For most of the 20th century, nutritional science aimed to define an adequate diet. … Towards the end of the century, it became clear from laboratory studies and comparisons in health statistics in different countries that the major diseases of the adequately nourished developed world – cancer and heart disease – are influenced by what we eat. Nutritional science then began to focus on defining the elements of an optimal diet. So we discovered that minor, nonessential food components have a cumulative effect on our long-term health. And plants, the planet’s biochemical virtuosos, turn out to be teeming with trace phytochemicals … that modulate our metabolism. —Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking (Hodder & Stoughton, 2004)

For this dish we focused on combining seasonal ingredients in a wholesome, warming and soothing vegetal structure – fit for cold, rainy late autumn, when the Open Sauces dinner took place. Most ingredients contain powerful antioxidants that protect our cells from free radicals, and prevent oxidative damage to various molecules in our body that can cause cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis and other chronic diseases of our times. We began with nutritious and traditional staples – chestnuts, parsnip and rice – which provided the sweet, fibrous and starchy fundaments. Orange pumpkin and its seeds added beta-carotenes. The astringent, bright green leaves increased the quantity of chlorophyll. Phenolic compounds in vanilla were chosen not only for their health benefits, but also for their aromatic virtues, which intensified the warmth, sweetness and spice. Finally, pear shavings with their protective chlorogenic acids roofed the structure, perfuming the dish with delicious esters and a hint of freshness and crunch.

  • 500 g chestnuts
  • 3 cups brown rice
  • 5 cups water for brown rice
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 2 tablespoons mirin (Japanese sweet rice vinegar)

Spread the chestnuts on a cookie sheet and roast in the oven at 180°C for about 40 minutes. With a sharp knife, remove the shells and hairy skins. Wash the rice and add the water, sea salt, and mirin in a pot. Add the chestnuts, cover and cook for approximately 45 minutes for brown rice (or check instructions on the rice package). Leave to cool down for 10 to 15 minutes. Just before serving mix the rice with a wooden spoon to make it a bit fluffy.

  • 25 slices of pumpkin
  • Mirin, enough to cover the pumpkin slices
  • Handful of pumpkin seeds

Cut pumpkin in thin “moons.” Place in a non-stick pan and simmer in mirin until soft. We cooked the pumpkin in its skin so it would remain firmer. Plate and pour the syrup over the pumpkin before it cools down. Sprinkle pumpkin seeds on the syrup and serve hot.

  • 10 small, thin parsnips
  • For the marinade:
    • 3–4 teaspoons vanilla salt (mix sea salt and vanilla powder)
    • 2 teaspoons ground black pepper
    • ~10 cl mild olive oil
  • For the crust:
    • Salt (as much as needed to cover the parsnips in ½ cm of salt)
    • A bit of water (or egg-white) to make the salt moist
  • For the garnish:
    • 3 pears
    • Splash of lemon juice
    • Vanilla powder

Combine and mix oil, vanilla salt and pepper in a heavy plastic bag. Add parsnip and mix until it is coated with marinade. Marinate in the fridge for at least 2 hours. To make the crust, combine salt and water to form a thick paste. For every parsnip, pat the paste to a centimetre thick rectangle in a pan. Dry the parsnip with paper towels and brush with olive oil. Place parsnip on salt layer and pack more salt paste around the parsnip to seal well (about ½ cm thick). Preheat the oven to 200°C. Roast for 40–45 minutes, until crust is golden, turning halfway through. Remove from oven and leave to stand for 10 minutes. Remove and discard salt crust. Cut each parsnip in two and place the halves on the plate. Grate fresh pears and sprinkle them with lemon juice. Before serving, scatter pear shavings and sprinkle a bit of vanilla over the parsnip.

  • A few handfuls of large edible leaves (e.g. basil, spinach, silverbeet, tetragon)
  • 100 g plain flour
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 225 ml ice-cold water
  • ~4 ice cubes
  • Coarse sea salt to taste

Rinse the leaves and dry them thoroughly with paper towel. Put the oil in a pan to heat. While the oil is heating, tip the flour into a bowl (do not sift), make a well in the centre and add the egg yolk. Pour in about a third of the water and start to mix (with chopsticks or a fork). Gradually mix in the rest of the water. It’s fine to leave small lumps of flour in the batter – they will create the uneven, lacy texture of the tempura. Add the ice-cubes (iced water makes the mixture more viscous, so it sticks better to the surface of the leaves). To test the oil, try dripping a tiny bit of batter into it – the batter should bounce and fizz to the surface. Turn down the heat to maintain a constant temperature. One at a time, lay each leaf on the surface of the batter, pressing it down gently so that one side only is coated. Once each leaf has its cargo of batter, lay it in the hot oil. Each leaf should take about one minute to cook to a crisp creamy white. When the leaves are cooked, lift them out with tongs and lay them on a plate lined with several layers of kitchen paper. Allow the leaves to drain briefly, then serve them up immediately, sprinkled with a little salt.

Fruits, chestnuts and vegetables came from various markets and organic shops in Brussels. Rice, mirin and vanilla from the Asian supermarket Kam Yuen.

(an sidebar recipe)