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This Burgundian recipe from Mireille Johnston’s The Cuisine of the Rose is whimsically titled in French “Le Steak,” as if there were only one kind. The English title is “T-bone Steak with a Mustard, Sherry and Cream Sauce.” Neither name acknowledges the coating of crushed black peppercorns, for which I’d have called it steak au poivre.

I made the dish to match with a beautiful Burgundy wine – a 2001 Bonneau du Martray Corton Grand Cru – that was Tom’s special cellar selection for September. Since the dinner would be just for the two of us, whose capacities are far below what they were in the days of our youth, I’d chosen a boneless strip steak, rather than a whole T-bone apiece. (How big are French steaks, anyway?)

I coated both sides of my steak with crushed Tellicherry peppercorns two hours in advance.

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The recipe’s cooking directions surprised me. I was to sear the meat quickly on both sides over high heat. Period. I’d expected to be told to lower the heat and continue cooking to the desired degree of doneness, but no: That steak had all it was going to get. Fortunately, we both like our steaks bloody rare.
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I put it on a platter in a warm oven to wait while I made the sauce. The ingredients for that were two tablespoons each of sherry, cream, and Dijon mustard. They had to be added to the “coagulated juices” in the frying pan one after the other, stirred “vigorously,” brought to a boil, and cooked for five minutes over lower heat. Not so easy. First, there were no coagulated juices – the steak hadn’t released any. Second, over that high heat, the sherry evaporated immediately, the cream boiled instantly, and the mustard thickened everything almost to a paste.

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To loosen the sauce, I had to add more cream and even a little broth that I had on the stove for another purpose. Even so, it was just about enough sauce to spread over the steak for serving.

Well, despite the peculiarities of the recipe, the steak and its sauce turned out very well. I served it with a gratin dauphinois and peas braised with butter and shallots.
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The beef was tender and flavorful, the peppercorns contributed spice as well as heat, the mustard’s bite was mellowed by the cream and sherry, and – best of all – the food and the wine were a marriage made in heaven.

See Tom’s blog for more about the lovely Corton.

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Timbale of Fresh Corn

Local corn season started slowly this year. All through over-heated July, the ears of corn I had from my greenmarket were either underdeveloped or overgrown, and prices were higher than ever: a dollar an ear. (I remember when corn cost a dollar a dozen.) Now prices seem to be edging down, and ripeness is improving.

So, at last I was ready for a corn recipe that I’d wanted to try since last winter, when I’d noticed it in Julia Child & Company: a timbale of fresh corn. That book is organized by complete dinners, and the meal in which this recipe appears is an elegant one, designed to impress an important guest. Nevertheless, I saw no reason not to make it for family: We’re important enough for me.

Julia warns that it’s a lot of work to scrape or grate the kernels off raw ears of corn, and she strongly urges using a specialized corn cutting tool. Since I’d be scaling the recipe way down – making it with 3 ears rather than 12 – I decided I could use a box grater.

I gathered my ingredients and set to work.
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I used the box grater all right, but I’m not showing you a picture of that stage of the work. It was squishy, messy, lengthy, and tiring. It also grated a bit of skin off one of my fingers.

Once that ordeal was over, everything else was easy. I beat an egg in a large bowl and stirred in breadcrumbs, minced onion, minced parsley, grated young Asiago cheese, crème fraiche, salt, black pepper, and hot pepper sauce. (The recipe actually calls for heavy cream and suggests several choices for the cheese. I used what I had in the refrigerator.) It all made a pleasant looking sort of porridge.
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Then I stirred in all the grated corn and poured the mixture into a small souffle dish, which I’d buttered generously and lined on the bottom with a round of buttered wax paper.
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The souffle dish, set in a larger pan partially filled with boiling water, baked for half an hour at 350°, then for a whole hour at 325°. In that time, it was supposed to have risen quite a lot, the top should have cracked open, and a skewer plunged into the center should have come out clean. When mine passed the skewer test, it had risen very little and hadn’t cracked at all. But it was nicely firm and fragrant, so I declared it done. One out of three is good enough.
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I left the dish for 10 minutes in the turned-off oven, door ajar, and then unmolded it. Though quite soft, the timbale held its shape well. It looked very appetizing on the plate.
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And it was delicious. A light, tender custard, laden with nubbly bits of corn, and well-flavored from the mix of other ingredients. I was especially pleased to have used the crème fraiche. It added a little bright tang to contrast with the sweetness of the corn, which regular heavy cream wouldn’t have.

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Maybe I’m going to have to buy one of those special corn graters.

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A great pleasure of opening any of Martin Walker’s “Mysteries of the French Countryside” books is anticipation of the dishes that Bruno Courrèges, his police-chief detective, will be making for dinner guests in the intervals of solving crimes. Bruno’s kitchen work is described so fully, I’ve been able to recreate several of his recipes for myself – about which I’ve done posts, here and here.

This time Tom and I and the friend who shared those earlier occasions gathered to make a dinner based on two of Bruno’s recipes from The Shooting at Chateau Rock: a main course of chicken and a dessert of cherries. Earlier, I’d written up the book’s information on each dish, so we could make notes on scaling down and quantifying. This we did while having kirs, the aperitif that Bruno served.
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For our appetizer at the dinner table, we couldn’t match Bruno’s homemade pâté de foie gras, but we had a hearty chunk of peppercorn-crusted pâté de campagne, served with cornichons and mustard.
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Our main course was this dish of chicken thighs, which, owing to a peculiar omission in the book, might well have been called a “mystery of the French countryside” itself.
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For all the book’s detailed narrative of chopping shallots, garlic, and tarragon, softening them in butter in a casserole dish, adding wine and stock, bringing it to a simmer, covering and putting it in the oven for 45 minutes, it never said to put the chicken thighs in the pot.

I kid you not. All three of us had read and reread the book’s pages, and once the raw chicken thighs are salted and peppered on the kitchen counter, the next we hear of them is when they come out of the casserole to wait while the sauce is being finished.

Needless to say, we needed an intervention. When would Bruno have put the chicken in the casserole? We opted to brown ours quickly in butter at the beginning, took them out of the pan to wait while we softened the vegetables, and returned them in time for the addition of wine and stock. From there, we were able to return to the book’s “instructions.”

Finally, the pan juices were reduced, and the sauce was finished with crème fraiche and lemon zest. We served the chicken with a very plain rice pilaf, as Bruno did (plus green beans, which he didn’t). The whole dish was excellent, with just a touch of spicy-sweet tarragon in the creamy sauce.
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Bruno’s dessert was cherries (picked from his own tree, of course) lightly stewed with honey and topped with a custard made from crème fraiche and heavy cream. It sounded luscious. Alas, our version didn’t entirely succeed.
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We did take extreme care in the time and temperature for heating the two creams and in the continuous vigorous whisking, both when beating them into the eggs and when finishing the cooking. But our custard first refused to thicken, and then – slowly but inexorably – curdled. Too much heat, I fear. I’ve found custards made with milk much easier to work with, and baked custards are easiest of all. Wish we’d used a double boiler here!

Our dessert wasn’t quite ruined: The cherries were fine, and you could think of the topping as a kind of furry, sweetened ricotta. But it didn’t have the silky texture you expect in a custard. Still, well chilled, and with cherry juice drizzled over the top, it was a pleasant enough ending to the meal.

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And finally: Tom produced three white wines for us to drink in the course of the dinner. A Mâcon-Villages for the kirs, a Condrieu with the pâté, and an older Savennières with the chicken. He’s done a post about them on his blog.
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I chose this recipe, from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking vol. 2, to match with a bottle of 2007 Vintage Tunina, one of the 12 special wines Tom is featuring on his blog this year. It’s the kind of lush, rich dish needed to stand up to this majestic 14-year-old white wine.
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My piece of veal was not exactly a steak, which the recipe calls for. My butcher denied all acquaintance with the concept of a veal steak, and the best I could get was a longish, thickish hunk of boneless veal shoulder. But, at home, Tom contrived to butterfly it and pound it into nearly the requested ¾” thickness.

Of course, once the veal went into a hot pan, to be browned in butter and olive oil, it began to shrink back, hump up, and thicken again. No way to stop it; that’s just the nature of the beast. I resigned myself to whatever shape it wanted to have.

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I salted and peppered the meat; stirred in chopped shallots; sauteed for a few more minutes; poured on white wine and homemade mixed-meat-and-chicken broth; and added two fresh sage leaves. (These last, from my little rooftop herb collection, are by far the biggest sage leaves I’ve ever seen. I have no idea what variety of sage I’m growing. But it tastes just fine.)
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While the veal simmered gently, covered, for an hour, the recipe’s instructions were to wash, quarter, and sauté fresh mushrooms in butter, to be added to the veal for its last 10 minutes. It was my good fortune to have some previously sauteed morel mushrooms in my freezer, perfect for just such occasions. In they went.
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When the veal was tender, it and the morels came out to a warmed platter while I finished the sauce. Removing the sage, I boiled down the cooking liquid almost to a syrup. The shallots had virtually melted into invisibility, leaving behind just their essence.
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I added a good dose of heavy cream, boiled the sauce down again until it thickened lightly, and poured it over the meat and morels. In fact, I was supposed to have swirled in some enrichment butter first, but I just plain forgot. Not a problem, however: the sauce was luxuriant enough without it.
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The veal had cooked perfectly, tender and juicy, and the morels had retained all their woodsy essence. This dish and that white wine, as big and complex as any red, were a marriage made in heaven.

For more about the wine, see Tom’s blog.

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My household is very fond of oxtails. A dinner staple in cold weather, they lend themselves to interesting preparations from many different countries. I’ve done posts about Italian, French, Spanish, and British oxtail recipes, only one of which wasn’t thoroughly rewarding. And every year, before winter ends, I look for new oxtail recipes to try.

This time around, I created a sort of hybrid French-American version: a combination of braising and broiling, working with a recipe published in a French cookbook of 1876 and some changes suggested by a present-day illustrated procedure – both of which I found in the Beef and Veal volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series.
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I started by blanching my oxtail pieces in plain water for 10 minutes. This was probably unnecessary with clean, modern oxtails, but it’s a way to shorten the main cooking time a bit. While they cooked, I chopped a cup each of carrots and onions and spread them in the bottom of a heavy casserole. (The French recipe wanted chopped turnips also, but we’re not fond of turnips.)
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In went the drained oxtails, and over them I poured ⅔ cup of white wine and 2 cups of Tom’s rich homemade broth. (The little white things you see in the picture below are the onions, which mostly floated. The carrots didn’t.)
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I brought the pot to a boil, reduced it to a simmer, covered it, and put it in a 300° oven for 3 hours, until the meat was done enough to be loose on the complex bones of the vertebrae.
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The oxtail pieces then had to cool completely before the final cooking. The French recipe would have had them cool in the braising liquid, but that would have taken a long time, so I drained them immediately and set them on a platter.
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While they cooled, I strained the braising liquid, pressing down on the vegetables and discarding them, and reduced the liquid by about half.

Then it was time for the final broiling of the meat. I salted and peppered the oxtail pieces, brushed each one with a thin coating of Dijon mustard, rolled them in fine dry breadcrumbs, and put them into a broiler pan.
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Then I drizzled a little melted butter over each piece; broiled them 5 minutes on the first side at 6 inches away from the heat; turned them over and broiled 3 minutes on the second side, until they were crisp and very tender.
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The French recipe wanted the oxtails served with a chestnut puree. I thought that would be stultifyingly heavy, so I compromised by making a modest amount of soft polenta. The modern procedure recommended braised red cabbage, glazed carrots, or a vegetable purée. Again, I thought those would be too heavy, so I made just a green salad with vinaigrette dressing.

The oxtails were excellent. The salad was a good, refreshing choice, because even the polenta struck us as a little too heavy. Mashed potatoes might have been better, and they’d have loved the delicious gravy. But whatever you put with them, oxtails are great cold-weather food. The long, slow cooking they need is just perfect for those icy days when you’re happy to have the oven warmth in the kitchen and appetizing aromas all over the house.

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Mies van der Rohe notwithstanding, less is not always more. Sometimes, less is definitely less.

That, alas, was the case when I embarked on my first new chicken recipe of 2021. As my regular readers know, chicken is one of my all-time favorite things to eat, and I never tire of looking for new ways to serve it. Poulet Sauté d’Yvetot, Chicken Sauté Normandy-style, looked simple and unusual when I read the recipe in the Poultry volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series. Other than chicken, salt, and pepper, the only ingredients were classic Normandy flavors: apples, butter, and Calvados.

I’d never cooked chicken with apples, but the combination seemed worth a try. So, on my next trip to a reliably good grocery store, I picked up a pair of big chicken legs – not organic, not free-range, not brand-named; just what was available that day. The first cooking stage was to brown them in butter in a sauté pan.

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The chicken sautéed for about 20 minutes, until half cooked. While that was happening, I peeled, cored, and chopped an apple – the kind of chopping job for which it’s fun to use my mezzaluna.
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When the chicken legs’ time was up, I salted and peppered them, set them in a baking dish in which I had spread the chopped apples, and deglazed the sauté pan with Calvados.
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I poured all the pan juices over the legs, covered the baking dish, and put it into a 350° oven for 30 minutes, until the the chicken tested done. Discouragingly, it had looked better on its way into the oven (left, below) than when it came out (right). Gone was the taut, crisp skin and warm brown color of the sautéing. The legs were pale, limp, grayish, and soggy looking.
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Well, whatever else that chicken was, it was dinner for that evening. I made sure to load the plates with lots of vegetables, just in case. And the vegetables were needed. The chicken had turned out bland and boring. Lacking much flavor of its own, it hadn’t taken on any from the apple, either. The apple, tasty enough in itself, hadn’t even seemed to notice that it had shared an oven with chicken.
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What went wrong here? Two things, I think. First, the chicken legs must have been from a battery fowl, to have flesh so tasteless. Their anonymity and low price should have warned me away, and I should have held off until I could find chicken with a provenance. Second, I think the recipe was misguided: It was more of a braise than a sauté, which made the chicken skin unpleasant; and while the richness of duck would have made a good match with the sweet acidity of apples alone, I now suspect that even good chicken would have needed more supporting flavors.

Oh well, you can’t win them all. Little after-dinner glasses of Calvados helped reconcile us.

 

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Two Sturdy French Soups

Cold weather hasn’t seriously clamped down yet, but there’ve been enough damp, dank, chilly days lately to push my culinary interest toward hearty, rib-sticking foods. Still trying out never-made recipes from my cookbook collection, I’ve recently discovered two excellent soups in the Cooking of Provincial France volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series: Potage Crécy and Potage Purée Soissonaise.

 

Potage Crécy – Purée of Carrot Soup
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I use a lot of carrots in my cooking – mostly as an ancillary ingredient, in the basic mix of chopped vegetables called mirepoix (French), battuto (Italian), or sofrito (Spanish). It was a nice change to have carrots play the star part in this easy recipe. My trusty mini processor made short work of mincing three cups’ worth.
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I then minced ¾ cup of onions by hand, which I softened in butter for 5 minutes in a heavy saucepan.
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Into the pan went the carrots, a quart of Tom’s homemade broth (a deliberate substitution for the recipe’s chicken stock), 2 teaspoons of tomato paste, and 2 tablespoons of raw rice.
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After simmering the soup for just 30 minutes, uncovered, I pureed the entire mixture through a food mill, returned it to the pan, and added salt, pepper, and ½ cup of heavy cream. At dinner time I brought the soup back to a simmer and stirred in a tablespoon of softened butter before serving it.
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It was, as I’ve already said, extremely good. Carrots have so much natural sugar, I’d wondered if the soup would be uncomfortably sweet, but it wasn’t. The flavor suggested a good winter squash. The carrots had totally absorbed the cream, leaving a texture just a little nubbly – quite pleasant on the tongue. This soup will be a good standby in the cold days ahead.

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Potage Purée Soissonaise – White Bean Soup
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I liked this recipe at first glance, because it calls for marrow beans. Large, plump, and richly flavorful, marrows are my all-time favorite white bean. This soup was a more elaborate production than the previous one, so I started early in the day, making half a recipe’s worth. Using bouillon cubes, I made up 1½ quarts of chicken stock, dropped in 1½ cups of beans, and gave them a 2-minute boil.
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Then the pot sat off heat for an hour, letting the beans soak, while I chopped half a carrot, half an onion, and a big leek in my large food processor. At that point I had to take exception to the recipe. It wanted the vegetables softened for 5 minutes in 1 tablespoon of butter in a 6- to 8-inch skillet. That would have been ridiculous: My half quantity generously filled a 10-inch pan and still took more than 5 minutes, beside needing more than half a tablespoon of butter.
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I went on to prepare the remaining ingredients. The recipe called for a chunk of lean salt pork, which is just about unobtainable these days. (It’s a mystery how some things, like salt pork and Bibb lettuce, just disappear from the marketplace.) At my butcher’s suggestion, I’d gone out and bought the fattiest bacon I could find, 2 ounces of which I blanched in boiling water for 10 minutes. I also made up a bouquet garni of bay leaf, parsley, and celery leaves.
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Next, I had to drain the beans, measure the liquid, and add more if needed to make it up to a quart. It took just a little. Back went the liquid into the soup pot, along with the beans, the bacon, the vegetables, and the bouquet garni.
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Now came the annoying part. I had to leave the pot uncovered and simmer the soup for two hours, or until the beans were tender. That meant almost constant attention to keep the soup from, alternatively, boiling too hard and doing nothing at all. After the first hour, almost all the liquid was gone. I had to add several doses of boiling water from a kettle, and keep the simmer going for almost an extra half hour, before the beans were ready.

Finally, it was time to drain all the solid ingredients, discard the bacon and bouquet garni, and purée the rest through a food mill. It was very dense, requiring long, hard, hand labor.
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When I returned the puree to the pot I was to add “enough of the liquid to make the soup as thick as heavy cream.” As you can see in the picture, there wasn’t very much liquid left. My puree absorbed it all, almost without noticing it.

The recipe did say I could add more stock if the soup remained too thick. That increased my annoyance with the pointless precision of measuring and adjusting the liquid to begin with and expecting it to last through two hours of uncovered cooking. I didn’t have any more stock. So I thinned it out a bit more with hot water, bringing it to a sort of porridgy density, swirled in a tablespoon of butter, and served it.

After all that, I’m glad to be able to say the soup was fabulous. All its flavors came together in a subtle, creamy, almost meaty whole – hard to describe but deeply satisfying.

I’ll definitely make this soup again, but with some adjustments. Let the beans soak for two hours, not one, at the start. Use at least half again as much liquid. Use homemade stock (the bouillon cubes were heavy on salt). Partially cover the pan for the entire two-hour simmer. Let my big food processor, not the manual food mill, purée the solids. I don’t think any of that could hurt the soup, and it will certainly ease the job of the soup maker.

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Champagne. Oysters Rockefeller. Ham Pithiviers. That’s the eccentric dinner I just made to celebrate the eccentric digital publication of an eccentric scholarly book by my admirably eccentric spouse.

Many of my readers know Tom from his wine blog, as well as his wine and food books. He was also a university professor, with four scholarly books published before he retired. His magnum opus on allegory, on which he spent many years, unfortunately never found an academic press. Now, with all the extra time at home that we’ve had during the pandemic, we’ve taken matters into our own hands and created it ourselves as a digital book. Please take a peek at The Strangeness of Allegory.

For a tiny two-person celebration of its publication, we wanted a bottle of champagne and some interesting foods to enjoy it with. After much cookbook research and many tempting items to choose from, we settled on the two mentioned above.
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Oysters Rockefeller

Invented at Antoine’s restaurant in New Orleans in 1889, Oysters Rockefeller is a warhorse of old-style elegance in American cooking, and a dish neither of us happen ever to have tasted. No better time than this! My cookbook collection yielded nine different recipes for it. I chose one of the simpler ones, from The Grand Central Oyster Bar Restaurant Seafood Cookbook.

It calls for raw oysters in their half shells to be covered with a thick green topping made by blending sautéed parsley, shallots, celery, chervil, and spinach with fresh breadcrumbs, softened butter, salt, pepper, cayenne, Worcestershire sauce, and Pernod. Then the oysters are bedded down in hot rock salt on metal pans and briefly baked in a very hot oven.

The topping was easy to put together (though I skipped the chervil and substituted Italian white vermouth for the Pernod). But hot rock salt was beyond my capacity. The closest I could come was to ease my dozen filled Wellfleet oyster shells into the dimples in four escargot tins and give them a longer time in the oven.

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Definitely not as picturesque as a bed of rock salt, but it served just as well. Other recipes call for larger amounts of breadcrumbs, so that the oyster topping turns brown and crisp. This one left them a soft, beautiful intense green, which we found very pleasing. The dish is clearly a close relative of the French escargots à la bourguignonne, but the absence of garlic and the medley of aromatic vegetables made for an unusual and piquant presentation.
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The Wellfleets were beautifully saline and loved their buttery green robes. We slowly savored every one of the rich little creatures, and wiped up their extra sauce with bits of crusty bread. They went very well with the champagne.
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Ham Pithiviers

It was the mouthwatering picture of this pithiviers in Julia Child & Company that induced us to want it as the entire second course of our festivity. Years ago, when I was young and enterprising, I had moderate success with a dessert pithiviers, filled with almond cream, from Julia’s Mastering, II. I even made the puff pastry from scratch. I’m not so ambitious any more, but excellent, buttery, frozen puff pastry is available now in stores, so I bravely ventured again with this savory version.

I’m not going to show you the book’s picture, because it’ll make mine look like a big girl scout cookie, but I have to say I was nevertheless pretty pleased with the way it came out. It was only a little lopsided.
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Impressive looking as the dish is, it’s actually easy to make once you have the dough. The filling is humble, everyday boiled ham gently cooked in butter with shallots, then off heat mixed with egg yolk, heavy cream, Worcestershire sauce, hot pepper sauce, and grated Parmesan cheese.

You put a round of dough onto a dampened baking dish, mound the filling in the center, lay a second round of dough on top, and seal all the edges well. Paint the top with egg glaze twice, and then scratch a decorative pattern into it. (Julia gives detailed directions for patterns.) Bake in a very hot oven for about an hour.

And very tasty indeed it was. The pastry had actually risen as it should (my puff pastries don’t always do so) and was beautifully crisp and flaky. The filling was rich and good, though we felt a little more of it would have made a better balance with all the pastry.
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Still, a definitely worthwhile experiment for an eccentric celebratory meal. The champagne liked it too.

That champagne, by the way, was also slightly eccentric, a Grand Cru Bouzy brut by Baron Dauvergne called Oeil de Perdrix – eye of the partridge, which accurately describes its color.  Bouzy is the Pinot noir capital of the Champagne zone, and this largely Pinot noir wine was big and robust as well as polished and deep, and it played wonderfully well with both the evening’s dishes. Tom considered it a perfect book-launching bottle.

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P.S. Don’t forget to check out the allegory book. There’s a lot to look at on the opening screen.

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My plan to make this year’s posts about previously untried recipes from cookbooks I already own is proving interesting in many ways. The recipe I chose for this week could be a textbook example of the difference between French and Italian cooking approaches.

Basically, the dish is squid braised in tomato. There are innumerable ways that this can be done. Here the seasonings include onion, herbs, and white wine – common enough in both France and Italy. But Italian approaches are typically straightforward: sauté the squid briefly in olive oil; add liquid and other flavorings; cook covered, long and slowly; serve. Not so fuss-free is this procedure from The French Menu Cookbook by Richard Olney.

Olney, an American expat painter and writer living in Paris and Provence, was one of the English-speaking world’s most influential proponents of French food in the 1970s, along with such luminaries as Elizabeth David, MFK Fisher, Julia Child, and Alice Waters. He was as noted for his imperious temperament* as for his culinary skills, both of which are on display in his writing. For example, the headnote to this recipe testily informs us that the dish is incorrectly named – but “useless to rebaptize” – and then delivers a short lecture on à l’americaine versus à l’armoricaine dishes.
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But let’s get on to the squid. Here’s ¾ pound of it that I bought from the fish store, already cleaned.

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That’s about half the recipe’s amount, which was to serve six in the book’s elaborate, multi-course menu. Even as our only main course, it seemed like a lot for the two of us. Tom cut the bodies into 1½ inch sections and halved the tentacles while I dealt with half an onion (size unspecified): finely chopped, softened in olive oil in a small pan by itself, and set aside.
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Continuing our cooperative work, we also peeled and seeded half a pound of fresh plum tomatoes, chopped a garlic clove, and readied the rest of the recipe’s ingredients.

Then I had to heat fresh olive oil in a large pan, toss in the squid, salt, and stir over a high flame until the pieces firmed a bit. (An Italian cook would have precooked the onion first in that same pan, possibly but not necessarily taking it out before adding the squid.)
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Next was to pour in and reduce the alcohol: white wine, to be sure, as any Italian might use here, but first, cognac – flamed. Not at all Italian, in my experience. Those additions made the squid seriously start to tighten and shrink in size.
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The final flavorings to add were the onions, tomatoes, garlic, thyme, bay leaf, salt, pepper, and Cayenne. While our author provides no quantities for the last five items, he kindly condescends to our frailties by suggesting we combine everything in a bowl ahead of time: “If one is unfamiliar with a recipe, the process is tremendously simplified by having 1 rather than 8 items to add at a given time.” I can’t say I regard that as a particularly onerous task, but for this occasion I did as directed.
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(Which in one sense makes for double work: scraping them all into the bowl, then scraping them all into the pan with the squid.)
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At this point I brought the pan to a boil, reduced to a simmer, covered it, and cooked it gently for almost an hour and a half, stirring periodically to be sure nothing was sticking. That was even longer than the recipe indicated would be necessary, but I was prepared for it. I knew that, if you don’t cook squid very fast – as in a sauté – and get it off the heat before it has a chance to turn rubbery, you’re in for a very long period of very slow cooking before that rubberiness relaxes.

Which my squid did, at last. But look how much it had shrunk!
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Then there was one last step in the recipe. After removing the squid and reducing the sauce somewhat, I had to swirl two tablespoons of softened butter into the pan. Even in Bologna, I don’t think an Italian would do that with an olive oil-based seafood dish.
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But, you know what? Different as it was from the Italian style, this dish was delicious – fat and luscious rather than lean and acidic, which is what Italian cookery would have given. Way more sophisticated from the brandy and the butter – and oh, that butter! It made an amazing difference to the flavors. Julia Child would have loved it. And we did too, even though we’d equally have loved the dish in the simpler Italian manner. Whatever it was, we finished it all. With gusto.
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* “Mr. Olney had a notably prickly personality that grated on some people, like Mrs. Child. ‘I think he enjoyed being difficult,’ she said. ‘But on the other hand, he could be absolutely charming if you treated him like the genius he considered himself to be.’” – R.W. Apple in The New York Times.

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Early June brings two important dates for Tom and me, snugged around each side of D-Day. The 5th is my birthday, and the 7th is our wedding anniversary. Last year we celebrated them with a splendid week in Venice; this year, of course, we were confined to home. Accordingly, we indulged ourselves with two elegant dinners for those days.

 

The Birthday Dinner

The main dish at this meal was based on a long-time favorite recipe for casserole-roasted pheasant – Fagiano ai sapori veneziani – from our book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. It has done great things for guinea hen, as well as for pheasant, so I thought I’d see what it would do for a chicken. The “Venetian flavors” here are celery, carrot, onion, pancetta, prosciutto, sage, rosemary, and white wine. The savory combination contributed an intriguing hint of wildness to half an excellent free-range chicken.
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Our first course was two little parmesan cheese custards, sformati di parmigiano. It’s a clipped recipe I’ve had for years and keep forgetting about, then happily rediscovering. It’s rich, easy, and good. Essentially just eggs, grated cheese, and heavy cream, baked briefly in a bain marie, unmolded and served with optional tomato sauce on the side. Makes a lovely light appetizer for company, if one could only have company again!
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The Anniversary Dinner

All through May, the season for fresh morel mushrooms, we searched markets for them, with no success. At last we acquired a single batch of big, beautiful ones.
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After cooking them all and eating half immediately, we froze the rest to save for this celebratory first course: feuilletés aux morilles à la crème. The puff pastry dough was not homemade, but I did cut and shape it into bouchée cases, which became crisp, buttery, flaky containers for the morels.
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Our main course – extravagant, elegant, and utterly simple – was one big, rare, rib of beef, cooked in an open pan on top of the stove in a way that makes it taste like a classic standing rib roast. I’ve written here about this recipe from Roger Vergé’s Cuisine of the South of France. We chose it for this evening specifically to partner with a very special bottle of red wine, which it did to perfection. (See below.) This is a fabulous preparation for the very best beef.
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The Dessert

I saw a luscious-looking raspberry ricotta cake on someone else’s blog and fell in love with it. Google found the recipe for me on the Bon Appétit website, and I made the cake to serve for both our festive dinners. The 1½ cups of fresh ricotta that went into the rich, sweet batter produced a cake as light and cushiony as a cloud. In the mix I substituted fresh raspberries for frozen, which wasn’t entirely wise: fewer fresh berries fill a measuring cup than frozen ones. Fortunately, I had extra berries to serve alongside, with big dollops of whipped crème fraiche. Heavenly! The cake held up perfectly for the second dinner, as well.
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And to Drink . . .

Both days, we started with glasses of Champagne, of course. For my birthday, even though the food was Italianate, it went beautifully with a French wine: a 1990 Faiveley Gevrey Chambertin. The anniversary meal, as I mentioned above, was chosen deliberately to match a wine: one long-cherished bottle of the extraordinary 2006 Ridge California Montebello, which we’d been waiting for just the right special occasion to drink. And, for digestifs both days, snifters of a fine Spanish brandy called 1866.
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Tom has written about the wines in his own blog, for those who’d like to know more about them.

 

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