My Goals

  • Perfectly crisp-tender vegetables with vibrant colors

  • A butter sauce that clings to the vegetables instead of to the platter

Recipes for butter-braised spring vegetables abound, but don't let them lead you astray. Braising simply doesn't work for tender spring produce. Winter vegetables are another story: If you slowly braise sturdy carrots, parsnips, and potatoes in butter over low heat in a covered pot, they stew in their own juices, turning perfectly tender with an earthy sweetness. But do the same with delicate asparagus and peas and you get sodden, drab mush.

That's why most so-called butter-braised spring vegetables aren't technically braised. Instead they're cooked rapidly in a covered skillet with a small amount of butter and water or broth. But I reject those recipes, too. Because the vegetables cook directly in the buttery liquid, they become dull and waterlogged and the buttery richness is lost. For spring vegetables that retained their vibrant colors and crisp textures and butter that clung to their surfaces, I'd have to find another way.

But first, which vegetables to cook? Asparagus, emblematic of spring, was a must. Sugar snap peas would provide the sweetness of their shelled cousins but with extra, well, snap. And I confess I chose radishes mostly for their dazzling color. Turnips' hint of bitterness rounded out my medley.

Tasters sample a range of braised spring vegetables in search of a complementary combination of flavors, textures, and colors.

To prevent the vegetables from becoming soggy, I decided to cook them in a steamer basket over a small amount of water. I halved the radishes and cut the asparagus and turnips to match the size of the whole sugar snap peas, hoping similar dimensions would help the vegetables cook at the same rate.

It didn't quite work out, though. The asparagus and turnips were perfectly crisp-tender after 5 minutes, but by that time the peas had long lost their snap. Much of the radishes' color had leached into the water below, and their crisp pepperiness had given way to a vaguely cabbage-like flavor.

For my next batch, I gave the asparagus and turnips a 2-minute head start before adding the peas. And I added the radishes, cut into slim half-moons, just for the last minute to warm through. I lifted the steamer basket out of the saucepan, discarded the water, and tumbled the vegetables back into the saucepan. I stirred in some butter and a bit of salt and transferred everything to a platter.

Stagger Your Steaming

Perfectly timed steaming results in perfectly crisp-tender vegetables.

The colors were beautiful and the vegetables nearly perfectly cooked. However, the butter had slipped right off the food and pooled on the platter.

For my next batch, I spread the vegetables on the platter right after steaming to let excess heat escape and prevent them from overcooking while I made a quick version of the French butter sauce called beurre blanc. An emulsion of flavorful liquid and butter, a beurre blanc coats food much better than butter alone.

Whisking cold butter into the warm sauce, tablespoon by tablespoon, creates a creamy emulsion that coats each vegetable, delivering rich, buttery flavor in every bite.

I poured off most of the water from the saucepan and added minced shallot, white wine vinegar, salt, and a bit of sugar. Once the shallot softened, I whisked in chilled butter, tablespoon by tablespoon, until the sauce had the viscosity of heavy cream. I added the vegetables to the sauce, gave them a stir, and returned everything to the platter, finishing with a light sprinkle of minced chives.

The result was a platter of buttery, vibrant, perfectly cooked vegetables worthy of a spring celebration—and certainly worth celebrating.

Keys to Success

  • Perfectly crisp-tender vegetables with vibrant colors

    We use a steamer basket to hold the vegetables above the water and stagger the addition of the vegetables to the saucepan so that none overcook.
  • A butter sauce that clings to the vegetables instead of to the platter

    Instead of tossing the cooked vegetables with plain butter, which slips right off them, we make an emulsion by whisking cold butter into sautéed aromatics, vinegar, and water.