Bonjour’s owner and chef, Vuong Nguyen, never stops being fascinated with food, and not just in the passive sense.
Even as he’s planning on expanding Bonjour’s hours to include a French-inspired dinner menu, he is consulting, practicing, learning and studying. Given his wide range of expertise – everything from classical French to Jersey diner to traditional and fusion Asian – we thought he would be a great choice to talk about cooking in early spring. It’s the most difficult time of the year to find a wide variety of foods for people who love locally sourced ingredients, as the winter is just ending and the spring has yet to yield the amazing bounty of foods we associate with the warmer season.
Against my protest, Nguyen insisted Brussels sprouts will still be popular this year, and they are available in early spring. So, too, are beets, kale, nuts and citrus fruits. One of his favorite dishes for spring is roasted beets with sautéed kale. Both red and gold beets are available in early spring, but Vuong uses red for their earthier flavor and lesser sweetness.
Roasted Beets With Sautéed Kale
• Rub olive oil (not EVOO) onto whole, unpeeled beets and place them on a cookie sheet. The oil on the beets keeps the heat from drying the skin. Use small beets; Nguyen says they have better flavor.
• Roast at 350 degrees for 40 minutes to one hour. Use a fork to test for tenderness all the way through.
• Set aside to cool.
According to Nguyen, the way you cut beets and vegetables affects their taste. He slices beets thin for a salad to get more of the aromatics (see below), but dices them for this dish. It reduces the amount of earthiness to balance the flavors.
After removing most of the kale’s ribs and cutting it into long, thin strips (chiffonade), sauté it in a small pot using a neutral-flavored oil, such as grape seed or rice bran. “I use rice bran oil for almost everything now,” Nguyen says. “It’s healthier, has a very high smoking point, and it won’t add any flavor to your dishes.”
He adds salt and pepper to taste, and a bit of distilled vinegar – red or white does not matter; it’s strictly a personal preference.
Nguyen encourages home cooks to experiment with different additions: julienned onions, minced garlic, goat cheese (after it’s cooled), pistachios for flavor and texture, different citrus juices, even candied nuts.
Salmon and Beet Salad
“This dish goes great with fish,” Nguyen says. “It’s always around, even in early spring. I like to make it with salmon, and I use the rice bran oil for the salmon, too.”
• Sear 5 ounces of salmon hard in hot pan.
• Place in 375 degree oven (350 for convection).
• Cook 7-9 minutes depending on thickness.
It’s especially tasty with Nguyen’s Mongolian glaze, in the company of sliced beets and braised cabbage, topped with locally grown micro greens (they’re hydroponic).
“Fish is lighter fare, but salmon is still hearty,” he continues, “and it’s a good transition to the lighter fare of late spring and summer.”