I blame Julia Child for our national aversion to soft vegetables. It wasn't until she started urging American cooks -- in her books and on her PBS series, The French Chef -- to blanch everything from green beans to kale and then shock them in cold water, that a bright green color and firm texture were programmed in our minds as the platonic ideal. Well, I grew up on soggy broccoli rabe, and that's still my favorite way to eat it. Granted, broccoli rabe that's cooked just beyond its bright green state yet is still unpalatably bitter is a foul punishment. But something happens if you keep cooking it past that point. Eventually it becomes mellow, unctuous -- creamy, even -- the stems melting away in the mouth as ethereally as the florets.
McGee explained the chemistry behind that cabbagey stink, but he failed to account for the sweetness that comes around if you brave through that stage and keep on cooking. But, I thought, what about the greens that simmer to sweetness for hours in kitchens across the American South? Or the many Middle Eastern dishes of vegetables rendered luscious via long stewing? None of my heroes acknowledged these foods; none of them, it seemed, had ever left the pan on the heat for too long and made a happy discovery. What did they serve, I wondered, in the heart of winter, when everything else on the plate was roasted, and a bit of squishy comfort was warranted?
It was one thing to note this omission in cookbooks, but another thing entirely to find that among my peers I was nearly alone in thinking there were more options than just al dente. I discovered as much in culinary school, on day one of Vegetable Cookery. Chef Ted, an imposing Doric column of a man, was to lead the lecture. We walked into our kitchen classroom that day to find several pots of water and various vegetables already bubbling on the stove. Without a word, Chef Ted pulled some green beans from a pot and distributed them for us to sample.
In the last few years, I've been delighted to detect signs of rebellion among Hazan's culinary heirs. When I was working at a culinary magazine, I walked into the test kitchen one day to find one of the food editors serving green beans cooked in water and olive oil long enough that you could practically bite through them with your tongue alone. And on the menu at Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles, I spied a savory pie topped with "long-cooked broccoli" soft enough to spread like butter.
When I talked to Mozza's chef and co-owner, Nancy Silverton, it was like finding a long-lost family member. "You've got to really push the envelope, push through the just-cooked stage, and you arrive at that sweet complexity again," she said. "When I was at Campanile in the '80s, we were doing the California thing of barely cooking baby vegetables; we were so proud of their purity. But the Italians who visited us pooh-poohed it, because they know that more mature vegetables actually have more flavor. They would push us to go for longer cooking times. True Italians have no tolerance for crunchy vegetables."
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