I’ve heard a renowned French cook say recently that it was much harder to prepare high-class dishes only with vegetables. I thought he actually wanted to say: any high price for vegetarian food was justified. The three star chefs of Paris put price tags on carrot or celery salads nowadays that are nothing but shocking. Once in a Parisian gourmet temple, don’t be surprised to get a platter of raw vegetables for, say, 39 Euros (50 US$). You might find comfort in the fact that the salt and the olive oil will be exquisite, but 39 Euros? Come on…
Then came yesterday evening. And I learnt something new about vegetables. I learnt – see above – that it is in fact much harder to prepare a high-class dish only with vegetables. And I learnt that the chefs might not be as greedy as I thought. I prepared a casserole of winter vegetables à la Alain Ducasse. It took me more than two hours and I had to use practically all the pots and pans hidden in my kitchen cupboards. But the result was worth it.
The vegetable casserole contained salsify, carrots, artichokes, small pickling onions, garlic, Savoy cabbage, silver beet, raisins, Pied de mouton (a mushroom also known as “hedgehog fungus”), two firm pears and quite a lot of butter and chicken stock. The mise en place – I mean: the fresh artichokes alone make you work pretty hard – took some time. But it wasn’t as stressful as the cooking procedures.
You know, the real secret of classic French cuisine has always been that all ingredients are treated separately (and one by one with high respect). In this case it meant that I had to braise the salsify separately and I had to roast the mushrooms carefully, same for the pears that were sautéed in butter in yet another casserole, then cooked with the raisins. The cabbage leaves had to be blanched for 4 minutes (separately), the silver beet for 2 minutes in fresh water, but just the leaves, of course, the stems had to cook in butter and a light chicken stock for 12 minutes, the artichokes simmered with the carrots and two cloves of garlic in a black pot for 20 minutes, and so on and on.
Only in the end they all come together to cook on low heat for another 5 minutes. And only after these extra 5 minutes you would know if it was all a waste of time and energy – or if you had prepared the best vegetable stew of your life. I’ve made, fortunately, the latter experience. The vegetables still had their own character and texture (only the pears were a bit undercooked) but they had married their flavours and together they made a very elegant, exclusive, satisfying dish that was vegetarian but excellent. A thing which rarely happens. Give it a try.