Vegetables Re-Invented: Fresh Concepts from Spain

In the past, chefs aiming for Michelin stardom rarely found their inspiration in vegetables. But in Spain, at least, produce has taken center stage, as top-rated chefs look to nature for their newest creations. At Mugaritz, a three-star Michelin restaurant near San Sebastián, chef Andoni Luís Adúriz finds many of his most exotic ingredients in the local woods and fields.
Andoni Luís AdúrizAndoni Luís Adúriz
“’Exotic’ is a concept more linked to culture than to distance,” says Adúriz. “My neighbor, an older gentleman and rural person, sees us collecting wild herbs 10 meters away from his home and looks at us as if we’re from a foreign planet. The herbs look to him like an exotic product, yet they grow right below his windowsill.”

Inspired by French chef Michel Bras, Adúriz and his team designed a vegetable dish that incorporates 60 to 80 different ingredients, many of them foraged or purchased from local producers. Some of the vegetables are blanched, some roasted, some left raw. The finishing sauce is a juice made from Idiazábal cheese. “This is a dish that tries to reconcile us with our landscape,” says Adúriz. “We put the plate together leaf by leaf with tweezers.”

In the region of Navarra, the Hotel Restaurante Maher operates its own farm and specializes in vegetable dishes. Chef Enrique Martínez prepares asparagus with eggs and truffle oil using methods you might not have envisioned. The dish sounds familiar and straightforward, yet it is anything but. The chef’s effort to preserve the essence of just-harvested asparagus has led him to some revolutionary techniques.

Nowhere are the old and new ways of Spanish vegetable cookery on better display than at the Michelin-starred Echaurren, a restaurant in the Rioja region. At this two-in-one restaurant, diners are asked, “Do you want to eat in the dining room of the mother or of the son?” Needless to say, Francis Paniego’s mother is the traditional cook, while he explores the boundaries of cooking.

If you dine on the mother’s side, you might have roasted peppers—the signature vegetable of La Rioja—with anchovies, or roasted piquillo peppers stuffed with salt cod and fried.

But put yourself in the hands of the son and you are in for a ride. He roasts the local peppers, too, but then he captures the flavorful water from them, adds agar, makes a thin sheet of gelatin and presents his modern version of peppers with anchovies.

© 2019 The Culinary Institute of America