Root vegetables and dried beans, once dismissed as "peasant food," have been elevated to haute cuisine.
Thursday, February 3, 2000
Remember when ordering a vegetarian plate meant being served all the side dishes that went with everybody else''s main course? You could usually count on mashed potatoes, peas, carrots and corn, festively garnished with a branch of curly parsley, all looking oddly out of place in the absence of a hunk of well-done beef. This was life beyond the salad bar.
The revolution in the way we eat is apparent in the variety of foods that we now enjoy, the result of a happy invasion of multicultural influences and a new zeal to experience what we were missing out on.
Just look at how interesting the typical house salad has become: a riotous mix of frisee, oak leaf, radicchio, arugula, green and red Romaine, mizuna, baby spinach and chard, lollo rosa and tango lettuces, effectively making an innocuous plate of iceberg seem quaint. What was formerly an afterthought has become an adventure, as evident in your local produce department as it is on upscale menus.
Take that gnarly, knobby, slightly formidable orb, the celeriac, or celery root. Cut into with a sharp knife, the pristine, firm white flesh beneath the gnarly exterior becomes a pleasant surprise, especially once you''ve tasted it. It does amazing things, cut into chunks and blanched in boiling salted water or broth and whipped into equal parts of regular old mashed potatoes.
"Celeriac also makes a nice puree," says Montrio''s Chef Tony Baker. "And you can use salsify the same way." Shaped like a carrot and usually white or gray in color, salsify is sometimes called oyster plant because of its mild, oyster-like flavor. It is popular in Baker''s native Britain. "It''s a very neutral, inoffensive taste," Baker explains, "and it''s very creamy when pureed, great with a pungent sauce. Or I''ll sometimes do it pan-roasted in butter, served with basil cream and a little tomato concasse."
The same goes for turnips and rutabagas. Peeled and cut into chunks along with carrots and sweet potatoes, tossed in a little oil with some salt and pepper and roasted in a hot oven, they make dandy dishes on their own, or a great accompaniment for roasted meat, especially game, and fowl.
Ditto finnochio. Otherwise known as fennel, it looks somewhat like a leek with a feathery cap, has a sweet, anise-y bite that''s good both roasted and grilled, and is a natural paired with fish.
"In France, we used to do fennel packed inside a whole fish and baked," says Chef Robert Kincaid, owner of Robert''s Boulevard Bistro. "The waiters would then carry the fish out into the dining room, douse it in Pernod, and set it aflame tableside. Very high drama." Kincaid sometimes serves it as one would scalloped potatoes--peeled, sliced thinly and layered into the pan with Parmesan, Gruyere and cream. "It''s a great accompaniment for both fish and veal," he says.
Another of Kincaid''s favorites that makes for a classic accompaniment to roast lamb is the tiny, tender French kidney beans that resemble lentils, known as flageoloets. "They''re wonderful simply braised in lamb stock and served with lamb shank," says Kincaid. "I like to puree half of the beans and add them back into the whole beans for the texture they lend." Usually only available dried, they take a couple of hours to simmer to doneness.
In a few more weeks, fava beans will again be in season. It''s a legume highly esteemed by Stokes Adobe''s Chef Brandon Miller, one frequently available fresh at downtown Monterey''s Tuesday afternoon market.
"They''re actually grown up in Half Moon Bay," says Miller, "and they come whole, in the pod. There''s two skins: the actual pod that you remove first, like shelling peas, and a second skin that slips off after quickly blanching in boiling salted water. You want to douse them in an ice bath after that, so they retain their color." Miller often serves them pureed with a touch of extra virgin olive oil, lemon thyme and garlic. Spread on a thin, diagonally sliced toasted crouton, they become the crostada that adds a dazzling, outrageously green color to the restaurant''s tapas menu.
Visual effect is just one of the reasons why Fresh Cream''s Chef Greg Lizza is fond of using endive.
There''s the cigar-shaped Belgian endive that''s grown in complete darkness to prevent it from turning green, an expensive, labor-intensive process known as blanching. Another variety with brilliant red tips also stands out on the plate. "Belgian endive is great fresh, just on its own. The classic is, of course, endive spears stuffed with blue cheese and walnuts," says Lizza, "and it goes really well with lobster salad in tarragon vinaigrette. Cooked, you just simply braise it in wine--Riesling is good--some aromatics, a little mirepoix, and finish it with butter."
Another variety of endive is escarole, which Brandon Miller prefers to mix in with other, milder flavored greens. "Escarole can be bitter on its own," he cautions, "but mixed with milder greens and braised with bacon, it adds an interesting component."
And it''s one more reason why eating all your vegetables has become a much more delicious proposition than it used to be.