- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 23, 2004

A chef is supposed to be decisive. I have no trouble with that, usually. But when spring vegetables start to appear in produce shops and farmers’ markets, I just can’t seem to make up my mind.

Do I want sweet, tender-crisp young carrots? Slender stalks of asparagus barely thicker than a soda straw? Whole edible pods of spring peas or sugar snap peas that snap and crunch like a piece of candy when you eat them? Sweet bell peppers? Crunchy little radishes? Crisp, mild young spring onions?

In the end, there is only one smart decision: Buy them all!

That’s the basic idea behind so many classic springtime vegetable dishes, and French crudites may be its perfect expression. Meaning “raw things,” crudites presents an array of seasonal vegetables in their simplest form, left whole or cut up into bite-sized pieces depending on size, and beautifully arranged on a platter with one or more dips.

The dip I love most for spring vegetables is the Provencal anchoiade, a rustic puree of anchovies, garlic and olive oil. Virtually every home cook and restaurant chef in the south of France knows how to make it and gives it his or her own personal interpretation. Some versions, like mine, also include black olives, almonds, tomatoes, bell peppers, fresh herbs and a splash of red wine vinegar. Others might use pine nuts, or thicken the mixture with fresh breadcrumbs. I’ve even tasted anchoiades that include some Italian-style canned tuna, the kind packed in olive oil, which gives the dip an extra-rich texture and a somewhat milder flavor. Any way I’ve tasted it, it’s been delicious.

Traditionally, anchoiade is made by pounding the ingredients together in a stone mortar with a pestle. Modern cooks, even in Provence, take advantage of food processors to make the pureeing quicker and easier. When you use your processor for the following recipe, however, take care not to overprocess the mixture; it should still have a somewhat coarse texture.

Serve the dip with the best variety of fresh spring vegetables you can assemble, including celery sticks, carrots, radishes, scallions and asparagus spears. I like to place a bowl of the anchoiade in the center of a large platter and spread a bed of crushed ice around it. Then, I arrange the vegetables sticking attractively out of the ice. I’ll also pass slices of French bread for guests to spread with the anchoiade. Any leftover dip is delicious warmed in a saute pan with a little olive oil, then tossed with pasta.

Please try this easy dish the next time you return from the farmers’ market or greengrocer. With every bite, you’ll savor the first warm-yet-still-crisp days of springtime.

ANCHOIADE

Serves 4 to 6

1/3 cup blanched (skinless) whole almonds

4 ounces canned anchovy fillets, drained

3 garlic cloves, peeled

1 shallot, peeled and coarsely chopped

1/2 teaspoon finely chopped fresh basil

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and finely chopped

1 firm, ripe tomato, cored, halved, seeded, and finely chopped

3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley

1 tablespoon coarsely chopped drained small capers, coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon pitted and finely chopped Nicoise-style black olives

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

Place the almonds in a small, heavy skillet. Over medium-low heat, stir the almonds frequently until they turn an even golden-brown color, about 5 minutes. Immediately transfer the nuts to a small heatproof dish and leave them to cool to room temperature.

Meanwhile, put the drained anchovies in a small sieve and rinse them briefly under cold running water. Lay the anchovies flat on a folded paper towel and gently pat them dry with another paper towel.

Fit a food processor with the stainless-steel blade. Add the almonds, anchovies and garlic cloves. Turn on the machine and drop the shallot and basil through the feed tube; then, with the motor still running, pour in the olive oil and vinegar. Turn off the machine as soon as the mixture looks thoroughly blended.

Add the bell pepper, tomato, parsley, capers, olives and lemon juice to the bowl. Pulse the machine on and off just until the ingredients have blended into a coarse puree. Do not overprocess them.

If not serving the anchoiade right away, transfer it to a nonreactive bowl, cover and refrigerate. Let the dip return to room temperature before serving.

(Chef Wolfgang Puck’s new TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays and Wednesdays on the Food Network.)

2004 WOLFGANG PUCK WORLDWIDE, INC.

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