Back to the garden

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 December, 2012, 2:13am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 December, 2012, 8:51am

Vegetables have an unfair reputation for being boring and bland. Foie gras, tenderloin, salmon and caviar are often seen as the stars that make great dinners. Carrots, fennel, rocket and pumpkin only play supporting roles.

Not any more. The most exciting contemporary chefs in the world are bringing vegetables into the spotlight of gourmet cuisine. Today, heavy cookery is not what gourmet is about. Instead, light dishes with delicate but decisive and unique flavours are the best.

Chef Luca Fantin of Il Ristorante at the Bulgari Ginza Tower in Tokyo is well known for his creativity with vegetables. Fantin, who was awarded his first Michelin star this year, focuses on contemporary interpretations of traditional  Italian cuisine using healthy foundations.

His dishes change seasonally. He does not like to overcook  food, preferring techniques that do not alter the integrity of  flavours. He does not sauté, thereby avoiding the production of burned oils.

“People want to feel physically good when they eat,” says Fantin. “If you feel bloated, or not able to sleep well at night, you had a poor dining experience.

“To feel good, vegetables are key, especially for those long festive dinners. Veggies will help your digestion and balance your nutrient intake.

“Flavours in the mouth are important, but only as much as physical sensations in the rest of your body.”

The challenge that chefs and home cooks face is to make vegetables interesting. Fantin’s secrets are simple:

1. Use the freshest vegetables.

Even one day after they have been harvested, vegetables start losing their taste.

2. Use the oven to capture flavours. 

If your veggies don’t come from your garden, use the oven to get their flavours back. Fantin is able to surprise his guests with a simple carrot: “I boil my carrots in water for two minutes, wrap them in foil and cook them in the oven with rosemary or thyme. The result is exciting because you do not expect so much taste in a carrot.”

3. Don’t buy ready-made stocks and vinaigrette.

Avoid nasty chemicals and make your own. A good stock is a chef’s best friend. It adds depth to dishes. Prepare broths with the same ingredients as your main dish: use the skin and seeds of the pumpkin to make the stock for your pumpkin soup. For salads, Fantin suggests mixing whole nuts, sun-dried tomatoes, balsamic and extra virgin olive oil.

4. Replace some ingredients with veggies.

“All of my creations have a vegetable element in them,” says Fantin. “I replace ingredients with veggies of similar consistency. For example, eggplants have a similar texture to fish, so use them instead of a fish tartar.”

5. Variety makes it interesting. 

“One of my signature dishes is the autumn vegetable salad with Parmesan cheese cream. It has 40 different elements between veggies and herbs. To make it more interesting, I use different cooking methods and consistencies,” says Fantin.

While it is difficult to prepare such a long dish at home, my suggestion is to use this week’s recipe as a guide, because it shows how to best cook an array of veggies.

Break down Fantin’s recipe for different occasions. For example, pick two or three veggies that you like most and add the Parmesan cream on top.

Autumn vegetable salad with Parmesan cheese cream

Parmesan cheese sauce
150ml milk
 250ml cream
 250 grams Parmesan cheese
 50ml vegetable stock

 Mix milk, cream and stock. Bring to a boil and stir in Parmesan cheese. Pass through a strainer.

 Jerusalem artichoke purée
One Jerusalem artichoke
 Salt
 Olive oil

 Bathe the artichoke in water and remove all traces of soil. Cut lengthwise and bake at 100 degrees Celsius for 50 to 60 minutes. Purée in a blender with salt and olive oil.

 Seasonal vegetables
 Red turnip, kohlrabi, black turnip, yellow carrot, beetroot, celery, purple potato, puntarella, fennel, leek

 Red turnip and kohlrabi: slice thinly and add salt.
 Black turnip: cut into bite-sized pieces and bake at 100 degrees  for 10 minutes.
 Yellow carrot: bake at 180 degrees for 60 minutes. Cut into bite-size pieces.
 Beetroot: cut into bite-size pieces and bake at 100 degrees  for 15 minutes. Marinate with strawberry vinegar and salt.
 Celery: bake at 180 degrees for 1½ hours. Cut into bite-size pieces.
 Purple potato: bake at 180 degrees for 1½ hours. Cut into bite-size pieces and marinate with olive oil and rosemary.
 Puntarella  and fennel: cut into  bite-size pieces and boil for one minute.
 Leek: grill until tender.

Crispy vegetables
 1 onion
 1 Jerusalem artichoke, peeled

 Slice vegetables thinly and boil for several minutes with salt. Cool and dry in an 80 degree oven for few hours. Heat oil in a pan and fry the vegetables for several seconds. Pat dry.

  Brown butter

 Cook butter in a pan until almost no liquid remains and pass through a strainer.

30 grams corn salad
 15 grams mizuna picante
 15 grams amaranth
 30 grams wild rocket
 15 grams red basil
 15 grams carrot
 15 grams mustard leaf
 15 grams nasturtium
 15 grams red salad
 180 grams endive

Put the leaves and herbs into a bowl. Wash with water and drain off.

Arrange all the elements above on a plate. Drizzle with Parmesan cream.

Healthy Gourmet is a weekly column by private chef Andrea Oschetti.