Imagine the whole universe begins to vibrate and resound.”
- Gustav Mahler, writing about his Symphony No. 8
Time for one of our bimonthly vegetarian dinners – additional to the regular ones – we still get a good number of requests, and still rarely fill them, but at least I can say to the folk who ask that we do offer them on occasion, and they don’t supplant the dinners that do fill. Of course, as is typical, the day after I started getting notes from people that they hadn’t been able to attend but when were we going to offer another one? Those same folk won’t come then either, it would take away their right to complain, but we do get an interesting mix of other people, both vegetarian and non.
The occasion to celebrate, just to have a theme, was the 100th anniversary of the first performance of Gustav Mahler’s 8th Symphony. Now, he wasn’t vegetarian, at least as far as I know, and the choral work has nothing to do with fruits and vegetables. So basically, it provided nothing other than a backdrop excuse and no influence to the meal. We did play the symphony during the first portion of the evening, and then moved on to one of his other works. Four of the five dishes are ones that I’ve come up with over the last year or so for our vegetarian classes, either variations on traditional dishes or “new inventions”, if there are such things in the culinary world anymore.
As one regular guest put it, “I’d forgotten how much I like crunchy fried things!” Here, a twist on a classic of the Tuscan contornni canon, Finocchi Fritti al Pecorino – blanched and shocked “leaves” of fennel bub, dried, dusted in flour, dipped in egg, and coated in a mix of breadcrumbs, grated cheese (pecorino romano, the Argentine version), chili flakes and cracked pepper. Deep fried and then lightly salted. Served up with a dipping sauce of pureed piquillo peppers with olive oil, cream and salt.
Pumpkin pie in liquid form, and less sweet. That’s the best way to describe this bowl of rich broth. A roasted vegetable stock, cooked butternut squash in it. Gave it some richness and creamness when pureeing it with the addition of a good amount of coconut milk. And spiked it up with classic pumpkin pie spices. Finished it off with a sprinkling of toasted coconut.
A vegetarian version of a classic bulgur wheat pilaf from Armenia, studded with onion, garlic, carrot, green and red bell peppers and fava beans, and cooked in roasted vegetable stock. Finished off with a taratur sauce – tahini, garlic, lemon juice and more stock.
I recently mentioned how much Henry and I liked Yotam Ottolenghi’s Beetroot Fritters and wanted to incorporate them, as is, into the meal. This was the one dish I wasn’t as thrilled with the way it turned out – I think I didn’t get quite enough liquid squeezed out of the beets, so the fritters didn’t hold together as well, and, in retrospect, the presentation atop a tangle of lightly oiled spaghetti wasn’t as pretty as I’d imagined. The flavors are still delicious in this fritter, the only change I’ve made from the original is the addition of a little chopped jalapeño in the mix to give it a slight kick.
Nine years ago, on my one and only trip to gay Paree, I wrote a dining article for Passport magazine. One of the places that has stuck in my mind was a little out of the way spot called Les Amognes. The creativity of chef Thierry Coué was delightful, and at the same time the food was comforting, nourishing to the spirit, and for the most part, simply delicious. Strangely, or perhaps not, the one dish that has truly stuck in my mind all these years was the one that didn’t quite work – as I wrote, it elicited gasps of “how odd” from both of us. It was a dessert, crepes filled with a sweet eggplant and cardamom compote and topped with an orange sauce. Over time, I’ve played around with the idea, and finally got a dish that, as far as I’m concerned, is an absolute winner – and given guest reaction last weekend after initial trepidation, it apparently is. A somewhat classic tarte tatin – the eggplant cooked in light brown sugar and butter with a touch of salt, cracked black pepper and cardamom, and then finished with an orange coulis. Sounds “how odd” still, but it works., and made a nice final crescendo to our symphony for the eve.