What makes a dish picture perfect? Spring vegetables, such as carrots and asparagus, with their brilliance and vibrancy have all the visual appeal I'm looking for. You can make a simple salad to bring out the best these spring vegetables have to offer. Or you can take a few extra steps to transform the raw crunchy vegetables into a warm dish of braised and tender vegetables. This dish is the definition of picture perfect, as well as pitch perfect!
My favorite approach in braising vegetables is to use a technique I learnt a while back when I took a fine-dining course in the French Culinary Institute in New York City. Frequently, I find myself using the parchment lid technique, or à l' étuvée, (not only for vegetables, and for fruits too), to preserve the vibrancy and flavor of vegetables. It's a slightly more labor-intensive approach, like the majority of techniques in French cooking. Invariably, you are rewarded by the clean and unadulterated flavor of delicate vegetables with a little extra effort and attention in preparing them à l' étuvée.
When I am all alone in the kitchen, slow braising vegetables with a parchment lid, put me in a meditative mode that connects my senses to the food. I can hear the barely audible sizzling sound of food cooking in the pan and see steam gently escaping around the lid. In the end, the food is not only picture perfect, it comes fully alive. It sings.
When you have the time and inclination to master the technique, you may find it to be a worthy one among your arsenal of cooking tools. Keep in mind that this is a chef technique preparing vegetables to order, for a single or double serving, not a technique for mass production. To serve a big family, the conventional braising method (see the cheat sheet below) tends to be more economical, time wise.
These were the steps I took in using the parchment lid to braise the vegetables:
- I placed carrots, potatoes, and leeks and shallots (instead of fennel and green onions in Heidi Swanson's recipe) in a large sauté pan that holds them in a single layer. The key is not to crowd the pan. Added cold water a little more than three-quarters up the sides of the vegetables. I used only a tablespoon of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Covered the vegetables with a parchment-paper lid cut to the size of the pan with a small hole cut in the center. (To cut a parchment lid: Fold a piece of parchment paper into quarters. Fold one outside corner over to the opposite inside corner. Repeat with the other side, to form a narrow triangular shape. Trim to the size of the pan. Cut away the tip of the triangle, and unfold to create the lid.)
|Add water to vegetables in a single layer|
|Put parchment lid over the simmering vegetables|
- The purpose of the lid is to slow the rate of evaporation, so that the vegetables are cooked at about the same speed as the water evaporates. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook until the vegetables are tender. Move and turn the vegetables around from time to time to ensure even cooking. Keep an eye on the vegetables to make sure that the water doesn't evaporate before the vegetables are fully cooked. Use a fork to pierce into the vegetables to check for doneness. It took me about 30 minutes to braise the vegetables to fork tenderness under the parchment lid.
- Separately, I cooked the asparagus, spread out in single layer on a baking sheet, in a 400°F oven for about 10 minutes. I did that for two reasons. There was not enough room to add more vegetables in the sauté pan without crowding the pan. I like the roasted flavor and the intense dark green color of asparagus that you don't get when they are simmered in a pot of boiling water.
- Finally, place braised vegetables and roasted asparagus on the plate. Top them with slices of lemon and fresh fennel. Finish with a drizzle of good-quality extra-virgin olive oil.
The cheat sheet below shows Heidi Swanson's recipe of olive oil braised spring vegetables using a conventional method.