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Odd, but worth a try

19 October 2012

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FRANCES LINCOLN's books are nothing if not beautiful, and The Art of Cooking with Vegetables, by Alain Passard*, is no exception. The facing page to each recipe is an eye-popping collage by the chef himself: an impression of colour, shape, and rhythm to set the creative juices of any cook flowing.

Here is the list of ingredients for Red beetroot with lavender and crushed blackberries (serves 4):

4 medium beetroots, uncooked
flowers from a sprig of lavender
a bowl of ripe blackberries
40g (1½ oz) of lightly salted butter
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
leaves from 4 sprigs of basil, preferably purple
½ litre (17½ fl. oz) whole milk
salt, if desired

I bought cooked beetroots, peeled them, and set them aside. I melted the butter over a low heat, adding the blackberries, crushing them with a fork after a few minutes. I stirred in the soy, vinegar, and basil leaves, then left it all to stew for four to five minutes over the lowest heat.

But then: "Bring the milk just to boiling point," Passard writes, "then whisk to emulsify it, preferably using a stick-type immersion whisk." I did all that, but it was still milk, not "sauce", as Passard call it; and the blackberries were already runny.

To assemble, pour the blackberry mixture into the bottom of a warmed dish, slice and arrange the beetroot on top, "then spoon some of the sauce over the beetroots, and drizzle the remainder over the blackberries." First, it was still milk, not sauce; and, second, the blackberries were under the beetroot. Finally, he says, sprinkle the lavender flowers on top.

I chose to add only a small portion of the milk. The revelation was how lovely the rest was without it: aromatic, and surprisingly savoury.

Many of the other recipes are for decidedly odd combinations, and, if you are not a chef in the south of France, some demanding ones. But I very much liked a Brittany-style ratatouille, the difference being in the use of butter rather than olive oil, and soy sauce to give depth of flavour. Serving the ratatouille with accompanying raw tomatoes and courgettes as a contrast of texture and flavour worked brilliantly.

Another of the simpler and winning combinations is Spinach, steamed and buttered, layered with carrots that had been cooked in a frying pan in butter and orange juice, and the whole seasoned with grated nutmeg and toasted sesame seeds, the coup de grâce being Confits de citron.

To make the confit - a delicious garnish for almost anything - slice a lemon very finely. Place the slices in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and cover with 30g (1 oz) of sugar (I use honey) and the juice of another lemon. Cook them very slowly, until the sugar has melted and the lemon slices are syrupy and tender.

*The Art of Cooking with Vegetables, by Alain Passard, is published by Frances Lincoln at £20 (CT Bookshop £18); 978-0-71123-335-5.

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