May 21 2014
Putting Vegetables in Their Place
The feature article in the Portland Mercury this week implores readers to “Eat Your Vegetables!”. Vegetable-centric chefs like Ava Gene’s Joshua McFadden and Ned Ludd’s Jason French aren’t vegetarians by any stretch of the imagination – a large percentage of each’s menu is devoted to meat dishes – yet neither establishment delegates vegetables to a small side column on the menu that you must squint to read. Instead, when I’ve dined at both restaurants, I always enjoy a meal of various seasonal vegetables and leave with a content and fully satisfied palate. French shares, “I want vegetables to be in their place. And their place is in every dish, and on every table, in a way that is satisfying.” French’s ideal vegetable preparation is when that first bite of a vegetable-centric dish forces you to pause mid-chew and ask: how was this vegetable grown? What’s that added element in the dish? When eaters start asking questions like these, vegetables become the main attraction.
The other day, a friend casually asked me what I’d been cooking recently. I found myself thinking harder about that question than I normally do. To be totally honest, I haven’t been cooking much: I’ve been assembling.
After a few too many early spring or late winter soups, dutifully prepared with dried beans and greens and eaten on our deck in 70+ degree weather, food is finally aligning with temperature and craving. At its freshest and most flavorful, spring and summer produce only needs a slight nudge to encourage it out of its just-harvested existence into an assembled meal, salad, or snack.
Consider these early season sugar snap peas. Within 10 minutes, I’d emptied them from their blue cardboard basket, blanched them for an infinitesimal amount of time to bring out a rich green hue, tossed those snappy peas with shallots, olive oil, and lemon juice, and nestled them on top of a bed of lightly whipped ricotta. The sharpness and acidity from the lemon and shallot enhance the sugar snap peas’ sweetness and add an additional component to their watery crunch. The whipped ricotta elevates the dish into something that certain restaurants could easily charge $10 for (and get away with).
In fact, I’m certain that I did pay a comparable amount of money for a similar dish at Franny’s when I lived in Brooklyn. McFadden certainly charges similar prices at Ava Gene’s, having no issue pricing salads and vegetables at $12. This price is designed to make curious diners take notice: $12 radishes? What is going on here? What’s going on is that McFadden has fastidiously scouted for the freshest, most flavorful ingredients, and applied his deep knowledge of flavors and his own farming background to present the ingredients back to his diners in the most delicious way possible.
I just dined at Ava Gene’s a few nights ago, and while McFadden’s take on sugar snap peas was just as simple as this ricotta recipe I’m sharing, it was no less revelatory: snap peas tossed with peanuts, rehydrated cherries, and mint, dusted ever-so-lightly with pimenton. Of all of the dishes we ordered (all vegetable centric, of course), this was the one we ate with the most glee. Why? Because the snap pea became more than a snap pea: McFadden intrinsically understood what flavors the snap pea naturally imbues and what flavors and textures should surround it. And that’s what spring and summer cooking should be: a cook should recognize each ingredient’s flavor, enhance it, and then leave it alone.
Sugar Snap Peas with Ricotta, Mint, and Lemon
Recipe Source: Franny’s
- 1/2 cup ricotta
- 1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for drizzling
- salt and pepper
- 2 cups sugar snap peas
- 2 tablespoons sliced scallions
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
- 3 tablespoons chopped mint
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- sea salt
- Whisk the ricotta with 2 tablespoons of olive oil until smooth. Whisk in salt and pepper to taste, continuing to whisk until the ricotta is creamy. Set aside.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Fill a large bowl with ice water and salt the water. Blanch the peas for 30-45 seconds. Drain and immediately transfer to the ice water. Once chilled, drain the peas and spread them on a clean towel to dry.
- In another large bowl, toss the peas with the scallions, parsley, mint, 1/4 teaspoon of pepper, and lemon juice. Stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil.
- Add 2 tablespoons of ricotta to a plate, spreading it out into a circle or abstract shape. Mound 1/2 cup of the peas onto the plate. Finish with olive oil and sea salt. Enjoy!