- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Food scientists know that many fruits and vegetables profit from minimal cooking.

Green vegetables are an excellent visual illustration of this principal because they contain two forms of chlorophyll: one that’s a beautiful bright green and another that’s army drab.

When you overheat green vegetables, the cell walls shrink and acids contained in the cells leak out. These acids make the bright green shade discolor. So, whether you boil, steam, broil or grill, short cooking time is the key to retaining the bright green color of green vegetables.

Here’s another quick-cooking tip. Green beans become tender 10 percent faster cooked in water that has been salted. So green beans cooked in boiling, salted water for less than 7 minutes and then rinsed to stop the cooking process and remove the salt, will retain a bright green color.

It is easy to reheat them briefly with a little butter when you are ready to serve. Broccoli florets cooked in the same manner for 5 minutes or less will be a beautiful green. The same is true for asparagus, as illustrated by the 4-minute asparagus recipe that follows.

A short cooking time is also the secret to a sweet, mild flavor for members of the cabbage family. At between 5 and 7 minutes of cooking, the foul-smelling hydrogen sulfide compounds in cabbage double. But if you slice cabbage thinly, as you would for deli coleslaw, and cook the cabbage 5 minutes or less, it will be tender, mild and wonderfully flavored. As an example, see the recipe that follows for fine cabbage shreds with buttered crumbs.

A little sugar — even less than ½ teaspoon — can have amazing influences on both the texture and flavor of fruits and vegetables, which tend to soften and lose their shape when cooked.

The reason for this is that a gluelike pectic substance between the cells turns to water-soluble pectin, dissolves and the cells fall apart when cooked. But it just so happens that sugar and calcium prevent this change and allow cooked fruits and vegetables to retain their shapes.

Cooked dried beans are a good example. If you cook navy or pinto beans for 4 to 6 hours, they become mushy like refried beans, but if you cook the same beans with brown sugar and molasses, which contain sugar and calcium, the beans retain their shape even after cooking all day, as is illustrated in the famed recipe for Boston baked beans.

Apple slices benefit from the same sweet technique.

Cook them until they are as tender as desired, then add a little sugar to preserve the shape.

In the golden carrot recipe that follows, I was careful to cook the carrots to soften first and to then add the sugar to preserve their shape. I employed the same technique for fine cabbage shreds with buttered crumbs.

In addition to preserving the texture, researchers have found that sugar has complex, indirect influences on preserving flavor.

As little as 1/2 teaspoon of sugar in a dish can make an amazing difference.

4-minute asparagus

Perfectly cooked, gorgeous bright green asparagus is ready in minutes. The chlorophyll in green vegetables remains bright green if vegetables are cooked less than 7 minutes. Lemon zest is used to give a fresh lemon taste without the acidity of the lemon juice, which will turn cooked green vegetables army drab.

1 pound asparagus, rinsed in cold water

3 tablespoons olive oil

½ teaspoon sea salt

½ teaspoon sugar

Zest of 1 lemon

With one hand at the root end of an asparagus stalk and the other hand 3/4 of the way up the shaft, gently bend. The asparagus will snap where the tough portion ends. Discard the tough end.

Spread asparagus out on a jelly-roll baking pan. Drizzle with oil and then roll to coat all sides with oil. Place in preheated broiler, about 6 or 7 inches from flame, and broil for 4 minutes only.

Sprinkle with salt, sugar and lemon zest and place on a serving platter or individual plates. Serve hot, cold or at room temperature. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Fine cabbage shreds with buttered crumbs

Cabbage cooked briefly has fascinating, subtle, sweet flavors. This is a quick, easy dish that is surprisingly delicious. If you cut brussels sprouts in half, you can cook them in the same way.

1 small head cabbage

4 tablespoons butter

½ cup seasoned bread crumbs

3½ teaspoons salt or more, divided


1 teaspoon sugar

Cut cabbage in half and place each half, cut side down, on a cutting board. Slice cabbage into very thin shreds like deli coleslaw.

Melt butter in a large skillet. Stir in bread crumbs and ½ teaspoon salt and cook, stirring constantly, until lightly browned. Set aside.

Bring a large pot of water with 3 teaspoons salt to a boil. Add cabbage. Cook 4 to 5 minutes only. Drain well. Place cabbage in skillet with bread crumbs and add sugar. Reheat just a minute and pour onto a serving dish. Taste and add a little more salt if necessary. Serve hot.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Golden carrots

One way to make cooking easier is to take advantage of packaged, peeled and cut, fresh vegetables.

My market sells packaged fresh carrots trimmed into matchsticks, as well as ruffled slices and baby carrots. If you like foods spicy hot, add a dash of cayenne when you add the brown sugar.

4 cups carrots cut in matchsticks

½ teaspoon salt


3 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons dark brown sugar

2 tablespoons orange marmalade or 1 tablespoon orange zest

Chopped chives for garnish

In a large skillet, bring carrots, salt and 1 cup water to a boil. Turn down to a low simmer, cover and cook until carrots are just tender, a couple of minutes. (Time will vary with size of matchsticks.)

Remove cover and turn up heat so that most of water evaporates, stirring occasionally.

Stir in butter, brown sugar and orange marmalade or orange zest. Stir well to coat all carrots. Garnish with chopped chives and serve hot. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Food scientist Shirley O. Corriher is the author of “CookWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking” (William Morrow).


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