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Vegetables: not just for side dishes

Treat vegetables with the love they deserve and they can be the true stars of the plate, chef Alexis Gauthier tells Simon Usborne
  • @susborne

The great food scandal of 2013 has left a bloody trail of losers, from the makers and merchants of certain frozen burgers to the horses slaughtered to produce them. But for all the equine lasagnes and poo cakes pulled from shelves and freezer cabinets, there have been winners, too. Argos reported a boost in sales of mincers. Butchers are filleting faster than they have for decades and Quorn was never so popular. But arguably the biggest beneficiary has been the humblest - the eternal side dish, the devil in a child’s diet: the vegetable.

Alexis Gauthier has by happy accident timed the publication of his first recipe book to coincide with a revival of the vegetable’s fortunes, recorded in sales in supermarkets and beyond (Riverford, the veg box people, have shifted 40 per cent more stock year on year since the horse meat scandal broke in January).

But the French chef has been beating the drum for cauliflowers and courgettes for years, putting vegetables at the heart of many of his dishes at his Michelin-starred London restaurant, Gauthier Soho. He says he wasn’t surprised by the scale of the meat scandal. “You have companies making so many lasagnes every day and somebody says, we don’t have beef but we have some horse from Romania. Perfect, nobody will know! But for me it’s always been a good time for vegetables.”

In Vegetronic, Gauthier offers dozens of recipes that restore greens and other colours to what he believes is their rightful place at the heart of the plate. But, while many of the dishes are vegetarian, this is by no means a vegetarian book. A glistening whole celeriac is draped in pancetta and doused in chicken broth. Sprouts are made less sprouty with liver and bacon and several dishes are enhanced with chicken, lamb, beef, fish or prawn jus, the recipes for which appear in the book’s opening pages.

“It’s annoying that when people say, oh, a vegetable menu, they assume it’s for vegetarians,” he says. “There is so much creativity and beautiful taste you can achieve by making vegetables the star but not necessarily in a dish that is purely vegetables. It already happens when you take a roast potato and dip it into the roasting tray and realise how amazing it is with the beef jus. So why not make a dish out of that?”

Whether or not for reasons of horse avoidance, Gauthier isn’t alone in seeking to re-position the vegetable. Yotam Ottolenghi has helped to change attitudes with his delis, cookbooks, and restaurants. Meanwhile, this summer, a fondness at hip New York restaurants for char-grilled greens is about to hit London, bringing with it burnt leeks with Parmesan and egg yolk and grilled asparagus. But consumer demand and a still growing trend for macho meat-eating mean it’s still hard for vegetables to get a look in. I was surprised at a recent visit to Nopi, Ottolenghi’s fancy London restaurant, to find meat the star of all but one his main courses. The exception was gnocchi (“at least it isn’t risotto,” my vegetarian girlfriend said).

Gauthier traces his love of vegetables to his childhood in the south of France. He grew up in Avignon eating tomatoes for lunch and dinner every day between spring and autumn. His favourite dish today is still a mustard and tomato tart his mother made from a recipe torn from the pages of Cosmopolitan in the late 1960s (see page 256 of his book). Another favourite was his grandmother’s tomatoes stuffed with meat and baked in the tray in which she had roasted a chicken two days previously. “That was very vegetronic for 1975,” he adds.

Gauthier, 39, found work in Nice before working under the renowned French chef Alain Ducasse at his Le Louis XV restaurant in Monaco. In 1996, he moved to London, later winning a Michelin star in part of his use of vegetables as head chef at Roussillon in Pimlico. He went it alone in Soho in 2009, soon winning a Michelin star for his cooking there, too. But by then years in the kitchen had taken its toll and Gauthier began to feel nauseous and full even after the lightest meal.

“When I saw the specialist who had checked my scans she was giggling,” Gauthier writes in his book. “‘Are you a chef,’ she asked.” Doctors diagnosed a fatty liver and told Gauthier to start counting calories. “I had been tasting our delicious Terrine de Foie Gras for the last 15 years at a rate of 15g per service, twice a day, six days a week, meaning my body had tried to get rid of just over 150kg of foie gras. That’s about 300 fat duck livers!”

The shock compelled Gauthier to go easy on tasting, although a prominent sign in his basement kitchen still asks all staff, “Is it delicious?” His liver is restored and, while many of his dishes are far from light, calorie counts appear throughout his cookbook and menus, including a Vegetronic special he put on yesterday to coincide with the book’s release. It offers a parmesan and wild mushroom custard, described as a “umami bomb”, and a medley of white asparagus with garlic leaves and chicken skin.

Gauthier’s liver trouble also compelled him to take his vegetable focus to a new level. He is a reluctant campaigner but there is a whiff of evangelism in his kitchen. “You can be so much more creative when cooking vegetables,” he says. “It’s difficult to create texture with a piece of beef. Everything has been done with chicken and a fillet of seabass. But a carrot! With a carrot you can be really inventive with the crunchiness, the softness, the liquid and create so many textures.”

Gauthier’s hardest customers, however, remain his two children, eight and four, with whom he and his partner, Clive, live in North London. “My daughter says she’s allergic to anything green but kids are very changeable and I hope when they are older things will be different,” he says. “And they trust me. If I say spinach is good they believe me even if they think it looks atrocious.”

Fennel and egg gratin

Calories: 380

Serves 4

8 fennel bulbs (outer dark leaves removed & washed)
100ml olive oil
Salt & pepper
500ml chicken stock
2 egg yolks
200ml double cream
40g grated Cheddar
12 whole eggs (boiled for 10 minutes, peeled & sliced with an egg slicer)
200ml lamb jus
3 sprigs thyme

Preheat the grill to 190C. Cut the fennel lengthways in 2, then slice across about 1cm thick.

In a large sauté pan, heat the olive oil until very hot. Add the slices of fennel, salt and turn them around while giving them a little colouration. Add the chicken stock and cover. Cook for 6 minutes at high heat. Check if the fennel is cooked by inserting a knife into the bright white part of it. If there is no resistance, it means that the fennel is properly cooked.

Remove the fennel from the cooking pan. Transfer the cooking liquid into a bowl and add the egg yolks, cream and grated cheddar. Taste and add salt and pepper if needed.

Line a buttered roasting dish, with the slices of fennel. Cover with slices of boiled egg. Add the fennel juice mixed with the egg yolk and cheese. Pour the lamb jus over the dish and sprinkle with thyme. Cook under the grill for 4 to 5 minutes, until the dish looks golden-brown. Remove from the oven and serve immediately.

Big carrot au jus cooked in fish skin

Calories: 185

Serves 4

50ml olive oil
8 large carrots (washed, not peeled)
500ml fish jus
8 sea bass / sea bream skins (ask your fishmonger, they are usually free)
20g butter

Preheat the oven to 170C. In a pan, heat the olive oil until it gets really hot. Add the carrots and sauté them while making sure not to give them any colouration. We are just trying to fix their original bright colour here. Add a pinch of salt, fish stock and cover.

After 7 minutes, remove the lid. The liquid will have almost disappeared and the carrots should be cooked. Remove the pan and let them cool down. Lay the fish skins on a clean surface. Sprinkle some salt on them and place a carrot in the middle of each skin. Roll each carrot neatly in the fish skin.

Heat some olive oil in a large non-stick pan. When the oil looks as if it may start smoking, add the carrots rolled in fish skin. Put on low heat and slowly roll the carrots in the pan. When the fish skins start turning a little crisp, add the butter and let it turn brown. Delicately stir, making sure to coat each carrot in brown butter and serve when they all look brown and shiny.