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Steaming bowls of monkfish with garlic aïoli. Plates of soft cheese and rabbit pâté. Cassoulet thick with white beans and pork sausage.
France is renowned for its cuisine, but so much of it is meat-based. What will a French chef do when challenged to make a vegetarian dinner for two for less than $15?
Chef Patrice Olivon—who grew up in Provence, cooked at the Embassy of France and the White House, and now teaches at L’Academie de Cuisine—agreed to give it a whirl. Not including standard pantry items—sugar, flour, olive oil—this vegetarian feast can’t exceed $15.
At the grocery store, Olivon studies the produce section and debates a rainbow of options—oblong purple eggplants, bright-green apples, red bell peppers, bright-orange carrots, and curly mounds of green kale. He carefully chooses an eggplant, an apple, a cucumber, a red onion, and a bunch of oyster mushrooms before snagging chocolate, cream, and a few other ingredients.
Back at my apartment, Olivon peels and dices the apple, chops the onion, and slices the eggplant. He blends the apple, ginger, and cucumber for a chilled soup. He sautés the onion, grills the eggplant and zucchini, and pan-fries the mushrooms. He often cooks vegetables, he tells me, but usually as a side.
Olivon whisks together cornmeal, cumin, salt, and water in a saucepan over the stove until it forms a thick, rich polenta. Then he rolls it out between two plastic sheets and places it in the fridge. When the polenta is cool, he uses the bottom of a ramekin to cut out four circles and begins to build: Atop a circle of polenta, he carefully layers the eggplant, mushrooms, onion, and zucchini before sandwiching it with a second round of polenta.
While the vegetable napoleons bakes, Olivon sets to work on dessert—a rich chocolate mousse. He melts dark and milk chocolate together. He whisks egg yolks, sugar, and a little water until the mixture is thick and falls from the whisk like a ribbon. He combines the chocolate and egg mixtures until they form a mousse, then gently rolls the result with a spoon to form a soft mound of chocolate that he tops with powdered sugar.
Finally, we sit down to a chilled apple-and-cucumber soup, subtly spicy layers of polenta and grilled vegetables, and a sweet chocolate mousse. The only answer to the question of whether a French chef can dish up a vegetarian dinner on a budget is bien sûr!
Recipes serve two.
Chilled Apple-and-Cucumber Soup With Ginger
¾ teaspoon unsalted butter
¼ cup peeled and diced Granny Smith apples
Pinch of sugar
2 cups peeled and diced cucumber
½ teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon chopped fresh ginger
4 fresh mint leaves
Salt to taste
White pepper to taste
Finely diced cucumber and watermelon for garnish
In a sauté pan over medium heat, melt the butter and sauté the apples with a pinch of sugar until they’re just soft. Transfer the sautéed apple to a blender and add the rest of the ingredients. Blend everything together at high speed until smooth. Adjust the seasoning to taste with lemon juice, salt, and white pepper. For a soup with a smoother texture, pass it through a fine-mesh strainer.
Refrigerate the soup for one hour before serving.
Garnish with finely diced cucumber and watermelon.
¾ cup water
3 tablespoons cornmeal (finely or coarsely ground)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
1 eggplant, peeled and cut into 1⁄8-inch slices
1 small zucchini or yellow squash cut into 1⁄8-inch slices
¼ onion cut into 1⁄8-inch slices
2 tablespoons olive oil plus more for brushing the vegetables
1 small tomato cut into 1⁄8-inch slices
½ cup oyster mushrooms, cleaned with a damp paper towel, hard bottom of stems removed
1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
Salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Fresh basil for garnish
Place the water in a medium-size pot and bring to a boil. Add the cornmeal to the boiling water and whisk quickly to avoid lumps. Cook the cornmeal for 1 minute, then remove the pot from the heat. Add the butter and let it melt. Season the polenta with salt and cumin. Line a small baking pan with plastic wrap. Pour the polenta into the pan and cover with another sheet of plastic wrap. Flatten the polenta with a rolling pin until it’s ½ inch thick—you can lift the sandwiched polenta to gauge its thickness. Place the pan in the refrigerator to cool.
Light a grill or heat a grill pan over high heat. Brush the eggplant, zucchini or squash, and onion with olive oil and season with salt. Grill the vegetables over high heat for about 1 minute per side. Be careful to not overcook the vegetables on the grill. Remove and set aside.
In a medium sauté pan set over high heat, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil until it shimmers. Add the tomatoes to the pan and quickly sauté them for 30 seconds. Remove them from the pan and set aside.
Heat the second tablespoon of olive oil in the same sauté pan over high heat until it shimmers. Add the mushrooms and quickly sauté. Remove the mushrooms from the heat and season them with salt and black pepper.
Assemble the napoleons: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Remove the polenta from the refrigerator. With a cookie cutter, cut the polenta into 4 circles 4 to 5 inches in diameter. Place two circles on a baking pan. Top each with a spoonful of canned tomato sauce. Stack the grilled vegetables and mushrooms on top of the sauce, adding a little bit of sauce between the layers as desired. Top off the vegetables with the third and fourth circles of polenta. Place the napoleons in the oven and bake for at least 5 minutes.
To serve the napoleons, pour some hot tomato sauce in the center of each plate. Place each napoleon on top of the sauce. Garnish each with a leaf of fresh basil and serve immediately.
4 ounces milk chocolate
2 ounces dark chocolate
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
½ teaspoon water
Shavings of milk and dark chocolate for garnish
Confectioner’s sugar for garnish
Set a little bit of each type of chocolate aside for garnishing the plates. With a chef’s knife, chop the milk chocolate and dark chocolate into small pieces, then place them into a stainless-steel mixing bowl of an electric mixer.
In a small pot set over high heat, bring the heavy cream to a boil. Pour the cream over the chocolate. With a whisk, mix the chocolate and cream together until they’re well incorporated. Add the vanilla, then set the chocolate ganache aside to cool.
Set up a double boiler over medium heat. Place the egg yolks into a stainless steel bowl, then add the sugar and water. Making sure the water doesn’t boil, whisk the egg yolks, sugar, and water constantly for 5 minutes or until the mixture becomes sticky. Add the egg mixture to the chocolate and mix well. Place the delice into the refrigerator and chill until cold.
Before serving, place the mixing bowl containing the cold delice onto an electric mixer. Whisk the delice at low speed until soft peaks form, taking care not to overmix because it might separate. The delice should be firm enough to scoop like a mousse.
With an ice-cream scoop, place a scoop of chocolate delice onto each dessert plate. For a fancier presentation, fill a pastry bag fitted with a star tip with the delice, then pipe it onto each plate. Shave the reserved chocolate with a grater, then use it to garnish the plates. Dust each plate with a little confectioner’s sugar and serve. It’s also good with your favorite cookies.