One of my all-time favorite books in the subject of food science is “On Food and Cooking” by Harold McGee. Mr. McGee is one of the rock stars in the world of food science and any food nerd’s (like me) book collection is incomplete without “On Food and Cooking“. But that’s not the book we will be talking about today. That book is like an encyclopedia of food knowledge that will probably require a 5-part series to even begin explaining what it is about!!
Today, I will be drawing insights from another of Harold’s book called “Keys to good cooking: A guide to making the best of food and recipes“. I will specifically be showcasing some ideas about cooking vegetables in that book. This book is a lighter read than “On Food and Cooking.” The book is filled with notebook-like-ideas with tips on this and that.
Probably because of the easy, flow nature of the book, I keep scribbling my copy with notes and underlines to emphasize certain points. It is funny because I keep my “On Food and Cooking” copy so spotless in comparison.
This book has 24 chapters on kitchen tools, cooking methods, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, bread, etc. I found his chapter on vegetables most useful. Here are my top insights on cooking vegetables from Harold McGee’s “Keys to good cooking: A guide to making the best of food and recipes.”
Tips to cook vegetables
Cooking generally softens vegetable texture, deepens the flavor, increases the availability of some nutrients while reducing the level of others, and eliminates microbes.From “Keys to good cooking…” McGee.
- Greens: Don’t cook too long or in acidic environments!!
Green vegetables stay green longer in neutral or alkaline water. If yours turn dull in 5 or 10 minutes, try adding small amounts of baking soda to the cooking water. Too much soda, will however quickly turn them mushy.
To keep green vegetables looking vibrant, boil them for less than 10 minutes.
Acids of any kind dull green chlorophyll. McGee tells us to dress green vegetables with acidic ingredients, be it vinegar, tomatoes, lemon or fruit juices, at the last minute.
2. Cabbage Family: prolonged cooking = sulfur aroma
For cabbage and its family (Kolhrabi, rutabaga, cabbage, kale, brussel sprouts, brocolli, cauliflower, turnip, radish, mustard greens, etc), cook them just long enough to make it tender. Prolonged cooking makes its sulphurous aroma increasingly strong and unpleasant. Anyone living in a residence where a cabbage has been pressure-cooked, and its lid opened, can attest to it!! 🙂
However, I think the above applies to a moist environment. Recently, I have been hearing more about caramelized cabbage as a substitute for caramelized onions. The cabbage is apparently roasted for about 25-30 minutes or so. I haven’t tried it out yet but it sounds tasty, for sure. Is the sulphur not a problem if it is roasted?? I am not sure…Readers who have attempted this recipe or thoughts on this please chime-in in the comments below.
3. Salt the water when boiling vegetables
McGee states that salting the cooking water as much as 2tbsp granulated salt per liter reduces the leaching out of vegetable components and speedens the softening of plant cells. Salt does not toughen the vegetables.
4. There are vegetables that never soften completely
Some vegetables are slow to soften or never get completely soft when cooked. Beets, water chestnut, bamboo shoots, lotus roots and many mushrooms remain firm naturally.
For those curious as to why: A few underground stem vegetables have a textural robustness that comes from particular phenolic compounds in their cell wall that form bonds with the cell wall carbohydrates and prevents them from being dissolved away during cooking.
5. Steaming doesn’t soften vegetables as much as boiling
Ever notice the difference between steamed sprouts/veggies vs the boiled/pressure cooked version? McGee says that steam doesn’t dissolve the plant cell walls as effectively as liquid water.
Any surprise that Chinese cooking that uses more crunchy vegetables is more comfortable with steaming than we Indians (who are more comfortable with our pressure cooker)?
Some of the smaller tips I liked in the book also include:
- Freshly drained boiled vegetables lose moisture and shrink as they release steam. To stop wrinkling, cool and toss the vegetables with just enough oil to coat them.
- Acid pickled vegetables don’t soften normally when heated. When cooking with them, anticipate they’ll retain some crispness. (I like this tip, because I learned about this the hard way. I had pickled veggies leftovers, tried to make them into a subzi and mega fail!!)
Hope you liked the tips from McGee’s “Keys to good cooking.” These are not mind-blowing tips, but sometimes when you are cooking and suddenly you realize something – you go aha!! and relate the science back to it. For me, the steaming, salting the veggies tip and the cabbage tip was particularly – aha at various points of time.
McGee has a brand new book out called Nosedive: A field guide to the world’s smells – another encyclopedia – this time about our olfactory senses.
It is a huge book, I haven’t read it yet. From his recent podcasts and interviews, I could tell that he has researched the topic for about a decade. With the recent attention on neuro-gastronomy and how smell dominates our taste, you can tell already he is way ahead of the curve, yet again!!
That’s it for today, Ciao folks!
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