Al Dente

It’s that time of the year when everyone starts arguing about sprouts. In one corner, the unapologetic sprout-lovers, for whom the smell of ancient, boiled socks goes hand-in-hand with Christmas like peaches and cream; in the other, the genetically superior brassicaphobic, who cherish and guard their ability to taste that hint of queasy bitterness which lurks at the back of every cabbage. In the middle, calling for reason, are those who understand that said bitterness is only activated by the preparation which the French are pleased to call a la Anglais; the long demolition of vegetables. A well-raised sprout, on the other hand, cooked until it is cooked, is edible to all, and capable, as most things are, of deliciousness.

The cooking of things until they are cooked, sadly, is a dying art, having lost significant ground on both sides, to the aforementioned English vice as well as to the tyranny of al dente. The latter phrase, you are probably aware, is Italian for ‘to the tooth’ or ‘to the bite’, and refers to the raw snap they prize at the core of pasta; I don’t think an Italian cook would apply it to a green vegetable, which tend, in my limited experience of Southern Italy, to be cooked until they are cooked, dressed heavily in good, bitter oil, and left to sit at room temperature – an excellent preparation for any bean or brassica. No – I think the blame here can be set squarely on the French, or at least on a certain kind of quasi-French cooking, which prizes colour, texture and structure above things like taste. In a thousand hotel kitchens across Europe, chefs are blanching beans, broccoli and spinach until a fixed dark green, shocking them immediately in iced water, and then reheating to order in a little emulsion of water and butter or, if pressed for time, in a microwave. Somewhere in this process most of the actual, distinct taste of the vegetable is lost.

Worse, when applied to certain things – cabbages, mainly – the process renders them actively unpleasant to eat. Having lost the crunch of rawness but not fully cooked through, they become chewy and curiously resistant to the eating. I had some ‘braised’ red cabbage the other day which just wasn’t – half-cooked, it had lost all its own flavour without anything to replace it, and I found it, really, a chore. Either cook it or don’t cook it; don’t mess around in the middle. I like my steaks cooked medium rare, just warm and giving in the centre; I love steak tartare with a fierce, barbaric passion. I don’t want great slabs of charred, mostly uncooked muscle. If the meat is good enough to stand up to that, give it to me raw and I will tear at it. There is a current fashion for raw fish, often salted or pickled, which is then singed with a blowtorch. Apart from the obvious pleasure of playing with a blowtorch, I can’t see any merit in this. Either cook it until it is cooked, or leave it alone. And please, please stop serving lentils al dente.

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