Anyone who loves good food wants it to look good, too. After all, as I often like to tell people, we eat with our eyes before we eat with our mouths.
Let's face it, though, too many vegetable side dishes look more than a little bit unexciting, like nothing our eyes would want to eat. Think of those sad little broccoli florets sitting there on the plate, or that scoop of spinach leaves, or those steamed baby carrots. They're colorful, yes. But tempting?
But there's more you can do by actually transforming the vegetables into something new: pureeing them, layering them, and then baking them in a loaf shape that, when sliced, presents a beautiful, delicious rainbow of contrasting colors and flavors.
That's what I've been doing for years with my Three-Colored Vegetable Loaf. It combines chopped and cooked carrots, mushrooms, and spinach, lightly bound with touches of egg and cheese, to make a bright rainbow of a side dish that goes wonderfully with roast, grilled, broiled, or sauteed meats, poultry, or seafood.
Such dishes are classics of the French repertoire. And I think it's time for them to make a comeback.
Impressive though this side is to serve, you'll find it surprisingly easy to put together, and much of the work -- cooking and pureeing the vegetables, all the way up to layering them in the pan before baking -- can be done up to several hours in advance. Just be sure to eliminate excess moisture from the spinach, to keep the dish from turning soggy, and line the pan carefully with parchment paper to stop the loaf from sticking.
Once you've mastered the recipe, use its techniques to prepare loafs featuring other not-too-watery vegetables that will have similar consistencies when cooked and chopped, such as cauliflower, broccoli, fennel bulb, kale leaves, or parsnips.
Whatever the combination, I encourage you to give this recipe a try for your next dinner party, or just for a family meal when you have a little extra prep time. Make it a classic in your own kitchen repertoire.
THREE-COLORED VEGETABLE LOAF
5 ounces unsalted butter
2 pounds organic carrots, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
1/4 pound organic button mushrooms, wiped clean with a damp paper towel, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
1/2 pound organic baby spinach leaves, rinsed and patted dry with paper towels
5 large cage-free eggs
4 ounces shredded Swiss cheese
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Melt 2 ounces of the butter in a saute pan over medium-low heat. Add the carrots and saute, stirring frequently, until tender, 7 to 10 minutes. Empty them from the pan to a cutting board, chop coarsely, and then transfer to a large mixing bowl and set aside.
In the same pan, melt 1 ounce of the butter over high heat. Add the mushrooms and saute, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Empty them onto the cutting board, chop coarsely, and add to the carrots.
Melt 1 ounce more butter over high heat. Add the spinach and saute, stirring constantly, until wilted and any excess moisture has evaporated, 2 to 3 minutes. Chop coarsely and transfer to a separate bowl. When the spinach has cooled, add 1 egg and stir thoroughly with a fork.
In another bowl, beat the remaining 4 eggs. Stir in the Swiss cheese. Add the egg-and-cheese mixture to the carrots and mushrooms, season to taste with salt and pepper, and stir thoroughly.
Position an oven rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Line the bottom of an 8-1/2 by 4-1/2 by 2-1/2-inch loaf pan with parchment paper. Butter the pan and the parchment paper with 1 tablespoon of the remaining butter. In the bottom of the pan, spread half of the carrot mixture. Add all of the spinach mixture, spreading it evenly; then, top with the remaining carrot mixture. With the remaining butter, coat 1 side of a piece of parchment paper cut to fit the top of the pan, and place the paper buttered side down on top of the final carrot layer.
Place the loaf pan inside a baking dish with high sides. Into the dish, pour enough hot water to come halfway up the side of the loaf pan. Pull out the oven rack, place the baking dish with the loaf pan on the rack, and carefully slide the rack into the oven. Bake until a knife inserted into the center of the vegetable loaf comes out clean, about 1-1/4 hours, checking and adding more hot water to the baking dish if necessary.
Carefully slide out the oven rack and lift out the baking dish. Remove the loaf pan. Peel off the top piece of parchment paper. Run a thin, sharp knife around the insides of the loaf pan to loosen the loaf. Invert a serving platter over the loaf pan. Holding the pan and platter tightly together with potholders, invert them. Then, place on a work surface and carefully lift off the loaf pan. Peel off the remaining parchment paper.
With a sharp knife, cut the vegetable loaf crosswise into slices. Serve immediately, carefully transferring the slices to serving plates.