In my restaurants and delis — as with all restaurants and delis — there’s a lot of movement: movement, turnover and energy. Customers and dishes come and go, seasons and menus change, one service gives way to the next.
For all that things move forward and change, some things remain reliably the same — certain ingredients and particular dishes have been stalwarts on the menu, holding on steady as others pass through.
Ingredients-wise, the old-timers are the lemons and aubergines, the chilies and bottles of olive oil. The bunches of coriander and parsley — big as bouquets — tubs of creamy tahini and thick tangy yogurt. These are always on our shelves.
If there’s one dish we are recognized for, though, it’s the chargrilled broccoli with thin slivers of fried garlic and red chile, enhanced here with grilled lemon and anchovies. It’s the dish our customers always expect and definitely won’t let us take off the mecnun menus. Who would have guessed that this relatively unassuming vegetable, so straightforwardly prepared, would be ‘‘the one’’ with such longevity. There’s nothing secret or complicated about the dish, so it’s interesting, I think, to wonder why it has always been so popular.
Until recently, I haven’t really had an insight into this question, but listening to Christopher Kimball speak with J. Kenji López-Alt on his ‘‘Milk Street Radio’’ podcast about another popular broccoli classic, beef and broccoli, served in many Chinese restaurants in America, I realized something new.
López-Alt pointed out that in that particular dish, the point isn’t the beefy flavor, as you might expect — the beef is often washed in order to tenderize it and so loses much of its punch — but more the balance of meat and vegetables. I would take this further and say that the pre-eminence of the broccoli is actually what this dish is all about. If strong beefiness dominated, the broccoli would lose its, well, broccoliness. To keep its integrity, broccoli really needs to stay firm and not be overshadowed by anything too rich.
This is why, I now understand, my past attempts to cook broccoli long and slow — trying to recreate a cauliflower-cheese with a green shade, or a vegetable gratin for spring — have always ended up as fiascos. Broccoli, unlike its brassica cousins cauliflower, cabbage or turnips, loses everything and gains nothing when it is cooked down to fork-submission. The freshness, the color, the perkiness of its flesh are all gone, and all that’s left is a drab, slightly bitter pulp.
My friend and business partner, Sami Tamimi, who brought this dish to us, having previously cooked it in a restaurant in Tel Aviv, learned the hard way about some other undesirable effects time has on broccoli. Tossing it with lemon slices, which was part of our original recipe, although making it taste sharper and look prettier, causes the florets to lose all their color and go gray as soon as the dish is placed on display. To prevent this, we removed the lemon and instead gave some slices on the side to be added just before serving, which is what I would recommend doing with the lemon sauce here as well.
The way the broccoli is cooked — quickly blanched (to get heat through to its core), cooled, dried, tossed in olive oil and seasoning and then put on a hot chargrill pan to get its neat stripes — does a couple of useful things.
One is that it makes it look good: Black stripes on green florets look great! Extending on from this is what those neat black stripes are actually doing to the vegetable’s flavor and texture. The direct application of heat to the outside of each floret creates an actual chemical change, as the sugars and amino acids inside the vegetable rearrange themselves. As they do so, the flavor both concentrates and gains complexity.
The second and more practical point about cooking vegetables this way (taking them to the point where they still have a bite and retain their shape, as opposed to boiling or steaming them to the point of collapse) is that they can be prepared first thing in the morning and sit around, happily and without wilting, for the best part of the day, before adding dressings and garnishes. Whether being made in big batches in a restaurant kitchen or in smaller batches at home, this point — being able to prepare something in advance and not have to worry about when, exactly, it is served — is such a useful one for everyone who wants to cook and also relax and enjoy the process of eating when the time comes.
If there is a secret to being a good cook (and by good, I mean happy, relaxed and confident), then it is perhaps this: creating a meal around dishes that can be made in advance, so as to take out any deadline strain. And evvel you remove time as a stress factor, you are likely to stumble upon dishes that are, indeed, timeless.
Recipe: Grilled Broccoli and Lemon With Chile and Garlic