It’s sad but true that vegetables are kind of second class citizens in France. Salads are big, but when it comes to cooked vegetables you all too often see just a few beans or a little pile of something vaguely green on your plate. So when we were invited by our friend Jacqueline to participate in a cooking competition, and invited to choose a plate to prepare, I chose vegetables. Actually, I hesitated a bit, wanting to win, wanting to choose something more popular, but when Jacqueline said that if I didn’t do vegetables nobody would, I realized that it was my duty to tackle the French vegetable situation.
Above you see the plate that Shel and I made, artichokes braised with fennel, carrots and coriander, little Parmigiano tuile cups filled with fava beans, mint and crème fraîche, zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta and herbs, a springtime vegetable risotto, and a stuffed morel. And the secret ingredient on the plate? The all-important green leaf, which is l’ail des ours, or bear garlic. And in fact said ail des ours found its subtly garlicky way into each and every preparation, so that what we had was a long riff on an unknown green leaf that adds something delicate and special to anything it touches. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.
This was a real contest, with real rules. Six couples cooked and one couple hosted and organized and helped out teams in difficulty and washed dishes and poured wine and enforced the rules, stuff like everyone had to wear a chef’s toque, and every dish had to have a name, and as much of the cooking as possible had to be done on site in real time, and so on. And they were entrusted with counting up the scores, for each dish was graded. Also they provided the prizes, since every team was rewarded for its efforts. They had the hardest job of all, and they did it cheerfully and with feeling.
So, to begin at the beginning.
We made a big effort to arrive early so as to grab a large workspace for ourselves, American hegemony at its finest. Shel went to work trimming up the little purple Provençal artichokes, while Jacqueline provided moral support. Not that Shel really needed it, but you know he loved it anyway.
About those artichokes. Remember when I first told you about Alice and her wonderful vegetables? When I called her to say that I was going to participate in a cooking competition and wanted whatever she had that was perfect for the season and rare into the bargain, right away she said “l’ail des ours, no one will have any idea what that is, and all the chefs are using it right now.” Okay! I was sold on the idea immediately, and got a big bag of the garlicky leaves from her, along with tiny purple artichokes, fava beans, radishes, peas, and other springtime delights. I advise you to have farmers as friends whenever possible, it makes life just that much better on a daily basis, contest or no.
Although Soléa looks quite calm here, except for the speed with which she’s dusting her choux puffs, the kitchen was absolute pandemonium, with people bumping into each other on the way to the sink, stove, and oven, immersion blenders whirring, pots simmering, and remarkably little swearing.
Once each plate hit the table, the critical tasting and scoring began. Wines were matched to the dishes, and each one was graded on four criteria: the taste, the originality, the presentation, and the creativity of the name given to the dish. Each couple huddled, assessed, argued, finally agreed, and voted.
Third place, and the prize for overall flavor, went to Soléa and René for their choux puffs filled with a rum pastry cream. I’m not saying that the rum influenced the votes, but there was definitely quite a lot of it in there.
Second place, and the prize for the dish with the best name, went to Christine and Alain for their salmon, asparagus, and quail egg aspic.
Jacqueline was incredibly generous with the prizes. This is the pile of goodies that went to the first place winner, next to the Golden Fork. Today was the third annual contest, and the names of the previous winners were already inscribed on the huge fork, awaiting this year’s winners. The prizes were all heaped into
an enormous and gorgeous serving dish.
Do I look as stunned as I felt? I never imagined that an American could win, but even more so, I never imagined that vegetables could win. Most original dish, best presentation, and first place overall, went to Our Vegetable Plate. I’m still blown away.
I had to ask the group: did we win in honor of our new President? Was it political? Was it because we’re foreigners? But no, really, I think it was the vegetables. Nobody imagined that vegetables could be the stars of the show. One strike for the superiority of the vegetable kingdom! And also, we did get special mention and probably extra points for the fact that Shel was working in the kitchen all morning right along with me. Of course I said, with an air of utter conviction, that all American men do that. Don’t they?