Spring vegetables, winter fats

by Rishidev Chaudhuri

VegIn much of modern casual cooking the separation between animal and vegetable is excessively rigid: meat dishes are big slabs of flesh, and vegetable dishes lack any trace of meat. But there are many reasons to trouble this distinction, especially if you want to eat more vegetables and less meat (for ethical, health, environmental or aesthetic reasons) but don't need to stay away from meat entirely. Adding animal fats to vegetables allows for rich flavor without using a lot of meat or going through the trouble of constructing elaborate secondary sauces. And the combination scratches a particular spring itch: days are cold and warm, the sky is alternately wet and sun-drenched, and vegetables start to proliferate, hinting at the exuberance to come, but the evenings are brisk enough to demand robust fortification (no simple tomato salads, sublime as they can be).

Good and convenient fats to use with vegetables are poultry fat (chicken or duck), rendered bacon fat, butter and cream. You can also use beef or lamb fat, which are harder to find without a butcher, and veal fat if you're feeling decadent. And small fatty fish (like anchovies) are wonderful with vegetables, but that's a subject for another post.

Unsurprisingly, bacon fat emerges when you cook bacon. To make the process smoother, you can add a splash of water to the pan when you put the bacon in, which allows for gentle heating while the water heats up and boils off. Eat or reserve the bacon and strain and store the fat for later use. Poultry fat is often sold relatively cheaply but you can also accumulate fatty bits of chicken or duck (like the skin and the fat inside the cavity) in the freezer, and render it when you have enough. This is quite straightforward: trim away any attached bits of meat and cut the fat into small pieces; put it on low heat with some water and let it render out, stirring occasionally to make sure the non-fatty bits don't burn. Once the fat is liquid and the water has cooked off, strain it and store in the fridge. You can also render beef or pork fat in a similar way.

As a start, you can use these fats instead of oil when making salad dressings. If you're making a vinaigrette (mix vinegar or lemon juice with salt, mustard, etc. and whisk in fat with a fork), try using melted duck or chicken fat, or some rendered bacon fat, or even brown butter instead of part or all of the oil. This is delicious tossed with a simple salad of greens, and makes an excellent weekday lunch. Of course you could add refinements to your salad; possibly the best is a poached egg (or, equivalent but simpler, an egg boiled in its shell for about four minutes till the white is mostly set and the yolk is runny).

Animal fats go especially well with high heat and caramelized flavors, and this principle can be seen in pure form by considering the members of the noble cabbage family (Brassica). For example, Brussels sprouts beg to be cut in half, browned in a pan in bacon fat, and then served tossed with a bit of vinegar, something spicy, and perhaps the leftover bacon. If the sprouts seem like they're browning too fast or will brown before they soften, add a bit of water to the pan and let it cook off—effectively you steam first and then sauté. The combination of wet cooking followed by dry is a useful general technique: you don't need to use a separate pan and you get to separate out the cooking from the browning which gives you more control. It's also invaluable when you have too many things on the stove (for example, you're hosting a dinner party and accidentally get drunk), allowing you to slow down the cooking of some things so that you can focus on the others. It's also good as a remedy when pieces of food are sticking to the pan and starting to burn.

Cauliflower can be similarly treated with high heat and fat. Cut them into florets or lengthwise into thin slices (almost like thin slices of bread), rub them with fat and salt and put them in a hot oven (400 F or so) until they soften and brown. Again, you can add water or turn the oven down at the beginning if you need more control over the rate of cooking. You can even just rub a whole cauliflower with fat and salt and roast it in the oven. Michael Ruhlman has a delicious variant of this where you smear butter all over a whole cauliflower (making sure to push butter in between the florets), cook it in an oven at medium heat for a while and finish by turning up the heat so that the butter gets brown and nutty.

Robust leafy vegetables, like the leafy members of the cabbage family (chard, kale), can also be profitably steamed and then sautéed. Put them in a pan with some fat and some liquid (water works, though stock or wine is delicious, and add a splash of vinegar or lemon) and let them cook over medium heat until the liquid evaporates. Then turn the heat up and stir them until done. If you have both leaves and stems, separate them and put the stems in a few minutes earlier so that they have longer to cook. You can add garlic and other flavorings at whichever point you like, depending on how cooked you want them.

Creamed vegetables have a dubious reputation in some quarters, perhaps the result of too many overly rich vegetable side-dishes. However they have much to recommend them as a main dish or as part of a small menu. Here's an example with mushrooms, but you can adapt it to most other vegetables. Slice the mushrooms and sauté them in oil (or a mixture of oil and butter) until they brown. Don't crowd the pan otherwise they won't brown and you'll be sorry; if you have too many you can do them in batches and then combine them for the second stage. You can brown other things alongside too, like whole cloves of garlic or bits of onions. Once the mushrooms are sufficiently brown, add a generous amount of cream (you should experiment, but a good rule of thumb is to cover them about halfway) and simmer until the cream is absorbed. There'll be some clear fat left over in the pan, which is flavorful but can taste greasy if there's too much; I often pour it off. If you're adapting this to carrots, braise them in a mixture of butter and water rather than browning them. Other good candidates to be cooked with cream are turnips, meaty greens and browned potatoes.

There's a pleasing simplicity to using animal fats this way, and deploying the scraps of meat to flavor more humble ingredients feels like a frugal peasant technique (especially since fat is so often thrown away these days). I've been somewhat vague about cooking times and temperatures here, mostly because there's nothing precise or fussy about any of this and you can do them slightly differently each time. They are simply a set of versatile ideas that can be rearranged in various ways and you should make them more or less involved depending on the demands at hand.