11/3/09

Escarole and Bean Stew aka Don't Micro-Process Your Veg

Boss Man was telling me about his Italian aunt, who would make an amazing stewy white beans and escarole dish; while his grandma from Belarus would make a heady chicken soup with lots, lots of fresh vegetables and herbs, chicken feet, unborn eggs, white chicken meat and a good strong stock. Boss Man put those two cultural memories together and came up with his interpretation. Many many savoury bits in there, to give it a textural and flavourful experience. Plenty of herbs, of course. I think I smell thyme and some other herbs mingling in the broth, along with the greens and the beans.

This version is different from soups I've seen in other places. For one thing, he didn't pour on oil like it was to deep fry the onions. Instead, he used just enough to get them tender and cooked through. In other words, you're not going to find pools of fat rising up to the top, as you do with so many other types. Instead, the broth is clean and robust, with lots of herbs and vegetable flavour. The beans are cooked until just tender. They're not mushy, and they're certainly not falling apart. So rather than sort of disappearing into the soup, you can still tell that there are beans in there. Also, rather than using white beans, which tend to be unassuming, he used chickpeas, which can easily stand up to the rest of the textures. He's added frozen & thawed tofu, to give it a bit of that chewy texture to contrast with the beans and the escarole.

And then there's the escarole.

One of the sins that people commit when making green leafy vegetables is to overcook them. The texture gets lost, and the whole thing becomes limp and uninspired. Instead, this escarole is cut into big pieces, so as to let it keep its shape and texture. It doesn't melt away at all. It's tender but not mushy. And it's not undercooked, which is another sins. If it's undercooked, it tends to be tough, and takes forever and a day to chew through. Not at all the case here.

And that was bowl #1.

I polished that one off quite cheerfully, and am working on bowl #2. For scientific purposes, of course. It would be unfair to just taste one bowl and call it a success. No no. One must see if the results are replicated. Well, that's the excuse I'm using, in any case. Oh. Those lovely onions. I keep harping on this, but I'm noticing it more and more.

Cliff went to cooking school. He can brunoise with the best of 'em. I've seen that man fly at veg with a knife. No complaints here. He does, however, know about eating an experience. There are specific cases where those fancy, tiny cuts are very much necessary. If you're making something where it needs to homogenise (like a sauce), or you need a particular look for a garnish, chopping those vegetables really small does help tremendously. Also, smaller cut vegetables cook more quickly, which is definitely a concern for long-cooking stews.

If something is going to be at a bare simmer for a fair bit of time to develop flavour slowy, you want to chop it into bite sized pieces. Get it too small, and it'll start to disintegrate. In fact, it'll cook so fast that you won't have time to get that peak of flavour from the other ingredients (herbs, spices, etc.). Why do you think that so many people end up waiting for the next day for the food to really "take"? It's because everything didn't have a chance to slowly have a go on the stove, and was rushed along. If you had let it go for the amount of time it really needed, the whole thing would have been a disaster.

When the food is in bite sized pieces (on the large side of bite-sized, not the smaller side), and evenly sized, by the time it finally does finish cooking, your herbs, spices, and other flavourings would have been extracted to the maximum amount possible. Your broth will be subtle and tasty and delicate. Nothing will assault you. The vegetables will retain their natural flavours.

For example, when bitten towards the stem side, escarole has a mild sweetness that jumps out. Onions have it too! It didn't require adding sweeteners, or caramelising for long times and having the veg shrink down to nothing. Instead, because it was slowly and gently cooked, the natural sweetness bursts out in little bites, every bite you take.

That second bowl was so worth it, and I am quite sated. :)
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