I love sautéed artichoke hearts, but sometimes I just don't feel like bothering with the initial parboiling that's a prerequisite to sautéing them quickly in a very hot skillet. So one day I decided to sidestep the blanching and cook the artichokes directly, but slowly, in olive oil. It worked deliciously—the artichokes were meaty, tender, and succulent. When I tried the technique with asparagus, string beans, and broccoli, I came up with a bunch of great side dishes, as well as ideas for using these vegetables in other dishes, such as risotto, salads, and pasta.
I call these creatures slow-sautéed vegetables, and they are, to me, the wise old souls of the vegetable kitchen. I love the way they develop deep, earthy richness and how their natural sweetness emerges during their unhurried cooking. Most of all, I love their utter simplicity. Using this method (it's more method than recipe), there's no preliminary blanching, draining, or ice-water shocking. Here, the vegetables go straight into the pan, usually in the company of good, fruity olive oil, and are cooked leisurely over low heat to the point of browned, comforting tenderness. They can pretty much cook on their own as you proceed with other tasks in the kitchen.
The best vegetables to choose are those with a relatively low water content because they won't lose their shape and get mushy when cooked at a low temperature. Broccoli, cauliflower, string beans, artichoke bottoms, carrots, turnips, asparagus, and cabbage are good choices.
My favorite pans for this technique are the stalwarts of my kitchen—my cast-iron skillets. But any heavy-based pan that's a good heat conductor will do the job, such as thick stainless steel, lined copper, or any pan with a sandwiched aluminum core. Avoid lightweight aluminum or thin stainless-steel pans if possible because they'll cook the vegetables unevenly and probably burn them. I don't use nonstick pans because I don't think they allow the flavors to develop as fully, and when I want to deglaze the pan with a spritz of water to incorporate the brown bits stuck to the bottom, there are none to be had. Whatever pan you use, it has to be large enough—9 or 10 inches in diameter—to hold vegetables for four servings.
Cutting vegetables for slow sautés
The size and cut of the vegetable is important so the pieces cook at about the same rate and brown fairly evenly. Cut broccoli and cauliflower into 1-1/2-inch florets, leaving just enough stem to hold them together. Cut carrots thickly on the bias, which gives them more surface area for better heat penetration and browning. I peel asparagus spears to remove the slightly fibrous skin. I also think they taste sweeter this way. Slice green or red cabbage into 1/2-inch strips.
String beans are easiest of all; they're cooked intact after their ends are snapped off. Some beans are bound to be younger and slimmer, others more mature and thick. As a result, the finished dish consists of lots of wrinkled, browned, almost collapsed string beans highlighted by some slightly crisp, thicker ones that refused to let go. For me, this textural variety adds to the character of the dish.
A little steam helps slow browning
Slow sautés need gentle heat, an occasional toss, and time. The unhurried cooking yields vegetables with concentrated sweetness.
This slow sauté method is quite simple. To start, I heat some olive oil (or perhaps a dot of butter) in a skillet, though sometimes I toss the vegetables with olive oil and then add them to a heated dry pan. I cook the vegetables on low or medium low, listening for a sizzle to help clue me in to how quickly they're browning. You definitely want some caramelization, but not too much and not too soon, or the vegetables will burn before they're completely tender.
Essentially, all I'm doing is watching, listening, stirring occasionally, and adjusting the heat up or down whenever it seems necessary to control the browning. When the vegetables are fully tender and nicely colored, which takes about 20 minutes for asparagus to 40 minutes for broccoli, they're done. Depending on the quantity of the vegetable and how it's cut (see below), the size and type of skillet, and the burner, cooking times will vary quite a bit, which is why the times given in the recipes that follow give such a wide range.
With classic high-heat sautés, you generally want to avoid crowding the pan so the vegetables don't steam as they give off moisture. But with these slow sautés, a touch of steam isn't such a bad thing. You're using vegetables with less water, and the little moisture they give off helps them cook faster and also slows browning. There are two ways that I let the steam work for me: by layering the vegetables or by covering the pan.