Every restaurant kitchen has an unsung hero — someone who keeps the wheels turning, the food coming (and, as a result, the lights on), but who never makes it into the magazines. Sometimes it's the dishwasher, sometimes it's the fry cook. At Oleana Restaurant, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I worked for several years as sommelier, it was Pacho.
Pacho was a prep cook and a legend. He moved faster than I've ever seen anyone move and could turn out more minced garlic, more diced carrots, and more peeled potatoes than any other cook on the line. He was a machine.
As summer's delicate lettuces give way to fall's hearty greens, I've been thinking about Pacho. Oleana sources most of its vegetables from chef Ana Sortun's husband's farm, and the menu always highlights as much beautiful produce as possible. As gorgeous as it all is, things that come out of the ground in the morning still have some ground stuck to them when they're delivered to the restaurant in the early afternoon — Pacho was the guy whose job it was to make sure no one got a mouthful of sand in their fattoush salad.
I was taught to rinse my greens in a big colander, but I remember the first time I realized I'd been doing it all wrong: I walked into the prep kitchen to find Pacho elbow-deep in cold water, grabbing fistfuls of farm-fresh kale from their boxes and plunging them into the filled sink's icy depths. He'd swish them around and let them soak for a minute before pulling them out and going for another fistful. If this was how Pacho did it, I thought, this was definitely the right way.
Pacho's answer to why he did what he did would invariably be "Because that's how you do it." (Pacho's salty demeanor is as famous as his knife skills.) So, I asked Chef Cara Chigazola-Tobin to shed some light on this prep secret.
Cara and I worked together (alongside Pacho) during her time as Oleana's Chef de Cuisine, and she just opened her own restaurant, Honey Road, a hot new spot in Burlington, Vermont, that features a Mediterranean menu chock-full of good Vermont veg. She seconded soaking as the ideal method for prepping greens — especially a large volume.
"Gently agitating loose greens in cold water dislodges the dirt from the nooks and crannies," she said. "It's also a gentler way of cleaning delicate lettuces."
It turns out that my old rinse method not only doesn't get the greens as clean as soaking, but it also risks turning their pretty appearance into a crumpled mess.
"Washing greens under running water can damage the leaves because of the weight of the water," Chigazola-Tobin says. "Imagine lettuce gently floating and swirling in a cool bath instead of being rinsed under a waterfall."
That cool bath is especially good for cleaning more delicate lettuces, like Bibb.
How to Do It at Home
First, make sure your sink is super clean. Fill your clean sink with cold water. Submerge your greens, and use the swish-and-soak method to make sure you get any stuck granules loose (if you're washing a whole head of something, break the leaves apart before dunking). You shouldn't need to change the water if you're just making enough for a home recipe, but if it's larger prep project, drain the sink and refill it if it starts to look cloudy or gray. Once they've soaked, lay the greens out on clean towels to dry, or get yourself a salad spinner — it's another secret weapon in the arsenal of professional kitchens everywhere that mimics the soak-and-swish method on a smaller, everyday scale.
A Life-Changing Salad Spinner?
Maybe, if you grew up with one of the primordial models. Short of being life-altering, it's certainly effective at doing just what it needs to do, which is clean your greens, dry them, and give them a place to stay until the next salad is served for dinner.