Alain Ducasse once made me eat foie gras. Well maybe "made" is too strong a term. I was writing a story about tomatoes and was at his first New York City restaurant, Alain Ducasse at the Essex House
, to try an uber-tomato appetizer of roasted tomatoes in a tomato gelee topped by tomato tuilles. But the tomatoes were just the beginning and tastings of other dishes were proffered. At the time I had been a vegetarian for a decade, but mine was not the class of vegetarianism that would not make exceptions for offerings from this many-Michelin-starred chef. There was a bit of bison, a little lamb and the aforementioned foie. Within six months I had abandoned my vegetarian ways and become a full-fledged omnivore. While there were other reasons for my dietary shift. I always (fondly) remember that afternoon as the start of my delicious downfall.
So just over a decade after that fateful meal, it was more than little strange to be sitting in the dining room of Ducasse's current New York flagship Adour
and have Ducasse himself point out to me that the entire four course meal I had just devoured had been completely devoid of meat, and perhaps more shockingly had involved absolutely no butter.
The dishes were all from his latest cookbook Nature: Simple, Healthy and Good
and included a classic Provençal barigoule with artichokes, baby carrots, string beans, fennel and a surprise hint of vanilla, Red snapper steamed with seaweed and sautéed fava beans, lettuce and asparagus. Oeufs en cocotte with morels
For dessert there was apples and pears gently stewed in a Römertopf, which was like the fanciest, most flavorful applesauce in the world.
While it might seem strange that one of the most iconic figures in French cuisine, which most often is identified as richly sauced, butter laden and fabulously fatty, is touting baked fruit for dessert, Ducasse has long explored a healthier way of eating and what he calls "a relationship with vegetables."
A quarter century ago at his Louis XV in Monaco, Ducasse created a vegetable, if not quite vegetarian, tasting menu where animal stock or jus could be used in the preparation of the dish. And has eaten this way himself for even longer, explaining that having grown up on his grandmother's farm in Gascony and eating seasonal vegetables has always influenced how he sees food. His point is that while butter, cream and, yes, foie, are all wonderful things, it's not the way that any of us should be eating on a daily basis. As he lays out in the book's "190 Recipes from a French Master Chef," an ideal dietary balance is 80% vegetable/grain and 20% protein.
Cookbooks from acclaimed chefs — including a number of Ducasse's former tomes —can often be intimidating and therefore spend far more time on the shelf than on your kitchen counter. More an intellectual exercise than kitchen companion. Nature: Simple, Healthy and Good is not that cookbook. It's approachable and kind of sweetly charming, with slightly goofy line drawings of Ducasse and his co-author Paule Neyrat discussing his path to this current vegetable-centric way of eating and their recipe development process.
The entire book is designed to read as a continuing conversation between the two which the reader is part of, with a quote from each of them about the dish replacing the more traditional headnotes at the top of each recipe. The conversational tone also means that the recipes read in a flowing style with the ingredients highlighted within the text, as opposed to being listed as, well, a list at the top. This is an elegant and economical use of space, and makes for a much more charming and fluid read than the traditional method. It also makes it just that much more difficult to make sure you have all the ingredients on hand at a glance.
The recipes themselves are also approachable with an emphasis on good quality ingredients rather than overly complicated preparations. The Vegetables a la Barigoule with Vanilla and Oeufs en cocotte with morels
were just as successful coming out of my tiny apartment kitchen as they were in the fancy restaurant. Cauliflower and Broccoli in Bulgur, which sounds like a dreary health food store staple, was instead bright with flavors of curry, Piment d' Espelette and salt-preserved lemons — the simple recipe for those is in the first chapter.
Sauteed Rabbit with Apples was just as lovely with the suggested substitution of chicken. And the Herby Roast Chicken was very herby indeed. And just when you think that there is no room for indulgence, there is a recipe for poached foie gras with turnips which co-author Neyrat explains actually has it's own healthful benefits — it contains good unsaturated fatty acids.