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Getting It to the Table
The most obvious way to vary your side dishes begins with the choice of ingredients. But choosing one cooking technique over another will also change things up. For example, roasting will add sweet, caramelized notes, while steaming retains the food’s natural characteristics, and braising creates an interchange of flavors between the food and the cooking liquid. Most of these techniques refer to vegetables because they are the stars of the side dish menu.
Cooking methods are separated into two large categories: moist heat and dry heat. Moist-heat methods (boiling, simmering, blanching, steaming, braising, and pan-roasting) require liquids, including water and steam, to cook the food. Dry-heat methods (sautéing, stir-frying, roasting, baking, grilling, and deep-frying) do not use water as their cooking element, and the heat source does the work.
Moist-Heat Cooking Methods
Boiling, Simmering, and Blanching
Boiling cooks the food in strongly bubbling hot water (with a temperature of 212ºF at sea level, although you won’t need a thermometer!). This technique does a relatively fast job of softening tough vegetables, so it is one of the most common methods for root vegetables, corn, and the like, and boiling also does a great job of brightening the food’s color. Its main drawback is that nutrients can be leached into the cooking water.
Simmering uses water heated to a slightly lower temperature than boiling to create smaller bubbles for a more delicate cooking method for tender ingredients.
Blanching is a technique that partially cooks the food by boiling it briefly, and then finishes the cooking later with a second method, usually sautéing.
To cook by boiling, simmering, or blanching, fill a large saucepan or pot from one-half to two-thirds full with cold water. (The jury is out on whether you can use hot tap water to save time, because some experts believe that old hot-water pipes leach lead, so cold water is safer from a health perspective.) The water should be salted—enough that you can taste the salt, but so that the water isn’t as salty as seawater. If you require a measurement, use about 2 teaspoons kosher salt (or 1½ teaspoons fine sea or table salt) for every quart of water. The salt isn’t just there for flavor; it also helps soften the vegetables for quicker cooking. Cover the saucepan and bring the water to a full boil over high heat.
The vegetables should be cut into uniform pieces that will cook in about 5 minutes. (Potatoes and other very hard vegetables will take longer to cook, but evenly sized pieces are still important.) Cooking in liquid breaks down the cell structure in vegetables, so whether you are boiling, simmering, or blanching, check the food occasionally to avoid overcooking. The best tool for this is the tip of a small, sharp knife.
When the food is cooked to the desired texture, drain the contents of the pot in a large colander. In most cases, the food is now ready to season and serve—rinsing will not “set the color,” so it is totally unnecessary at this point.
However, if the vegetables are going to be reheated later, stop the cooking by rinsing them under cold running water. It is not always necessary to transfer them to a bowl of iced water, a step that just uses another bowl and depletes your supply of ice cubes. You can do it if you wish, but be sure to remove any unmelted ice cubes from the water after the vegetables cool. Drain the cooled vegetables well and pat them dry with clean kitchen towels before storing them in plastic zip-tight bags.
Steam, the vapor from boiling water, is actually as hot as the water itself, and can cook food on a rack in a closed pot. Steaming’s gentle heat retains the vegetable’s characteristics (shape, flavor, and texture) and nutrients better than boiling in water, but it can take more time.
Place a collapsible steamer rack in a large saucepan. The saucepan must be large enough to contain the vegetables without crowding so the steam can travel freely around the food. Pour in enough water to come just below the insert. (If you are using a steamer-style saucepan, just add an inch or two of water to the saucepan.) Cover it tightly and bring the water to a full boil over high heat, with a visible head of steam.
Add the food (be careful of the hot vapors) and cover it again. Adjust the heat to maintain the full steam. If you are steaming food (such as artichokes) for more than 15 minutes, check the water level and add more boiling water as needed so it doesn’t boil away. Only check when you think it is really necessary, because opening the lid will drop the temperature.
Braising and Pan-Roasting
Sturdy vegetables (such as members of the onion family and other roots) often benefit from braising, the technique of slow simmering in a moderate amount of liquid. The gentle cooking tenderizes the vegetable at a relaxed pace, helping it keep its shape. Braising also allows for an exchange of flavors, and the liquid is often turned into a sauce. Pan-roasting is similar to braising, but the vegetables are browned first for a bit of rich, caramelized flavor.
Vegetables can be braised in a skillet, but for larger quantities, use a saucepan. Sometimes seasoning vegetables (onions, garlic, and their friends) are cooked in the skillet first as a base flavor. Add the main ingredient with just enough liquid (broth, water, wine, or even milk) to barely cover the vegetables, and bring it to a simmer over medium heat. Thin vegetables, such as asparagus, will use less liquid, but root vegetables will take more. Reduce the heat to medium-low to maintain the simmer, and cover the cooking vessel. Braise the vegetables until they are tender. Often, the lid is removed during the last part of cooking to reduce the liquid and intensify its flavor.
Dry-Heat Cooking Methods
One of the quickest cooking methods, sautéing cooks the food in a small amount of fat. Sauté comes from the French word “to jump,” and the food is tossed or stirred in the pan on a fairly constant basis to keep it from burning.
Oils with high smoke points are best for sautéing. (The smoke point is the temperature where the oil begins to smoke, which detrimentally changes its chemical composition and flavor.) Canola, olive, grapeseed, or peanut oils are equally good.
Choose a heavy-bottomed skillet to protect food from the high heat of the burner. Whether you use a pan with high sides to contain the food or one with sloping sides to facilitate turning the food is a matter of personal choice. Heat the fat (butter or oil) in a skillet over medium-high heat until the oil starts to shimmer or the foam from the melted butter begins to subside. (In some cases, to provide an extra-hot surface for cooking the food, the oil is added to a preheated skillet, as described below for a wok. Don’t try this with butter, though, as it will burn when it comes into contact with the hot pan.)
The ingredients should be dry before adding them to the skillet. Add the food and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is cooked through. How much you stir depends on the amount of browning you...