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Vegetarian Solution : The Trip to Bountiful

August 15, 1991|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pleasing the trendy palates of his customers isn't enough for John Ash. This thoughtful chef keeps in mind the global implications of what he serves.

"All of us cast a vote every time we choose what we buy to eat. We should think once in a while about making responsible choices," Ash said over a cup of tea during a short trip to Los Angeles. "I don't mean to take the joy away from eating, but . . . too often we don't think of the connection the act of eating has to the rest of the planet."

Ash is executive chef and part-owner of John Ash & Co., a 10-year-old restaurant in Santa Rosa, and culinary director of Fetzer Vineyards' Valley Oaks Food & Wine Center. The center is an educational facility at Hopland in southern Mendocino County. There Fetzer has established a five-acre organic garden that supplies Ash with an incredible assortment of produce--25 varieties of tomato, 28 winter squashes, 40 melons, 75 different apples, 16 types of basil, 20 kinds of edible flowers and so on.

This abundance has nourished his interest in vegetarianism. "There is so much beautiful stuff available that it's not really difficult to come up with new and interesting combinations," he said. "It wouldn't be as easy to be a vegetarian in the Midwest."

Ash wants people to realize that a less beautiful, naturally raised vegetable is "just as tasty and good for you" as one brought to cosmetic perfection with synthetic farm chemicals. He has always provided vegetarian customers with better options "than just a plate of steamed vegetables."

That doesn't mean filling them up with cheese. Following American Heart Assn. dietary guidelines, Ash either eliminates or reduces fats. He makes vinaigrettes with stock instead of oil. And he uses lots of fresh herbs to reduce the need for salt. Opposed to waste, he even recycles vegetable peelings. They go to employees with small farms for use as animal feed.

Ash still eats meat, but less frequently, and says he feels better for it. "I don't mean to get hysterical about all of this stuff. I've never been a complete vegetarian."

There is, in fact, plenty of meat in Ash's first cookbook, "American Game Cooking" (Addison-Wesley: $25). Written with Sid Goldstein, a Fetzer vice president, the book is due out in mid-October. It's "the antithesis of vegetarianism," Ash admits with a wry smile. But then a man accustomed to the rich taste of meat knows better how to create satisfying flavor without it.

You wouldn't miss steak, for example, if you were eating Ash's ragout of meaty-tasting exotic mushrooms in a velvety wine, butter and cream sauce punctuated with fennel and mustard seeds, or his grilled giant shiitake, served with grilled fennel and freshly picked tomatoes juicy enough to form a sauce on the plate.

"Grilled mushrooms have all the meaty character and complexity of meat," Ash says. They are even robust enough to pair with a lighter red wine--a Pinot Noir or Merlot, a fruity Zinfandel or younger drinking Cabernet, one that is low in tannin.

It was vegetarianism--the challenge of putting together an elaborate dinner of meat-free dishes matched to wines--that lured Ash to Los Angeles. The dinner kicked off a month-long presentation of Ash's vegetarian food and Fetzer wines at JW's restaurant in the JW Marriott at Century City. You can taste them there through Sunday.

Ash started the dinner with a white-bean and vegetable soup set off by a spoonful of parsley pesto. The mushroom ragout came next, followed by a flat souffle rolled like a jelly roll around a combination of vegetables, tarragon and cheese. Slices of the souffle sat in a plateful of sweet red pepper sauce in which Ash also placed baby-blue lake green beans and chervil sprigs. The salad, composed of dry Jack cheese, pears, watercress, walnuts and fennel, was the only course accompanied by a red wine--a barrel-select Zinfandel.

Ash's imaginative concept of fruit soup, served for dessert, was a champagne sabayon dotted with assorted berries, mango slices and passion fruit and accompanied by crisp wedges of coconut shortbread.

Ash recalls the era when vegetarianism meant eating odd and unattractive combinations of food. That needn't be the case, he says. "Many of the great cuisines of the world were based on using vegetarian sources. Meat was always a luxury." And in Ash's hands, vegetarian food has become just as luxurious.

The sweetness of this soup depends on the ripeness of the cantaloupe. "Be careful not to turn it into a dessert," Ash says.

COLD CHAMPAGNE CANTALOUPE SOUP

6 cups peeled, seeded cantaloupe chunks

3/4 cup low-fat yogurt

1 cup dry Champagne or sparkling wine

2 tablespoons honey or to taste

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

2 teaspoons chopped fresh spearmint or peppermint

Dash salt

Creme fraiche or yogurt

Mint flowers or leaves

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