Friday, April 18, 2014

A Ragoût of Spring Vegetables for Easter

It was not my intention to write a blog post when I prepared this spring vegetable ragoût for dinner the other evening. occasionally was so very good that I wanted to share it.  Besides, the fact that almost all of the work can be done ahead makes this an ideal dish to serve for a large holiday gathering....  like Easter.   So, for all of you who have not finished planning your Easter spread—and still need to come up with a special green vegetable side dish—this post is for you.

The recipe for this ragoût is really just a detailed example of a classic restaurant method for reheating vegetables.  Any single vegetable—or combination of vegetables—can be treated in this way.  To begin, simply cook all of the vegetables for your ragoût ahead using vegetable specific and appropriate methods:  Green vegetables should be blanched and then shocked in ice water when they are cooked to your liking.  Shocking will stop the cooking process and preserve their bright green color.  Other vegetables—most commonly small or baby root vegetables, artichokes, new potatoes or small onions—can be poached or braised to the point of doneness.   All of this can be done several hours...or even a day...before you plan to serve them. 

Reheating the vegetables is easy.  If you have time, let them come to room temperature.  Then, wilt some minced shallot in a small amount of butter or olive oil.  To the shallots add the vegetables and a thin film of water (or stock) and heat through.  When the vegetables are hot, season with salt and pepper, swirl in some butter—and herbs if you like—and serve. 

For an even more streamlined vegetable side, you may leave the shallot out.  Just film the pan with a bit of water (or stock), add the vegetables and proceed with the reheat.  The herbs should be altered to compliment the specific vegetables you are reheating...but they too, may be left out.  Whenever possible, I like to include both shallots and fresh herbs since these add so much to the final flavor.  For a large dinner, the shallots and herbs can both be minced a few hours ahead.

If you happened to see the salmon with asparagus and peas that I posted last month, the process of finishing the vegetables with butter will sound familiar.  In the case of the salmon dish the vegetables were not pre-cooked.  The cooking and finishing were all done in one step.  I mentioned briefly in that post that the finishing process worked the same whether you were reheating a vegetable, or cooking and finishing them all in one step.  That post was an example of the latter, today's is an example of the former.  As mentioned in that earlier post, the only trick to this finishing method is that you need to be careful to add roughly as much butter as there is liquid left in the pan so that the butter will emulsify easily into the simmering liquid, creating a light buttery sauce.  (You can actually add more butter than liquid, but the higher the proportion of butter, the thicker the sauce...and I prefer a more fluid sauce).  Agitation of the pan and its contents will encourage the emulsification process, so after adding the butter, gently slide the pan back and forth...or swirl in a circular motion...until the butter has disappeared into the ragoût.

For those interested in technical/professional terms, the French call this process of finishing a liquid/sauce by gradually adding  butter monter au beurre.  Not only does this process increase the volume of and enrich the sauce, the emulsification of the butter into the liquid adds a lovely sheen, a fluffier texture and a pleasant mouth feel.  It will also soften strong and/or acidic flavors.  If you don't know what to do to round out a sauce...or a vegetable...or a pasta could do worse than swirling in a small amount of butter.  Butter does indeed make just about everything better. 

In the ragoût I am sharing today there are multiple vegetable components.  And as noted above, they each require different methods of pre-cooking.  The asparagus and peas are simply blanched and shocked.  The artichokes are turned and poached in acidulated water.  If you have never "turned" a globe artichoke, you should give it a try.  I wrote a "how to" post a few years ago.  I know that turning artichokes can be a bit of a daunting task, but practice will make it easier.  You can of course use canned or frozen hearts, but there is truly no comparison between the taste of fresh artichokes and canned or frozen.  To me, the work involved in trimming a fresh artichoke is more than worth it. 

As for the spring onions, 

they are given a classic French treatment.  They are braised until they are soft, tender and beautifully glazed.  To prepare them, trim away the roots and all but the pale green.  If they are very small, they may be left whole.  Larger ones may be halved or quartered through the root.  

To cook, place them in a pan that is just large enough to hold them in a snug single layer.  Add water to come a third to half way up the sides of the onions.  Season lightly with salt.  Add a pinch of sugar and dot with butter.  

Bring to a simmer, cover and cook gently until the onions are tender to the tip of a knife.  Uncover and increase the heat slightly.  Continue to cook until the liquid has evaporated and the onions are glazed with the butter and sugar.  You may remove them from the heat at this point, or continue to cook them until the sugar caramelizes a bit.  

Glazed spring onions--cooked until lightly caramelized

These onions are a delicious addition/ finishing touch to any vegetable ragout or stew.  The same process may be applied to pearl onions, shallots or cipollini onions.

I love the composition of this particular ragoû just seems to shout "Spring!" with the dark green of the asparagus and peas, the paler green of the artichoke and the translucent white of the onion. You can include all...or only a few...or add/substitute other Spring vegetables (fava beans, for example).   The herbs too can be varied to suit your taste.  But I especially love the mint in this adds just the right bright, clean and refreshing note.  And in the end, that's what this dish on your Easter table should be all about...a refreshing and bright addition to a feast simultaneously marking the advent of Spring and the promise of new life.    Happy Easter.

Spring Vegetable Ragoût

6 spring onions, white and pale green parts only, roots trimmed away
unsalted butter
Salt & freshly ground black pepper

Juice of half a lemon
4 globe artichokes, "turned"
1 c. English (shelling) peas, fresh or frozen
1 lb. medium asparagus, trimmed and cut into 2-inch lengths on a diagonal

2 to 4 T. unsalted butter
1 shallot, finely minced
3 or 4 sprigs of thyme, picked
water or stock
2 T. coarsely chopped Italian flat leaf parsley
2 T. coarsely chopped fresh mint

Vegetable Prep

Halve (or quarter, if very large) the spring onions through the root.  Place in a pan that is just large enough to hold them in a snug single layer.  Add water to come a third to half way up the sides of the onions.  Season sparingly with salt and pepper.  Add a pinch of sugar and dot with butter.  Cover and bring to a simmer.  Simmer until the onions are just tender to the tip of a knife.  As the cook, check occasionally to make sure there is still some liquid in the pan.  Add more if necessary.  When the onions are tender, remove the lid and increase the heat.  Simmer briskly until the onions are sizzling in the butter and are coated with a syrup-y glaze.  You may leave them without color, or cook them until the sugar begins to caramelize a bit.  Do not burn.  Transfer to a plate and let cool.

Add the lemon juice to a large pot of water and bring to a boil.  Season with salt.  Cut the artichokes into 8 wedges each and add to the boiling water.  Cook until tender—about 15 minutes.  Drain and set aside.

In another pot of boiling salted water, blanch the peas until just tender—this should only take a couple of minutes.  Scoop out and cool in an ice bath.  Transfer to a plate.  If using frozen peas, simply thaw.

In the same pot of water the peas were blanched in, blanch the asparagus until just tender.  Scoop out and cool in an ice bath.  Transfer to the plate with the peas.

Cooked vegetables, along with shallots and herbs
...ready for a final reheat 

 Prepare the Ragoût

Place a wide sauté pan—one that is large enough to accommodate all of the vegetables—over medium heat and add a tablespoon or so of butter.  When the butter has melted.  Add the shallots and thyme—along with a pinch of salt—and sweat until softened.  This will only take a minute or so.  Add the vegetables and enough water to just coat the bottom of the pan—maybe 2 or 3 tablespoons.  Increase the heat and bring to a simmer, tossing the vegetables occasionally, until they are heated through.  Add the butter and swirl and toss to help it emulsify into the water (the goal is a light, emulsified butter-y sauce).  Remove from the heat and season with salt & pepper.  Toss in the mint and  the parsley.  Serve hot.  Serves 4 to 6.

(Recipe adapted from Frank Stitt's Southern Table)

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