Making the most of vegetables with few ingredients and a light touch

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A straightforward pea soup is a perfect way to get the most out of spring produce before heading into the season of the melon and tomato. Photo by Nigel Parry.

French chef, author, and television personality Eric Ripert is back with a new book, “Vegetable Simple.” He is best known for refined seafood dishes at his Michelin-starred restaurant Le Bernardin in New York City. But in this latest title, veggies get the spotlight. 

Ripert spoke with “Good Food” about the simplicity of cooking with vegetables, how to choose the right melon, and how summers with his grandmothers in the south of France influenced the new book. 

KCRW: It's so interesting that there's all this focus on meatless eating at the moment, but many French chefs have been doing it for years without labeling it as such. Why do you think you've chosen this particular moment to share a collection of vegetable recipes?

“This book was conceived three and a half years ago. I wanted to do this book for a long, long time, because I love vegetables. And of course, I love seafood and I eat seafood every day during the week. On the weekend, I love cooking vegetables for the family. I love to entertain in the summer and in the spring. So when we are in the country and when the farm stands are open, I love going there shopping. I have tremendous pleasure in having interaction with the farmers and so on. 

I bring some beautiful vegetables home, and then I create a lot of quick and simple recipes that are going on the center of the table. And then we invite friends. And it's very convenient, because everybody's sharing and passing the vegetables around and so on. And the different preparations have different flavors, obviously because of the ingredients themselves, but different seasonings and textures and so on. 

Also, when I was a kid, I grew up very close to my grandmothers, one was Italian, the other one was from Provence. And my mother was a great cook. And I remember they were cooking a lot of vegetables. And we were eating meat mostly on Sunday, because in France it’s a tradition to either way eat a leg of lamb or roasted chicken. And then Friday was the day where we were eating seafood. 

But the rest of the week, most of the the diet that we had was based on vegetables. And again, because we were in the south of France, there were plenty of delicious vegetables. And my grandmothers were spoiling me like that. So I really wanted to go back and document those recipes, and again inspire people to entertain at home or to feed their family the way I'm doing.”

This cooking with certain vegetables requires a light touch similar to preparing fish and seafood.

“Yes, actually, vegetables can be pretty delicate. And therefore you have to be a technician in many ways, and be cautious about the way you handle those vegetables. But again, it's not necessarily complicated. It's just a matter of learning how to do it. At Le Bernardin we have a mantra that says, ‘The fish is the stuff of the plate which dictates our style.’ And therefore, whatever goes in the plate is to elevate the qualities of the fish. 

So for instance, if it's a lobster or striped bass, or any kind of seafood, whatever vegetable goes in a plate or sauce is to, again, enhance the qualities of that ingredient or elevate it. And I applied the same vision to vegetables. And we have great results because you’re bringing your vegetables to a different level.”

Fresh peas are available in our markets now. You have a sweet pea soup. Can you describe it?

“Right now peas are in full season, and they're not very starchy yet. So if you go to the market, you have to peel the peas. And then you basically boil them and you add a bit of butter and salt and pepper, and you put it in a blender and you have a delicious soup. Now, when the peas are not as nice, and if you don't have the time to prepare the peas because it's a bit lengthy to remove them from the skin, you can buy good quality frozen peas, and it's not a crime. Today we find some delicious, frozen vegetables, and you can make the same soup with it.”

What I love about this book is that it’s a reminder of how fantastic simplicity can be.

“It's true, simplicity is very, very important. The more you complicate a dish, the more you lose the sense of the main ingredient. If you start to think about presentation too much, or if you start to add too many ingredients, suddenly the essence of the main product that you were trying to elevate, to make delicious, is lost in the process. So simplicity is very important.”

Many of us here in Southern California are just starting to see ripe tomatoes on our plants. By the end of the summer, we'll have a glut. Tell me about the recipe for End of Summer Tomato Tea. 

“That one also is a very simple recipe. So at the end of summer and the beginning of the fall is when the tomatoes are at their best, but sometimes they’re even a little bit too mature. So therefore, it's very simple, you put them in a blender with a bit of salt. And then if you have a cheesecloth, you use the pulp, put it in a cheesecloth, or in what we call a ‘chinois’ in French, a sieve, and you let it drip. And it's gonna drip overnight in your fridge. 

And then the day after, you will have the pulp on one side, and you will have a clear broth. And that clear broth looks very inoffensive and looks like it could be tasteless. However, it's very, very refined and powerful in umami, and you taste the tomato very, very strongly. And you can bring it to a simmer and skim it and serve it warm or hot, or even cold is delicious. 

And then the pulp can be used for another recipe on toasted bread. You can add it with a bit of olive oil, or you can use it in a tomato sauce or anything like that. But that broth that comes out of that pulp of the tomato is really, really special.”

Tell us about the Melon Au Porto. 

“That one is very simple. You need a melon and you need a bottle of port. And that's pretty much it.”

How do you choose your melons?

“When you go to the market and when you choose melons, you have to smell them. Where the stems were attached to the melon is the best part to smell your melon or cantaloupe. It should be not too strong, because if it is … it means it’s overripe and it will not be necessarily good. And if it smells like squash, it's not ripe enough, and it's going to be very boring. It doesn't have much flavor.”

When is this particular dish traditionally eaten in France? 

“In France, when it is the season of the melon, you go to a restaurant, they split the melon in half, remove the seeds, and in the cavity of the melon they pour port. And people, with the spoon, eat a bit of the melon and a bit of the port. And by the time you finish, because it's an appetizer, you have drank a glass of port and eaten half a melon, and you're in a very good mood.

For the book, we did it a bit differently. We use a spoon to scoop and we make some little melon balls and then we put it in a bowl and we pour the port on top.”

Do you have a brand of port that you prefer over others?

“Well, yes, of course, but it can be very expensive, and I don't think you need, necessarily, a very expensive port for that. Very expensive port deserves to be drunk on its own, maybe at the end of the meal or beginning of the meal, if you like. But for the melon recipe you don't need something very special. A young port, with the sweetness and richness of the melon, will be perfect.”

What is your spin on the classic Caesar salad? 

“We take the romaine salad [head], the whole one, cut it in half lengthwise, and then we brush it with Caesar dressing, add some parmesan on top, and then we put it under the broiler and we gratinate the romaine salad. It takes a couple of minutes to do so. By the time you remove it, it has a beautiful color and a nice crunch. And the salad is warm or hot, but it's still crunchy, it has texture. So on top it’s a little bit softer, and then you have the crunch. And it's really a good recipe, a good alternative to the Caesar salad. Very different. And you can eat it like that as an appetizer or it can be a side dish if you wish, but it's a very original way of using the same ingredients as a Caesar salad but making it very different.”

Melon "au Porto"
Serves 4

When in season, this melon dish is served throughout France on special occasions, and very often on Sundays. If you don’t have a melon baller, you can cut the fruit into cubes. The idea is to have small bites. Eat with a spoon, never a fork, so you can eat the melon and drink the port at the same time. A simple and perfect pairing.

Ingredients 

  • 2 cantaloupes, halved and seeded
  • 1 cup good-quality port

Instructions

-Use a melon baller to turn the melon flesh into as many balls as possible. If not serving right away, refrigerate the melon balls in a covered bowl.
-When ready to serve, divide the melon balls among four chilled bowls.
-Pour ¼ cup port over each bowl and serve.

Melon+Au+Port.jpg
With just two ingredients, Eric Ripert elevates this melon dessert — traditionally eaten by halving and seeding a melon and pouring port into the cavity to be enjoyed in spoonfuls. Photo by Nigel Parry.

Sweet Pea Soup
Serves 4

Frozen peas work well for this, as the peas are harvested and frozen at their peak, before they mature and become starchy. I always keep a bag in the freezer, which allows me to make this soup year-round. Serve warm on cold days and cold on warm days.

Ingredients 

  • 4 tablespoons crème fraîche
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh mint
  • Fine sea salt
  • 3 cups shelled green peas (12 ounces), fresh or frozen
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter (optional)
  • Freshly ground white pepper

Instructions

-In a small bowl, mix 2 tablespoons of crème fraîche and the chopped mint, season with salt and white pepper, cover, and refrigerate.
-In a medium pot, bring 2½ cups of water to a boil and add 1 tea-spoon salt.
-Add the peas—if using fresh, cook them for 3 to 4 minutes; if frozen, blanch them for 2 to 3 minutes.
-Remove the pot from the heat and transfer the mixture to a blender.
-Puree on high speed until smooth. Once the mixture is smooth, add the butter (if using) and blend until it is incorporated.
-Taste the soup and season with salt and white pepper.
-Divide the soup evenly among four bowls. Garnish each serving with ½ tablespoon of crème fraîche and serve immediately.


In his latest cookbook “Vegetable Simple,” Chef Eric Ripert insists that getting the most out of vegetables requires a light touch and resisting the urge to overcomplicate them. Photo courtesy of Random House.

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Evan Kleiman