Love me tender

Vegetarian Food Some old standbys get the treatment
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The Independent Culture
Carrots, broccoli and spinach are the kind of multi-purpose veg you grab in the supermarket, in the sure knowledge that they will come in handy.

Baby carrots I can live without; when these appear in a restaurant it is a sign that the chef isn't taking the issue of taste too seriously. Fully grown specimens have buckets more flavour. The good thing about the scare over organophosphates is that even shops that do not have organic ranges sometimes stock organic carrots.

Michel Guerard's carrot flan plays on the sweetness and wonderful tenderness carrots acquire when thoroughly cooked - none of this al dente lark. They are bound with a gooey infusion of Gruyere, egg and cream - delicious with a puree of Jerusalem artichokes.

Spinach, on the other hand, is most welcome when young and tender. When we discovered warm salads, back in the Eighties, we also discovered pousses d'epinards. Pousse in fact means growth, or a new shoot.

Whereas mature spinach needs to be boiled, younger leaves can be merely wilted in butter or olive oil. They melt down to an exquisite, velvety mass, and it is nirvana to eat a plateful on their own. But their real vocation is the salade tiede. The leaves are robust enough for a hot dressing, and wilt decorously. Mussels or mushrooms in a warm, creamy saffron dressing are made for the job. It could just as well be slices of duck breast and pine nuts with cassis, or asparagus, scallops and a sesame dressing. I love food which is warm, as opposed to hot or cold; I pray that this style of salad will not disappear into a black hole like so many fads.

Broccoli is surprisingly characterful, and is good with sharp, oriental dressings, and with sesame oil and seeds, for serving with seared tuna, teriyaki and so on. It also suits the Sicilian treatment of braising with olives, chilli, garlic, pecorino (or caciocavallo) cheese and red wine, though it is not as robust as the cauliflower they use.

Once broccoli has been deflowered it looks like a sawn-off tree trunk, and even the least cosmetically aware would not choose to dish it up in this state, but the stems are superb for soups and purees. Likewise, the greens that surround the sprouting buds can be cooked as a vegetable: the stuff of trimmings - but then you bought it to be useful.

Michel Guerard's carrot flan with Jerusalem artichoke puree, serves 4

I have rather shamelessly upped the rich ingredients that this chef sought to exclude: the recipe is from Michel Guerard's Cuisine Minceur (Pan Books, pounds 4). The puree is not essential; and you could use another vegetable. You can cook it in advance, or while the flan is in the oven.

for the puree

splash white wine vinegar

700g/112 lb Jerusalem artichokes

2 heaped tbsp creme fraiche

sea salt and black pepper

squeeze of lemon juice

Bring a large pan of water to the boil and acidulate it with vinegar. Peel the artichokes; cook for 15 minutes, until tender. Drain, place in a liquidiser and puree with the creme fraiche, seasoning and lemon juice.

for the flan

25g/1oz unsalted butter

700g/112lb young carrots, peeled and thinly sliced

1 level tsp caster sugar

sea salt and black pepper

85ml/3fl oz white wine

2 tsp groundnut oil

150g/5oz mushrooms, minced

1 egg plus 1 egg yolk, size 2

85ml/3fl oz double cream

150g/5oz Gruyere, grated

2 heaped tbsp parsley, coarsely chopped

Melt the butter in a medium-size saucepan and sweat the carrots until they begin to colour. Add the sugar, seasoning and wine, cover and simmer over a low heat for eight minutes. If any liquid remains cook with the lid off until it evaporates. Remove and chop coarsely.

Heat the groundnut oil in the same saucepan and cook the mushrooms for a few minutes until soft; again, if they give out any liquid, cook until it evaporates. Heat the oven to 200C (fan oven)/210C (electric oven)/400F/gas mark 6. Whisk egg, egg yolk, cream, Gruyere and parsley. Stir in carrots and mushrooms and check seasoning. Butter an 18cm/7-in souffle dish, or similar, and line with a circle of buttered parchment. Spoon the mixture into the mould, cover with foil and bake in a water bath of boiling water to the same depth as the custard, for 30-45 minutes, until set. Invert flan on to a plate. Serve in wedges with the hot puree.

Nage of quails' eggs and spinach, serves 4

Nage literally means swimming: quails' eggs, barely set, sit in a creamy broth flavoured with saffron, with young, wilted spinach leaves. This makes a rich, yet light, first or main course. Allow plenty of bread for mopping.

24 quails' eggs

15g/12oz unsalted butter

350g/12oz young spinach leaves

150ml/5fl oz white wine

230ml/8fl oz double-strength vegetable stock

200ml/7fl oz double cream

20 saffron filaments, ground, blended with 1 tbsp boiling water

sea salt and black pepper

1 tsp beurre manie: equal amounts of unsalted butter and plain flour, thoroughly combined

Bring a small pan of water to the boil and cook the quails' eggs for two-and-a-half minutes, then run cold water into the pan until they are cold. Remove and carefully shell, using a small paring knife to pierce the membrane if it proves obstinate. Reserve the shelled eggs in a bowl of cold water until required.

Melt the butter in a medium-size saucepan and sweat the spinach leaves until they wilt. Add the white wine and reduce right down. Pour in the vegetable stock and cream, bring to the boil and simmer for a couple of minutes. Stir in the saffron and seasoning. You can prepare the sauce to this point in advance.

To serve, reheat the sauce and stir in the beurre manie; it should thicken instantly, but only slightly. Add the quails' eggs and heat for a minute. Serve in warm, shallow bowls.

Tagliatelle with broccoli and Parmesan, serves 3

2 heads broccoli (about 550g/1lb 4oz)

110g/4oz spring greens, sliced

6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped

1 tsp minced red chilli

1 x 50g tin of anchovies

sea salt and black pepper

2 tsp lemon juice

1 tsp red wine vinegar

350g/12oz tagliatelle

4 heaped tbsp freshly grated Parmesan

Put two large pans of salted water on to boil. Cut the broccoli into 1cm/12-in florets and add, together with the greens, to one of the pans. Bring back to the boil and cook for one-and-a-half minutes, then drain. Place four tablespoons of olive oil, the garlic, chilli, anchovies, seasoning, lemon juice and vinegar in a food processor and reduce to a paste.

Put the pasta on to cook. Heat the remaining olive oil in a frying pan, add the cooked vegetables, and once they are hot add the sauce. Loosely drain the pasta and add to the frying pan, then toss in Parmesan and serve straightaway

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