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Vegetarian Journal Nov/Dec 1998

Voila! Vegan Does French

by Nancy Berkoff

Check out the recipes!

At the end of the Dark Ages came a time of travel and exploring. Food was the common thread among the class of people who had the time and money to explore. Travel and war (unfortunately) brought culinary discoveries to different countries.

France has been thought to be the originator of the Western world's elegant cuisine. Actually, French chefs were able to take what they had learned in Italy, Spain, Russia, Germany, Switzerland, and yes, even the Americas (after all, potatoes, corn, tomatoes, and chocolate are all "New World" products which figure largely in French cuisine) and incorporate their ideas into culinary art. For example, did you know that the "florentine" (meaning a dish which contains spinach) flair of French cooking was a result of the marriage of the Italian Caterina de Medici to a French prince, or that Russian cuisine became more highly evolved even before French cuisine (they just had a problem balancing their revolutions with dinner time)?

Anne of Austria, wife of Louis XIII, was a Spanish Hapsburg and brought her Spanish cooks with her to France; it is said that her chefs introduced the concept of "roux" (equal parts fat and flour formed into a paste and used for thickening) to the French kitchen. How many of us realized that we knew how to make a roux, much less that we were cooking "French?" Brillat-Savarin was a French politician and gourmet who wrote "The Physiology of Taste" in the early 1800s. It is still read today. Careme was the founder of the "grande cuisine" and systematized the kitchen. His disciple, Escoffier, became a renowned chef and teacher, and his book, "Le Guide Culinaire," is used as a text and resource even today. Fernand Point was the chef/owner of La Pyramide in Vienne, France. In the 1930s he challenged the traditional, heavy French cuisine and began "nouvelle cuisine," with an accent on lighter foods, using regional, in-season ingredients.

So where does that leave the modern vegan who desires a bit of this cuisine? Understanding that French cuisine is based on fresh, regional, seasonal ingredients should help; also that many of the dishes were devised at a time when kitchens had little equipment.

The "fond" (foundation) of much of French cuisine is a good stock. Stock can be used to make sauces and soups, and to flavor dishes. Stock is meant to be aromatic without being overpowering. To make a good vegetable stock, saute fresh garlic and onions in a bit of olive oil (there's the Mediterranean influence). When they are soft, add carrots, mushrooms, celery, fennel, leeks, parsley stems, bay leaf, peppercorns, a shot of vermouth, and water. Allow to simmer for an hour and strain. Stock will keep for up to a week in the refrigerator or can be frozen. This particular stock can be used as a white or light stock, for delicately flavored dishes. For a brown or dark stock, add tomato product (paste, sauce, fresh tomatoes, etc.) and roasted vegetables.

Remember, French chefs are frugal. Stock should never cost much; so save scraps and peels to use. You can use almost any type of vegetable for stocks, remembering that the stock should be subtle in flavor, not overpowering (so leave out the Brussels sprouts).

After the stock, French cuisine relies on sauces. There are four leading sauces, from which many sauces can be made, with the addition of one or more ingredients. Espagnole (or brown) sauce is a combination of brown stock and roux; Veloute is white stock and roux; Tomate can be made from brown stock, tomato product, and roux; and Bechamel is nothing more than heated milk and roux, flavored with a "studded" onion (an onion pierced with whole cloves and bay leaf). These are all vegan do-able. Cold foods are dressed with sauces, such as vinaigrettes (mixtures of oil, vinegar, and seasonings), or with coulis (seasoned fruit or vegetable purees). An example of a savory coulis would be pureeing three different colors of roasted bell peppers and seasoning with basil and thyme; or a dessert coulis of pureed raspberries flavored with orange liqueur. Try a sauce chocolat by melting four ounces of semisweet or bittersweet chocolate with 4 ounces of water and allowing it to cook until a sauce texture is achieved.

A lot of French cookery is "touchy-feely." You must know your ingredients, how they interact and how they cook. For example, the classic French cassoulet is merely a stew of beans and tomatoes (we just heard a gasp from the chefs in the audience). The finesse of the chef is what has people coming back for more. A truly talented French chef can throw some fresh vegetables into a pan with some herbs and a little wine, serve that over some sliced potatoes and make a dish fit for a king.

French cuisine is, of course, regional. Some of the regions lean more to using a lot of fat in their dishes, but just as many use little fat and accent grains, veggies, breads and small portions. (P.S.: snacking is almost unheard of in France!)

Adopt a French kitchen attitude: Cook for maximum flavor, using the freshest high quality ingredients you can find. Respect the flavor of the ingredients and finesse them with herbs, spices, acids (vinegar, wine, citrus juice), and leave out the fat. Bon appetit!



Sauce Tomate

(serves 6)
French cuisine relies on interesting sauces for its distinctiveness. Make some for now and some for freezing.

2 Tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
4 garlic cloves, minced
3 1/2 pounds fresh tomato concasse (see note below)
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
10 basil leaves, finely chopped (fresh or frozen)

In a medium saucepan, heat oil. Add onion and saute until soft. Add garlic and tomatoes and cook on high heat until much of the liquid has evaporated, giving a slightly thick sauce. Season with pepper.

Remove from heat and stir in the basil. (If freezing is desired, do not add basil now; remove from freezer, bring to boil and then add basil.)

Note: Tomato concasse is made by blanching tomatoes for about a minute, shocking them in cold water, peeling and seeding them, and then cutting the tomato into small pieces. This reduces acidity and toughness found in the seeds and peels. Use the chopped pulp for sauces and soups, and the peels and seeds for stocks.
Total calories per serving: 105
Fat: 5 grams

Salade Nicoise Tofu

 (Serves 6)
Firm tofu adds the texture and the looks to this vegan version of the classic "nicoise." Use a high quality olive oil for maximum flavor.

1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
3 teaspoons mustard (Dijon gives a good flavor)
3 Tablespoons chopped parsley
2 1/2 cups (about 11/2 pounds) firm tofu, cubed into 1/2 inch pieces
1 pound fresh green beans, cut into 3-inch lengths
4 cups assorted baby lettuces
2 salad tomatoes, wedged
1 1/2 cups cooked white or baby lima beans, chilled
1/2 cup thinly sliced red onions
12 Nicoise or Kalamata (black) olives
1 Tablespoon capers
For dressing, mix all ingredients in a nonmetallic bowl until well combined. Cover and refrigerate until needed.
For salad: Place tofu cubes in a nonmetallic bowl, brush with a small amount of dressing and allow to marinate for at least one hour.
Grill marinated tofu on a barbecue grill for 4 minutes or broil for 5 minutes. Allow to cool.
Blanch green beans in boiling water for a minute; remove immediately from water and "shock" in cold water for 30 seconds. Drain.
To present: Arrange lettuce on six individual plates. Distribute tofu evenly among plates and decorate each plate with pieces of tomato, a scattering of green and white beans, several slices of onion, 2 olives, and several capers. Drizzle remaining dressing over salads or serve on the side.

Notes: Haricot vert (extremely thin, young green beans) are traditionally used. Try to get the thinnest, freshest beans (and even do an assortment of wax and green beans). Black olives are also a tradition with Nicoise. Experiment with various types.
Total calories per serving: 415
 Fat: 27 grams

Vegan Demi-glace

 (Serves 6)
Considered a leading sauce, demi-glace can stand on its own or be the start of many interesting sauces.

2 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 cup coarsely chopped carrots
1/2 cup coarsely chopped celery
1/4 cup coarsely chopped leeks
1 cup coarsely chopped onions
1/4 cup tomato paste
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/4 cups red wine, divided
1 bay leaf
2 quarts water or vegetable stock
1 teaspoon thyme
In a large saucepan, heat oil. Add all the vegetables and saute until the onions are a golden brown (about 6 minutes). Add the tomato paste and the garlic. Saute until the tomato paste is well combined with the vegetables. Add half the red wine and allow it to reduce by one third of the volume. Add the other half of the wine and allow to reduce by one third.
Add the bay leaf, water, and thyme. Bring to a simmer, and allow to reduce by half. Strain the sauce (this is a classic technique and is not mandatory). Serve hot, or refrigerate until ready to use.
Notes: Demi-glace is a reduction sauce; the texture and the concentrated flavor are achieved by allowing the liquid to cook off. Demi-glace is done when it coats the back of a spoon. If not thick enough, arrowroot dissolved in a little cold water can be added.
Total calories per serving: 80
Fat: 2 grams

Marinated Vegetable Brochette

 (Serves 6)
Marinating and grilling give this dish a lot of flavor and color. These can be served cold (imagine you are picnicking in Provence) or hot.
1 cup apple juice concentrate
1/4 cup orange juice concentrate
1/4 cup pineapple juice concentrate
2 Tablespoons vinegar
2 Tablespoons white wine
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon ground ginger
12 large button mushrooms
12 pieces bell pepper, cut into 1-inch squares
1/2 cup sliced carrots
12 cauliflower florets
12 broccoli florets
1/2 cup sliced summer squash
Combine all marinade ingredients in a nonmetallic bowl and allow to stand, covered and refrigerated, for one hour. Steam all vegetables and allow to cool.
Arrange vegetables on skewers, place skewers in marinade and allow to stand for at least 4 hours.
Grill, broil, or microwave brochettes and serve on a bed of couscous or seasoned whipped potatoes.
Total calories per serving: 135
Fat: 1 gram

Filet Charlemagne

(Serves 6)
The '90s version of this classic dish uses portobello mushrooms for the "filet."
3 Tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup finely chopped onions
2 cups finely chopped button mushrooms
2 teaspoons tomato paste
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
4 large portabello mushroom caps, washed
1 1/2 cups demi-glace (see recipe, page 10), hot
In a frying pan, heat olive oil. Saute onions until softened and then add button mushrooms. Saute for about 6 minutes, until most of the liquid has evaporated. Remove from heat and stir in tomato paste. Set aside. In the same pan, heat vegetable oil over high heat, add the portabellos and saute until soft.
Serve the portabello "filets" with a layer of mushroom filling and hot demi-glace.
Note: For additional flavor and tenderness, portabellos may be marinated for four hours in a mixture of wine, lemon juice, and garlic.
The first step of this recipe, sauteing finely chopped onions and mushrooms together until they resemble a paste, is called a duxelle. This duxelle can be made ahead of time and will keep for two days in the refrigerator. Use it to flavor stuffings, potatoes, casseroles, and soups.
Total calories per serving: 126
Fat: 10 grams

Mushroom "Mille Feuille"

(Serves 6)
No one will be able to resist the earthy flavor that the mushrooms add to freshly cooked "confetti" (pasta dough).
For Mushroom filling:
1 Tablespoon olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup chopped Shiitake mushrooms
1 cup sliced white (button) mushrooms
1 cup any variety chopped fresh mushrooms
1 Tablespoon thyme
2 teaspoons rosemary
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 cup white wine
2 cups vegetable stock
2 teaspoons chopped fresh parsley
12 (about 2 pounds) pasta dough sheets
1 cup chopped onions
2 Tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 Tablespoon orange juice concentrate
12 tomato slices
For filling: In a medium saucepan, heat oil. Saute garlic, mushrooms, herbs, and pepper until mushrooms are soft. Add vinegar and wine. Cook until liquid in pan is reduced by half. Add stock and cook until you have achieved sauce consistency. Stir in parsley. Set aside.
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Roll pasta dough into thin sheets and cut into 3-inch squares. Drop squares into water and cook until al dente. Rinse and set aside.
Roast chopped onions (at 375 degrees) with vinegar and juice until soft. Set aside.
To assemble: In a baking dish, layer mushroom filling, pasta, onions, and tomatoes. Heat in a 350-degree oven for 5 minutes or until warm. Garnish with sprig of fresh rosemary or thyme.

Note: Mille feuille means "a thousand petals," likened to confetti. The thinner the pasta, the closer you will get to mille feuille.
Pasta sheets can be found in the refrigerated or frozen section of the market, or you can make your own by combining one pound of flour with one cup of water and kneading into dough.

Total calories per serving: 554
Fat: 10 grams

Excerpts from the Nov/Dec Issue

The Vegetarian Journal published here is not the complete issue, but these are excerpts from the published magazine. Anyone wanting to see everything should subscribe to the magazine.

This article was converted to HTML by Jeanie Freeman

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