Mixed Vegetable Stew

Ragoût de Légumes

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.

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Ingredients

  • ½ cup butter (in all)
  • 1 pound walnut-size white spring onions (or small garnish onions), peeled
  • 1 head garlic, cloves cleansed of superficial loose husk, but unpeeled
  • 6 medium-size tender artichokes, pared, quartered, chokes removed
  • Bouquet garni (celery branch, parsley, bay leaf, thyme, other herbs to taste)
  • 1 medium head tender, leafy lettuce (Boston, for instance), coarsely shredded
  • Salt
  • 1 pound small firm zucchini, sliced thinly
  • Pepper
  • Chopped parsley (finely chopped fresh marjoram added if available)

Method

Melt about 3 tablespoons butter, add the onions, the garlic cloves, and the artichoke quarters (they should be pared at the last moment and added as they are ready, turned around in the butter, coating all surfaces to protect them from contact with air, which rapidly blackens them—if you are not accustomed to working rapidly, best do them just ahead of time, adding the quarters immediately to olive oil and, subsequently, cutting down on the amount of butter used in the cooking), embed the bouquet at the heart of things, scatter over the lettuce chiffonade, sprinkle with salt, cover tightly, and leave to sweat, cooking ever so gently, tossing from time to time (or stirring with a wooden spoon), for about ½ hour. Check the onions and the artichokes for their degree of doneness and note the moisture—there should be just the suggestion of a slightly syrupy juice. If the heat has not been too high, the lettuce, normally, provides enough liquid without a further addition, but if the vegetables are cooking in fat only and in danger of coloring, add a couple of tablespoonsful of liquid, shaking the contents of the pan gently. Depending on the degree of doneness, the zucchini may be put to cook now or somewhat later: Sauté them, tossing very often, over a high flame, in a fairly large omelet-type pan with a couple of tablespoons of butter for 5 or 6 minutes—or until all are just tender and a number lightly colored. Add to the other vegetables when they are melting tender and leave, covered, for the flavors to intermingle for another 5 or 10 minutes. Taste for salt, pepper generously, and, away from the heat, add the remaining butter, cut into small pieces or dabs, swirling or gently stirring the contents until it is absorbed into the juices, forming a slight sauce. Sprinkle with the parsley and optional marjoram, return the lid, and serve. It is best to count an approximate hour for the cooking.

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