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1950s Archive

Classes in Classic Cuisine

Spring Vegetables

Originally Published June 1956

If you want a clue to the esteem in which us gourmets français hold vegetables, just notice with what tare the French cook and serve them. Watch, too, the dedicated zeal of French shoppers, from chefs with their huge orders to housewives carrying the family market baskets. But don't overlook the fact that none of this would be possible if it weren't for the farmers who grow the vegetables that keep alive the prestige of fine French cooking. It's like the house that Jack built in reverse, n'est-ce pas? Une petite bistoire de la ferme au gourmet.

Many French chefs have been raised, as I was, in small towns where the distance from farm to home is a matter of an hour or so. They, too, can recall, as I can, mothers who examine almost every individual bean and pea pod in les litres purchased. And many a chef remembers, as I do, working as a boy on his uncle's or grandfather's farm. He is thus the better able to judge, in later years, when beans or peas have been left too long on the vine. and to tell by looking at a carrot whether the soil it came from could give it good flavor. It is interesting, too, how many French chefs become garden enthusiasts. I have known many who have turned this hobby into a profitable business. They can always find customers because they understand what their fellow chefs are looking for.

In the classic French cuisine, as in much Continental cookery, the vegetable is usually served as a separate course to be enjoyed and savored as much as the soup or salad, and consequently it must be as carefully prepared. In America, so often vegetables are cooked indifferently and served on the same plate with the entree, with the general idea (usually a true one) that they won't be eaten anyway. Every in making less formal dishes like stews, where meat and vegetables are cooked and served together, the French cook doesn't overlook the culinary requirements for each vegetable. Mais non. Those which require longer cooking, like carrots and onions, are added before the more delicate ones, like peas, so that all arc cooked”) point.

I have to admit that when 1 arrived here to open the kitchens of the old Ritz-Carlton in 1910, the vegetable situation in New York came as quite a shock. No one grew leeks for soup nor shallots for sauces. When I found out that few Americans used these vegetables, it wasn't too difficult to understand why no one bothered to grow them commercially. What really puzzled me was why vegetables which were part of the American diet—peas, beans, carrots, beets, and so on—were so large and coarse, and never graded according to size. With my French training, I just couldn't understand that. Man Dieu, I would have considered it worth my job to have served petits pois, à la françaisec made of a hodgepodge of large and small peas, or green beans with seeds inside them half the size of dried beans. But no one knew better than I did that a good chef has to be ingenious more often than creative. I solved this problem by running the shelled peas through a coarse sieve to screen out the large ones, which I used for pea puree and potage Saint-Germain. Green beans were sorted and only the tiny ones prepared for guests. The larger ones were cooked for the stuff. And we learned, too. how to trim carrots of all sizes down to plump, tiny, even shapes.

Always. I kept thinking there must be someone near Mew York who could and would grow the kind of vegetables that I had been taught were good enough to be served at a Ritz table. And there was. Who else but another French chef, one who knew how?

In those days, one of the chefs at the Hotel Astor was a Frenchman from Normandy. Louis Deligny yearned for more good country air than a steaming hoc kitchen would ever give him. He finally decided to quit New York as soon as the busy months were over each year and devote the spring and summer to growing vegetables: ! was his first customer. In fact, he really didn't need any other customers, because 1 was ready to buy all that his Batavia farm produced. Deligny was as good a gardener as he was a chef, and I began to feel that the vegetables served at the New York Ritz could compare with those served at the Ritz in Paris. We now had tiny fresh peas in spring, baby green beans all summer, carrots, beets, and new potatoes, all coming along lender and sweet in their turn. I even tried preserving beans in salt as I had seen my mother do. I had an empty shortening barrel scrubbed well and packed the little beans in layers with coarse kitchen salt between them. A heavy cover weighted them down to keep them completely covered with the brine that formed. The barrel was stored in a cold-room with a temperature of about forty to forty-five degrees. When no fresh beans were available. I soaked the stored beans in fresh water to remove the salt, and they cooked up tender and green and delicious. That, of course, was before the days of frozen vegetables. Alors, Monsieur Deligny moved to Florida and for many years from there sent me fresh peas and beans over a much longer season. This Normand loved gardening, as must of his countrymen do. and it meant much to him to grow his produce for someone who really appreciated it. He lived to be past eighty years old. so 1 guess his work agreed with him.

Gradually it got around that Louis Diat of the Ritz was interested in any grower who had very special, very fine produce to sell, whether it was field grown in season or raised out of season in a hothouse. Many chefs came to my office to talk about what they grew or thought they could grow. I found one man. for example, who specialized in herbs, and for years he supplied me with beautiful mint, parsley, chives, tarragon, chervil, and thyme all year round. There was also an unusual Pennsylvania farmer who had enormous greenhouses and the knack of growing almost anything in them. His hothouse produce was so good you could scarcely believe it was out of season. From him we got the year's very first asparagus. When? Always in time for our New Year's live celebration! After that we could count on the supply until the end of February, when the first of the California crop came in. His hothouse tomatoes, served in the middle of winter, were as fine of flavor and as meaty as the tomatoes of midsummer. He even had melons from February to May, big juicy ones larger than cantaloupes, with sweet pink flesh. But in spite of the excellence of these out-of-season produces, I must admit that I still like best the vegetables that come along through the year, each kind in its season.

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