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Glory season for vegetables à la grecque

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THE vegetables -- crisp-tender baby carrots, artichokes, mushrooms, cauliflower florets, pearl onions -- are gorgeous, their colors bright and true.

Quartered or halved or left intact, gently cooked in olive oil and an aromatic court bouillon, then cooled and served lacquered with the broth, they arrive, captured in their very essence.

These are vegetables à la grecque, an antique appellation for a simple French technique so perfect for L.A.'s year-round farmers market culture that it's surprising it's not better known here. This is a wonderful dish for the new year, when young root vegetables are abundant and when we're hungry for post-holiday dishes with bright clean flavors.

In France, mushrooms or artichokes à la grecque are served as a first course or as part of an hors d'oeuvres variés, the French version of an antipasto platter.

"Whenever you see 'à la grecque' on a menu, you can be sure that whatever is being served is pickled," writes chef Daniel Boulud in "Café Boulud Cookbook."

"It's a real classic in France," chef Alain Giraud says. "But I call it farmers market vegetable salad, because most people don't know what vegetables à la grecque is." (Most sources simply attribute the name to a French fondness for naming recipes after countries.)

Though in France a single vegetable à la grecque is more common, it's great to do an assortment. Giraud, who plans to have the dish on the menu at his new Santa Monica brasserie (slated to open early this year), likes to mix his vegetables, using whatever is currently loading the market stands.

You can also find vegetables à la grecque on the menu at Thomas Keller's restaurants Per Se in New York and Bouchon in Napa Valley. At Per Se, they can take the form of a refined vegetarian main dish, the vegetables exquisitely cut and perfectly turned, topped with a thatch of microgreens; at the more casual Bouchon they're often served as a simple side dish.

Or spot them in the dining room of the Ritz-Carlton, Huntington Hotel and Spa in Pasadena, where chef Craig Strong has vegetables à la grecque as an appetizer or as part of his tasting menu.

Strong arranges beautiful whole mushrooms, baby carrots and pearl onions, slices of fennel and florets of cauliflower on a plate, then adds several sautéed shrimp and a drizzle of the poaching liquid.

According to Boulud, vegetables à la grecque are first slow-cooked in olive oil, then poached in a heady combination of herbs, wine, vinegar and/or lemon juice and coriander seeds, the key aromatic note to the dish. (The acid, from the vinegar or lemon juice, acts as the pickling or preserving agent.) After cooking, the vegetables are chilled, then served with the same liquid as a sauce.

Some cooks choose not to cook the vegetables first in olive oil, but to add the oil to the poaching liquid instead -- or even to save it and finish the dish with a good extra virgin olive oil. Some add a hefty pour of vinegar (Boulud adds three kinds); others substitute wine for the vinegar or add honey to the liquid.

Young and tender

HOWEVER you choose to make it, the dish is ideal for tender, young vegetables, not only artichokes and mushrooms, but also carrots, fennel, cauliflower and pearl onions or even celeriac, bell peppers or fresh lima or fava beans. Just be sure to pick vegetables that can hold up during the cooking process. Root vegetables work particularly well; leafy greens do not.

Although you can use Boulud's method and cook the vegetables first in olive oil (or, as he does, oil and rendered bacon) before adding the broth, a simpler and lighter method is to drop the uncooked vegetables directly into a court bouillon seasoned with the olive oil.

Begin by making a simple court bouillon. (A classic bouillon is a mixture of water; either wine, vinegar or lemon juice, or a combination of all three; peppercorns and salt; and aromatics and herbs, usually onion, garlic, shallots, celery and a bouquet garni of thyme, bay leaf and parsley.)

To the basic bouillon, you'll add a generous amount of coriander seed -- and the olive oil. (Many cooks wait to add salt until after the vegetables have cooked.)

Bring the bouillon to a simmer, then drop in the vegetables. Cover and simmer until the vegetables are just tender; they should still have some garden crunch to them. While the vegetables cool, reduce the broth until it's almost a syrup.

Return the vegetables to the reduced broth, season with a little salt or pepper and chill for a few hours or even a few days. That's it. (Though there are similarities, vegetables à la grecque differs from glazed vegetables, which remain in the broth as it reduces and often caramelize in the process.)

You can cook several vegetables with similar cooking times in one broth or concentrate on a single vegetable. Cook pretty little button and cremini mushrooms, for example, letting the broth capture the essence of their earthy flavor, and serve them bistro-style with a few slices of grilled bread.

You can also jazz up the court bouillon with spices other than the traditional coriander -- dried fennel seeds or star anise are lovely with fennel; celery seed compliments tender celery stalks or celeriac, or you can get really creative and toss in a few dried chiles, a handful of Tellicherry peppercorns, slices of lime, even a vanilla bean.

Strong finds many of the traditional recipes a bit too tart and acidic, so he adds a generous dose of honey. Slices of lemon, a dried chile de árbol and a star anise also go into the mix, plus a few teaspoons of good white wine vinegar and house-made chicken consommé.

"A little richness rounds things out," Strong says of the consommé -- though a good commercial chicken broth works fine too.

Instead of cooking the vegetables first in olive oil or adding it to the bouillon, Strong finishes the dish with a fruity olive oil from Barcelona.

Giraud first sautées onions in olive oil, then adds white wine that he's flambéed and reduced, as well as stock, aromatics and herbs ("most important, of course, is coriander, the smallest seeds you can find") to the poaching liquid.

Vegetables à la grecque, Giraud says, "is a great base" to build upon; he adds fresh vegetables to those he's poached and chilled to play with the textures and flavors.

In the summer, he'll toss in some cherry tomatoes, a squeeze of lemon juice, maybe fresh mint or basil or cilantro, and then finish with a good California olive oil.

Philip Tessier, chef de cuisine at Bouchon (and former sous chef at Per Se), says that he'll use his boss' basic recipe for vegetables à la grecque and then vary it. "It could be a component on its own, or as part of another dish," he says.

So Tessier will make artichokes prepared à la grecque (see the recipe in the "Bouchon" cookbook) and toss in some chorizo or cooked chick peas. Or both, he says.

"Everybody buys the same carrots," Tessier says. "It's how you use the technique that makes the difference."

amy.scattergood@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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