Call Suzanne Goin, executive chef of Lucques, the vegetable whisperer. She claims to walk through farmers’ markets, past rows of endive and bins of artichokes, divining information, which, like the sibilant whispers of nattering spirits, is beyond the ears of us mere mortals. Each vegetable, she explains, speaks to her, telling her what it wants her to do with it. It’d be tempting to dismiss Goin as just another chef with an appetite for hallucinogenic mushrooms, if it weren’t for the sublime and utterly original things she coaxes out of such chatty produce.
Take cipollini, her most recent experience in vegetable voodoo. Most chefs would be content to toss them in olive oil and roast them to bring out their natural sweetness. But on a recent visit to Santa Monica farmer’s market, Goin encountered a basket of the flying-saucer-shaped onions that demanded something far greater of her. She was haunted by them until she created what can single-handedly wipe the collective smirk off the faces of Europe’s finest chefs: her Cipollini and Bleu de Gex Tart. Nestled in buttery pastry, which is so delicate any cook who has ever bragged about the crumb of her crust should hang her head in shame, is a smooth and rich custard dotted with herb-roasted cipollini and layered with the AOC-designated blue cheese. But why not ordinary onions? Or Vidalia, for that matter?
“Nothing came to me when I saw them,” she says with a laugh. “Cipollini have a depth of flavor that can hold up to herbs and assertive cheeses.” Hence, the tart. She’s also an admirer of the onion’s shape—which feathers out when quartered and roasted — making it look like Art Nouveau crenulations.
When she’s not channeling cipollini, she’s can often be found chatting up nearby fruits and greens, which is how she was inspired to serve the tart with roasted grapes and a dandelion salad. “When people hear roasted grapes, they get a confused look on their faces,” she says. “But it’s really simple. Just toss a bunch of grapes still on the stems with olive oil and bake them in a 400-degree oven for a few minutes until they start to pucker.” As an alternative, fresh grapes can be sliced in half and tossed with the salad.
Goin also offers home cooks some advice to help get that luxe Lucques look: “It’s important when trimming the roots from the cipollini not to remove too much, otherwise they’ll fall apart when roasting.” She’s very particular, too, about making sure the onions peek though the layer of Bleu de Gex just so.
If Goin has this kind of rapport with vegetables and fruits, just imagine the Dolittlian conversations she must be having. Maybe that’s why her beef cheeks are so good.