Summer’s arrived, and with it comes a fine array of new produce: baby broad beans, baby carrots, peas, artichokes, gooseberries and broccoli. A lot of these things are so young and tender at this time of year that they don’t need very much doing to them: just blanch and toss them with a dressing and you’ve got yourself a lovely summer salad.
Essentially a fancy word for boiling, blanching is one of those cooking techniques that somehow feels a bit ‘cheffy’ and often gets disregarded by domestic cooks. However, blanching is one of the building blocks of lots of dishes, from pastas to salads, soups and beyond. It’s a good one to have in your seasonal arsenal of culinary skills.
Blanching is useful when you want to control carefully the degree to which a vegetable is cooked before incorporating it into a dish. Sometimes this may be because other ingredients aren’t actually cooked, like asparagus for a salad, or to facilitate a further process, like podding broad beans or cooking spinach to chop into a frittata. Sometimes because you want to get the ingredient ready to add later, when you may be busy with guests or other cooking, when all you have time for is to add it or quickly warm it through. It’s a technique I use in all sorts of situations and is also ideal getting veg ready for freezing.
No two vegetables take the same length of time to cook, and they take different times depending on their size too, so part of blanching is about prepping your vegetables well, making sure they’re a fairly even size, or sorting them into batches. Wash and trim them – give them some love – then drain them carefully. Put a large pan of water on to boil, the larger the better: you want lots of room for the vegetables to move around it. The more experienced you get, the larger the batches in less water you can cook but as a basic rule of thumb, lots of water is better. And it should be well salted. Put a lid on, and while it’s coming to a boil, set aside a large bowl of cold water – iced if possible. Again, the larger the better (within reason), as you want to stop the vegetables cooking quickly, and the more water there is the faster this will happen.
When the water has reached a rolling boil, tip in the vegetables – in batches if neccessary, don’t crowd the pan. Bring back to a rolling boil and cook to the desired degree. This doesn’t always mean very crisp: think about whether they’re going to get cooked more; if not then make sure they’re cooked enough. Some vegetables, like asparagus, benefit from that extra couple of seconds to bring out their sweetness.
I generally think tender as opposed to crunchy or soft. Chard stalks should give to a strong pinch. Beetroot leaves take no time at all. A good spider (metal, target-shaped utensil) is invaluable as it allows you to take out as much as you can from the pan at once without tipping away the water – leaving you ready for the next batch. Once done, remove the veg from the boiling water and plunge them into the cold. Stir a little, being careful of pockets of hot water, then leave to fully cool for a couple of minutes. Remove from the water and drain. Leaves, like spinach, will probably need a good squeeze. This is a great point to take spinach to before freezing, squeezed firmly of water into balls and popped into a freezer bag.
Food For All Seasons by Oliver Rowe (Faber) is now available in shops. Oliver Rowe appears at Owl Bookshop, Kentish Town Road on Monday June 27th at 6.30pm to talk about the new book. Tickets £5 in-store or Tel 020 7485 7793. More details @owlbookshop