One thinks of a stew most often as a variety of foodstuffs cooked together in sauce; the Lyonnais barboton, whose preparation, but for the absence of meat, is that of a simple meat stew (potatoes lent relief by onion, garlic, often a bit of tomato, and a bouquet garni, gently cooked in a lightly roux-thickened bouillon), or the genial ratatouille, whose vegetables, intact but purée-tender, are cloaked in a syrupy reduction of their own abundant juices, correspond nicely to that concept.
The subtle structure of harmonies drawn from a combination of tender young vegetables cooked (or, to be more accurate, sweated) together with butter (or olive oil or a combination) in a heavy, tightly covered vessel, each added, raw or precooked, at a specific moment corresponding to its own needs, the complexity of savory autonomies butter-bound in an amalgam of their own fragrances, accented by the caress of an herb or two—a melting, shimmering balance of separateness and unity in fragile suspension—is quite another thing and many have claimed that it deserves to be dignified by another name: estouffade de primeurs, potée printanière, jardinière à l’étouffé, and I know not what have been suggested as possibilities. None, in any case, can touch the succulent beauty of the thing and ragoût it must remain.
The composition of these stews depends on the season and on whim and, insofar as they are never twice identical, one must, each time, more or less “feel” one’s way through the preparation, adjusting the heat, shortening or lengthening the cooking time, and, if the chosen vegetables fail to furnish enough liquid of their own, adding a couple of spoonfuls of water or white wine at one or several points. The cooking time may vary from about 45 minutes in all to 1¼ hours or so. Small whole onions (or, lacking that, 1 or 2 large sweet onions, finely sliced or coarsely chopped) should always be present (I always add unpeeled garlic cloves—some readers may prefer to overlook that ingredient). Tender young peas or broad beans—each bean peeled—are particularly attractive additions, and if savory is added, the combination will assume a special meaning (if only dried savory is available, add it to the bouquet—tender spring or early summer leaves may be finely chopped and mixed with the parsley garnish). Under different circumstances, fines herbes, fresh marjoram, or fresh basil are valuable additions. A garnish of artichoke bottoms, butter-cooked apart and filled with a fine, buttered purée of peas or broad beans, can lend variety to the textures and style to the presentation.
Young artichoke hearts, onions, unpeeled garlic cloves, lettuce or sorrel chiffonade, tender, crisp turnips, carrots, and cauliflower flowerets (if delicate enough to eat raw) count among the vegetables that should be added at the beginning. Mature artichokes or split hearts of bulb fennel should be first parboiled for about 10 minutes and added at this time also. Some 20 minutes before removing from the heat, add the raw peas or broad beans (but, if so tender as to be edible in their raw state, 10 minutes will do—in either case, a bit of water should be added at the same time and the heat intensified somewhat, for they cook by steaming), the parboiled flowerets of cauliflower that is too strongly flavored to be eaten raw, or the parboiled lengths of leek whites. Then, 5 to 10 minutes before, add the rapidly sautéed mushrooms; parboiled, but firm, asparagus tips; snow peas (their edges carefully trimmed to eliminate strings) parboiled for hardly a minute; small, firm zucchini, sliced coin-thin and sautéed for 5 or 6 minutes over a high flame. Small, fresh green beans should be cooked in a large quantity of rapidly boiling water for from 8 to 12 minutes—until barely tender—and tossed in with the other vegetables only at the moment the butter is swirled in just before serving.
The ragoût is perfect as a first course, an intermediate course, or a garnish. I usually serve it after a first course, first to be savored alone and uncomplicated by the presence of meat flavors; then it acts as either a unique or a supplementary garnish to a roast. A choice of from 5 to 7 vegetables is best—with too many, one tends to lose one’s bearings. To attempt to serve such a stew otherwise than directly from its cooking vessel would only entail a loss of valuable heat without improving the presentation.
A large copper low-sided saucepan or an earthenware poëlon, these materials absorbing heat slowly, regularly, and holding it for long, are the ideal receptacles. If working with a direct flame, an asbestos pad should be used to disperse the heat. One may begin at high heat—no longer than the time necessary to heat the vessel—before turning it low.
The ingredients below would serve from 4 to 6 people.