Vegetables à la Grecque

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I have all the time in the world for vegetables, but nothing makes my mood plummet quicker than a vegetable that has been boiled or steamed without any other mitigating spices, fats, seasonings or textural elements added to it. As a vegan — in fact, as a food writer — I should be able to face vegetables in such an untampered, intact state, and if politeness is required of a situation of course I will quietly capitulate, but internally it’ll be wall-to-wall culinary sorrow at the limpness of texture and blandness of vibe.

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Peevishly, I still crave variety, and there’s only so many times I can eat fried or roasted vegetables in quick succession. So, when I find a new-to-me method that allows me to hoon a vast quantity of vegetables in a way that’s pleasing to both my palate and boundaries, I’m obviously going to try it. It was in two separate books — Beard on Food by James Beard and Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison — that I found this preparation for Vegetables à la Grecque, and while there is undeniably some boiling, it involves generous amounts of vermouth, olive oil, and spices, forming a rich yet graceful broth that you then reduce down to an intensely-flavoured liquor, before pouring it back over the vegetables, and then finally serving it chilled.

I chose fennel and green beans, and the result was so elegant: the tender, aniseed petals of fennel and the sweetness of the beans swimming in all that lush, lemony, herbal liquid, each doing their level best to infuse the other with flavour. Because this is made in advance and placidly sits in the fridge until required, it’s a useful recipe to have in your repertoire; it could stand up to a hearty stew or other slow-cooked thing as a vegetable side, but would fit happily on a table of smaller sharing plates, especially if there’s lots of bread for mopping up, and I can also see it being a friendly salad alternative in high summer when you can only face foods that have known the chill of refrigeration. I’d like to try it with cauliflower, in which case I might consider throwing in a handful of sultanas and even — should budget allow — a pinch of saffron. (Although let’s face it, with the cost of living these days the cauliflower is likely to be more expensive than the saffron.) My aversion to plain boiled vegetables may never be truly rehabilitated, but this recipe for all seasons is definite — and delicious — progress.

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Vegetables à la Grecque

A simple but elegant way to prepare vegetables, simmered and then chilled in a lush vermouth-y broth. If you need to feed more people, just add more vegetables and a bit more of everything else. Adapted from recipes by James Beard (Beard on Food) and Deborah Madison (Vegetarian Cooking For Everyone.)

  • 2-3 medium-sized fennel bulbs
  • 300g green beans
  • 1/3 cup dry vermouth or dry white wine
  • 1 lemon
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
  • 1 bay leaf
  • a good pinch of salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 and 1/2 cups water
  • fresh thyme, parsley, or other herbs of your choice to serve 

1: Trim the bases from the fennel bulbs and chop each bulb into quarters or sixths, depending on how big they are. Trim the ends off the beans.

2: In a saucepan big enough to fit the vegetables in (bearing in mind they will collapse down a bit as they cook) combine the 1/3 cup vermouth, the juice of the lemon and a long strip of its peel, the three tablespoons of olive oil, the teaspoon each of fennel and coriander seeds, the bay leaf, the pinch of salt and a few twists of pepper (or, if you like, you can throw in a couple of whole peppercorns.) If you have the necessary pestle and mortar you can bash about the seeds a bit first to release their fragrance, but it’ll be absolutely fine if you don’t. Pour in the 1 and 1/2 cups of water — you may not need all of it depending on the size of your pan — and bring everything to the boil.

3: Once the broth is at the boil, lower the vegetables into the pan and turn the heat down to a simmer, partially covering the pan with a lid. Simmer for about ten minutes, or until the vegetables are tender but still with a good bite to them. Depending on your vegetables you may want to stagger the timing a little — when I make this again I’ll probably add the beans a few minutes after the fennel so they keep their colour better.

4: Once the vegetables are tender but bite-y, remove them to a serving dish using tongs or some other similarly useful implement, then turn up the heat on the saucepan and let the broth cook away until it has reduced down by about half. Don’t get too hung up on the precision of this, but I find sticking the end of a wooden spoon into the pan at various intervals to see what the tide is like helps to keep track of the reduction. Once it’s reduced down sufficiently, pour the entire contents of the pan over the waiting vegetables in their serving dish, cover, and refrigerate until cooled. Chop up some fresh herbs — thyme, parsley, basil would be perfect — and scatter over before serving.

Serves 2 as a side, although I happily ate all of this by myself with some bread to dip into the liquor, and it could stretch to another person, maybe even two more, if you had plenty of other food on the table.

Note:

  • If you don’t like fennel, or beans, or can’t get hold of them, you could try using any other firm vegetable: James Beard recommends eggplant and artichoke, and Deborah Madison suggests cauliflower, carrots, mushrooms and turnips. While I haven’t made it with these myself, I am confident they would all be delicious.
  • If you have a few cloves of garlic on hand and like to eat it then definitely add them, finely sliced, to the simmering broth — the only reason I left it out was because I forgot it, but it’s good to know it tastes great without should I find myself in this situation again.

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music lately:

Sparks by Faith and the Muse. Weighs a ton and yet floats right through you.

No, No, No by Dawn Penn. A classic. A classic!

Roly Poly by Doris Day and Perry Blackwell from the film Pillow Talk. I wish there were more recordings of Blackwell available, her presence and voice are great, but at least we get this very fun moment in this very fun film.

PS: If you like my writing and wish to support me directly, there’s no better way than by stepping behind the claret velvet VIP curtain of my Patreon. Recipes, reviews, poetry, updates, secrets, stories, all yours on a monthly basis. There’s no better time than right now – your support helps me to make all these blog posts!

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