Keeping Those Vegetables Green
Filling a bowl or plate with vibrant green food is a hallmark of spring food –preserving the beautiful colors can be tricky. Find out how I do it, plus enjoy two delicious spring soup recipes.
I want bright green soups in spring. And yes, I also want little green pearls of peas on my plate. And dark green asparagus. And I don’t want to forget about brilliant green dandelion leaves and young spinach.
I can’t think of a better way to wipe clean the dull stains of last winter than filling my plate or bowl with vibrant green food; it revitalizes my spirit.
But here’s the problem, that lovely green vibe is not easy to preserve. Far too often, bright green soups turn into unappetizing shades of grayish green that leaves one wondering how that happened.
The answer is all about acids — either naturally present in the vegetable or added during or after the cooking process.
Most people know green vegetables are a result of the plant’s natural chlorophyll. Exposing the plant to acidic conditions creates a chain reaction in the cell structure and magnesium atoms are replaced with hydrogen atoms – a simple transformation that causes significant changes to the plant’s color.
But it’s not as simple as avoiding that squeeze of lemon juice or a few drops of vinegar until the last moment. Sure, that helps but it’s not the whole story.
When heat is applied to plants, the cell structure weakens. Cook a plant long enough and the structure collapses and turns mushy (think overcooked broccoli). Blending foods does exactly the same thing. Two crucial interactions occur once the plant’s cell structure is destroyed through the blending process – the molecules oxidize and become exposed to leeching acids that naturally occur in the plant. This is why blended green soups often turn grayish green as the soup cools (or cooks for extended periods).
A simple potato salad offers another example of the fragility of green colors in food. Potatoes are cooked, seasoned with oil, then lemon juice or vinegar is added to the potatoes. Chopped chives and parsley are added to the salad to make everything tastier and more attractive. And then…yep, those lovely green herbs change color and turn into a drab and unattractive salad after only an hour or so.
So, what’s the best strategy to preserve those attractive green colors in vegetables? Luckily, there are several simple things you can do in the kitchen to keep spring food vibrant…and green. Here are five of my favorite techniques:
Keep Cooking Times to a Minimum: Robust vegetables like broccoli and asparagus require 5–7 minutes to fully cook (sometimes less if the vegetables are prepared in smaller pieces). Fragile leaves, like spinach, only need a few seconds to wilt. Longer cooking times expose vegetable leaves to air for longer periods of time, causing chlorophyll loss and increased exposure to natural acids.
Avoid Adding Acids Until the Last Moment: This simple step helps keep colors nice and bright. A splash of lemon or vinegar is often perfect to balance flavors. Just keep the timing in mind and add the acids at the end of the cooking process or add the greens at the end. The bottom-line is this…keep those conflicting elements — greens and acids — apart for as long as possible.
Add Greens to Soups Last: Leaves and fresh herbs don’t take long to cook, so be sure to add them at the last moment — even if you are using a blender. Other vegetables, like asparagus, peas or broccoli are trickier. Many recipes instruct you to add these vegetables early on in a preparation to cook everything together. This is a mistake. I think it is better to prepare your ingredients separately. In other words, I make the base of my asparagus soup in a large pot and blanch the asparagus separately. I combine the two elements in the blender at the last moment and either eat the soup right away or cool it as fast as possible.
Blanch Vegetables Instead of Steaming: Just to be clear – I’m not anti-steaming. But when it comes to green vegetables, I have a problem. Steaming requires a cover to trap the steam in the pot. Covers also trap molecules as the vegetable cooks…and one of those elements is naturally occurring acids. These acids gather on the lid, cool slightly and fall back to the surface of the food. The cooking environment changes to acidic, and green colors begin to transform. Blanching relies on an open pot filled with boiling salted water. Here the food cooks quickly. Natural acids that leech to the surface of the food are diluted by the large portion of water and helped by the presence of slightly alkaline salt, causing food to remain green longer — unless you overcook it. You can easily test this yourself. Blanch a few florets of broccoli in salted water and compare the color to steamed broccoli.
Add Baking Soda to Pureed Foods: Changing the cooking environment to an alkaline environment is an old cooking trick. This technique keeps green vegetables green, but you need to be cautious. Only a small amount of baking soda is needed — something like a knife tip for a couple liters of water. Adding too much baking soda changes the flavor of your food — it becomes unpleasantly soapy (yuck). Baking soda also causes plant cells to break down, meaning the plant will cook quicker and turn to mush — albeit a beautiful green mush. I recommend using small amounts of baking soda when the final process is blending the food, like I instruct in the two soup recipes below.
The bottom-line here is to cook your greens rapidly, avoid adding acids until the last moment and eat your food right away. If you are planning for leftovers and longer storage times, then consider cooling the food rapidly after it is cooked and keep elements of your recipe separate — remember, acids will continue to do their thing on cooked food even in a cold environment.
Now…go eat your greens — you’ve earned it!
Please let me know if you made any of these recipes and what you thought about them. You can leave a comment below, reply to this email or share your creations on social media sites (mentions appreciated). I’m always thrilled to hear from my friends, readers and critiques – so please don’t be shy.
Spring Pea and Wild Garlic Chowder
To celebrate increasingly warmer days, I like to prepare extra-vibrant and explosively tasty soups using whatever the season offers. During the early days of Spring, plenty of wild garlic, fresh peas and new potatoes are available and…well you get the idea.
The success of this soup rests on preserving the fresh flavors and keeping that amazing green color. I use a couple of techniques to achieve these goals – cooking the elements separately, using a touch of baking soda in the soup and keeping my cooking times to a minimum.
Because elements of this soup are cooked separately, you can prepare the steps ahead of time if you’re pinched for time, then simply put everything else together in less than 30 minutes.
This light chowder is perfect served with a few croutons…and also tastes amazing as a cold soup.
Yield: makes about 6-8 servings
2 medium-sized potatoes (see tips below)
juice of 1/2 lemon
500 grams (one pound) fresh or frozen peas
2 large shallots, chopped
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon ground coriander
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour (see tips for gluten-free)
125 ml (1/2-cup) dry white wine
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 liters vegetable broth or water
250 grams (1/2 pound) fresh spinach
1 large bunch of wild garlic (see tips below)
Croutons to garnish (see tips for recipe idea)
Peel the potatoes and cut into small cubes – about 1-cm (1/2-inch). Place them into a pot, cover with cold water, add the lemon juice and gently bring to a simmer. Once simmering, add 1 teaspoon salt and cover the pot. Cook 10-15 minutes, or just long enough to make the potato cubes soft enough to eat but not mushy. Remove the potatoes when cooked and reserve.
Add 125 grams (1/4-pound) of the peas to the simmering liquid. Cook 2 minutes, then remove and reserve.
Heat a larger pot over medium heat. Once the pot is hot, add the chopped shallots and a good pinch of salt. Stir slightly and allow the shallots to sweat in their own liquid until they are soft. Add 1 or 2 tablespoons of water as necessary to prevent the shallots from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Don’t allow the shallots to brown. When the shallots are softened, add the extra virgin olive oil, 1 teaspoon sea salt and the ground coriander. Mix well to combine. Cook for one minute, then add the flour all at once. Stir well.
Add the white wine to the flour and allow the mixture to quickly soak in all the wine and turn into a firm batter-like mixture. Begin adding the vegetable broth while continuously stirring. The mixture should the consistency of cream at this point.
Add the baking soda to the mixture (go ahead and giggle slightly as the soda reacts to the acids and bubbles up a bit). Mix well and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat – don’t venture too far though because the soup will rise to the top of the pot and overflow when it boils. Just before the soup boils, add the remaining peas to the soup and cook 2 minutes. Add the spinach and chopped wild garlic. Mix well and cook just until the spinach wilts into the soup. Remove the soup from the stovetop at once.
Blend the soup with a hand blender or by working in batches and pureeing in your stand-alone blender (I use a high-speed blender and work in small batches, making sure I start on low and gradually increase the blender speed). Add the reserved potatoes and peas to the pureed soup, heat to the desired temperature and enjoy right away with some croutons. Cool any leftover soup rapidly. Cover and store in the refrigerator for 3-5 days. Reheat gently over medium heat.
Make sure you are using a waxy-style potato for this recipe. You want the shape to hold instead of fall apart in the soup.
To make the soup gluten-free, replace the all-purpose flour with 4 tablespoons of your favorite gluten-free flour mix or 2 tablespoons chickpea flour plus 1/4 teaspoon arrowroot.
Avoid using any kind of vegetable broth cube or dried version for this soup. The flavors need to be pure and taste fresh. Many versions of stock powders are simply too salty or have a chemical-flavor.
Use frozen spinach in this soup if you don’t have any fresh spinach. Just use a bit less than what is called for when using frozen spinach to replace fresh.
If you don’t have access to fresh wild garlic, then substitute garlic cloves in the recipe. Use 3 peeled and sliced cloves. Add them to the cooked shallots earlier in the cooking process.
I like to serve this soup with some very simple-to-make croutons…here’s how I do it: Pre-heat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Cube bread you have on hand – it doesn’t matter what it is. I make cubes about 1-cm (1/2-inch). Place the cubes in a bowl, add enough extra virgin olive oil to coat the bread evenly and season with sea salt and dried oregano. Place the croutons on a small baking tray and bake for 8-12 minutes – depending on the size of your cubes. They are done when lightly golden.
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Asparagus and Pea Bisque
Asparagus soup is difficult to get right. The delicate asparagus flavor is often lost among the other ingredients – especially if the soup has a good amount of fat.
I boost the asparagus flavor in this soup by using both green and white varieties to create balance and intensity. I think cooked white asparagus is more flavorsome than green asparagus, and this turbo charges the flavor of the soup. I use peas to further enhance the flavors and color – and it doesn’t matter much if the peas are fresh or frozen. A pinch of baking soda and a handful of spinach guarantees a lovely green color – something that often lacks in asparagus soup. Finally, I use rice to thicken and bind everything together, which is the point of creating a classic velvety-smooth bisque.
Difficulty: simple- to moderate
Yield: makes about 2 liters
500 grams (one pound) thick green asparagus
250 grams (1/2-pound) white asparagus
2 liters vegetable broth or water
1 medium-size onion, chopped
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
125 grams (4 ½ ounces) risotto rice
75 grams (2 ½ ounces) fresh or frozen peas
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 handful fresh spinach
Sea salt to season
Start by preparing the asparagus. For the green asparagus, cut off the tough bottom part and separate the heads of the spears – set those off to the side for now. Chop the main part of the asparagus into 1-cm (1/2-inch) pieces. Cut off the rough bottom bit of the white asparagus and discard, then chop the remaining part of the white asparagus relatively fine.
Bring the vegetable broth or water to a boil in a medium-size pot. Add enough salt to the broth so that it tastes a bit like sea water – one good tablespoon should do the trick. Add the reserved green asparagus tips to the broth and cook for 2 minutes or until they soften. Immediately remove the tips and cool in cold water, then drain and reserve. Reserve the cooking liquid.
Heat another pot over medium heat. When it’s hot, add the chopped onions with 1 teaspoon sea salt. Stir the onions around a bit until they release their moisture, then gently sweat them until they soften – about 10 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon of water as necessary to prevent the onions from sticking.
When the onions completely soften, add the extra virgin olive oil along with the risotto rice. Mix well, then add all of the reserved broth used to cook the asparagus spears. Bring to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes, making sure to stir the rice from time to time to prevent it from sticking and burning.
Add the reserved chopped green and white asparagus to the rice and cook another 15 minutes. Then add the fresh or frozen peas with the baking soda. Stir well (enjoy the fizzy reaction) and cook for 3 minutes. Remove the soup and add the spinach to the pot. Mix well.
Puree the soup in a high-speed blender, working in batches (see tips below). Strain the pureed soup into a clean pot. Reheat gently to the desired temperature and serve with a garnish of cooked asparagus tips and croutons. Re-heat leftovers gently over medium heat and avoid boiling the soup or keeping it hot for long – this will cause that beautiful color to disappear.
Make this soup entirely from green asparagus if you can’t find white asparagus.
I like using risotto rice because it has the highest starch content and produces and extra creamy bisque. Avoid using low-starch white rice or something like basmati rice.
Work in small batches when pureeing a hot soup in a blender. Start on a very low speed and increase the speed to high over about 15 seconds. Puree the soup at high for 30 seconds, then strain and start your next batch. You can use a hand blender for this soup, but just make sure you strain the soup well before serving because the asparagus will have some residual fibers that make the soup…eh…not so nice to eat.
You can make fresh croutons by cutting the bread into large chunks. Toss in extra virgin olive oil – just enough to coat the bread. Season with dried oregano and bake in a preheated 180° (350°F) oven for 8-12 minutes.
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