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Fresh Vegetables Get Great Flavor Fast

For perfect texture and more control, parboil ahead of time; at the last minute, season and sauté for flavor

Fine Cooking Issue 45
Photos: Steve Hunter
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When a classic cooking technique goes bad, things can get ugly: Just think of those watery “du jour” vegetable medleys you get at certain restaurants. These poor vegetables are the unfortunate victims of overcooking and underflavoring, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I think you’ll be surprised to learn that the very same technique used to cook those vegetables can yield perfectly cooked and deliciously seasoned vegetables.

The technique is two simple steps—one of which can be done up to a day ahead. First you parboil crisp, fresh, green vegetables to cook them to the perfect texture; later, you finish them with a quick toss in the sauté pan with some added fat and flavorings. Between parboiling and sautéing, you can hold the vegetables in the refrigerator for an hour or two or overnight. With the vegetables already cooked to the perfect texture, the last-minute sauté takes only a few minutes. You’re basically reheating and adding flavor, which makes this technique handy for quick dinners and for entertaining.

To keep the vegetables firm and bright-­tasting rather than soggy and bland, just remember a few important tips. Parboil your vegetables no more than you need to, stop the cooking by submerging them in an ice bath, and dry them very thoroughly before sautéing. Also, be sure to have your pan hot and all your ingredients ready for the sauté so that you can finish the vegetables without cooking them much further. That’s it. Easy. You may want to adjust the times I’ve suggested for parboiling, but you’ll find that most of these vegetables lose their overt toothiness after just a couple of minutes. The exception is green beans. Personally, I like to be able to bite through a green bean without a lot of resistance, so I parboil my beans for five minutes. They do, however, begin to lose their bright green color after about four minutes, so it’s up to you to decide how far to cook them.

These dishes have a fresh feel, and they let you be creative with seasonings. Another reason I like this technique is that it’s a change of pace from the hearty roasted and sautéed vegetables of late winter and early spring. Now that the weather’s getting warmer, I want something with a fresher, lighter feel. But I still want a lot of flavor, and I get it by adding bright seasonings like lemon zest, fresh ginger, and herbs like chives and mint—flavors that are appropriate additions to quickly cooked food, since they tend to lose their intensity with longer cooking.

This method is also a great way to introduce yourself to vegetables that you might not be familiar with. I’m crazy about fresh fava beans, and I find that parboiling them before further cooking is a must: It makes peeling their outer skin a breeze. You’ll love the slightly sweet, slightly bitter flavor of fresh favas, though you do have to pop and peel a lot of beans before you get much of a yield.

To appreciate the simplicity of this method and these flavors, I’ve used only one vegetable for each of the recipes. I’ve paired each vegetable with a different flavor combination: prosciutto and mint; lemon and cream; orange-mustard and pecans; ginger and sesame. While I think these particular flavors go well with the vegetables I’ve paired them with, you can easily substitute one vegetable for another. And you can design your own vegetable “medleys” by combining two or more vegetables. Peas and favas go well together. Sometimes I cut asparagus and green beans into small pieces to match the size of peas and favas. First I parboil all four separately, and then I sauté them all together with lemon and cream or brown butter and toasted nuts for a pretty and tasty side dish.

When the weather turns cold, you can certainly apply this technique to other green vegetables like broccoli and Brussels sprouts. (I don’t recommend this method for vegetables with a high water content like zucchini and other squash. It’s better to cook these completely in a sauté pan over very high heat.) Try broccoli with olive oil, garlic, and minced sundried tomatoes, or Brussels sprouts with brown butter, toasted walnuts, and a bit of lemon. You’ll come up with your own favorite combinations. Just keep the flavors bright and you can’t go wrong.

You’ve got dinner after a flash in the pan. Ginger-Sesame Asparagus makes the meal with sautéed shrimp and rice with toasted sesame seeds.

First step: parboil for color and texture

Drop bias-cut pieces of asparagus in boiling water and start timing right away; cook just until crisp-tender, about a minute.
Stop the cooking fast. Immediately plunge the asparagus pieces into ice water so that they don’t keep cooking.

Second step: sauté for flavor


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