It was a lazy Sunday afternoon, and I'd just gotten home from the farmers market with, as usual, several bags of vegetables and no firm idea of what I was going to fix for dinner. So I did what I usually do in that situation — started leafing through cookbooks.
I picked up the first one and — I swear this is true — it fell open to this very page:
"The subtle structure of harmonies drawn from a combination of tender young vegetables cooked (or, to be more accurate, sweated) together with butter (or olive oil or a combination) in a heavy, tightly covered vessel, each added, raw or precooked, at a specific moment corresponding to its own needs, the complexity of savory autonomies butter-bound in an amalgam of their own fragrances, accented by the caress of an herb or two — a melting, shimmering balance of separateness and unity in fragile suspension.…"
What's unusual is not that I was turning to Richard Olney's "Simple French Food" for guidance but that in a book I've read and re-read dozens of times, here was a section I didn't recall.
It was on mixed vegetable stews, free-form affairs based on what you have on hand and what you feel like cooking, or as Olney so much more eloquently put it, their composition "depends on the season and on whim and, insofar as they are never twice identical, one must, each time, more or less 'feel' one's way through the preparation."
Recipes: Ragout of spring vegetables
and spring vegetables baked in parchment
Poetic as the description might be, it does seem to imply a certain carelessness of preparation, or at least free-spiritedness. Rather than spelling out specific measures of set ingredients, what Olney gives in this recipe is a structure for a dish, a blueprint you can fit to your fancy.
A recipe written this way is open-ended; your enjoyment of it isn't predicated upon being able to find an exact set of ingredients or following an exact set of instructions.
You're going by instinct rather than by rote, and that's how you become a real cook.
The basic rules for vegetable stews are few, but they are simple: You want some onions; you want whole cloves of garlic, preferably unpeeled; you want some lettuces or greens for moisture; and you want butter … lots of butter.
Given this framework, you can sift through what is best at the market, finding those combinations of vegetables that will result in the harmonies Olney so expressively describes. Sort them according to their required cooking times (and whether they need to be pre-cooked — dense vegetables such as potatoes almost certainly will).
After you have organized your thinking, the preparation is simple. I've made this with artichokes, spring onions and zucchini (Olney's suggestion), but I've also experimented adding and subtracting fennel, fingerling potatoes, scarlet carrots and cauliflower in different combinations. I've even made it with bolted arugula from my garden. Waste not, want not.
The result is unfailingly delicious. Partly, of course, that's because of the butter, almost a whole stick — how could you go wrong? But mainly, it's the slow stewing of the vegetables that results in a mellow harmony of flavors. Those whole unpeeled garlic cloves soften and release their perfume without a hint of harshness. Most times the only moisture added is from the greens as they warm.
And then there's the butter, which melts into a creamy glaze, combining with the juices of the vegetables to make a delicately flavored sauce. I wish I could tell you that if you have trouble with your conscience you could leave some of it out, but when I tried that, it just wasn't nearly as good. Butter is the binder here, of flavors as well as textures.
Something similar happened a week or so later. A photo of a simple dish of potatoes baked in parchment caught my eye when I was leafing through the gorgeous new collection of Elizabeth David recipes, "At Elizabeth David's Table." There was just something about the texture of the coarse salt on the potatoes and the wilted mint leaves languidly folded on top. (Yes, I know there were no photos in David's books … but trust me, this collection, put together by her longtime editor Jill Norman, is worth picking up.)
The recipe, which David credits to a turn-of-the-century book on paper-bag cookery by Nicolas Soyer, is loose to the point of being vague, as were so many of David's recipes. Encouraged by this, I took even more liberties. In a half-dozen variations over a couple of weeks, I think only the paper remained from the original recipe.
Again, I used carrots, fennel, artichokes — all of the vegetables that make this winter-turning-spring season great. I rubbed the vegetables in butter, as the original did, but I also used olive oil. I experimented with different herbs and used citrus zest to add a bright note.
Baking in paper (or aluminum foil — it handles more easily and achieves the same result) and with olive oil results in flavors that are more distinct than stewing and don't have that unifying gravity of butter holding them together. Still, they do share a certain sympathy.
My favorite combination was fingerling potatoes, fennel and artichokes, moistened with olive oil and scented with orange zest, garlic, fresh thyme and black olives. The potatoes are earthy but with just a hint of sweetness from the artichokes. The fennel picks up the orange and the thyme.
You can bake this in one big pouch, but two smaller pouches is easier to handle. Best of all, probably, is to make an individual serving pouch for each person at the table. One of my favorite things about baking in parchment is the moment when the package is opened and all the mingled scents arise in a big puff of steam.
It's even better than it looked in the picture.