I’ve never understood spa cuisine. It always seemed like a contradiction in terms, usually just food in small portions with the calories listed. Wheatgrass? I’d rather go hungry. As far as I can tell, spa cuisine is as dull as exercise. Yet I long for it still—not a menu with descriptions that list what isn’t (fat-free! low-carb!) but one that talks about what is. Antioxidants. Omega-3s. I dream about a delicious bowl of something light and tasty, a satisfying meal for body and soul. Enter Raymond Blanc, chef-owner at the Michelin two-star Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, in the town of Great Milton, just outside Oxford, England. Blanc is a health nut in a sense, obsessed with the provenance of his ingredients, the field, forest, orchard, or vineyard they come from. And he’s known for his broths, which seemed like they could be perfectly nurturing spa fare.
Long before Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White and other celebrity chefs started banging about Britain, there was Blanc. He arrived from Besançon, in eastern France, in 1972, when he was 22, a kid used to a country where simple, seasonal food was front and center. England then was a place where the culinary gods still wept with pity over a landscape of fried fish, overcooked vegetables, and a nasty fast-food burger known as a Wimpy. Blanc had come to work as a waiter in a pub, but within five years he was a chef, self-taught and cooking astonishingly good French food at the first Quat’Saisons, his tiny restaurant in Oxford. I remember it well, that hole in the wall, where Blanc served brilliant dishes made of fresh local food—Welsh lamb, Colchester oysters, simple soups of spring vegetables—all around the time Alice Waters began doing the same at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. Brits, starved of great cooking for generations, gastronomic virgins in a sense, responded with the ecstasy of religious converts.
“How about a light, flavorful broth of shellfish scented with lemongrass?” Blanc suggests after I e-mail him. “Something with Jerusalem artichokes, wild mushrooms, and seaweed?” He proposes adding mackerel, an oily fish, for its omega-3s, which some studies say improve cardiac health and may lower bad cholesterol.
The omega-3s are only the beginning. This dish, which I dub Broth Blanc, is not only low in calories; it’s also high in all the right nutrients. The carrots are good for the eyes; Jerusalem artichokes are rich in minerals and vitamin B, and they contain a particular sugar that helps the body synthesize vitamin K, which supports strong bones; star anise is a rich source of cancer-preventing coumarin; and seaweed has up to 20 times the mineral content of land vegetables. Who knew?
Even with all that, at first the recipe seems daunting: so many ingredients, so much chopping and dicing and soaking of seaweed. Blanc assures me that most of the preparation for the nage—that’s what light, flavorful, aromatic broths like this one are called, from the French nager, meaning “to swim”—can be done a day in advance and only takes about 20 minutes.
“Healthy food is all about balance,” Blanc says when I meet him in his kitchen. “Like all good food, it is about the connections between soul and soil, about seasonality, about both the raw and the cooked.” As we begin to chop the vegetables, Blanc explains how, for both the gastronome and the health conscious, diversity is key, even in one kind of food. Don’t consume a single “type” of milk, but a selection; cow’s milk has numerous nutrients and imparts different flavors than goat’s milk. He believes that people who eat a variety of foods are eating better, healthier. And this is as true of spa cuisine—perhaps even more so—as it is of Blanc’s most elaborate classic French dishes.
“The first rule of health,” Blanc says, “is do not murder the food. Too high a temperature will kill it; too low, you boil out the nutrients. You want to cook high and fast or long and slow. The smaller you chop a vegetable, the faster you can cook it, the less it loses nutrients.” He picks his knife back up to show me how to smash garlic with the flat side and then slice it up. “For the broth, these will be cooked very, very quickly,” he adds, gesturing to the tidy pile of vegetables now in front of us.
So into a large saucepan go the vegetables and the star anise, peppercorns, salt, bay leaf, and thyme. We cover them with water, bring it to a boil, pour in white wine, and boil again.
“Taste it,” he says, handing me a spoon. “I never understand how people cook without tasting all the time.” I taste. The nage is delicate on the tongue, with just enough bay leaf and pepper to make it lively. We take it off the flame, cover it, and set off into the gardens while it steeps.
Le Manoir is a gray stone house, bits of which date from every century back to the 13th. Blanc, 60, opened it in 1984 with a restaurant and ten rooms (more were added later), and he surrounded it with gardens of lettuce and fennel, thyme and endive, parsley and even lemongrass, all of which grow year-round. “This is the heart of my cooking,” says the chef as we walk. “I want people to understand where food comes from.” Blanc plans to open a freestanding spa here that will offer two kinds of cuisine: rustic, simple food grown locally, no additives; the other a delicious but closely planned menu that tracks nutrients, minerals, vitamins, and calories.
Back in the kitchen Blanc shows me how to liberate a scallop from its shell—slipping the knife gently in at an angle, twisting it, and removing the pink coral roe and the white flesh. Soon the fish and additional vegetables are prepared and the nage is done steeping. We strain the broth into a deep sauté plan and add the ginger, lemongrass, Jerusalem artichokes, and more carrots. We let it simmer for a minute, then add the zucchini and cook for two more. The mackerel, scallops, salmon, and mullet go in, the lid goes on, and it poaches for just three minutes. We take if off the heat, add the edamame and the seaweed. “Let it stand for a minute,” Blanc says. “The residual heat will cook the fish gently.”
Warm bowls are ready. We gently spoon in the fish and vegetables, then pour the broth over them. I taste it. Then I eat the whole bowlful. It is good, light, fragrant, pure, the lemongrass and ginger—two of my favorite flavors—turning it into a nectar. In both body and mind, I am satisfied. And it has only 278 calories.
I can positively feel the health coursing through my veins.
How to Make Broth Blanc
For the vegetable nage
1 large white onion, finely diced
1 medium leek, washed and finely diced
2 large carrots, peeled and finely diced
1/2 head celery
3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely sliced
1 pod star anise
20 pink peppercorns
6 pinches sea salt
1 bay leaf
2 cups water
4/5 cup chardonnay
1 sprig each of thyme, tarragon, chervil, cilantro, parsley
1 strip orange zest, removed with a vegetable peeler
2 strips lemon zest, removed with a vegetable peeler
1 stalk lemongrass, finely sliced
1 tbsp ginger, finely sliced
For the fish and vegetables
2 cups vegetable nage, strained
12-inch piece ginger, peeled, finely sliced
1/2 stalk lemongrass, outer layers removed, finely sliced
12 baby carrots, trimmed
2 medium jerusalem artichokes, peeled and finely sliced
3 baby zucchini, sliced 3/4-inch thick
4 medium diver scallops, halved horizontally
1 fillet mackerel, cut into 4 pieces with pin bones removed
1 fillet salmon, skinned and cut into 4 pieces with pin bones removed
2 fillets red mullet, halved with pin bones removed
1/2 cup edamame, shelled
1 oz each of fresh kombu, nori, and dulse seaweeds, soaked in cold water for 1 hour
For the vegetable nage (prepare one day in advance)
- In a large saucepan, cover the vegetables, star anise, pink peppercorns, salt, bay leaf, and thyme with water and bring to a boil.
- Pour in the white wine and return to a boil.
- Remove the saucepan from the heat and add the remaining ingredients. Cover and let stand for one to eight hours.
For the fish and vegetables
- In a deep sauté pan with a lid, bring the vegetable nage, ginger, lemongrass, carrots, and Jerusalem artichokes to a simmer and cook for one minute.
- Add the zucchini and continue to simmer for two minutes.
- Add the fish to the pan, cover with a lid, and simmer over low heat for three minutes.
- Remove the pan from the heat, add the edamame and seaweed, and let stand for one minute. The residual heat will gently cook the fish.
- Arrange the fish and vegetables in warm bowls, top with the edamame and seaweed, and pour the broth over them.
Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons is at Church Rd., Great Milton, Oxfordshire (dinner, $160; 44-18/4427-8881; manoir.com).