It may seem a bit strange to start a cookbook devoted to vegetables by saying that I have been drawn to fish as long as I have been in kitchens. But from age fifteen, when I started culinary school, to my training with Joël Robuchon in Paris to my nearly three decades as chef of Le Bernardin in New York City, my entire career has been about seafood. Fish is incredibly delicate and requires a great deal of focus, technical skill, and experience to prepare in a way that enhances, rather than hides, its essential qualities. It was Gilbert Le Coze, self-trained chef and master of seafood (and my mentor in the early days of Le Bernardin), who first showed me the beauty of cooking seafood with a light touch and a lot of respect.
Over the years, we have developed a mantra at Le Bernardin: “The fish is the star of the plate.” And while that remains true, I have recently started to wonder why we weren’t highlighting vegetables in the same way, with the same level of care. In 2014, we opened a wine bar next to the restaurant and created a menu consisting largely of small, shareable vegetable-based dishes. Inspired by that process, we introduced a vegetable tasting menu at Le Bernardin two years later. While my passion for seafood has not waned, it has started to become obvious to me over these past years that my focus is widening to include vegetables as a central ingredient—not only in my life as a chef, but also as an enthusiastic eater. This shift has been subtle, at times even unconscious, but once I realized how important vegetables had become to my cooking and to my diet, I decided I had to write Vegetable Simple.
When I sat down and began to create this book, the realization dawned that the book had actually been inside me for a long time. It started, in fact, with my earliest experiences: dishes from my childhood, the kitchens of my mother and grandmothers, the gardens of my grandfathers, my yearlong sabbatical on a farm after my military service, and, more recently, the recipes I have found myself reaching for again and again when entertaining guests or cooking for my family. Looking back at my own relationship with food, I see vegetables have been hard-wired in me from an early age. Nothing thrilled me as a child more than trips to the market with my grandmother to find the perfect ingredients for ratatouille, or our adventures in my grandfather’s modest but painstakingly tended garden plot, where he proudly grew lettuces, radishes, string beans, potatoes, and anything else he could. I would spend hours up in the boughs of an apricot tree watching my grandmother and aunts through the kitchen window as they prepared soup with the tomatoes and summer squash we’d picked that morning. My diet during these summers spent with family in Provence consisted mostly of vegetables, with fish on Fridays and meat on Sundays. Back in Andorra, my mother, who is an excellent cook, would prepare elaborate three-course meals that always included vegetable dishes like potato gratin and morels à la crème.
When I cook vegetables today, my goal is to showcase their natural flavors and qualities, so simplicity is key. Keeping the recipes in this book easy and uncomplicated allows me to serve a variety of them at once with minimal effort. I rarely go into dinner parties with a preconceived idea of what I’m going to cook; instead, I like to be inspired by whatever looks good and is in season at the market or farmstand. Hosting friends on the weekends is a huge part of my life, and my goal is to feed them well and to bring a sense of fun to the table. I make five or six of these vegetable recipes and arrange all the dishes in the center of the table so everyone can serve themselves family style, or I set up a buffet and encourage my guests to take a bit of everything. Food naturally brings people together, and it makes me so happy to use my experience as a chef to gather everyone around the table to share a meal that I took great pleasure in preparing for them. I always take a second to appreciate that moment after everyone has been seated and raised their glasses in a toast, when my guests start to pass dishes to one another, filling their plates and taking their first bites.
When thinking about how I wanted to structure this book, I approached it in the same way as my trips to the market: with freedom. While the recipes are set out in a loose natural progression from starters to dessert, I want people to have fun with this book, to flip through the pages and be inspired to try any one or two (or three) dishes at a time, rather than feel the need to adhere to strict categories of appetizers, mains, and sides. I get real pleasure out of spending a whole afternoon or even a full day in the kitchen, but I realize not everyone is able to do that, so I have included recipes that come together in less than an hour for a quick and easy meal. I have also included a basic guideline to shopping, storing, cleaning, and making the most out of your vegetables because I believe that good cooking begins at the source, and there are several important steps in the process before you begin your work in the kitchen.
There’s a broad spectrum of recipes in the book, from dips and snacks to appetizers, soups, and salads, to pastas and grains, as well as many dishes that could stand alone as main courses. Most of the recipes serve four, so if you are having a light lunch with friends, for example, you might want to try only one or two recipes, but if you are serving dinner for a larger group, I recommend preparing a variety of dishes and serving them family style. Grilled Corn Elote Style, Coleslaw, Herbes de Provence–Crusted Tomatoes, Potato Tortilla Española, and Frosé would make a wonderful summer spread, while a feast for the colder months could be made up of Butternut Squash, Ginger, Turmeric Soup; Slow-Roasted Cauliflower; Rutabaga Gratin; and Mushroom Bolognese.
I’m not a pastry chef, but I do have a sweet tooth, so I couldn’t write this book without including some of my favorite easy-to-make desserts, like Chocolate Mousse and Sticky Toffee Puddings, as well as some drinks that take you from breakfast to an afternoon pick-me-up to celebrating with friends.
The approach to cooking and eating reflected in these pages has become a central part of how I live. As I do with fish, I like to pay homage to vegetables and prepare them in a way that enhances their best qualities. I want them to shine, I want to bring out their brightness and beauty. This book, then, is an expression of my evolution not only as a chef, but also as a home cook who loves food and entertaining.
Vegetable cooking has become a growing trend in recent years, not only among chefs, but also among the wider food community and home cooks looking to incorporate healthy changes to their diet. I personally have found that I feel good after eating vegetable-rich dishes—and that feeling stays with me. Naturally, I want to feel good again after my next meal. It’s a positive cycle that I want to pay forward with Vegetable Simple
. We’re only starting to discover just how beneficial eating vegetables as a main food source can be to our own well-being and the health of the planet, not to mention the positive impact on sustainability, as well as on the welfare of animals.
My intention is not to convert you to a vegetarian or vegan diet or to impose any judgment on your eating habits, but to inspire you to cook and enjoy delicious, simply prepared vegetables knowing that, ultimately, this benefits the well-being of all.
Copyright © 2020 by Eric Ripert. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.