Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Not Your Mother's Boiled Vegetables: Italian Bagna Cauda

I had my first taste of the classic Italian dipping sauce, bagna cauda, at Portland's late, legendary temple of Italian food, Genoa. At the time it was co-owned by chef Cathy Whims, before she opened her equally legendary Nostrana just a few blocks away. Contributor Jim Dixon of Real Good Food, like Whims, was inspired by Marcella Hazan, who introduced classic Italian food to American tables.

Boiling Vegetables

Many cooks think boiling vegetables is culinary heresy. If you've suffered through Brussels sprouts or cauliflower boiled to gray mush you'd probably agree. It's also true that some water soluble nutrients are lost when vegetables are boiled. But done right, boiling helps make vegetables delicious, and you can make up for any nutrient loss by simply eating more vegetables.

If you need more convincing, pick up Tamar Adler's excellent book, Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace. Its opening chapter, "How to Boil Water," will make you hungry.

But the basics are, well, basic: fill a pot with water (about 2/3 full; the vegetables need to fit, too), add salt (about one teaspoon per quart), boil, add vegetables. That last part is the key. Things with thick stalks, like broccoli, should be cut into pieces that let the thick part cook at the same rate as the tin parts. I cut cabbage into quarters with the core attached so the leaves stay together. Cauliflower goes into the pot whole, core down for two minutes, then flipped over for one more.

For most vegetables, three to five minutes seems like the sweet spot for getting them tender without overcooking. But stick the tip of a knife into the thick part; if it slides in easily, it's done. And I start timing when they go into the pot, not when it returns to a boil. Fish them out of the pot, let them drain a little, and they're ready. And use that water to cook more than one thing; cook another vegetable, make pasta in it, or save it for soup.

Bagna Cauda

Literally "hot bath," this classic sauce from northern Italy most often accompanies a plate of raw vegetables. But I was reading Brett Martin's 2018 best new restaurants article in GQ and a related piece about favorite meals of the chefs at the listed places, and the dish that jumped out was simple poached* vegetables with bagna cauda. So I made some.

Marcella Hazan's recipe is the definitive one, but if you can't find salt-packed anchovies, oil-packed work fine. Heat some extra virgin olive oil and butter (about 2/3 oil, 1/3 butter) until the butter foams, add some chopped garlic and and anchovies, cook for another minute, and serve warm with a little salt. Arrange some boiled vegetables on a plate and drizzle generously with the bagna cauda.

* Poaching is just like boiling but at a lower temperature; it does sound fancier, though.

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