QUICK COOKING TO PRESERVE COLOR AND FLAVOR
This past weekend I made the marinated vegetable salad pictured above as part of a pizza and salad bar lunch for the Golden Gate Men’s Chorus who were on a weekend retreat. My goal was to deliver vegetable nutrition in a light, colorful and tasty form. As I’m not a fan of most vegetables in the raw unless they are grated or shaved very fine, I like to cook veggies for salad just enough to deepen the color and take the rawness away, while preserving a pleasing crunch. The technique I use is to dip the veggies briefly in rapidly boiling water, what some call parboiling, but I call blanching.While blanching is one of the quickest and most straight forward cooking techniques of all, the trick is in the timing. And the important point here, as in so many things in life, is to pay very close attention.
First of all, have a large pot with a copious amount of water, a stock pot perhaps. The reason you want a lot of water is that you’ll get the best results in nutrition, color and texture if your water keeps boiling when you dip in your vegetables.
As blanching goes quickly, have your vegetables all cut before you begin cooking. Dense root vegetables such as carrots should be cut thin, while broccoli and cauliflower are prettiest if cut into florets. Don’t discard the stems of these vegetables, peeled and sliced they’re delicious.
Once your water is rapidly boiling, add a pinch of salt and dip your vegetables, each kind in a separate batch, as cooking times vary from vegetable to vegetable. Cooking time will be 1 to 4 minutes, depending, except for thin asparagus, green beans or snow peas which can take less than a minute. Once your vegetables are in the pot, do not move away from the stove. Have a strainer or a spider handy for snatching the veggies out. Once the color has deepened, take a piece out and test the stem end. If it has softened even a little, the veggies are ready to take out. Remember they will continue cooking after they are out of the water. Scatter them on a cookie sheet to cool.
Often you are advised to plunge the veggies into an ice water bath “to stop the cooking and set the color.” I’m advising against that because what you end up with are cold, wet veggies, and cold veggies are not optimal receptacles for dressings and other seasonings. Instead of an ice bath, I’m recommending paying closer attention to the cooking process and removing the vegetables sooner.
That’s it. Your veggies are ready to be dressed, probably with a simple vinaigrette dressing. Dress all the veggies except the green ones while they’re still warm. Add the green veggies to the salad only at serving time or the acid in the dressing may turn the green to an unpleasant yellow or brown.
In the salad above, I used carrots, celery, broccoli, cauliflower and red bell pepper, but sugar snap peas, green beans and cabbage would be great as well. And in the summer, raw tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes and sprouts can be mixed with the cooked veggies. Aim for variety of shapes, colors and vegetable types.
A SIMPLE VINAIGRETTE DRESSING
The truth is there is no one way to make a vinaigrette dressing, there are endless variations, and so I’ll give you an outline of a recipe from which to improvise your own: Place a peeled clove of garlic, 2 tablespoons each of lemon juice, water and vinegar (wine, balsamic, rice, your choice), a tablespoon of rice syrup, honey or apple juice concentrate, a teaspoon of prepared mustard and a little pinch of salt and black in your blender. Cover and blend on high. Leaving the cover on, open the insert in the middle of the cover and slowly pour in a cup of canola oil or similar oil, blending until all is emulsified (use a good quality oil, but as flavorful as this dressing is, using as expensive extra virgin olive oil doesn’t make sense). Stop the blender, dip in a piece of the whatever you are dressing, taste. Add vinegar, lemon juice, mustard, more salt and pepper, whatever your taste buds tell you is necessary for a well balanced dressing. This is likely much more dressing than you’ll need for a single salad, but it keeps well in a screw-top jar in your fridge.