Burning Up the Vegetables: or, Thinking Again about Strategically Burned Vegetables, also known as Carbonized Food

When Talking Heads recorded “Burning Down the House” they probably weren’t thinking about housebitches who would be making dinner at 1.30 in the afternoon so it’d be easy to heat up at 7.30 on Tuesday evening after attending their child’s school open house, messing up the process so badly that email was sent to a housebitch’s spouse reading, “I may have ruined all the vegetables for dinner, sorry about that.”

There was probably something more rock and roll in mind.

However, this actually happened to me, and once again, we’re mulling over the fact that burning vegetables can be a good thing. Burning things is something we shouldn’t really aim to do, in our day to day life — we don’t want to cause house fires, after all — but it really does seem to be true that a certain amount of godawful overcooking results in some really good food.

I’m not referring to steak here; we all know some people like their steak burnt to hell. Ditto with French fries and grilled cheese sandwiches (“the burnt parts are the best part!”).

In a world where there are people who believe vegetables should be gently steamed, never overcooked, or just served exclusively raw (god help these folks), I am going to fight the good fight and say this:

Burning your vegetables can be the best thing to happen to your dinner plate.

It was many years ago that I first burned the hell out of a big pot of Brussels sprouts because I got distracted from the stove and discovered that this resulted in fabulous sprouts. We came to call this “strategic burning” and never looked back. I’ve since done it with great success to many types of vegetables — broccoli, cabbage — basically, your strong, hearty veggies — and green beans.

This week, I knew Tuesday was going to be hell, and I began to prepare for it on Monday. At noon on Monday I was starting Tuesday’s dinner. I had frozen buffalo short ribs pulled from the freezer on Sunday; once thawed, I started braising them Monday afternoon, and then I put them in the fridge feeling smug. Tuesday, I bought a bag of carrots, and thought, “I will cut these into coins, and cut those fancy-pants farmer’s market radishes (that have been sitting in the fridge for more than a week) into coins, and I will braise them together, and I will reheat the short ribs, and we can have it with egg noodles. That will be a fine dinner.” I had to be out of the house most of Tuesday, and would be at my daughter’s school’s open house from six till 7.30; but I had faith that if I had the meat ready, and the veggies cooked and just in need of re-heating, I could task my husband with cooking egg noodles such that when my daughter and I got home at 7.30, all three of us could sit down to eat in style.

It was a noble plan. The problem was that in the 90 minutes I was home on Tuesday, I got the carrots and radishes cooking, and went upstairs, and forgot to set a timer. The phone rang, and I forgot that I was cooking anything, and the next thing I knew, I walked into the hallway and thought, “I smell burning food.”

I flew down the stairs and found that I had really burnt the shit out of my fancy pants radishes and the plain jane carrots. The bottom of the pot was black, thickly crusted with black. It wasn’t a good situation. I had to leave the house soon — it was time for me to go get my daughter — and after saying, “Crap, crap, crap” a few times, I sighed, resigned. There was nothing for it but to turn off the flame, cover the pot, and deal with the mess when I got home at 7.30.

I fetched my daughter (“You’re LATE!” she scolded me) and once we were on the bus headed downtown, I texted my husband: “I burned the shit out of the veggies for dinner.” He wrote back and said to not worry about it. I expressed dismay over the fact that I’d ruined $5 worth of vegetables (those fancy radishes had cost me $3.00). “I think we can recover from this financial disaster,” he wrote back.

I took my daughter to her piano lesson; I gave her a healthy snack (yogurt and jam and a Scottie-shaped shortbread cookie; ok, so it wasn’t a SUPER healthy snack, but screw it, the yogurt was organic, the jam French, and the cookie imported from Great Britain, a leftover Christmas stocking item we need to use up). I sat dutifully through the piano lesson. On finally leaving the music school, I advised her, “We’re gonna have to stop at Romeo’s on the way home, really fast; we’ll drop off the food and then go back to school for the Open House, ok?” It had been a long day, but we knew we just had to soldier on. My daughter was exhausted, but she nodded. “Can we at least take a bus home?” she asked. I conceded we didnt have to walk. We came back to our neighborhood, we bought some broccoli, we went home.

When we walked in the door, my daughter said, “It smells like food in here.”

“I burned the vegetables,” I said. I went straight to the stove and lifted the lid off the pot still on the stove. To my surprise, the contents of the pot smelled wonderful. I pulled out a charred radish and popped it into my mouth, and it was…. really good. These radishes, raw, were so peppery that eating one raw brought tears to my eyes — it was like eating wasabi at a good Japanese restaurant — but cooked like this, they were just buttery and slightly sweet. The carrots were somehow almost candied. I had added to the pot only butter and water and salt; there had been no tricks to this dish. There had been no sprinklings of sugar or splashes of balsamic vinegar. The extreme cooking session with only butter and salt had caused this complete evolution: they were now the exact opposite of the hard, raw, aggressive vegetables they’d been at one in the afternoon.

My daughter saw me eating and trotted over. “Me too?” I popped a radish into her mouth. “Mmmmmm,” she said peering into the pot.

“No,” I said. “For dinner, not snack.” I filled a stock pot with water for the egg noodles, set it on the stove, and got us out the door and to the school open house.

I was settling into the school auditorium, about twenty minutes later, when my cell phone buzzed: my husband writing: “Jesus. What is that SMELL?”

“Burnt carrots and radishes,” I wrote back.

At 7.30 on the nose, we got home. The open house was nice if not super-informative, but then, I don’t know what I need to know anyway. My husband was sitting on the couch, relaxing with the cat. The house smelled of short ribs, reheating gently in the oven. The vegetables were in their pot, also gently reheating; the egg noodles were boiling on the stove. In a few minutes, we all sat down to eat what was, truly, one of the most delicious dinners we’d had in a long time. There was much discussion of how good the radishes were, in particular.

The challenge now: deciding what to do with the leftover short ribs. I’m seriously thinking chili. And wondering what other vegetables I’d like to burn. Maybe I should turn to Talking Heads for ideas. “More Songs About Buildings and Food.”

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