Chinese have little or no attraction to raw vegetables. Partly because of their fascination with transforming the colors and textures of food, partly because of the practice of fertilizing vegetables with “night soil” (human excrement), raw vegetables have played no part in classic Chinese cuisine. Even the poorest of Chinese poets, banished to the tropics with little to do but dapple in rusticity and lyricize its charms, would throw his turnips in boiling water before eating them. To Chinese eyes, the fashionable French habit of preceding a meal with an assortment of raw vegetable crudités would seem just that—crude.
Cut the vegetables for blanching as follows. Once cut, they may be refrigerated overnight, sealed airtight in lightly misted plastic bags.
Blanching instructions follow the list of vegetables. Blanching times are suggestions based on superbly fresh produce. Test to be sure.
Asparagus: Snap off woody ends, then roll-cut into nuggets 2 inches long, as directed in TECHNIQUE NOTES. Blanch 30–40 seconds for pencil-thin asparagus, 50–60 seconds for slightly thicker stalks.
Broccoli: Cut the tops into flowerets and the stalks into “clouds,” as directed in TECHNIQUE NOTES. Blanch the flowerets 5–10 seconds; clouds 4—5 seconds.
Zucchini or Yellow Squash: Remove tips, then cut on the diagonal into oblong coins 2 inches long and ¼ inch thick, or cut into rounds ¼ inch thick. Blanch 3–4 seconds.
Carrots: Trim and peel carrots. Cut large carrots in the same manner as zucchini or squash above. Leave finger-size carrots whole. Blanch sliced carrots 10–15 seconds; small carrots 30–40 seconds.
String Beans or Longbeans: Discard tips and cut into 3-inch lengths. Blanch string beans 5–25 seconds, depending upon thickness and texture. Blanch longbeans 15–30 seconds.
Snow Peas or Sugar Snap Peas: Remove tips and string, if mature. Blanch 5–15 seconds, depending on size and thickness of pod.
Baby Corn: Drain. Blanch 5–10 seconds.
Lotus Root: To prevent discoloration, peel and slice immediately before blanching, or hold in cold water. Peel and cut into rounds ⅛ inch thick. Cut large rounds in half. Blanch 20–30 seconds.
Bamboo Shoots: Drain. Cut into long, thin wedges ½ inch thick. Blanch 10–15 seconds.
To blanch the vegetables, bring a generous amount of unsalted water to a boil in one or more large pots, depending upon the number and type of vegetables. Light or similarly flavored vegetables like zucchini and yellow squash may be blanched in the same water, though not at the same time. When sharing the same water, blanch the sweeter vegetable first—for example, carrots before broccoli. Put a metal colander in the sink or a Chinese mesh spoon or slotted spoon by the stove, of a size suitable for retrieving the vegetables quickly and in one batch. Or, put the vegetables in a wire basket or colander which can be quickly raised and lowered in the water. Unless you have a very cold faucet which gushes a good amount of cold water, put a bowl of ice water in the sink. It is the safest and surest way to cool the vegetables and keep them crisp.
Blanch only 1–2 cups of vegetables at one time. Immerse in the boiling water, then remove or drain as soon as the color deepens, following the time suggestions above. Exceptions to the color rule are those vegetables that need to cook beyond the point of color change to rid them of a grassy taste (asparagus), or white vegetables, which require cooking to enhance taste and preserve, not change, color (lotus root). Once removed from the boiling water, plunge immediately into ice water or rush under cold water until chilled. Do not overcook the vegetables or dally in draining and chilling them. The point to remember is that the vegetable will continue to cook from its own heat even after it leaves the pot.
Shake off excess water, then spread the vegetables on a lint-free cloth for up to 15 minutes. To hold for a longer period, up to 12 hours, transfer the vegetables from the cloth to a large plate, spreading them in more or less of a single layer, seal airtight, and refrigerate.
(For details on steaming and how to improvise a steamer.)
Brussels Sprouts: Trim off the stem just enough to expose new flesh. Discard any yellow or wilted outer leaves. Steam in a single layer over high heat 7–11 minutes, depending on the size of the sprouts, until a sharp knife can easily pierce the base.
Cauliflower: Break into flowerets and peel stems. Steam over high heat 5–10 minutes, depending on the size of the flowerets, until a knife easily pierces the thickest part.
To steam the vegetables, bring the water for steaming to a gushing boil over high heat. Put the vegetables in a single layer in a heatproof plate or Pyrex pie plate at least 1 inch smaller in diameter than your steamer. Add the plate to the steamer, cover tightly, then steam over high heat just until you can pierce the center of the vegetable easily with a sharp knife. Remove the vegetables quickly to a colander, then plunge immediately into ice water or rush under cold water until chilled. Drain, dry, and refrigerate as above.
Raw vegetables are best cut only hours before serving, though very firm ones may be cut a day ahead if you are less fussy or pressed for time. Refrigerate in lightly misted plastic bags, all except tomatoes, which are best stored dry.
Cherry Tomatoes: Leave stems on for decoration. Wash and pat dry.
Bell Pepper: Wash and cut in half lengthwise. Remove core, seeds, and ribs. Cut lengthwise into slivers ½ inch thick.
Radishes: Wash, pinch off wilted outer leaves, and trim off roots.
Cucumbers: Remove tips and cut on the diagonal into oblong coins ⅛–¼ inch thick, or into rounds ⅛–¼ inch thick.
Celery: String the outside of the ribs, if needed. Cut into 2–2½ inch lengths, then cut lengthwise into strips ¼ inch wide. Leave the tender leaf clusters and the hearts intact.
Arrange the vegetables in separate mounds, wagon-wheel fashion around the center of a large platter. Make it beautiful by alternating colors and fanning or overlapping the prettiest slices on top. Serve the sauce in bowls alongside, or work the bowls into the arrangement if the platter permits. The finished platter, minus the sauces, may be refrigerated hours before serving. Fleck the vegetables lightly with water to keep them moist, then seal airtight with plastic wrap.
Alternatively, mound the vegetables prettily on individual plates, then arrange them flower-style on the table around a cluster of sauce bowls. This works particularly well if you are feeding a large crowd.
Serve the vegetables well chilled, but serve the sauces at room temperature for best flavor and aroma. Invite your guests to help themselves to a bit of everything, using fingers or chopsticks, as the occasion and mood suggest.
Leftover vegetables keep 2–4 days, refrigerated and sealed. Leftover sauce keeps indefinitely, bottled and refrigerated.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.