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Vegetables: What Spain’s Most Creative Chefs Are Obsessed with Now

A post-Ferran Adrià generation of chefs is forsaking luxe beef and pricey seafood and turning its attention to potatoes, carrots, beets and other humble vegetables.

Andoni Luis Aduriz, the thirtysomething, Michelin two-starred genius at Mugaritz restaurant near San Sebastián, is a cult figure among Europe’s young avant-garde chefs, an innovator famous for collaborating with a medical pathologist to research the DNA of foie gras. Yet when I caught up with him recently, he couldn’t stop talking about potatoes. Potatoes!

Aduriz is not alone among Spain’s high-minded chefs in shifting his attention to vegetables. The current emphasis on tubers and greens is a new development in carnivorous and seafood-centric Spain, where fancy menus revolve around ibérico pigs and spiny lobsters. Last spring, the influential Spanish food critic Rafael García Santos convened an international culinary congress entitled Vive las Verduras, or Hail to the Vegetables. Luminaries such as France’s vegetable king, Alain Passard of Paris’s L’Arpège, Grant Achatz of Chicago’s Alinea and Spain’s Ferran Adrià of El Bulli outside Barcelona were all in attendance at the congress, which took place in Pamplona in the Navarra region. Alfonso Iaccarino of Italy’s Don Alfonso 1890 transfixed his audience with low-tech tips on canning tomatoes grown in his native Campania. Brazilian superchef Alex Atala provocatively discussed fermentation and how chestnuts could be transformed into an uncanny version of cheese. Spain’s wunderkind Quique Dacosta, of El Poblet in Alicante, chatted about embryonic sprouts. The post-congress buzz was all about vegetables as the culinary focus of the future.

Spain’s kitchens might be increasingly produce-crazy, but the country wouldn’t be the capital of progressive cuisine if its chefs were content to simply source an heirloom tomato and drizzle it with olive oil. Fascinated by method and scientific research, the post-Adrià generation is putting its own stamp on vegetables, proving that “molecular” and “locavore” aren’t necessarily contradictory terms. To check out this trend, I plotted a trip that began in San Sebastián and continued to Navarra, a fertile region south of Basque country that’s the epicenter of Spain’s new vegetable cocina.

Andoni Luis Aduriz: Spain’s Premier Vegetable Innovator

When I arrived at Mugaritz, near San Sebastián, Aduriz outlined his philosophy for me as we sat in the glassed-in dining room surrounded by the fields that supply his kitchen’s edible flowers and grasses. “Diners tend to idealize luxury proteins,” he said. “But in our globalized world, those have become nothing more than empty status symbols.” Wagyu beef is shipped in from Japan, lobster from Ireland. Local vegetables, on the other hand, retain their personality, their connections to terroir and to the farmer. “Isn’t that the ultimate luxury?” Aduriz mused.

I was about to remark that farm-to-table cuisine is nothing new to Americans when a waiter placed two stark white bowls on the table. One held a smooth garlic aioli for dipping; the other contained purplish-white orbs that resembled rarefied Japanese stones. These were Aduriz’s famous potatoes, which he’d spent a year researching and perfecting with his pharmacist sister, using a nutrient-rich, edible white clay called kaolin. To obtain the fantastical result, Aduriz dips little boiled Basque spuds in a mix of kaolin and lactose—which makes the coating smooth—then dries them at low heat until a brittle coating forms. Aduriz serves the potatoes in a bowl, among real stones. When I bit into one, the eggshell-thin casing dissolved into the sweet, meltingly tender flesh. I could see what Aduriz meant about luxury.

More thrilling courses followed. Recently, Aduriz has been reworking traditional presentations by using proteins as a garnish for vegetables. A confetti of barely cooked baby squid decorated a stunning composition of miniscule carrots—some as slender as threads—afloat in a transparent squid broth strewn with delicate white- carrot blossoms. The carrots had been vacuum-poached with cinnamon and green Sicilian clay in a Gastrovac, the current It gizmo. Beets, or rather their concentrated juices, were blown into dramatic pink bubbles with the aid of xanthan gum and a water pump normally used for aquariums. (For Aduriz, even pet shops are inspiring.) “I’m not here to shock diners with a blue peach,” he declared. “My aim is to present something completely familiar in a new light.”

Koldo Rodero: Blending High-Tech and Homegrown

The next morning, I was treated to a chlorophyll tutorial courtesy of chef Koldo Rodero, whose Rodero restaurant is the best in Pamplona (Navarra’s picturesque capital, where Hemingway ran with the bulls). “Oxidation is the bane of local vegetables like artichokes and cardoons,” Rodero proclaimed. To help produce keep its original bright colors, Rodero researched the chemical composition of various waters and stumbled on the following secret: Water with a high magnesium content can keep green vegetables from browning. Now Rodero imports magnesium-rich spring water to his kitchen from a nearby town. Running water—just about any tap water—can also brighten the color of the vegetables, said Rodero, who’d never insult his luminous tender chokes with a lemon or vinegar bath. Cleaning artichokes with a sharp paring knife (“Always cut—scraping promotes oxidation”), the chef put them in a tubful of water and left the tap running. After 10 minutes they were still perfectly green (I’m still trying to figure out why).

Happy to have learned such a basic trick, I repaired to the handsome wood-paneled dining room for Rodero’s revolutionary revuelto de setas. Spaniards adore this classic egg-and-wild-mushroom scramble, but Rodero considers it the world’s ugliest dish. And so, in a makeover worthy of a reality show, he deconstructed the revuelto into an airy egg custard and mushroom sauté. After covering the dish with porcini gelée and edible gold leaf, he sends it, glittering, to the table. Another of the meal’s standouts was a chilled tomato soup garnished with white-tomato sorbet and “tears”: sage-infused capsules made with sodium alginate. Rodero’s vegetable dishes represent what he called “the cuisine of the third road”—a compelling blend of the high-tech and the homegrown.

Nicolás Jimenez: Vegetable Neotraditionalist

Navarra is famous for its fat white asparagus, artichokes, favas, the leafy green borage, buttery fresh-off-the-vine white beans called pochas and, of course, for those blazing-red, pointy piquillo peppers grown in the town of Lodosa. While old-school Navarrese restaurants still boil their vegetables to a gray mess, Restaurante Túbal, a neotraditional vegetable mecca on the main square of Tafalla, a bustling provincial town, updates regional cooking. Though Túbal’s 33-year-old chef, Nicolás Jimenez, had worked at the Michelin three-starred Arzak in San Sebastián, he’s just as influenced by his energetic mother, Atxen, who runs the front of the house. “Spanish diners are getting bored with avanguardia,” Atxen said with a conspiratorial wink, as if to explain why she and Nicolás ignore avant-garde techniques and devote their attention to updating vernacular favorites.

At Túbal, Jimenez transforms the classic—and usually tragically overcooked—vegetable stew called menestra de verduras into an iridescent-green still life of artichokes, green beans and spinach. Each vegetable is precisely blanched before being finished with a sauce made with olive oil and cured ham. Jimenez is just as impressive with a dish of almond-dusted fried artichokes, porcini and shrimp, as well as the luscious low-temperature-poached egg, enveloped in a paper-thin potato-confit shell, then deep-fried and set on a bed of piquillo peppers.

More piquillos were in store for me that evening at the counters of Pamplona’s hopping tapas bars, including Baserri’s simple, elegant piquillo carpaccio drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar and sprinkled with grated cheese.

Enrique Martinez: Passionate Chef-farmer

The next day, I had lunch at Maher, a restaurant attached to a small hotel in the nondescript town of Cintruénigo, an hour south of Pamplona. Chef-owner Enrique Martinez is Navarra’s most famous chef, but his great passion is farming; he cultivates vegetables on his family’s lush property. Before lunch, he drove me to his fields to admire the endless rows of scarlet tomatoes and peppers, artichoke bushes and curly borage and chicory. Like Rodero, Martinez swears by the power of cooking water but takes it even further, collaborating with a science lab to research and customize different waters to suit particular vegetables. (For pochas, for instance, he insists on water purged of calcium.) Martinez also uses a clever cooking method that he calls condensación: Vegetables are sealed in a glass container and left alongside a hot griddle to cook in the vapor that condenses in the jar. “Only a preparation so gentle can preserve all the precious flavors and vitamins,” Martinez explained.

Back at Maher, the meal’s opening course—buttery, delicate grumillo- lettuce hearts Martinez had just picked—was divine slathered with a light onion cream sauce and a silvery garnish of marinated mackerel. Artichokes were served in their emerald-colored cooking water with slivers of smoked eel and a dash of truffle oil. An ethereal pochas stew was a base for confited octopus accented with spicy guindilla chiles. But it was a plate of simple grilled red peppers that made me happiest. They were pimientos de cristal, a rare heirloom variety that Martinez has resurrected. With their silken, paper-thin flesh and startlingly concentrated sweet-tangy flavor, cristal is heralded as “the next piquillo” in Spain. The pimientos went perfectly with a Navarra rosé from Bodegas Chivite, whose owner was holding court at the next table.

Over coffee, it occurred to me that even after a decade of visits to Spain, this was the first time I didn’t gorge on chuletas (rib eyes), cigalas (spiny lobsters) and futuristic foie gras bonbons. Did I miss them? Not for a second.

Food and travel writer Anya von Bremzen’s latest book is The New Spanish Table.

Published May 2008
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