Autumn is in the air. The farmers’ market will be closing soon, garden tomatoes are on the wane, and the last of the summer squash from my neighbor’s garden is just about gone.
In other words, it will be months before tender, new spring vegetables start showing up. I don’t mean to sound gloomy, but winter can be a challenge for any vegetable lover, and it always has me racking my brain for easy, delicious ways to cook mine. So, instead of a cooking method that emphasizes immediacy and freshness, I use one that’s all about concentrated flavor and silky texture: I make vegetable compotes.
A traditional fruit technique that’s great for vegetables, too
You’re probably used to thinking of a compote as a fruit dish, often stewed. That’s traditionally how the term compote is used, and it’s how I got my inspiration for these tender, jammy side dishes. The French verb compôter means to cook gently—to stew, really—until ingredients start to collapse and become almost purée-like. The process is simple: thinly slice the vegetables, start the cooking with olive oil (or another fat, like bacon drippings), add stock and other seasonings, and simmer over medium heat, usually covered, until the vegetables are tender.
Gentle cooking lets flavors meld and mellow
I find that people who say they don’t like vegetables (like my dad) love these compotes. He says it’s because the gentle cooking softens flavors and lets them meld into something different than, say, steamed vegetables.
A compote is different from a braise. Even though I’m cooking the vegetables slowly and gently in just a bit of stock—which sounds like a braise, I admit—it’s the finished result that qualifies these side dishes as compotes: vegetables gently cooked until they’re fall-apart tender, almost jam-like, and a pan that’s just about dry.
For tender results, slice the vegetables thinly. Slices of cabbage, onions, and fennel won’t be more than 1/8 inch thick; you’ll slice the eggplant a little thicker. If the slices are too thick and chunky, the vegetables won’t attain the right degree of tenderness; if the slices are too thin, they’ll break down too quickly, resulting in mush.
Go for a minimum of browning. While sautés, sears, and braises get their flavor from an initial browning, in this case, these compotes come out best if the vegetables are browned as little as possible. This way, they turn melty-tender, and their mellow flavor will shine through. Stock adds subtle flavor, and you’ll notice that the cabbage-apple compote gets a flavor boost from bacon —a nod to the cooking of Toulouse, my hometown, whose food and wines are some of my favorites.