Wednesday, August 15, 2012

I will be your Ferdinand

So what did you think would happen next?  Well, Miss Private, I've been sailing around the world for the past two months, to places as exotic as London Bridge, Shadow Lake, Evolution Creek, and a boat hostel in Amsterdam.  To tell you everything of my travels would fill a few blog entries, and may be a worthwhile use of my free time in the weeks to come, but for now, suffice to say that the first place I went looked like this:

And I was cooking food that looked like this:

The second place I went looked like this:

And I was cooking food that looked like this:

The most noteworthy thing that happened to my mouth was taking it on a trip to L'Arpège, a three-star restaurant in Paris serving vegetable-focused cuisine in a casual setting that nevertheless involves more than half a dozen waiters and allotting four-and-a-half hours for lunch.  I thought long and hard about whether this would be a worthwhile investment, or something that I could even afford coming out of graduate school, but in the end I decided that I was already going to be in Paris, and seeking out any comparable experience in the Bay Area would require zipping up to Napa, staying overnight, and paying twice as much (at least).  So, I mean, as long as I was already buying a train ticket to Paris, it was a pretty good deal.

And, in the long run, my trip to L'Arpège is probably going to save me money, because it's made going out to dinner more or less obsolete for me.  Sure, I still dig Oaxaqueña and Yamo, but spending over $20 on a meal seems kind of like a waste of money now, because I know that neither the food nor the service is going to live up to L'Arpège.  Everything far, far exceeded my wildest expectations. We're talking the best bread in the world, the best butter in the world, and the best green salad in all recorded history, full of bitter stems and roots among the tender leaves. We're talking raw fava beans (who has the fun job of shelling those?), black radishes, pigeon the texture of chocolate ganache alongside candied shallots.  We're talking your wine bottle kept chilled in a back corner of the room and brought over to replenish your glass on precisely your fourth sip, every single time.  We're talking an apple tart comprised of two-foot-long ribbons of apple rolled into perfect roses and stuffed with sugar crystals.  Also, the apples come from the Tree of Knowledge.

So when I found out that Alain Passard, who opened L'Arpège just about 25 years ago, released a charming cookbook titled The Art of Cooking with Vegetables this summer, how could I resist heading to Omnivore Books for an impulse buy?  It's an unusual little book that's apparently drawn some criticism for (1) featuring abstract collages suggesting the color and flavor of dishes rather than actual photographs; and (2) containing a few recipes that amount to "bake a beet and serve it with bread."  The former complaint seems a little silly to me, because by this point in my life I know what a peach looks and tastes like, and I'm not sure that a picture of a peach is any more likely to make me want to cook peaches than a charmingly French lede alongside a few yellow construction-paper crescents.  And if it's a well-composed recipe for peaches in saffron butter--oh, even better.

The recipes are simple, to be sure.  None takes up more than a single page or requires more than 90 minutes in the kitchen.  But they're not simple only for the sake of being approachable to the home cook, or readily executed in a single evening.  Rather, their simplicity suggests a thoughtful approach to cooking, refined over years down to an elemental level.  These recipes don't just describe flavor combinations and highlight vegetables in new ways.  They explore single aspects of ingredients--texture, color and temperature--and how to control them in the preparation of a dish.  An asparagus recipe asks you to cook the spears standing up in clarified butter to create a contrast between soft, poached stalk and crisp, steamed tip.  A gratin of red beets and pumpkin keeps the main ingredients separate until serving, so the beet juices burst over the bright orange wedges as you're composing the first bite on your plate.

And this ratatouille is a masterpiece.  I first saw it on Sunday night, I craved it all Monday afternoon at work, and I stopped at a produce market on my way home.  The stroke of genius (other than using an entire stick of butter, which never hurts) is serving the stewed tomatoes and zucchini alongside a salad of the same vegetables, raw.  It's like eating two ratatouilles in one, and it really only adds a few extra seconds of work to your evening.  And instead of slicing up eggplant and worrying about how fast it's going to cook, you just roast one over a gas flame, make a buttery condiment out of it, and serve that on the side.  It's ratatouille, carefully deconstructed and reconstructed, and it's easy enough for a Monday night supper.

The final dish ends up having just about a dozen different vegetable components, some hot and some cold, some crunchy and some melted.  I approached it slowly, mixing together a few elements in each bite--a cherry tomato, a stewed onion, some eggplant, some barley.  It was a lot like eating at L'Arpège, where I was presented with a progression of deceptively simple plates of vegetables, each one compelling me to sit and think about flavors and textures more deeply than I had previously.  This ratatouille was really a revelation.

And the cookbook cost a lot less than a single course at L'Arpège.  Best butter on Earth not included.


Brittany-Style Ratatouille in Butter
paraphrased from The Art of Cooking with Vegetables by Alain Passard

Find four tomatoes of different colors and cut each one into large chunks.

Cook together one sliced onion, a few cloves of garlic, a thinly-sliced zucchini, and half of the tomato chunks with 5 tbsp good butter over medium-low heat until the juices have reduced to a thick, flavorful glaze (about 45 minutes).  Season with salt, pepper, and thyme.  Add a roasted pepper or two, cut into thin strips.

While the mixture above is cooking, heat an eggplant over a gas flame or under an electric broiler until the skin is blistered and smoky.  Let it cool, then scoop out the flesh and cook it over medium-low heat with 3 tbsp good butter, stirring constantly, until it has the consistency of a thick sauce.  Add coarse salt.  This is the best condiment I have ever made, and I hate eggplant.

Make a little salad by tossing together the remaining tomato chunks with another sliced zucchini, salt, olive oil, fresh basil leaves, and a sprinkle of soy sauce.

Serve the cold raw salad with the warm cooked vegetables, the warm eggplant condiment, and a side of bread or a hearty grain.  I used unshelled barley, but quinoa or rye berries would also work well.

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