Friday, August 04, 2006

If You're Going to Cook Veggies, Cook 'em Right

How do you like your broccoli? That’s not a rhetorical question; I really want to know.

I dine out a lot, typically at least once a day. And, although I have my favorite restaurants, I do like to mix it up now and then. But there is one thing I’ve learned about restaurant-prepared broccoli and other fresh vegetables; restaurants tend to undercook them.

It’s not just broccoli, although broccoli tends to be undercooked more often than most other side dishes. Sometimes cooked green beans come back a little on the crisp side. And carrots are seldom prepared to perfection. Even cooking spinach is problematic.

No I don’t have a broccoli fetish, nor do I have an obsession with it. It’s just one of those little things in life that can become annoying when it happens over and over again. And I have been served undercooked broccoli often enough that I have decided to do something about it.

First let me say that I do like raw broccoli, in salads or as a dipping veggie. I don’t eat much of it because it tends to be a little too hard for my personal taste. But I have nothing against it, per se.

But when cooked, I want my veggies, including broccoli, to be soft. I don’t want even the slightest hint of crispness. I don’t want to hear it crunch in my mouth. I even want the stems to be so tender that I can easily squish them in my mouth with my tongue.

To me, that’s how broccoli should be prepared. But in restaurants, it seldom is. Restaurants almost always undercook their broccoli and overcook their fish. It must be some unspoken restaurant rule.

I believe people from different parts of the country have varying expectations for their cooked vegetables. I used to watch a PBS cooking show called the Frugal Gourmet (back before cable gave me more options) whose host insisted that vegetables and most meats, should not really be cooked at all, but merely threatened with heat.

He was from Washington State. Yet he related a story of how his mother used to cook vegetables in a pot until they would literally fall apart. He scoffed at her cooking methods, but I would have rather eaten one of her vegetable dishes than his.

Especially in soups, broccoli and other vegetables should be completely tender. I went to a restaurant in downtown Indy the other day and ordered their broccoli cheese soup. The stock was delicious. But the broccoli seemed to have been added after the soup was cooked.

At a famous spaghetti restaurant they offer a side dish of broccoli. Every time I order it, I tell them to steam it well done. And so far, I’ve had to send it back every time. Once I had to send it back twice. The second time the waiter told me, “This is as well done as the cook says he can make it.” It was barely cooked within acceptable parameters, so I didn’t have to ask him what he meant by that remark. No matter how well done it is, you can always cook it longer.

In fact, from now on, when I order a side dish of broccoli, I usually just tell the server to inform the chef that when he thinks the broccoli is perfect, steam it at least another minute.

Maybe I’m the only one who likes his veggies cooked to a very tender condition, but I don’t think so. I think most people just go ahead and crunch away, though they would prefer not to have to.

If you agree, or even if you don’t, post a reply to this entry. Maybe I’m in the minority.

Sam Gugino, a cook and author agrees with me. On his Web site, he says, regarding cooking broccoli, “And don't undercook it because, well, because raw or undercooked broccoli just doesn't taste very good.” And its mouth feel just doesn’t go with the rest of the meal.

So if there are any restaurateurs reading this column, please, for my sake, cook your veggies. Otherwise, to me, it’s just like eating a hot salad.

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