This is a spectacularly pretty dish that tastes as good as it looks. I have tried making it without jellied consommé, but with no success. Others may find vegetarian gelling agents like agar agar work for them, but they do not work for me. I also think the flavour of beef consommé works particularly well with beetroot.
I have railed against foetal as opposed to baby vegetables elsewhere, but this is one occasion when you can let your purse strings go, and your imagination run riot as you buy up as many pristine tiny vegetables as you can lay your hands on: courgettes, cauliflower florets, carrots, French beans, mange-touts or sugar snaps. You are looking for variety rather than quantity. Supermarkets sell baby vegetables in small packs. Buy only one of each, excluding those imported baby sweetcorn cobs, which taste of nothing and are really pointless.
Serve with crème fraîche into which you have grated horseradish or stirred a little harissa, the fiery North-African pepper sauce.
Prepare the beetroots: if they are uncooked, boil them in lots of lightly salted water until tender (which can take anything from 30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on how large they are). Drain, refresh and peel while still warm, reserving the peelings. If the beetroots are large, cut them into neat chunks about the size of the baby vegetables.
Prepare the other vegetables: trim and peel them as appropriate. Blanch the vegetables separately in lots of boiling salted water and refresh in cold water ( for times and a detailed description of blanching vegetables).
If using, peel and grate the horseradish. Stir this or the harissa into the crème fraîche (harissa is very spicy, so go carefully).
Put the beetroot peelings (with carrot tops if you have bought untrimmed carrots) into a saucepan with the consommé. Simmer these together for 15 minutes - the consommé will take on a deep purple colour from the trimmings. Pass through a sieve and put to cool, discarding the tops and trimmings. Adjust the seasoning when cold. (If using canned consommé, it will already be quite salty.)
Mix the blanched vegetables together and put into a soup tureen or, for maximum effect, arrange in individual bowls. Add the beetroot last to prevent it discolouring the rest of the vegetables and spoon over the consommé.
Chill in the fridge until set (at least 2 hours).
Spoon some of the flavoured crème fraîche over the tureen or individual bowls and garnish with chervil leaves or chopped chives.
© 1993 Alastair Little and Richard Whittington estate. All rights reserved.