A Plea for Soft-Cooked Vegetables

October 26, 2011
By Holly Jennings

“Mellow, “unctuous,” and “melting away in the mouth” are some of the words Lesley Porcelli uses to describe vegetables that have been cooked using “The Soft Approach,” a form of low and slow cooking and the name of her story, part personal revere and part well-defended thesis, published in this month’s Saveur magazine.

I like the way she thinks. After all, who wouldn’t want to eat vegetables with deep, complex, naturally sweet flavors and a sensually soft texture? Why should that satisfying experience be relegated to foods of the meat world, like fork-tender pot roast or succulent pulled pork. Especially in the brisk, earth-toned days of autumn or the cold, stark days of winter, it is vegetables cooked with the soft approach that are wanted. At those times, a green bean, for example, that has been blanched, shocked in ice water to set its bright green color, and then cooked further, but only to the point of al dente, is not comforting.

That is why Porcelli’s recipe for Lebanese-Style Green Beans with Chickpeas in Olive Oil stood out as I leafed through my copy of Saveur. The faded green color of the beans in the photo looked just like those my Tennessean grandmother prepared: Green beans were simmered in water with a ham hock for a couple of hours, maybe longer, until the beans became super soft and limp and the liquid was reduced to a small amount of ultra-flavorful broth. I always loved these green beans, despite hearing that “all of the nutrients had been cooked out of them,” because they tasted good and their texture offered no resistance. Besides, though some of the vitamins and minerals in boiled vegetables do end up in the cooking water, they are not lost if, rather than being discarded, that same liquid is transformed through slow cooking into a delicious broth or sauce.

Lebanese-Style Green Beans also taste good; in fact, they taste great. I found that they are equally good served hot or at room temperature, alone or with rice to soak up some of the rich broth, and, my favorite, with plain yogurt.

Thanks to Porcelli, my reference for soft-cooked green beans is now expanded; her recipe includes garlic, cumin seeds, and chickpeas, “exotic” ingredients that never found their way into my grandmother’s kitchen.

Lebanese-Style Green Beans with Chickpeas in Olive Oil

Serves 4 to 6

¼ cup olive oil
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon paprika
1½ pounds green beans, strings removed
1 (28-ounce) can whole, peeled tomatoes with juice, crushed by hand
1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

Heat the oil in an 8-quart saucepan over medium-high heat; add the cumin seeds and cook, stirring often, until fragrant, about 1 minute.

Add the onion, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring often, until soft and beginning to brown, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and fry, stirring often, for a few minutes, until softened and lightly browned.

Add the tomato paste and paprika, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomato paste is lightly caramelized, about 2 minutes. Add the green beans, tomatoes, chickpeas, and 3 cups of water, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook, partially covered, stirring occasionally, until very tender, about 1 hour. Let sit for at least 15 minutes before serving to allow the flavors to meld.


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