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Great Chefs: The emphasis is on vegetables

July 6, 2000
Web posted at: 9:37 a.m. EDT (1337 GMT)

In this story:

Tomatillo, Poblano and Heirloom Bean Chowder

Wild Mushroom Salad with Corn-Mustard Dressing

Honey-Lemon Vinaigrette

Roasted Eggplant and Tomato Napoleons with Black Olive Dressing

Black Olive Dressing

Blackberry Grunt


A few years ago, the United States Department of Agriculture took a bold step and redefined the way that Americans could understand what went into a healthy diet. They released the Food Guide Pyramid, which was a way of looking at the kinds of foods that should be both embraced and avoided.

The most important principle that the Pyramid proposes is that the large bulk of the diet should be made up of plant-based foods low in saturated (animal) fats. This Pyramid has been further refined as a result of a series of studies that were begun in the 1960s that examined the traditional diets of the Mediterranean and Asia. These traditional diets resulted in lower rates of heart disease, certain cancers (digestive and respiratory), diet-related chronic diseases and increased life expectancy.

What did these traditional diets look like? Basically they were plant based. Meat, if it was used, was used more as a flavoring or condiment. Rarely was it the center of the plate as it was (and is) in most of America. The plants that were consumed were grains, seasonal vegetables and fruits, beans, legumes, nuts and, most importantly, plant oils.

These diets were also unique in that, with the plants that were used, minimal processing occurred, and most were consumed fresh and in their season. This maximizes the contents of the protective nutrients, phytochemicals, antioxidants, fiber, vitamins and minerals. A good thing all around.

The problem for most American cooks and chefs, however, is that there has not been much of a tradition for plant-based cooking. Although there is this strong body of evidence that supports a "vegetarian" diet, there has not been much to draw on in terms of culinary guidance. Historically, vegetarian or plant-based menus in America were pretty bland and boring.

I remember in my "Veg Head" days that a typical meal might center on a big bowl of gummy brown rice with a lot of over-cooked vegetables on top. Hardly inspiring food.

All of that is changing, however, as Americans have embraced both healthier eating habits and begun to learn to cook creatively with plants. Many of America's top restaurants now actively promote vegetarian recipes on their menus and are willing to match these dishes with the best of their animal-based recipes. It's an exciting development and definitely one to watch. California particularly has led the charge in this area because so much of the nation's fruits and vegetables come from the Golden State.

Here, then, is a favorite plant-based or vegetarian menu of mine that proclaims: "You won't miss the meat!"

Tomatillo, Poblano and Heirloom Bean Chowder

This is a hearty (and healthy) soup with a rich Mexican flavor. Tomatillos add a tart, lemon-lime flavor. The poblanos add a smoky, deep flavor and aroma which is even better if you char-roast and peel them before adding them in. Like all chiles, poblanos' heat will vary, so take a little taste before adding in the full amount and adjust accordingly.

You can use whatever heirloom beans you want, but my favorites are Tocamares Chocolate, Yellow Flageolet or Christmas Lima. Good mail-order sources for heirloom beans are Vann's Spices (800)583-1693 and Indian Harvest (800)346-7032.

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 pound yellow onions, halved and sliced lengthwise
  • 3 medium fresh poblano chiles, stemmed and seeded and cut into thin strips
  • 1 tablespoon finely slivered garlic
  • 2 cups husked and halved fresh tomatillos
  • 1/2 teaspoon whole fennel seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano (preferably Mexican)
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 cups diced canned tomatoes with their juice (Muir Glen brand preferred)
  • 7 cups rich clear chicken or vegetable stock
  • 2 cups cooked favorite heirloom beans
  • Salt, freshly ground black pepper
  • Garnish: 3 tablespoons coarsely chopped cilantro leaves, fanned avocado slices and fresh lime juice

    Heat oil in saucepan. Add onions, poblanos and garlic and saute until soft but not brown, about 5 minutes. Add tomatillos, fennel, cumin, coriander, oregano, cinnamon, tomatoes and stock and simmer gently 10 to 15 minutes. Add beans and simmer until heated through, 4 to 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

    To serve, ladle into warm soup bowls. Garnish with chopped cilantro, avocado and lime juice just before serving.

    Makes 6 to 8 servings.

    Wine recommendation:The chile heat and tartness of the tomatillos play wonderfully off of fruity, lower-alcohol wines with good acidity and a bit of residual sugar like a California Riesling, Gewurztraminer or Chenin Blanc. The "new" viogniers from California, which are typically made in a very ripe style, also work here.

    Wild Mushroom Salad with Corn-Mustard Dressing

    This is a pretty straightforward salad that is dependent on a few special ingredients to make it great.

    First, use good mushrooms. Wild and cultivated exotic mushrooms have become much more readily available in recent years. Use the best selection that you can find. A supplier that I have worked with for many years in Northern California is Gourmet Mushroom, (707) 823-1743, who will ship a beautiful basket of exotics anywhere in the United States.

    The second essential in this recipe is the corn oil. It's not the usual oil found in supermarkets, but a very special one made by Spectrum Naturals in Petaluma, California, (707) 778-8900, e-mail: It's a very pure expeller-extracted oil from corn that uses no solvent or preservatives and is absolutely delicious because it tastes and smells like corn (what a concept!). You can find it at health and natural food stores.

  • 3 tablespoons clarified butter or olive oil
  • 1 1/2 pounds wild mushrooms, such as oyster, chanterelle, alba or best available
  • Sea salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 8 cups loosely packed mixed young savory greens, such as arugula, cress, mizuna
  • Honey-Lemon Vinaigrette (recipe follows)
  • Corn-Mustard Dressing (recipe follows)
  • Garnish: Fresh dill sprigs, fried capers, shaved Parmesan or dry Jack cheese

    Heat clarified butter in large saute pan. Add mushrooms and saute until barely tender and still holding shape. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside and keep warm.

    Lightly toss greens with some Honey-Lemon Vinaigrette and arrange on plates with mushrooms. Spoon Corn-Mustard Dressing around. Garnish with dill sprigs, fried capers and cheese. Serve immediately.

    Makes 6 servings.

    Honey-Lemon Vinaigrette

  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped shallots
  • 6 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons fragrant honey
  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup olive oil

    Whisk together shallots, vinegar, honey, lemon juice and oil. Cover and refrigerate up to 5 days. Makes about 1 cup.

    Corn-Mustard Dressing

  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped shallots
  • 2 teaspoons poached or roasted garlic
  • 1/4 cup double-strength, unsalted chicken or vegetable broth
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard or to taste
  • 1/2 cup Spectrum Naturals unrefined corn oil
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
  • Sea salt
  • Freshly ground pepper

    Process shallots, garlic and broth in blender until smooth. Add mustard and slowly pour in oil with blender running until dressing is smooth and thickened. Stir in lemon juice and season with salt and pepper.

    Cover and refrigerate up to 3 days. Makes about 1 cup.

    Wine recommendation: The creamy, citrusy dressings and the mushrooms are a mirror of the flavors in a rich, barrel-fermented and aged Chardonnay.

    Roasted Eggplant and Tomato Napoleons with Black Olive Dressing

    This is a relatively simple dish to put together, but absolutely delicious because it takes advantage of the bounty of the summer garden. Use whatever vegetables you like. I've included my favorites. If you decide to use the oven-dried tomatoes, prepare them a day or so ahead because they take a while to make. Oven-drying brings out sweeter flavors than does sun-drying, and it's a great way of getting some flavor out of commercially grown tomatoes. The vegetables are roasted here, but you could certainly do everything on the grill if you wanted.

  • 2 (1-pound) eggplants, each about 4 inches in diameter
  • Olive oil
  • Sea salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 4 medium zucchini, halved and cut lengthwise into 16 slices
  • 2 medium red onions, cut into 8 rounds
  • 4 small red bell peppers, stemmed, seeded and cut into quarters
  • 2 large portobello mushrooms, black gills removed and cut into 16 thick slices
  • 2 pounds Roma tomatoes, halved, seeded and oven-dried (see Note)
  • 1 1/4 pounds fresh or smoked mozzarella cheese, cut into 16 slices
  • 4 rosemary sprigs, cut into spears
  • Black Olive Dressing (recipe follows)
  • Garnish: reduced balsamic vinegar, Fresh Basil Puree (recipe follows) and herb sprigs

    Slice eggplants into 12 (1/2-inch-thick) rounds and generously brush both sides with olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Place in single layer on baking sheet.

    Roast in oven at 400 degrees until cooked through and lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Set aside.

    Oil, season and roast zucchini, onions, bell peppers and mushrooms in same manner. set aside. Be sure not to overcook as vegetables should still have some texture.

    To assemble Napoleons, on lightly oiled baking sheet, arrange layer of eggplant, top with zucchini, onions, peppers, mushrooms, oven-dried tomatoes and cheese. Repeat layers, ending with eggplant slice for each Napoleon. Place 1 rosemary spear in center of each Napoleon to hold together.

    Bake Napoleons at 375 degrees few minutes to warm through and barely melt cheese. Place on warm plates and spoon Black Olive Dressing around. Top with drops of reduced balsamic vinegar, Fresh Basil Puree and garnish with herb sprigs. Serve immediately.

    Makes 4 servings.

    Note: To oven-dry tomatoes, cut tomatoes in half and remove stems. With fingers, gently squeeze and remove seeds. Lightly oil baking sheet and place tomatoes, cut side up, in single layer. Drizzle little olive oil over tops and season lightly with sea salt and pepper. Bake at 225 degrees 3 to 4 hours until tomatoes are somewhat shriveled and have faintest bit of color on them. Cover and refrigerate up to 3 weeks.

    Black Olive Dressing

  • 2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons seeded and diced tomato
  • 3 tablespoons, rinsed and finely diced black olives, such as Nicoise or Kalamata
  • 2 teaspoons finely minced lemon zest
  • Sea salt
  • Freshly ground pepper

    Combine oil, tomato, olives, zest and salt and pepper to taste. Let stand at least 2 hours for flavors to develop. Cover and refrigerate up to 3 days. Makes about 1 cup.

    Fresh Basil Puree

  • 1 quart packed basil leaves
  • 3 tablespoons chopped poached garlic (see Note)
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts or blanched almonds
  • Rich vegetable or chicken stock

    Blanch basil in lightly salted boiling water about 5 seconds. Remove and immediately plunge into ice water to stop cooking and set color. Drain well, squeeze dry and chop.

    Puree in blender along with poached garlic, olive oil, pine nuts and enough stock to make smooth puree. Cover and refrigerate up to 5 days or keep frozen up to 3 months. Makes about 3/4 cup.

    Note: To poach garlic, place unpeeled cloves in small saucepan and cover by 1 inch of cold water. Bring to boil. Drain and repeat process 2 more times. Remove husks from garlic and cover and refrigerate up to 2 weeks.

    Wine recommendation: The roasting or grilling of the vegetables along with the rich flavor of mushrooms, olives and tomatoes are a natural with softer, lower tannin, red wines such as Pinot Noir. A peppery California Zinfandel would also be a nice match here.

    Blackberry Grunt

    Although there is a great debate on what makes a grunt, the definition seems to be that a grunt (or slump) are simmered on top of the stove rather than baked in the oven. Grunts are usually made with berries, and the name supposedly comes from the sound the berries make as they simmer.

  • 8 cups fresh or frozen blackberries
  • 3/4 cup sugar or to taste
  • 1/2 cup red wine or water
  • 1 tablespoon grated lemon zest

  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk (or mixture of plain yogurt and nonfat milk or water), plus more as needed
  • 2 tablespoons sugar mixed with 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • Garnish: Whipped cream, cinnamon ice cream or sweetened yogurt

    To prepare Berries, combine blackberries, sugar, wine and zest in deep 8- or 9-inch skillet. Bring to simmer over moderate heat.

    Meanwhile, to prepare Dumplings, in mixing bowl, stir together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Stir in melted butter. Add enough buttermilk to form soft sticky dough that is slightly wetter than biscuit dough.

    Using soup spoon, drop dough over fruit, forming small dumplings. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. Tightly cover skillet with lid or foil and steam over medium-low heat, without opening lid, until dumplings are set and surface is dry when touched with fingertips, about 15 minutes.

    Spoon warm grunt into serving bowls. Top with whipped cream.

    Makes 4 to 6 servings.

    Wine recommendation: Although I usually think desserts are best served without wine because of the problem of balancing the sugars in the wine and the dessert, the rich berry flavor here is a nice match with a ruby-style Port. In California, a number of producers are making nice Port-like wines from grapes like black muscat and petite sirah, which would be nice with this dessert.

    Spectrum Naturals, Inc.
    The Mushroom Council
    The American Mushroom Institute

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