Saturday, January 12, 2008

Creating Elegant Vegetarian Dishes

I love it when I just stumble onto a food event. And that's what happened to me today as I was shopping at Union Square in San Francisco. I walked by the Williams-Sonoma store and noticed a sign outside about a free cooking demonstration by Millennium's executive chef Eric Tucker. The demo started at noon and it was almost 12:25 p.m. so I ran up the three flights of stairs (you know, they're very grand but a bit too much when you're in a rush) and got there as Tucker was almost finishing up demonstration a salad dish.

Tucker has gained a lot of attention for the exquisite dishes he prepares at Millennium restaurant, one of the premier vegetarian restaurants in town. Apparently, he also offers some cooking classes in his kitchen. But today he was at the Williams-Sonoma flagship store. I love the third-floor kitchen demo area.

Here's the plated salad he demonstrated first. It's a grilled Belgian endive salad with pink grapefruit and blood oranges with a creamy garlic tarragon "Ranch" dressing. The salad was a bit warm, so I didn't find it as enjoyable. But the creamy dressing was nice and it really highlighted the season's vegetables, especially with the citrus.

Tucker's main demonstration was a vegetable gumbo. Some of the ingredients that would be going in were the above root vegetables. I liked the carrots to the right. They're actually an interesting purple color. Tucker says this is the original carrots before man got involved and pumped up the beta carotene to make carrots orange. So this is like an heirloom carrot because it's how carrots should be. I'm going to look for these at the farmers market because it looks so cool.

Tucker shows the inside of the purple carrot, which is this interesting yellow color. That carrot just amazes me again and again.

Tucker works on the roux that will thicken his gumbo. Just listening to him talk about his ingredients when cooking for the restaurant, it reminds me why I'm not a vegetarian. Don't get me wrong, I admire people who can sustain themselves with food from the Earth that don't add more stress on this planet. So I applaud them. But it is a lot of work. For example, Tucker made his roux from some kind of corn flour because wheat flour could be bad for restaurant eaters who are allergic to gluten. He also used a vegetable stock that he made sure doesn't include mushrooms because some people are allergic to that as well. Tucker actually is not a vegetarian. He does eat meat, although it's primarily an accent to the vegetables on his dish.

This is a can of pimenton, which is the Spanish smoked peppers. I use it often in making my paella. Tucker used it to give that spicy flavor for his gumbo because he knows his gumbo won't have all the traditional ingredients like andouille sausages and shrimp. So he has to imitate the taste with herbs and spices.

This is a garnish for his gumbo. Tucker grilled some mushrooms that were simply brushed with some olive oil and seasoned. He's actually planning to be in Sonoma on Sunday hunting for chanterelles. Sounds fun.

Here's Tucker's finished vegetable gumbo. It was really simple, just prepping all the vegetables and cooking them all down. I retyped his recipe below if you're interested.

Almost time to taste test!

Here's my sample taste of Tucker's vegetable gumbo. It didn't remind me of gumbo because I miss the sausage and shrimp, but it was very tasty. What I loved about it was the rich, full-bodied flavor. I was amazed he could achieve that without any meat or bones for the stock. I don't know if I'll be able to replicate that taste at home because I'm sure it comes from his stock that he makes at his restaurant. It's a simple vegetable stock but I'm sure they have such rich, complex vegetables added in that I'm sure that's why his stock has such body.

It was fun watching this top tier chef in action. I'm glad I kept my eyes open as I was shopping today. If you're a vegetarian or just simply like good food, you should check out Tucker's cooking at Millennium at 580 Geary St. near the theater district.

Winter Root Vegetable Gumbo
Copyright by Eric Tucker, executive chef, Millennium Restaurant
Makes 6 to 8 servings

2 cup rutabaga, peeled large dice
2 cup celery root, large dice
1 cup yellow onion, medium dice
1 cup carrot, medium dice
1 cup celery, medium dice
4 cloves garlic, minced
olive oil
2 bay leaves
1 t oregano, toasted
1 t thyme, toasted
1 t paprika, toasted
2 T can tomato paste
1 cup diced tomato
1/4 cup red wine
1.5 quart vegetable stock
2 T dry hijiki (sea vegetable)
3 T corn flour roux, (dark)
1 t gumbo file (optional)
salt to taste
black pepper to taste
cayenne or hot sauce of choice to taste

In a large heavy bottom pot, over medium-high heat, sweat down onion and garlic until lightly caramelized. Add rutabega, celery root, celery, carrot, and bay leaf. Continue to cook until tender. Add all spices, cook for 3 minutes; deglaze with wine.

Add the tomato paste, tomato and stock and hijiki. Simmer for 30 minutes. Slowly whisk in the roux, simmer another 10 minutes.

Note from Chef Ben: I see that in Tucker's recipe above, he didn't really explain the corn flour roux. But it's really simple. All you do is slowly blend some corn flour with some olive oil so that you have a nice thick liquid. Make enough to blend in with your gumbo.

Also, another major point Tucker made that I really thought was important is he toasts all his spices used. It was very aromatic when he toasted the combination in a small pan. The heat releases the oils in the spices, making them better for your cooking.

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