The day before unveiling a new vegetarian dish at Muriel's Jackson Square, Chef Gus Martin explained his goal: Make a meal that's elegant and fun.
The next day, the latest in his series of vegetarian options appeared in the restaurant. A tasting menu on one plate, Martin's dish featured a Parmesan polenta with chickpeas in basil vinaigrette, roasted carrot and ginger puree, braised Swiss chard, roasted beets with horseradish vinaigrette, shiitake mushrooms with rosemary and tomato wild rice, roasted butternut squash and parsnips tossed in Louisiana grapefruit gastrique. Each element packed a surprise flavor or unexpected texture. Elegant and fun — mission accomplished.
Martin, who weighed 360 pounds for years and lost 120 pounds through diligent exercise, oversees a restaurant that offers not only a vegetarian dish worthy of fine dining, but also a gluten-free menu and nutritionist-approved dishes featured in the Eat Fit NOLA program by Ochsner Health System.
"I've gone up and down on weight, so I like to have that balance," he says. "It gives people an option to not be scared to eat."
Martin says his biggest challenge is avoiding salt. To sidestep salt and sugar, Martin roasts vegetables, intensifying and releasing the naturally occurring sugars found in most produce. In other words, he makes use of sugars most diners didn't even realize they were eating.
Martin also uses low-fat sauces and garnishes — vinegar reductions, oil infusions and herb-based garnishes — to increase flavor and depth without butter, salt or sugar.
Finally, he examines traditionally sweet dishes and finds a savory twist. While developing the latest recipe, Martin considered using flan as its centerpiece.
The new dish uses about eight to 10 micro-recipes. Rather than recreate Martin's vegetarian magnum opus, I combined his beet and carrot recipes, substituting herbs for honey to meld the two disparate dishes together more strongly (the beauty of Muriel's version is in its contrast) and make it suitable for Christmas or Rosh Hashana (beets are listed among the traditional foods for the Jewish New Year).
We Shall Overcome
Recipe by Gus Martin of Muriel's Jackson Square. Adapted by Russ Lane
Serves 5 as a main dish, 7 as a side.
5 pounds carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
1-inch piece of ginger root, peeled and chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
5 beets, leaves and stems removed
Olive oil, for drizzling and 1 teaspoon reserved
2 tablespoons prepared horseradish
Juice of one lemon
1/2 small shallot, finely chopped
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
6 tablespoons light olive oil or canola
Spinach cut into thin strips (optional, for garnish)
Pumpkin seeds, toasted (optional, for garnish)
Heat oven to 350 F. Toss peeled and chopped carrots in olive oil, adding oil sparingly and gradually adding until carrots have a light sheen.
Place each whole beet (leaves and stems removed) on a sheet of aluminum foil and top with olive oil. Pull the sides of the foil together and twist to combine, until the packet resembles a crab wonton. Place carrots on top rack and beets on the rack underneath, roasting until a fork pierces the beet easily and carrots take the appearance of a roasted marshmallow, about 45 minutes to one hour.
While the vegetables roast, make the vinaigrette: Add horseradish, lemon, shallot and vinegar in a bowl, gradually whisking in oil with a fork or whisk until combined. Set aside.
Remove carrots and beets from oven. Puree carrots in a food processor. In a separate pot, add 1 teaspoon olive oil and the ginger, rosemary and garlic. Cook until softened.
Add carrots and cook until most of the liquid evaporates and the consistency resembles mashed potatoes, as opposed to soup.
To serve: Place carrot mash on plates or a serving dish, making indentations for the beets. Remove beets from tin foil. With a paper towel, gently wipe away any remaining beet peel. Cut a cross shape into the beet, opening it like a flower. Place on top of carrots and garnish with pumpkin seed or thinly cut spinach.
Per serving (if using as a side) | calories 276.5; total fat 12.7 g (saturated fat 0.9 g; polyunsaturated fat 4.1 g; monounsaturated fat 7.1 g); cholesterol 0.0 mg; sodium 351.5 mg; potassium 1,256.0 mg; total carbohydrate 39.4 g ( dietary fiber 10.9 g sugars 20.7 g); protein 4.3 g.