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Vegetarian Solution : The Trip to Bountiful

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pleasing the trendy palates of his customers isn’t enough for John Ash. This thoughtful chef keeps in mind the global implications of what he serves.

“All of us cast a vote every time we choose what we buy to eat. We should think once in a while about making responsible choices,” Ash said over a cup of tea during a short trip to Los Angeles. “I don’t mean to take the joy away from eating, but . . . too often we don’t think of the connection the act of eating has to the rest of the planet.”

Ash is executive chef and part-owner of John Ash & Co., a 10-year-old restaurant in Santa Rosa, and culinary director of Fetzer Vineyards’ Valley Oaks Food & Wine Center. The center is an educational facility at Hopland in southern Mendocino County. There Fetzer has established a five-acre organic garden that supplies Ash with an incredible assortment of produce--25 varieties of tomato, 28 winter squashes, 40 melons, 75 different apples, 16 types of basil, 20 kinds of edible flowers and so on.

This abundance has nourished his interest in vegetarianism. “There is so much beautiful stuff available that it’s not really difficult to come up with new and interesting combinations,” he said. “It wouldn’t be as easy to be a vegetarian in the Midwest.”

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Ash wants people to realize that a less beautiful, naturally raised vegetable is “just as tasty and good for you” as one brought to cosmetic perfection with synthetic farm chemicals. He has always provided vegetarian customers with better options “than just a plate of steamed vegetables.”

That doesn’t mean filling them up with cheese. Following American Heart Assn. dietary guidelines, Ash either eliminates or reduces fats. He makes vinaigrettes with stock instead of oil. And he uses lots of fresh herbs to reduce the need for salt. Opposed to waste, he even recycles vegetable peelings. They go to employees with small farms for use as animal feed.

Ash still eats meat, but less frequently, and says he feels better for it. “I don’t mean to get hysterical about all of this stuff. I’ve never been a complete vegetarian.”

There is, in fact, plenty of meat in Ash’s first cookbook, “American Game Cooking” (Addison-Wesley: $25). Written with Sid Goldstein, a Fetzer vice president, the book is due out in mid-October. It’s “the antithesis of vegetarianism,” Ash admits with a wry smile. But then a man accustomed to the rich taste of meat knows better how to create satisfying flavor without it.

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You wouldn’t miss steak, for example, if you were eating Ash’s ragout of meaty-tasting exotic mushrooms in a velvety wine, butter and cream sauce punctuated with fennel and mustard seeds, or his grilled giant shiitake, served with grilled fennel and freshly picked tomatoes juicy enough to form a sauce on the plate.

“Grilled mushrooms have all the meaty character and complexity of meat,” Ash says. They are even robust enough to pair with a lighter red wine--a Pinot Noir or Merlot, a fruity Zinfandel or younger drinking Cabernet, one that is low in tannin.

It was vegetarianism--the challenge of putting together an elaborate dinner of meat-free dishes matched to wines--that lured Ash to Los Angeles. The dinner kicked off a month-long presentation of Ash’s vegetarian food and Fetzer wines at JW’s restaurant in the JW Marriott at Century City. You can taste them there through Sunday.

Ash started the dinner with a white-bean and vegetable soup set off by a spoonful of parsley pesto. The mushroom ragout came next, followed by a flat souffle rolled like a jelly roll around a combination of vegetables, tarragon and cheese. Slices of the souffle sat in a plateful of sweet red pepper sauce in which Ash also placed baby-blue lake green beans and chervil sprigs. The salad, composed of dry Jack cheese, pears, watercress, walnuts and fennel, was the only course accompanied by a red wine--a barrel-select Zinfandel.

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Ash’s imaginative concept of fruit soup, served for dessert, was a champagne sabayon dotted with assorted berries, mango slices and passion fruit and accompanied by crisp wedges of coconut shortbread.

Ash recalls the era when vegetarianism meant eating odd and unattractive combinations of food. That needn’t be the case, he says. “Many of the great cuisines of the world were based on using vegetarian sources. Meat was always a luxury.” And in Ash’s hands, vegetarian food has become just as luxurious.

The sweetness of this soup depends on the ripeness of the cantaloupe. “Be careful not to turn it into a dessert,” Ash says.

COLD CHAMPAGNE CANTALOUPE SOUP

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6 cups peeled, seeded cantaloupe chunks

3/4 cup low-fat yogurt

1 cup dry Champagne or sparkling wine

2 tablespoons honey or to taste

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1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

2 teaspoons chopped fresh spearmint or peppermint

Dash salt

Creme fraiche or yogurt

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Mint flowers or leaves

Place cantaloupe in food processor and process until smooth. Add yogurt, Champagne, honey, nutmeg, mint and salt and process briefly. Chill at least 3 hours for flavors to blend. Garnish with dollop creme fraiche or yogurt and mint flowers or leaves. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Good, flavorful vegetable stock is essential to this soup. Ash’s stock recipe is elaborate, but a simplified version can be made at home using vegetable scraps or wilted produce that might otherwise be discarded. Cook the vegetables in a small amount of oil until lightly caramelized, then simmer them very gently in wine and water to cover. Strongly flavored vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage and asparagus should be avoided.

WHITE BEAN SOUP WITH PARSLEY PESTO

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2/3 cup small dry white beans

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 cups sliced yellow onions

1 cup diced peeled carrot

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1/2 cup slivered celery

2 cups seeded diced tomatoes

2 teaspoons Roasted Garlic

1 large bay leaf

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1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves or 1/2 teaspoon dried

1 teaspoon fresh oregano leaves or 1/2 teaspoon dried

1/4 cup chopped fresh basil

2 1/2 quarts Rich Vegetable Stock

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1/4 teaspoon saffron, optional

2 cups dry white wine

1 1/2 cups diced zucchini

1/2 cup peeled and diced sweet potatoes

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Parsley Pesto

Wash beans. Place in pan with water to cover generously. Bring to boil and boil 2 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand 1 hour. Drain.

Heat olive oil in large pot. Add onions, carrot and celery and saute until just beginning to brown. Add tomatoes, garlic, bay leaf, thyme, oregano, basil, Rich Vegetable Stock, saffron, wine and beans. Simmer until beans are tender, 40 minutes to 1 hour. Add zucchini and sweet potatoes and simmer 3 minutes longer. Ladle into soup bowls and garnish with spoonful of Parsley Pesto. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Roasted Garlic

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1 whole head garlic

Olive oil

Salt, pepper

Cut off top quarter of whole head garlic. Drizzle with olive oil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Wrap in foil and bake at 325 degrees 40 minutes or until garlic is very soft and creamy.

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Rich Vegetable Stock

1/2 cup olive or other light vegetable oil

8 cups sliced onions

4 cups diced peeled carrots

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2 cups sliced celery, including tops

4 cups sliced leeks, white part only

3 cups sliced parsnips or other root vegetable, optional

1/4 cup chopped garlic

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2 gallons water

3 cups dry white wine

2 ounces dried forest mushrooms

1 quart chopped tomatoes

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2 teaspoons whole black peppercorns

6 whole bay leaves

1 tablespoon dry thyme leaves

2 teaspoons fennel seeds

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2 cups roughly chopped parsley leaves and stems

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

Heat olive oil in large pot. Add onions, carrots, celery, leeks, parsnips and garlic and cook over moderate heat until very lightly browned. Add water, wine, mushrooms, tomatoes, peppercorns, bay leaves, thyme, fennel seeds, parsley and salt and pepper to taste.

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Bring to boil and simmer, uncovered, 1 1/2 hours. Taste and add more salt and pepper if needed. Strain carefully. Cool. Set aside 2 1/2 quarts for use in white bean soup. Freeze remainder. Makes 4 to 5 quarts.

Parsley Pesto

3 cups roughly chopped parsley

1 tablespoon roughly chopped garlic

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7 tablespoons grated Parmesan or Asiago cheese

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 1/2 teaspoons salt or to taste

1 teaspoon black pepper or to taste

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3/4 cup olive oil

Combine parsley, garlic, cheese and vinegar in blender and blend quickly. Scrape down sides. Add oil in thin stream while blending. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes about 1 1/4 cups.

This recipe may seem complicated, but, as Ash says, “once you do it, it’s so easy . " The filling can be varied. Ash suggests using a combination of Sonoma dry Jack and Gruyere cheese, but he also recommends goat cheese and says even blue cheese is a possibility. The souffle can be served hot or at room temperature.

ROLLED SOUFFLE WITH SPINACH, LEEKS AND CHEESES

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5 eggs, separated

1 1/2 cups half and half

1/4 cup butter

5 tablespoons flour

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1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon white pepper

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

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Butter

Flour

Vegetable-Cheese Filling

Sweet Red Pepper Sauce

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Fresh herb sprigs for garnish

Lightly beat egg yolks in bowl and set aside. Heat half and half to scalding in saucepan.

In separate pan, melt butter, stir in flour and cook 3 minutes without browning. Whisk half and half into flour mixture and cook and stir 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in salt, pepper and nutmeg. Gradually whisk hot mixture into egg yolks and set aside.

Beat egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Stir 1/4 egg whites and 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese into egg yolk mixture. Gently fold in remaining whites.

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Butter 15x10-inch baking sheet and line with parchment. Butter parchment and dust with flour. Pour souffle mixture onto sheet and spread evenly to corners. Sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese. Bake at 400 degrees 15 minutes or until top is browned and puffed. Remove from oven and cool.

Spread Vegetable-Cheese Filling evenly over cooled souffle and carefully roll up lengthwise. Bake at 350 degrees 7 to 8 minutes to heat through. Remove and slice into 16 portions. Place dollop of Sweet Red Pepper Sauce in center of 8 warm plates. Place 2 souffle rolls with cut end up in center. Garnish with herb sprigs. Makes 8 servings.

Vegetable-Cheese Filling

3 tablespoons olive oil

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2 cups chopped red onions

1 cup thinly sliced leeks, white part only

2 teaspoons minced garlic

3/4 cup dry white wine

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1 tablespoon minced fresh tarragon

1 pound young spinach leaves, stems removed

2 cups grated Gruyere cheese

1 1/4 cups grated dry Jack or Asiago cheese

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Salt

Freshly ground white pepper

Heat olive oil in saucepan. Add onions and saute until lightly browned and caramelized. Add leeks and garlic and cook until tender, about 3 minutes.

Add wine and tarragon and cook until most of liquid is evaporated. Add spinach and cook until partially wilted, about 1 minute. Set aside and cool. Lightly toss mixture with Gruyere and Jack cheeses and season to taste with salt and white pepper.

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Sweet Red Pepper Sauce

6 tablespoons butter

1 1/2 cups minced yellow onions

3 cups seeded chopped sweet red peppers

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1 cup dry white wine

1 cup Rich Vegetable Stock

1 teaspoon honey

Salt

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Freshly ground white pepper

Heat 3 tablespoons butter in saucepan. Add onions and red peppers and saute until tender but not browned. Add wine, stock and honey and simmer over moderate heat until liquid is reduced by half.

Puree mixture in blender or food processor. Strain and beat in remaining butter. Add salt and pepper to taste. If desired, thin with additional stock. Keep warm. Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

“Only make these when good fresh corn is available,” Ash says. “Frozen or canned corn can be substituted, but it’s not the same dish.”

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FRESH CORN CAKES

1/2 cup minced green onions

2 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup dry white wine

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4 eggs

3/4 cup half and half

1/3 cup yellow cornmeal

1/2 cup flour

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1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon minced seeded serrano chile

1 teaspoon minced fresh basil or 1/2 teaspoon dried

1 tablespoon honey

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1/2 teaspoon baking powder

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

2 1/2 cups freshly cut corn kernels

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Clarified butter or light vegetable oil

Fresh herb butter

Steamed baby vegetables

Saute green onions in 2 tablespoons butter until tender. Add wine and cook over high heat to evaporate. Cool to room temperature. Beat onion mixture, eggs, half and half, cornmeal, flour, salt, serrano chile, basil, honey and baking powder together until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add corn kernels.

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Heat clarified butter in skillet over medium heat. For each corn cake, add 2 tablespoons batter. Cook until very lightly browned on each side. Place on warm places and garnish with fresh herb butter and steamed baby vegetables. Makes about 2 dozen.

If shortbreads seem too moist or soft, return to oven and bake 3 to 5 minutes longer, or until crisp.

COCONUT SHORTBREADS

2 cups flour

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2/3 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 cups shredded unsweetened coconut

1/2 pound chilled unsalted butter, cut in 1/4-inch bits

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1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

Combine flour, sugar, salt, coconut, butter and vanilla in large bowl of mixer. Mix with dough paddle until dough just comes together and forms ball. Or combine by hand. Press dough evenly into 3 lightly buttered 9-inch tart pans with removable bottoms.

Chill briefly, then bake at 350 degrees until lightly browned, 15 to 20 minutes.

Cool shortbread circles in pans 5 minutes, then remove from pans and cut each into 15 wedges while still warm. Store in airtight container. Makes 45 shortbreads.

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