While browsing through the new restaurant-based cookbook This Is Camino, I stumbled on an intriguing new way to cook vegetables that promised to bring them to absolute perfection without all the waste of blanching. Of course, it's November and everyone is roasting their vegetables, but sometimes I want a less sweet, less chewy vegetable; one that is moist and tender all the way through, but still firm and tasting deeply of itself. Camino's Oil and Water Method sparked my curiosity, so I donned an apron and gave it a test. Bottom line: it's fabulous!
But wait, what's so bad about blanching vegetables? Blanching, which is simply parboiling vegetables in a large amount of water, has been somewhat out of fashion these days, and understandably so. It is easy to over-boil the vegetables, resulting in a dull, limp, flavorless mass that has given all its flavor and much of its nutrition to the water it was boiled in, which is then dumped down the drain. That's a lot of waste: of time, of water, of fuel to boil the water, of flavor, and of nutrition.
And yet, if done right, blanching offers a moist, bright, clean-tasting vegetable. Blanching can help with time management, too, as you can precook your vegetables just shy of doneness and then hold them until you are ready to quickly reheat and serve.
Russ Moore of the Oakland, California, restaurant Camino has kept all the advantages of blanching and solves the disadvantages with his innovative Oil and Water Method. Here's how he describes it in his new cookbook, This Is Camino.
Blanching vegetables is a very restauranty technique that I try to avoid. Restaurants often use it as a way to cook large amounts of vegetables ahead so then they can reheat them quickly right before serving. But the waste has always bothered me – first off, all that cooking water. And then when you drain the vegetable, you also throw away all the vegetable flavor that got pulled into that water. Not to mention the salt! And then how do you reheat the vegetable? Butter and more water? In some other medium like stock that doesn't taste like the vegetable at all?
The Oil and Water Method came about for the times when we don't want to grill vegetables – either because there is no space in the fireplace or because we want them a little juicier. And I wanted a way to cook vegetables ahead without pouring the precious vegetable flavor down the drain. This method creates a flavorful liquid in which to cook the vegetable, resulting in a delicious vegetable and a delicious liquid. You can rapidly reduce the liquid immediately after cooking to make a sauce or you can rewarm the vegetable with its cooking juices in a pan on the stove or a clay pot set over coals. If you have cooking liquid leftover, it is great for poaching eggs or you can add it to water for cooking dried beans or lentils – you’ll find something to do with it. Here’s the idea:
In a wide, heavy pan, heat up just enough water to cover your vegetables by about two-thirds. Add a big splash of olive oil, a handful of herb stems or leaves, a few cloves of smashed but unpeeled garlic, and a big pinch of coarse salt. (If you’re going to use the liquid as a sauce, peel and slice the garlic.) Bring the mixture to a rolling boil and add the vegetable in one layer. You may need to cook the vegetable in a few batches, which is preferable anyway, as the cooking liquid improves — though more than three rounds makes the liquid a bit mucky and sweet. Cook until done, stirring often. The idea is to have just enough liquid to get everything cooked without diluting the flavor. If it seems really easy to cook everything evenly, you have too much water: you should be stirring and flipping and tasting the whole time — this is active cooking!
If all goes well, the vegetable and the cooking liquid should both end up with perfect seasoning. Vegetables that take a long time to cook, like cardoons or burdock, will require less salt because they will be cooking longer – remember, the liquid is reducing the whole time so you have to think about how that will affect the saltiness. This also means that if you are doing more than one batch, you should check the liquid for salt at each round to see if it’s getting too strong — you may have to add a splash of water.
Once the vegetables are cooked, lift them out with a slotted spoon or strainer and set them aside in a bowl. If you are serving them right away, pick out any herb stems from the liquid, turn up the heat, and reduce until the liquid thickens slightly. Spoon the liquid over the vegetables and serve.
If you are serving later, spread them out to cool at room temperature. Cool the cooking liquid to room temperature separately, then store the vegetables in the cooking liquid. To reheat, bring the mixture to a boil. Continue boiling for a moment – long enough to create an emulsion between the oil and water — and serve with some or all of the liquid.
With this method, it is hard to retain the bright green color of green legumes, such as English peas, fava beans, and green beans. To help with this, you will need to cook them really quickly and, if you are not using them immediately, scoop them out of the liquid, spread them out on a plate or tray, and put them in the refrigerator to quickly cool.
Reprinted with permission from This Is Camino by Russell Moore and Allison Hopelain with Chris Colin, copyright ©2015. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Photography credit: Yoko Takahashi ©2015
I tested this method with carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. Here are my notes:
It's not stated in the recipe, but if you have a selection of mixed vegetables, you may need to cook each one separately or pay close attention to their cooking times, adding each kind of vegetable to the pan according to how quickly it cooks. I chose to cook them separately, which was fine — I would do the same with any other vegetable cooking method.
This doesn't work for all vegetables, obviously — just those that you would normally blanch. It would have been helpful to have a list in the book, but it's not too hard to figure out. Carrots, yes; eggplant, probably not. (Russ talks about cardoons and burdock, which isn't very helpful, as they're a little obscure for the average home cook, at least here in the U.S.)
The method calls for a wide, heavy pan. In all my test runs, I used a frying pan with great results. If I had a larger quantity of vegetables, I would have used a braiser (which is basically a large frying pan with high sides.)
I threw everything into the pan — the water, the oil, the herbs, the garlic, and the vegetables — and then brought it up to the boil. This way I was sure I had the right amount of water. (The recipe asks for the water to be brought to a boil first before adding the vegetables.)
My first attempt at this method was carrots for a dinner party. I precooked the carrots using this method to near-doneness, with a whole smashed clove of garlic and some fresh oregano, and then kept them off to the side as instructed. They were easy to reheat when the time came, and they were delicious — perfectly cooked and seasoned all the way though! This is my new go-to carrot recipe.
I was left with a little sauce remaining, which moistened the carrots and gave them a nice shine. I hadn't chopped the garlic as instructed, but the whole, smashed clove was super-soft, so I simply mashed it back into the sauce. I removed the oregano (which was, by then, a sodden mass), and quickly chopped up some fresh oregano and sprinkled it over the carrots as a garnish. Perfect!
One note: I didn't peel the carrots, and soon discovered that this method of tossing and turning can be a little rough on them. As they started to cook, the skin began to rub off, which looked a little unattractive. If you want pretty vegetables, you might want to peel the thin-skinned ones first.
Have a little hot water on hand to add to the pan, should the water start to boil away before the vegetables are done. Also, just a pinch or two of salt will do — as much as you might normally add if you were roasting the vegetables.
Remember that your vegetables will continue to cook after you remove them from the pan, so pull them when they're just shy of being done. They will also cook a wee bit more if you are heating them up later, so keep that in mind as well.
The sauce that's created can look a little stodgy in the end. Be sure to remove the limp herbs and to add fresh, chopped herbs when serving.
All in all, I found this to be an excellent vegetable cooking method. One thing I didn't mention is that it is quick! Once the water starts boiling, you need to stay with the vegetables, flipping and stirring. It's kind of fun, too!