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Alain Passard's inventive vegetarian cuisine


You'll need

24 thick or jumbo asparagus spears, about 1.5cm diameter 100 gm lightly salted butter, clarified 4 eggs Leaves from a small bunch of chervil (optional) To season: fleur de sel or salt of your choice

Method

  • 01
  • Choose only the freshest possible asparagus with tightly closed tips and firm stalks, free of cracks. Cut away any woody stalk or tough ends and trim to a uniform length. Rinse the spears in cold water and drain on a kitchen towel. To bundle up the asparagus for cooking, make a band of double greaseproof paper wide enough to wrap the spears comfortably; it should be tall enough to cover the spears to three-quarters of their height. Lay the band on the counter and place the spears on top, with their stalk-ends neatly lined up with the bottom edge. Wrap the spears in the paper, then secure with several rounds of kitchen string, tying it – not too tightly – towards the top.
  • 02
  • Put the clarified butter in the bottom of a suitably narrow deep asparagus pan, then add the spears, standing on their stalks, and cook them over the lowest possible heat for up to 90 minutes, taking care not to let the butter cook beyond a delicious nutty stage. For thicker spears and for white asparagus the time can increase to 2 or 2½ hours. When ready, the base should be soft, the middle firm and the tips crunchy. During this time, baste the tips every 20 minutes or so with spoonfuls of butter from the bottom of the pan.
  • 03
  • Just before serving, poach the eggs for about 6 minutes; transfer them to a warm serving dish. Present the bundled asparagus on a separate dish, cutting the string and removing the paper at the table. If you like, scatter with chopped chervil. Transfer the asparagus-flavoured cooking butter to a sauce-boat. Serve each guest with about 6 spears and one egg. Offer fleur de sel and, above all, the buttery sauce.
Note In terms of culinary technique, this is an exhibition piece. The idea is to gather asparagus into a bundle using greaseproof paper, then cook it vertically in a deep saucepan. During the cooking process, heat is directed mainly to the stalks of the asparagus at the base of the pan while the tips are basted occasionally with spoonfuls of hot melted butter. The tender tips will emerge barely cooked, while the firm stalks will be tenderised and the middle sections will retain some bite. A key to success is the pan itself, which should be 12-15cm high and at least 20cm in diameter, to allow the circulation of heat around the bundled spears.

This recipe is from the September 2012 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.

The Art of Cooking with Vegetables by Alain Passard is published by Frances Lincoln and distributed by Thames and Hudson (hbk, $39.95). The recipes here have been reproduced with minor GT style changes.

When French chef Alain Passard announced in 2000 that vegetables would be the new focus of his cooking, it was as if David Beckham had declared he was swapping his football boots for a cricket bat. Here was a three-star Michelin chef, of L’Arpège in Paris, who had made his name as a master meat roaster in a country where trained cooks referred to vegetables as la garniture, the garnish. “I hadn’t spoken to a carrot for 30 years,” he says. “We have done nothing so far with a carrot or a leek, when you consider the possible compositions with spices, condiments, flowers, herbs and fruits. Vegetable cooking is the great cuisine of the future.”

Sceptical French journalists wrote that it would never last and food critics gasped at the price of his beetroot baked in salt crust, but thus began a period of becoming acquainted with the plant world and its infinite potential.Twelve years later, Passard’s intimate wood-panelled dining room decorated with his own vegetable collages fills up every night with Parisians and visitors who are happy to pay $375 without drinks to experience his culinary works of art (there is also a lunch menu for $140). Passard, who rarely leaves his kitchen except to check on his vegetable garden in Fillé-sur-Sarthe outside Paris, emerges to chat with diners, his eyes gleaming with enthusiasm for what still feels like a new passion.

“It’s incredible what happened to me,” he says, describing his almost overnight transformation to a vegetable cook.

Passard learned classic French cuisine by apprenticing at top restaurants around the country, and he worked with Alain Senderens at l’Archestrate, Paris, in the late 1970s. But his greatest influences came from within his family. “My father was a musician, my mother a dressmaker, my grandfather a sculptor and my grandmother a cook. Everyone knew how to use their hands.”

As a child, he was fascinated with colour and loved to make collages. This need for colour is what drew him to vegetables after years of meat cookery. “I wanted to bring cooking closer to dressmaking or painting. Animal cookery was no longer enough. There is a lot more room for creativity with vegetables.” Many bistro chefs in Paris (including Passard protégés such as Claude Bosi at Hibiscus and Pascal Barbot at l’Astrance) now feel the same way, featuring pedigreed vegetables on their menus.

Working in his organic garden, where he relies on horses rather than machines so as not to compact the soil, Passard has learned to embrace the changing seasons: “When I started working with tomatoes in July, I hadn’t touched one since October 15th of last year.”

His book The Art of Cooking with Vegetables, recently published in English, traces his journey of discovery. Who knew, for instance, that baby turnips could go with tomatoes, as in turnips and black tomatoes cooked in Beaujolais, served with boiled eggs? Passard has a particular fondness for tone-on-tone dishes, such as red beetroot with lavender and crushed blackberries, and purple carrots with purple basil and a touch of cinnamon. Braising vegetables in butter over low heat is a favourite technique, as is cooking them for a long time in simmering rather than boiling water, as if to gently coax out their flavour.

For this chef, who has relegated meat and fish to second place without giving them up altogether, there is only one secret to cooking with vegetables. “Respect the seasons, then do what you like and you can’t go wrong. Don’t try to mix winter with summer or spring with autumn.”

At A Glance

  • Serves 4 people
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At A Glance

  • Serves 4 people

Drink Suggestion

A white wine from Alsace, preferably a pinot blanc, a chasselas or a dry muscat.

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