Chef Nora Pouillon's Washington, D.C.-based restaurant serves organic food, pure and simple

Text by Pamela Emanoil
Recipes by Nora Pouillon
Photos by Rita Maas

Late last year, high above the entrance to Restaurant Nora in Washington, D.C., swayed a green and white banner with bold type boasting "USDA Organic," the seal for the new national standards that had just taken effect. It's a showy symbol you'd expect to see on a tomato, not an elegant restaurant, but owner and chef Nora Pouillon had a right to be proud. A pioneer of the organic movement, Pouillon launched Restaurant Nora in 1979 to prove that organic, seasonal, and locally produced food deserves a top-tier venue.

"Many people think it's going to be only tofu and bean sprouts and rice," says Pouillon. "The first thing I want them to notice is that it's an upscale restaurant and that the food and menu are extremely varied."

Consider it mission accomplished: Celebrities, politicians, and grassroots environmentalists dine side by side, partaking of Pouillon's signature dishes. But the road to success has not been short. Although Pouillon has used mostly organic ingredients since day one, her restaurant didn't become certified until April 1999, the first U.S. restaurant to pull off this feat.

Pouillon deems certification worth the trouble (a USDA inspector makes regular appearances to verify her authenticity), though she doesn't deny it takes work. The reason she persists is simple: "Flavor," she says. "Organic farmers take care of the soil, and the soil is the most important thing. If the soil is full of nutrients and worms, it's rich and full of life, which is translated into flavor."

To highlight her ingredients' natural goodness, Pouillon plays with regional tastes—including Asian, Southwestern, and Mediterranean—on her daily menu. "Then, for each item, I have a balance—a protein, a sauce, a starch, and two or three fresh vegetables," she says. "I even try to incorporate more vegetables by putting little salads on top of things. The secret is to look out for good ingredients. If you buy something local that's in season and organic, you have to do very little."

Here, Pouillon provides an eclectic menu of seasonal favorites. Enjoy them this fall when you seek an evening of easy elegance.

Grilled Eggplant, Tomato, and Mozzarella Salad

Serves 4-6 / Bright green basil vinaigrette offers a surprising burst of color and flavor to this late-summer favorite.

Basil Vinaigrette
2 peeled shallots
2 peeled cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon olive oil
Salt and pepper
1/3 cup basil leaves, tightly packed
1 small green jalapeño chili pepper, seeded and quartered
1 1-inch piece ginger, peeled and sliced
1 tablespoon tamari
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
3 tablespoons water
3 tablespoons canola oil

2 tablespoons tamari
2 tablespoons olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound eggplant, cut into 12 1/2-inch-thick rounds
3/4 cup basil vinaigrette
1 pound tomatoes, cut into 12 1/4-inch-thick rounds
1/2 pound mozzarella, cut into 12 1/4-inch rounds
Basil sprigs, for garnish

1. To make vinaigrette, preheat oven to 400°F. Put shallots and garlic in a small nonreactive baking dish. Drizzle with 1 teaspoon olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Cover with aluminum foil and roast for 30-40 minutes, or until soft. Combine roasted shallots and garlic with remaining vinaigrette ingredients in a blender. Purée until smooth and emulsified.

2. Preheat grill or broiler. Mix tamari, olive oil, and pepper together in a bowl. Brush eggplant slices with tamari mixture. Grill or broil slices for about 1-2 minutes per side, or until browned and soft.

3. Make a pool of basil vinaigrette on each of four luncheon plates. Alternate slices of eggplant, tomato, and mozzarella in a circle on top of the dressing. Garnish each salad with basil sprigs.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 353 calories % fat calories: 68 Fat: 26g Saturated Fat: 9g Cholesterol: 44mg Carbohydrate: 14g Protein: 13g Fiber: 3g Sodium: 864mg

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup with Pepitas

Serves 4-8 / Creamy and comforting, this classy soup serves eight as a first course or four as a main dish on a fall evening.

2 to 2-1/2 pounds butternut squash
2 teaspoons canola oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 celery rib, chopped
3 cups low-fat milk
1 cup vegetable stock or water
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon cumin
Pinch of allspice
2 tablespoons dry sherry or marsala
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons pumpkin seeds (pepitas) or reserved butternut squash seeds

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Cut squash in half; scrape out and reserve some of the seeds (optional). Place squash, cut side down, on a baking dish coated with cooking spray. Bake for about 40 minutes, or until tender and easily pierced with a fork.

2. While the butternut squash is baking, heat oil in a small pan and sauté onion and celery for about 3 minutes, or until soft and clear.

3. When squash is cool enough to handle, scoop out pulp with a large spoon, place in a large bowl, and add onion, celery, milk, and stock or water. Stir to combine. In a blender, purée mixture in batches until smooth, being careful not to overfill blender. Stir in lemon juice, cumin, allspice, and sherry. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Return to stove until heated through.

4. Spread pumpkin seeds or cleaned reserved butternut squash seeds on a baking sheet and roast for 10 minutes, or until toasted. Divide soup among four warmed soup bowls. Sprinkle with seeds and serve.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 208 calories % fat calories: 22 Fat: 5g Saturated Fat: 1g Cholesterol: 7mg Carbohydrate: 31g Protein: 9g Fiber: 4g Sodium: 138mg

Wild Mushroom Risotto with Saffron

Serves 6-8 / Note that you can make this recipe in two stages, which saves time and is especially helpful when you're entertaining.

4 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons minced shallots
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1-1/2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
2 cups white wine or water
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1-1/2 pounds wild mushrooms, washed and dried (for example, chanterelles, morels, portobellos, cremini, or button)
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 cup green peas, shelled
4 ounces spinach, stemmed and julienned
1 to 1-1/2 cups hot vegetable stock or water
Chives, for garnish
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese, for garnish

1. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a deep sauté pan. Add shallots and sauté for 4 minutes, until soft and clear. Add garlic and sauté 1 minute. Add rice and stir to coat. Sauté until rice is translucent, about 1 minute. Add saffron and 1 cup of the wine or water. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until liquid is absorbed. Add remaining 1 cup liquid and cook, stirring frequently, for about 12 more minutes, or until rice is al dente. (Recipe can be made ahead up to this point. Remove pan from heat and spread rice out onto a baking sheet to cool. Refrigerate in a sealed container until ready to use.)

2. If mushrooms are larger than 21/2 inches, cut into 1/2 -inch slices. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large, deep sauté pan; add garlic and stir for 1 minute. Add mushrooms, stir, season to taste with salt and pepper, and sauté for 2-3 minutes. Add precooked risotto, peas, spinach, and as much hot stock as necessary to cook vegetables and reheat risotto. Stir to combine, bring to a boil, and cook until risotto is creamy.

3. Garnish with chives and grated Parmesan cheese. Serve immediately in large soup plates.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 323 calories % fat calories: 27 Fat: 10g Saturated Fat: 1g Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 52g Protein: 8g Fiber: 5g Sodium: 46mg

Pear Crisp

Serves 6 / A tangy citrus twist makes this seasonal dessert unexpected and delightful.

1 pound pears, sliced or diced
1/3 cup sugar
1-1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
Pinch of cinnamon
Juice and zest of one orange
4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small squares
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup flour
Vanilla ice cream, yogurt, or whipped cream (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 375°. Oil or butter a 9-inch pie dish. Mix pears with sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon, and orange juice and zest. Pour into pie plate.

2. Mix butter, brown sugar, oats, and flour together until crumbly. Spread on top of pear mixture. Place pie dish on a cookie sheet or aluminum foil to catch drippings. Bake for 35 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature with vanilla ice cream, a big spoonful of yogurt, or whipped cream.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 300 calories % fat calories: 25 Fat: 9g Saturated Fat: 5g Cholesterol: 20mg Carbohydrate: 56g Protein: 3g Fiber: 3g Sodium: 11mg

Organic Roasted Chicken with Seasonal Vegetables

Serves 6 / This dish is simple to put together. Just pop it into the oven, and the kitchen smells wonderful while it cooks. If root vegetables differ in size, cut them into 1-inch pieces for even cooking.

1 organic chicken or duck, cut up into six to eight pieces (or use chicken drumsticks or thighs) 2 large carrots, peeled and chopped
8 baby turnips, trimmed and cut into quarters
8 beets or parsnips (-1/2 pound), peeled and quartered
8 baby potatoes
4 shallots, peeled and separated, or two onions, quartered
2-4 heads garlic, cut in half crosswise
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons mixed chopped fresh herbs, such as rosemary, thyme, oregano, or parsley
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup chicken stock or white wine
Parsley leaves, for garnish

1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Put chicken, vegetables, shallots, garlic, and 1-1/2 tablespoons olive oil in a large bowl. Season with chopped herbs, salt, and pepper. Toss to combine.

2. Oil a 9x14-inch roasting pan with-1/2 tablespoon olive oil. Remove chicken pieces from bowl and place in the baking dish. Cover with-1/2 cup chicken stock or wine. Roast chicken for 10 minutes.

3. Add the seasoned vegetables and remaining chicken stock or white wine to roasting pan. Roast for 35-40 minutes, or until chicken and vegetables are nicely browned and cooked through.

4. Place vegetables and chicken on each plate and pour accumulated juices on top. Garnish with parsley leaves.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 328 calories % fat calories: 54 Fat: 20g Saturated Fat: 5g Cholesterol: 52mg Carbohydrate: 19g Protein: 19g Fiber: 5g Sodium: 206mg

Oven-Roasted Chesapeake Rockfish with Peppers and Baby Potatoes

Serves 4 / The unique red-pepper rouille adds rich flavor without overpowering the fish. You can substitute wild Alaskan salmon for the rockfish.

1 roasted red pepper, puréed
1/2 cup canola mayonnaise
1-2 teaspoons chopped garlic, or to taste
Pinch of saffron (optional)
Pinch of cayenne pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 green pepper, seeded and julienned
2 red peppers, seeded and julienned
2 yellow peppers, seeded and julienned
1 cup chicken stock or white wine
2-3 tablespoons mixed chopped fresh herbs, such as thyme, oregano, rosemary, or parsley
Pinch of saffron (optional)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1-1/2 to 1-3/4 pounds rockfish fillets, cut into four portions
1 tablespoon olive oil
16-20 unpeeled baby new potatoes, halved if large
Small bouquet assorted herbs, for garnish

1. Combine all rouille ingredients in a food processor and process until smooth. Refrigerate.

2. Preheat oven to 450°F. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a medium sauté pan and add onion, garlic, and peppers. Sauté for 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Add stock or wine, herbs, and saffron (optional), and season to taste with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then spoon pepper mixture into a baking dish large enough to accommodate fish fillets in one layer.

3. Steam or boil potatoes 15-20 minutes, until you can insert a fork easily.

4. Season rockfish fillets with salt and pepper. Clean sauté pan and heat until nearly smoking. Add remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and immediately sear seasoned rockfish fillets for 1-2 minutes on one side. Remove with a spatula and place on top of pepper mixture, seared side up. Bake 5-10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish and desired doneness. Serve fillets with baby new potatoes and a dollop of red-pepper rouille, garnished with the small bouquet of fresh assorted herbs.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 621 calories % fat calories: 51 Fat: 35g Saturated Fat: 4g Cholesterol: 68mg Carbohydrate: 38g Protein: 39g Fiber: 8g Sodium: 424mg Pamela Emanoil is the managing editor for Delicious Living. The recipe for grilled eggplant, tomato, and mozzarella salad is reprinted with permission from Cooking with Nora (Random House, 1996).