Vegetable Harvest

It was an August morning of abundant Provençal sunshine, and I was putting the finishing touches on my last book — The Provence Cookbook. I had spent the morning testing a quartet of vegetable recipes, and as I placed the completed dishes on the table under the oak tree for lunch, a light bulb went on. The dishes all looked so natural and so perfect, and I had so enjoyed creating them that I simply knew that vegetables would be the topic of my next book.

Every book changes an author in some ways. But Vegetable Harvest has totally altered the way I look at markets, menus and seasons, and the role of vegetables in the diet and in the menu. Rather than creating a meal around the fish, the poultry or the meat, I found that I began putting the vegetables first.

With vegetables no longer afterthoughts, I began trying to see how many I could pack into our diet each day. Even classic combinations were altered to give vegetables a bigger role. So beef with carrots became carrots and beef, and a newly created spring lamb couscous soon found its way to our dinner table as a generous blend of zucchini, chickpeas and couscous. Flanked of course by tender morsels of gigot. Instead of meat or poultry or fish and a side of vegetables, I tripled the number of vegetables in each meal.

As cooks, we all get stuck in a rut. Asparagus is cooked one way, zucchini another, eggplant another. To break out, I tried to find all the ways of serving a single vegetable, and to include not just one, but three different preparations of zucchini (or green bean, or eggplant) in a single meal. Likewise, we tend to steam, braise, roast, blanch vegetables the same way time and again. Again, the routine became a challenge to experiment, looking for the best tasting and most wholesome way of cooking each ingredient and found there was always a better or even a best way.

The students in my cooking classes, both in Paris and Provence, responded with enthusiasm, happy to go back home knowing how delicious steamed peas with herbs could taste, or to know that the stem of the artichoke is one of the tenderest, most delicious parts of that regal vegetable.

As I photographed in markets, I also found myself more and more connected to each and every vegetable. They were not just food to me, but little wonders of life. I marveled over the veins of the perfect winter cabbage, noticed the colors of the soil that clung to the carrots fresh from the earth, sighed with pleasure at the kaleidoscope of colors of the heirloom tomatoes in my garden, smiled as I spied through the lens the classic color wheel pairing of vegetables side by side: The French almost make a ritual of it, with deep purple beets and wintergreen mâche always teamed up, as are alabaster cauliflower and ruby radishes. And is there anything more beautiful than first-of-season white or green or purple tipped asparagus, gently gnarled fava beans, or the pert honeycomb of a perfect, spring morel?

With each season, vegetables seem to speak of hope. Their colors, the aromas as they cook, the intense flavors, are all there as simple, pure pleasures.

In this book, I have chosen to include nutritional information for each recipe. Not to make us slaves to calories or fat, protein, or carbohydrates. But to let us know what we are consuming. As well as pleasure, food is fuel, so let’s put the best fuel we can into our bodies. As one who cooks and eats for a living, I find that I need to pay careful attention to portion-size as well as nutritional balance. I want every bit of my food to count, so there is simply no room for empty calories or food that needs to be more caloric than need be. So as one who values flavor above all, I have worked hard to make the food as tasty, and nutritious as it can be.

As cooks today, we are all looking for shortcuts and convenience. To me, shopping every day is not just a necessity but a joy. But like everyone, there are days there is not much time to think about the dinner table, and on those days I do appreciate some convenience. Prewashed and packaged greens, frozen peas and canned chickpeas or artichoke hearts are a godsend.

In Vegetable Harvest I have taken a very personal approach to defining the vegetable world. The ingredients here include nuts and seeds as well as fruits we consider vegetables, like rhubarb, tomatoes, and avocado. In truth, I decided to include anything that would grow in my garden in Provence. That’s very personal indeed.

The greatest character of a vegetable is that it gives so much of itself while asking so little of us who prepare it. For example, some of the recipes here that I find most sublime are the simplest ones, like steamed creamy cabbage, cauliflower purée, and heirloom tomato broth with fresh tarragon. These are dishes that come together on their own, as the French say, “se mangent tout seul,” meaning they go down easily, with no need of embellishment.

Finally, this book brings a fervent wish: May all our tables be forever laden with fresh, gorgeous, fragrant vegetables!

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