Third in a series on growing what you cook
and cooking what you grow.
I once took cooking classes with a French cook who insisted that Brassica family vegetables should always be blanched before using in any recipe to allow the unpleasant sulfurous odor released during the initial cooking to escape. She discouraged steaming because she felt the stinky steam would have no escape from a lidded pot; at the very least, she said, you should lift the lid briefly once the vegetables began to cook.
There’s some scientific truth to many of the cooking maxims I’ve learned from French cooks, though I’m not so sure the steaming lid part of the equation has any foundation. What I do now understand is that blanching cruciferous vegetables releases some of their sulfurous compounds and does help them dissipate. That’s blanching, not boiling. if you cook these vegetables too long, the compounds will increase; the vegetables become mushy, dull and unappealing; and your house will smell like my Russian grandmother’s apartment.
So when I am making dishes with kales, collards, cabbages, cauliflowers and Brussels sprouts, I start by plunging them into a large pot of salted boiling water. You need an abundance of water to dissipate the compounds, and it helps to fill a bowl with ice water before you add the vegetables to the pot so that you can quickly “shock” them to stop the cooking process. Broccoli is less sulfurous than cabbages; I usually steam it, but never for more than 5 minutes. If I do blanch broccoli – which I’ll do when I’m making pasta, since I’ve already got a big pot of water at a boil — I won’t leave it in the water for more than 3 minutes, or the delicate flowers will turn to mush.
Chopping similarly can release sulfurous compounds, as can soaking in cold water after chopping, which will cause many of the chemicals to leach out. This might explain why the Portuguese cut cabbage or kale into such fine filaments for their national soup, caldo verde. I always thought it was because it made the soup so pretty, but it also affects the flavor.
Portuguese Green Soup
When I think of the ultimate greens dish, I think of caldo verde. Go to any market in that beautiful country, and you’ll find women reducing Galician cabbage into fine filaments on shredding wheels designed specifically for the task. Galician cabbage is an emerald green Brassica with flat, tender leaves. The color is the bright green of turnip greens, which can be substituted. You can also use collards or kale, but be sure to remove the tough stems and to cut the filaments very thin so they cook properly. If the greens are tough, some Portuguese cooks will blanch them first. Caldo verde would not be caldo verde without the final addition of chourico, the Portuguese version of Spanish chorizo, which can be substituted. If you can’t find either of these, use mild Italian sausage or kielbasa.
- Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium heat in a large, heavy soup pot and add the onion and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring, until tender, about 3 to 5 minutes, and add the garlic. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
- Stir in the potatoes and water. Bring to a boil, add salt, reduce the heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes, until the potatoes are falling apart.
- While that simmers, prepare the greens and the sausage. Stack 6 to 8 leaves, roll them up tightly and slice crosswise into very thin filaments. Sauté the sliced sausage gently over medium-low heat in a medium skillet for 8 to 10 minutes, until the fat runs out. Discard the fat.
- Mash the potatoes in the pot with a potato masher or a hand blender. Stir in the sausage and simmer 5 minutes. Stir in the greens and simmer uncovered for 5 to 10 minutes (depending on the type of green and how tender it is), until the greens turn bright green and tender.
- Taste, adjust salt, and add pepper. Stir in the remaining olive oil and serve, with crusty bread.
Note: You can blanch the greens before adding to the soup in salted boiling water for a minute or two if they’re very tough.
Pan-cooked Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Dill
This is a classic preparation. If you don’t like Brussels sprouts, it’s probably because you’ve always had them overcooked. The sherry vinegar adds nice flavor; it will dull the color of the sprouts.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil while you trim the bottoms off the Brussels sprouts. Fill a bowl with ice water. When the water comes to a boil, salt generously and add the Brussels sprouts. Boil 2 minutes, transfer to the ice water, then drain. Quarter the sprouts or slice them ¼- inch thick, and set aside.
- Heat a large, heavy skillet over medium heat and add the bacon. Cook the bacon until it is chewy in the middle and crisp on the edges. Remove from the pan and transfer to a double thickness of paper towel. Cut crosswise into ⅛- inch thick slivers. Set aside. Drain most of the fat from the skillet.
- Heat the olive oil over medium heat in the same skillet in which you cooked the bacon and add the Brussels sprouts. Season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring or shaking in the pan, for 5 minutes. Add the vinegar and cook until the vinegar has evaporated and been absorbed by the sprouts and the sprouts are tender, another 5 minutes. Stir in the bacon and the dill and continue to cook, stirring, for another minute or two. Taste, adjust seasonings, and serve.
Clifford A. Wright’s Brussels Sprouts
There’s another fantastic way to cook Brussels sprouts that I learned from cook and author Clifford A. Wright, and it doesn’t require blanching. You simply heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat, cut the sprouts in half and put them cut-side down in the hot oil. Cook them until golden brown, turn them over and cook them on the other side until cooked through. The seared flavor of the Brussels sprouts is addictive (Who knew you could ever use the words “addictive” and “Brussels sprouts” in the same sentence?).
Mashed Potatoes with Kale (Colcannon)
Colcannon is one of the great signature dishes of Ireland. The most common version pairs cabbage with potatoes, but the dish is also made with kale. Curly kale would be used in Ireland; I like to make it with cavolo nero.
Serves 6 to 8
- Cover the potatoes with water in a saucepan, add about 1/2 teaspoon of salt and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium, cover partially and cook until tender all the way through when pierced with a knife, about 30 to 45 minutes. Drain off the water, return the potatoes to the pan, cover tightly and let steam over very low heat for another 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and mash with a potato masher or a fork, through a food mill or in a standing mixer fitted with the paddle, while still hot.
- While the potatoes are cooking, bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil and fill a bowl with ice water. If using cabbage, quarter and core, then cut the quarters crosswise into thin strips. If using kale, tear the leaves from the ribs and clean well in two changes of water. Add the cabbage or kale to the salted boiling water and boil for 4 to 6 minutes, until the leaves are tender but still bright green. Transfer to the ice water, allow to cool for a couple of minutes, then drain and squeeze out excess water. Chop fine (you can use a food processor for this).
- Towards the end of the potato cooking time, combine the milk and the scallions in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat and let steep for a few minutes. Stir the chopped cabbage or kale into the hot mashed potatoes and beat in the milk. The mixture should be fluffy (you can do this in an electric mixer fitted with the paddle). Add salt to taste and freshly ground pepper. Transfer to a hot serving dish, make a depression in the center and place the butter in the center to melt, then stir and serve at once. Alternatively, keep warm in a double boiler: set the bowl in a saucepan filled one third of the way with water. Make sure the water doesn’t touch the bottom of the bowl. Bring the water to a simmer. Stir the potato and kale mixture from time to time.
Martha Rose Shulman is the award-winning author of more than 25 cookbooks, including “Mediterranean Harvest: Vegetarian Recipes From the World’s Healthiest Cuisine,” “Mediterranean Light,” “Provencal Light” and “Entertaining Light.”
Photos by Martha Rose Shulman