WASHINGTON — Bertrand Chemel didn’t always like vegetables.
The executive chef of Falls Church’s 2941 restaurant admits he wasn’t a fan of them growing up in central France — likely because he never had them properly prepared.
His mother worked and made the family meals ahead of time to reheat in the evening. While the approach was ideal for planning purposes, Chemel says it wasn’t always optimal for the greens, which were often soggy and overcooked.
“And I realized at my first job in the kitchen, when I saw spinach and cooked it for just one minute and it tasted so good — it’s so different,” he says.
But you’d never suspect Chemel’s early aversion to vegetables now. Every Monday night, he whips up eight courses of nothing but vegetables, prepared and presented in ways that are often new to diners — like fried Brussels sprouts with truffle aioli and Parmesan cheese, and shiitake dumplings served with a mushroom consommé.
Chemel, who launched 2941’s weekly vegetarian tasting menu in October, says he decided to do so because a lot of his guests were asking for a vegetarian version of the traditional tasting menu.
“I realized that 30 to 35 percent of the guests actually [opted] for the vegetarian tasting menu while not necessarily being a vegetarian,” he says, adding that he always obliged these requests and served up spontaneous meatless menus.
An overall interest in vegetables is something the chef, formerly of New York’s acclaimed Daniel, has seen intensify in recent years. And he gives much of the credit to the uptick in farmers markets, which put fresh and seasonal ingredients at the fingertips of the everyday home cook.
The new tasting menu at 2941 highlights and celebrates vegetables, but Chemel says “vegetarian” should not be mistaken for “light.”
“It’s not low-calorie. You’ll be full at the end of the meal. It’s not like having a tiny little [serving] of vegetables.”
Over the years, Chemel’s mastered a thing or two when it comes to vegetables — and he has some tips on how to make them at home.
Butternut squash is one of the most popular varieties of produce this time of year, and it’s also one of the easiest to prepare. Chemel says you don’t even need a vegetable peeler or a giant knife.
To start, take the whole squash and cover it with olive oil. Poke a few holes in the vegetable with a knife, wrap it up in foil, and set it on top of a bed of salt on a baking sheet. Then, pop the squash in a 350 to 400 degree-oven for about 45 minutes.
Chemel says when the squash cooks whole, the flavors intensify as it heats up, and the natural liquids inside the butternut squash steam the vegetable.
“You’re going to get a great flavor. You can wrap it with some rosemary and sage, and then when it’s cooked, cut it in half and just scoop it out.”
At the restaurant, he likes to serve butternut squash in soup form, with apple cider compote and cardamom gelee. Chemel says this recipe (see below) is also simple enough to prepare at home — and perfect for Thanksgiving.
Chemel also likes to use kabocha squash this time of the year. Unlike the butternut squash, he cuts the vegetable in half, scoops out the seeds, brushes it with olive oil and roasts it until soft. Then, he purées the squash and adds it to sautéed mushrooms, Meyer lemon and pasta for a quick and flavorful weeknight meal.
Another simple and savory favorite of Chemel’s is his caramelized eggplant and tomato pie with puff pastry crust and whipped rosemary goat cheese cream.
To start, caramelize a Japanese eggplant using olive oil. Chemel says to avoid the larger, American eggplants because they absorb too much oil.
Then, drain a small can of San Marzano tomatoes and squeeze out the excess juice from the tomatoes before adding them to the eggplant. (Give them a rough chop if the tomatoes are too large.) Add rosemary, thyme, salt and pepper, and let the vegetables cook together “until it becomes a bit dense,” Chemel says.
Coat an individual casserole dish or ramekin with butter or olive oil and fill it with the cooked eggplant and tomato mixture.
Using homemade or store-bought puff pastry dough, top the ramekin with a circular cutout from the dough and bake at 350 degrees until the pastry puffs up and is golden brown.
For a final touch, whip together goat cheese, a touch of cream and rosemary, and add a dollop to the top of the warm pastry.
These pies are tasty enough to be on the Thanksgiving table, or the star of your next Meatless Monday meal.
Recipe: Chef Chemel’s Butternut Squash Soup with Apple Cider Compote and Cardamom Gelee
- 4 ounces butter (clarified)
- 7 ounces onion (sliced)
- 1 ounce ginger
- 7 pounds butternut squash (cleaned and diced)
- 4.5 ounces lemongrass (chopped)
- 1 can of coconut milk
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 tablespoon curry powder
- ½ ounce butter
- 2 ½ quarts water
Add the water and heavy cream. In a small sauce pot, melt the clarified butter. Add the lemongrass and sauté for about four minutes, then add the curry powder and coconut milk. Cook for five minutes and process in a blender until everything is chopped very well. Pass through a sieve and keep the liquid.
Apple cider compote:
- 6 Gala or 4 Honeycrisp apples
- 1 tablespoon grapeseed oil
- ½ cup apple cider
For the gelée:
- 0.4 ounces gelatin sheet or powder (if powder, add 1 ounce cold water)
- ¼ teaspoon cardamom powder
- 2 cups apple cider
Peel the apples and cut into 1-inch pieces. Sauté the apple in a medium saute pan at high heat, until light brown. Deglaze with the apple cider and cook slowly until the apples are very soft and dry.
Blend the apples in a food processor, to obtain a smooth purée. Soak the gelatin sheets in cold water until soft. Bring ¼ cup of the apple cider to a boil. Add the gelatin and cook for about one minute to dissolve the gelatin correctly.
Mix the gelatin with the remaining apple cider, add the cardamom and set aside on ice. Emulsify the liquid with a hand blender for about six to 10 minutes. Set the gelée aside on ice.