The French are learning to eat their vegetables. At least that's what Alain Ducasse, one of the youngest of France's two-star chefs, says, and he is doing what he can to encourage it.
Ducasse, chef of La Terrasse restaurant in the Hotel Juana, was touring the U.S while his restaurant on the Riviera at Juan-les-Pins was closed for the winter. Along the way, he was telling Americans something they thought they already knew.
Didn't the French always eat vegetables?
No, that was the Americans, Ducasse said; the French have never eaten vegetables as the Americans do. The Americans, for instance, are mad about vegetable salads; for the French it is unheard of to eat vegetables raw, except maybe a shaved truffle or a shredded carrot hors d'oeuvre. Now, though, the French are following the Americans' lead; vegetables have become part of the new French cuisine.
For the first time, vegetables account for 30 percent of his food purchases -- fish and meat each account for 30 percent as well. The same change is true in the other 2- and 3-star restaurants, said Ducasse. He sees himself as part of a trend among the young chefs of France who are doing a lot with vegetables. In this new style, he says, you know what you are eating, you "feel the flavor."
Although Ducasse started professional training "very late" -- not until he was 17 years old -- by age 19 he was working with Michel Gue'rard at Regine's in New York, then back in France with Gaston Leno tre, Roger Verge' and Alain Chapel. By the time Ducasse was 22, he was chef of L'Amandier de Mougins, Verge''s lesser-light restaurant in the same town as his famed Moulin de Mougins. Next Ducasse went to La Terrasse, and at age 24 became the youngest chef awarded the golden key by Gault-Millau magazine, which later called him the "wonder-boy" of the Riviera.
Since La Terrasse is open only six months a year, the rest of the year Ducasse consults with restaurants elsewhere, and this winter was invited to Pittsburgh to cook for a man who had eaten in his restaurant last summer. So he was touring the land of the spinach salad.
Nowadays in France, he said, chefs are using every vegetable possible, certainly more green vegetables than ever before; his menu always includes at least 18 vegetables. Raw spinach, for one. Impossible 10 years ago. "We were never eating young spinach salad."
Now Ducasse serves a salad of raw asparagus, raw artichokes and even raw wild mushrooms, topped with hot, barely cooked seafoods.
One day Ducasse just decided to take the plunge. As he put it, one morning he woke up in a very bad mood and said to himself, "I don't want to cook vegetables today. I'll do them raw." He marinated them lightly in lemon juice and combined them with cooked seafood in a salad that was both warm and cold, soft and crunchy, and decidedly earthy -- though it was the fabulous earthiness of truffles and wild mushrooms. Now he also serves cold sugar snap peas with warm quenelles of chicken and a flan of eggplant, zucchini and tomato garnished with crayfish, zucchini flowers and -- how American! -- cherry tomatoes.
Using fresh foods on the Riviera is quite another matter from using them in most American cities, though. Ducasse can get just-picked violet asparagus and tender baby artichokes. His fish is usually live when he cooks it; the oldest fish he ever uses is no more than two days out of the water. With fruits available in profusion, he makes a lot of warm and cold fruit desserts, though he keeps a token chocolate dessert on the menu. And he flavors even desserts with the fresh herbs of Provence -- for example, a warm gratin of wild strawberries with a cold thyme sauce.
People are eating more vegetables in France, suggested Ducasse, for the same reason that Americans are doing so; they want to eat less heavy food. Their life style dictates a lower caloric intake. "Ten years ago after a good meal in France you used to just go to bed. It was too heavy," said Ducasse. Now after lunch you can still work -- and indeed, fewer French jobs are scheduled to include the traditional long lunch break. The point now is not to feel how big your lunch was, but "to remember how good it was."
The French at last have something to learn in the kitchen from the Americans. In addition to the spinach salad, they have yet to discover spaghetti squash, sweet potatoes, three-bean salad and something Ducasse came across for the first time in the kitchen of Jean-Louis at the Watergate in Washington, perhaps the kiwi of 1986 -- wing beans. Tabletalk
While people are eating ever more fast food and carryout food, a new cookbook for cats would have us back in the kitchen whipping up avocado sauce, butter sauce, hollandaise and fish mousse for tabby. It even goes ethnic with tortellini soup, tostadas and feline pizza (without anchovies!). If you've got a cat that can cook, I'll send you the address for this. Otherwise, I can't imagine choosing to get tied down to the kitchen for a cat with trendy tastes.
Contests are forever multiplying. The newest to cross my desk is the Championship Tomato Weigh-In, looking for the heaviest tomato in each state. I'll skip the obvious puns and only note that this is a contest that had to begin in New Jersey not because of the Miss America contest but because I still haven't found tomatoes to beat the Jersey beefsteak. ALAIN DUCASSE'S WARM SCALLOP SALAD WITH CRISP VEGETABLES (1 serving)
This first-course salad, combining warm scallops with cold raw vegetables, is a basic recipe to build on. It is for one serving; multiply the ingredients as you serve more people. And add or change vegetables as fresh ones come in the market, or even vary the seafood. Ducasse, being French, adds a tablespoon of black truffle juice to the marinade and sprinkles the finished salad with shaved white truffles. That is impractical for most of us, though I highly recommend it if you happen to have truffle juice and truffles on hand.
1/2 artichoke bottom, raw, thinly sliced, its choke scooped out with a spoon
2 chanterelles or other mushrooms, thinly sliced
1-inch celery stalk, thinly sliced
1 small tomato, peeled, seeded and diced
6 small asparagus, trimmed and thinly sliced on the diagonal
1 heart of palm, diced
1/4 teaspoon salt, plus extra for scallops
2 teaspoons julienned fresh basil or other fresh herb
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil plus 1 teaspoon for saute'eing
Freshly ground pepper
4 sea scallops
1 sprig fresh dill, minced
In a small bowl combine the 6 raw vegetables with salt, basil, lemon juice, olive oil and plenty of freshly ground pepper. Set aside to marinate a few minutes while you prepare the scallops.
Wash scallops and dry well. Film a small saute' pan with about a teaspoon of olive oil and heat. Lightly salt the scallops and saute them for about 2 minutes on each side, until lightly brown.
Make a bed of the marinated vegetables on a small plate and arrange scallops on top. Sprinkle with minced dill and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.