Jeremy and Deanie told me about the constant inspiration they get from being around such extraordinary vegetables and fruits. For instance, they've been cooking with less butter and more vegetable juices and essences. And since juicing fresh produce for sauces leaves so much pulp—which usually gets thrown into the compost—they started dehydrating the pulp, reducing it to powder, and, along with olive oil and ground nuts, using it to flavor sauces. Jeremy told me he also likes to serve that pulp mixture, which he calls "soil," in little mounds into which one can dip a spear of asparagus or roll a bite of kohlrabi.
It wasn't until Alix and I were about to start our meal that I realized that, more than shame or uncertainty, what I felt most when I contemplated cooking with vegetables was fear. I feared my ignorance and my prejudices, and worse, what my appetites reveal about me. It is not that I get out of bed to devour pints of ice cream in the dark of night but that I am sure nothing simple and fresh will ever satisfy my basic hungers.
Appetizers came. As I nibbled a lavender-dusted almond, I looked down on a plate of asparagus that had been cut into various shapes and separated with pale slices of chèvre and little bright green dimples of nori sauce—which was like a dried-seaweed mayonnaise. The dish was almost too pretty to disturb but too tasty to leave untouched. There was also a plate of sliced radishes in various colors, laid out between little mounds of chopped black mushrooms that Jeremy called "caviar," that tasted less of salt and more of the garden. I took a bite of asparagus, and tried a slice of paper-thin white radish with a little chèvre. The light in the room was gold and pink, my mouth was salt and sweet, and my tongue seemed to have woken up. These were vegetables I recognized, but they tasted like nothing I knew. The flavors were a surprise, a seduction.
"Might not miss the meat too much," I started thinking. I tasted another purple radish. Had I ever had one of these before? I sipped a little wine and tried more of the nori sauce. How was this made? Could I make it at home? It might be worth the trouble to try. I wanted to run my fingertip across each plate, to taste the mushroom caviar with the asparagus or with the heirloom tomatoes salad , fragrant with juniper and basil, that had just been set on our table.
I have always liked beets, and those at Ubuntu came in half a dozen colors, fresh, sweet, with a pleasantly bitter snap, and cut into tiny squares chopped so fine they were a mosaic bed of color and intensity.
"I didn't know beets could taste like this!" I told the woman who brought the plate.
I started daydreaming about coming back for the cauliflower in a cast-iron pot , one of Jeremy's specialties, or the flatbread baked in Ubuntu's stone oven and showered with arugula and truffled Pecorino.
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