Hers is the approach I have in mind when I cook summer squash and zucchini, cut into thin discs and braised slowly just until they start to collapse. I love squash other ways, too - grated raw for an herb-strewn salad or seared in a hot pan until its edges caramelize to a deep burnish - but nothing quite captures its buttery, creamy flavor like sweating it in its own juices.
Cooking vegetables to total tenderness - until, some would say, they're done - isn't the American way with the produce of summer. Braising and stewing and sweating are techniques we turn to in cooler months, when spending time at the stove feels more respite than duty. In the hot months of August, our inclination is toward the salad bowl and the grill, for summoning sensations of taste and texture that contrast, rather than align, with the summer heat and humidity.
But look to the silky braised greens of the deep South, or the slowly caramelized medley of peppers, onions and zucchini known in Turkey as marmouma, or the sweet and creamy eggplant-sauced pastas of Italy, and you'll see a powerfully delicious reason to keep summer vegetables on the stove. Cooking them low and slow develops flavors that brief cooking merely skims. It coaxes them into denser, sweeter, more mellow and yet more intensely flavored versions of themselves.
My favorite example of this transformation is the flat, mossy-hued green bean typically referred to as a Romano bean. Even when raw, this type of bean can have remarkable depth of flavor; the integrity of its snap is something to marvel over. Sauteed or steamed until al dente, its character is little moved, the flavor still a little grassy, its juicy crunch subdued but still intact.
Cooked slowly over a gentle flame for an hour or more, with a little garlic, a glug of oil and a few tablespoons of water, Romanos are transformed. They are dense and meaty, exquisitely beany, the texture tender and supple. They beg to be eaten from the pot over the stove, from the refrigerator with fingers. Paired with some good cheese and a hunk of bread, they can stand in for dinner on a low-key night.
The same general idea can be applied to zucchini, string beans, green peas, asparagus, leafy greens, bell peppers, broccoli, cabbage, fennel.
For every vegetable, the precise cooking time and the amount of liquid you may add will vary depending on variety, age and size. "It's not really about length of time; it's more about the yield that determines when they're done. Each vegetable will tell you," says chef and author Gabrielle Hamilton.
She compares soft-cooked vegetables to slow-cooked meat, clarifying that the process isn't about overcooking: "It's about opening the vegetable up until it starts to get juicy and starts to run and has a more slippery and delicious quality."
If the heat is too high, the vegetables will cook unevenly, breaking down before sufficiently cooking through. Too much water, and they'll leach much of their flavor into the cooking liquid - a recipe for good pot liquor, but only if you'll be drinking it.
Too much of both is just a short step away from boiling, a likely cause of many long-held vegetable grievances. It's also the surest route to nutrient loss, as those vitamins go into the cooking liquid, too. But there's an easy fix: "If the cooking water is to be consumed as a part of the dish . . . then overall nutrient retention will be high, regardless of temperature (usually simmering) or time," Robert Parker, professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University, told me in an email.
So use as little liquid as possible, and serve the vegetables with their concentrated juices. The heat should be low to moderate, the liquid barely enough to burble around the vegetables' contours. If your vegetables are juicy enough to start, you may not need liquid at all.
Higher-water-content summer squash or broccoli will soften more quickly than denser, lower-water-content choices such as kale or pole beans, but this is not a process to rush.
My favorite recipes for long-cooked vegetables take around an hour on the stove, but it's a relatively idle one; they mostly take care of themselves, as long as you're free to offer a turn of the spatula every now and again.
One advisory: Best not to look to this method as a means of salvation for produce that should have been cooked days before.
You can, to a degree, hide a tired vegetable's shortcomings by overwhelming it with other flavors, whether in a soup, a stew or a vegetable stock, although it won't pull its own weight in contributions to the dish.
When that vegetable is standing alone, there's nothing to hide behind, not heat or salt or fat. Those things only amplify what you have to begin with, so the more you have - the more you have. (If you don't believe there's much to suffer in cooking old veg, try braising some just-harvested greens alongside a bunch you purchased a week ago and comparing the results.)
What you should assign to this approach are your oversized and overgrown, those mature specimens whose time on the vine or the stalk has left them deeply flavorful but a little callous. Cooking them slowly and gently lends them some grace and puts a finer point on their complex flavor.
This is especially apt for leafy greens, particularly brassicas such as turnips, cabbage, mustards and kale, which often lose sweetness and tenderness while picking up pungency in the summer heat. It's in a covered pot this season, not a salad bowl, that they find realization, and some submission.
My favorite recipes will give you a starting point. Try them on a rainy day or a cloudy one. Pair them with something raw, something steamed, something fried; the diversity itself will be refreshing. Then, if you're fortunate enough to have extra, put up some summer vegetables in the freezer. In the deep of winter, cooked slowly until their flavors deepen, they will issue promises of what lies ahead.
SOFT-COOKED SUMMER SQUASH WITH ONION
MAKES 4 servings ( about 3 cups); Healthy The preferred variety is pale yellow crookneck squash, but yellow zucchini (or a mix of green and yellow) will also be fine.
Small to medium-size squash work best. Because they typically contain less water and fewer seeds, they will contribute more flavor and texture to the dish.
MAKE AHEAD: The entire dish can be cooked up to 4 days in advance and refrigerated in an airtight container.
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
- 1 1/2 pounds yellow summer squash, or a mix of yellow and green zucchini, thinly sliced into 1/8-inch rounds
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt, plus an optional 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Chopped fresh chives or dill, for garnish
Heat the oil in a medium saute pan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, stir in the onion; cook for 8 to 10 minutes or until the onion pieces are translucent and just browned on the edges. Stir in the garlic; cook for 1 to 2 minutes more.
Add the squash and season with 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, stirring gently to coat. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Cover and cook for 45 minutes to an hour, occasionally turning the squash with a flexible spatula to baste it with the pan juices. It should be thoroughly tender and just beginning to collapse.
Season with the pepper and the additional salt as needed; turn the mixture over.
Serve warm, garnished with chives or dill, if using.
Nutrition | Per serving: 100 calories, 2 g protein, 9 g carbohydrates, 7 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 270 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugar
BRAISED OKRA WITH TOMATOES, PEPPERS AND SPICES
4 servings (makes about 3 cups); Healthy
In this simple take on Indian tomato-based curries, the okra is seared first and then cooked slowly in a fragrant, spicy sauce.
The sauce is versatile; if your okra season is short, you could substitute green beans or even add cubes of tofu, stirred in toward the end of cooking just to warm through.
Serve with rice or another grain.
MAKE AHEAD: The dish can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days. Nigella seed is available through various online purveyors.
- 12 ounces okra, preferably with pods no more than 3 inches long
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin seed
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons peeled, minced fresh ginger root
- 10 large sprigs cilantro, leaves and stems separated
- 1/2 teaspoon nigella seed (see headnote)
- 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons peanut or sesame oil
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
- 4 ounces mildly hot peppers, such as Anaheim or poblano, or a mix of hot and sweet peppers, finely chopped (and seeded, if you like)
- 12 ounces ripe tomatoes, peeled and finely chopped, with juices (see NOTE)
Wash the okra and dry it completely on kitchen towels. Trim the stem ends, being careful not to cut into the okra itself.
Toast the cumin seed in a small skillet over medium heat, stirring for 1 to 2 minutes and watching closely to avoid scorching. Transfer to a bowl, along with the garlic and ginger. Finely chop the cilantro stems and add to the bowl. Coarsely chop the cilantro leaves.
Return the skillet to medium heat. Add the nigella seed to the skillet; toast for 1 to 2 minutes, until fragrant and lightly browned, shaking the pan to avoid scorching. Transfer to a small bowl.
Heat a large, wide nonstick skillet over medium heat. Once it's hot, add 1 teaspoon of the oil, then add half of the okra (no more than will cover the pan in one layer) and 1/8 teaspoon of the salt. Pan-fry, tossing the okra occasionally, until it is beginning to sear (with dark patches) on all sides, 7 to 8 minutes. Transfer to a large platter. Repeat with another teaspoon of oil, the remaining okra and another 1/8 teaspoon of salt. Remove from the heat.
Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in a large, heavy saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, stir in the onion and 1/4 teaspoon of salt; cook for 7 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until translucent. Stir in the peppers; cook for 2 to 3 minutes, then add the cumin, garlic, ginger and cilantro stem mixture; cook for 2 minutes.
Add the tomatoes and their juices; increase the heat to medium-high. Once the mixture is bubbling, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook (uncovered) for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring, until the mixture thickens.
Add the okra to the pot, then use a spatula to combine the okra with the sauce, being careful not to break the pods. Cover and cook for 20 minutes or until the okra is thoroughly tender and the sauce is thick, reducing the heat as needed so the sauce is gently bubbling at the edges. After 10 to 20 minutes, check the sauce; if it's not reducing enough, leave the pot only partly covered for the remaining cooking time.
Stir in the chopped cilantro leaves and toasted nigella seed, cover and let the mixture rest for 5 minutes before serving.
NOTE: To peel tomatoes, score a shallow X in the bottom of each one. Place them in a bowl of just-boiled water; let them sit for few minutes, until you can see the skin starting to pull back from the X mark. Immediately transfer to an ice-water bath. Peel off and discard the skins as soon as the tomatoes have cooled.
Nutrition | Per serving (using peanut oil): 160 calories, 4 g protein, 19 g carbohydrates, 10 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 280 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 7 g sugar
GREEN BEANS BRAISED WITH GARLIC AND YELLOW TOMATO
4 servings (makes about 3 1/2 cups)
Choose any broad, flat green bean (such as Romano or Kentucky Wonder) for this recipe. The larger and more mature your beans, the longer your cooking time, so shop with time at the stove in mind.
Grating fresh tomatoes for the sauce creates a sweet, tangy base note for the earthy beans. Yellow tomatoes make for an especially pretty color combination, but any tomatoes will work, as long as they are juicy and ripe.
Serve cold, or let the beans come to room temperature on the counter.
MAKE AHEAD: The completed dish can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days.
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 large cloves garlic, crushed and minced
- 1 pound yellow tomatoes (about 1 large or 2 small), grated on the large holes of a box grater, skin discarded
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more as needed
- 1 pound flat green beans (such as pole beans or Romano beans), stem ends trimmed
- 2 teaspoons chopped summer savory, marjoram or thyme (optional)
- Cracked black pepper (optional)
Heat a large, heavy saute pan or a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the oil; once it begins to shimmer, add the garlic. Allow the garlic to sizzle for 1 to 2 minutes, but do not let it brown. Add the tomatoes and their juices, plus 1/4 teaspoon of the salt; once the mixture starts to bubble at the edges, cook for 10 to 15 minutes or until the tomatoes have reduced and thickened.
Stir in the green beans and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Cover, reduce the heat to low and cook for 60 to 90 minutes (depending on the size and age of the beans), using a spatula to turn the beans occasionally and allowing condensation from the lid to drip back into the pan. The beans should be thoroughly tender and cooked through; they should be limp and their color a deep olive green. The liquid in the pot should bubble only occasionally, so reduce the heat as needed to maintain gentle cooking.
Once the beans are cooked, check the liquid. The tomatoes should cling to the beans like a syrup; if the sauce is too thin, cook the beans over medium-low until it has reduced.
Taste, adding more salt as needed. Stir in the herbs, if using; season lightly with the pepper, if using. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Nutrition | Per serving: 150 calories, 4 g protein, 12 g carbohydrates, 11 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 320 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar