, I'll actually trim off the tip and cook it separately from the stalk, as the tip is so much narrower and more fragile that the rest of the asparagus.
Fiddleheads can be cooked as-is, as can shelled peas of fava beans. If you want to go real hardcore with your peas and favas, blanch them first, then peel off the thin shell around each individual pea/fava. It's time consuming, but you'll end up with pretty results.
Rule #4: Trust Nothing Except Your Own Senses
When blanching vegetables, do not rely on a timer, do not rely on past experience, trust no one and nothing save your own eyes and mouth. Despite the best efforts of Monsanto, vegetables are still real, living organisms that are naturally diverse. The asparagus you're cooking today is different from the asparagus you cooked last week and will take a slightly different cooking time.
Watch carefully as they cook, fish up pieces and taste them often, and as soon as they are ready, fish them out with a wire mesh strainer and drop them into your ice bath. What ice bath? This one:
Rule #5: Shock Your Vegetables in Ice Water
This rule was a no brainer for any chef a few years ago, then suddenly it became controversial because of a big, fat book that came out which reported that the hallowed technique was, in fact, useless.
That book got a lot of things right, but this is not one of them, and it's quite simple to prove to yourself: Blanch a big ol' pile of peas, take them out, and put them into a bowl without shocking them in ice water. Let them cool like that. What you'll find is that the peas at the bottom and center of the pile will have overcooked by the time you dig'em back up.
This is because the reactions that cause a pea to lose its bright green color are not instantaneous. The peas have to be above a certain temperature for a certain amount of time to lose color. A single pea cooling at room temperature will rapidly cool to a safe zone. A single pea in the middle of a pile of other really hot peas, however, may stay hot for a good fifteen minutes to half an hour, depending on the size of your pile. That's plenty of time for the pea to lose its color.
Moral of the story: if you are ever blanching more than one pea at a time, you should shock it in an ice bath afterwards.
As soon as your vegetables are chilled, remove them from the ice bath, let them drain, then dry them on a clean kitchen towel or paper towels. The dressing you're going to apply to them later sticks better to dry ingredients.
Eggs and Ramps
With all those fine spring greens blanched and ready to get dressed, they need a couple dates to the prom. A poached egg is a fine addition to any salad, but goes particularly well with spring vegetables, which are enhanced by a quick swirl through a liquid-centered yolk.
There are three real keys to making poached eggs:
- Use the freshest eggs possible. Eggs lose structure as they get older. To make the tightest, most perfectly shaped poached eggs, make sure to use absolutely fresh eggs. To get even tighter yolks, I like to break my eggs into a small bowl, the very, very carefully tilt the bowl with my hand cupping the yolk and white to let and loose, liquid white drain off before adding my egg to the water.
- Use vinegar-spiked water at a sub-simmer. A tablespoon of vinegar per quart of water will lower its pH, causing egg proteins to set a little bit faster and making it easier for you to help the eggs retain their shape. To the same end, the water should be at a sub-simmer (bring it up to a simmer, then lower the heat until the bubbles pretty much stop) in order to reduce any turbulence that could bounce the eggs around.
- Swirl your water and lower your eggs in carefully, one at at ime. Give your pot a slight whirlpool effect with a wooden spoon before carefully dropping your eggs in one at a time. This will keep the eggs from sitting on the bottom of the pot and getting too flat on one side. I'll also help shape the eggs into a neat package as the vortex will cause it to stretch slightly in one direction.
Poached eggs can be fished out with a slotted spoon and transferred to a bowl of warm tap water to keep warm until ready to go on your salad.
As for the ramps, no spring dish is complete for me without the delicious edible wild onions. I'm not a fan of blanched ramps, so I fry mine in a bit of olive oil until brown and crisp.
Two Simple Sauces
We've assembled some perfect ingredients, so now all we have to do it dress them and put them all together. The first sauce I'm using here is easy: I took the blanched asparagus stems and simply puréed them in the blender with a bit of extra virgin olive oil and a drop or two of water to create a creamy emulsion that I spooned onto the bottom of the plate.
The second sauce is a simple lemon zest vinaigrette. The most basic vinaigrette is a mixture of oil and acid, mixed vigorously until emulsified. The emulsification helps the sauce cling to foods more easily, coating them in light flavor. For this version, I used lemon juice, lemon zest, extra-virgin olive oil, and some finely minced shallots.
The greatest part of a dish like this is that you can do pretty much everything ahead of time—blanch your vegetables, make the purée, make the vinaigrette, even poach the eggs—and store them in the fridge. When you're ready to eat, just mix your vegetables (I added a few tender raw snow pea shoots into the salad as well) and toss them in vinaigrette until coated. Lay them on top of your purée, add your egg, drizzle with a bit more vinaigrette (or just straight up olive oil), and you're ready to dig in.
Of course, we all know that this photo above is the greatest moment in the whole affair, right?
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.