Meat at work, not at home Cooking: Rising young chef prepares equally stylish vegetarian, nonvegetarian fare.

Kitchen Encounter

March 12, 1997|By Laura Rottenberg | Laura Rottenberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Johey Verfaille got out of college, she thought she'd enroll in pastry school. That way, she mused, she'd always be able to lick the bowl. Deterred by the expense, she began poring over cookbooks on her own, watching cooking shows to hone her skills. When Donna Crivello opened the first Donna's eatery, Verfaille remembers entreating her, "I'll do anything, just let me work." Within six weeks she had been promoted to kitchen manager.

After apprenticing in a number of local kitchens, Verfaille, 29, has become one of Baltimore's hottest young chefs, presiding over the stoves at Brewer's Art, the hip new north Mount Vernon brewpub. There, she sends out hearty sausage platters, hazelnut-crusted rockfish with sorrel sauce and savory chicken stuffed with pancetta and black olives. It's the same kind of stylish food made up of simple, strong combinations that she makes for herself at home, with one difference: She is a vegetarian.

She gave up red meat when she was 16, and proceeded to eschew poultry when faced with her freshman dorm's dreaded "chicken Frisbees." "Factory farming really upsets me," Verfaille admits, but her decision to turn vegetarian was also sports-related -- a swim coach had strongly encouraged her to give up eating meat.

Beginning to cook for herself, she turned to staple vegetarian cookbooks, "The Moosewood Cookbook" and "The Vegetarian Epicure," which she says were "good, but fell short." Uninterested in the brown-rice-and-sprouts schools of vegetarianism, Verfaille sought to do something elegant. The more traditionally European approach to vegetable cookery found in "The Green's Cook Book" proved a revelation. Soon even carnivorous college roommates were enthusing about her soft polenta with kidney bean tomato sauce.

Moving into a house with great southern exposure was a boon to her home-cooking repertoire. She began growing herbs and boutique vegetables that were difficult to find commercially. Dinner guests have been treated to lemon verbena pound cake and rosemary shortbread delicately flavored with spoils from her own garden. She has whipped up breathtaking vichyssoise for stoppers-in, touched by the sweetness of just-pulled young leeks.

Trying to avoid the vegetarian pitfall of substituting cheese for the richness of meat, Verfaille often opts for vegan cooking (no meat or dairy). She advocates that home cooks salt and pepper everything, and that they keep a little bowl of crushed dried chili peppers close at hand to add a little verve.

Squash cream sauce

Serves 6

1 cup chopped shallots

2 teaspoons chopped garlic

extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup dry sherry

5 cups squash (such as butternut or acorn), baked until soft, pulp scooped out

1 quart heavy cream

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 bunch fresh sage, chopped

salt and pepper to taste

grated Parmesan cheese

2 pounds spinach fettuccine (recipe follows)

Heat olive oil. Saute shallots and garlic over medium heat. Cook until golden. Add sherry and reduce until liquid is almost evaporated. Add squash and stir to combine. Add cream, nutmeg and sage; cook until thickened. Puree in food processor or blender to achieve creamy consistency. Season with salt and pepper. Top each plate of cooked pasta with 3/4 cup sauce and sprinkle with Parmesan. Garnish with a pretty sage sprig. Serve immediately.

Spinach fettuccine

Serves 6

1/2 cup cooked, chopped spinach, excess liquid squeezed out

3 cups all-purpose flour

3 eggs

Put all ingredients in food processor and blend to a soft dough. Knead on floured board until smooth and pliable. Roll out and cut into fettuccine with a pasta machine, or use a small knife. Cook in boiling salted water no more than 1 minute. Do not rinse.

Pub Date: 3/12/97

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