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Archive for the ‘French’ Category

One evening in Paris long, long ago, I dined at the Michelin-three-star restaurant Le Grand Véfour. Owner-chef Raymond Oliver was then producing the apotheosis of classic French cuisine, and my meal was a purely blissful experience. This week I made an elaborate dish of that era from Oliver’s cookbook La Cuisine. I’ve had the book for a long time, and its glamour photo of Toast de Crevettes à la Rothschild had always attracted me.

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Now, with still some of the ugly-but-good shrimp I wrote about last week, it seemed like the perfect time to try the recipe, since its shrimp are invisible within their bread case and underneath their sauce.

So I defrosted half a pound of them. It looked like a lot for only two people, but that’s what half the recipe called for.
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The first task was to carve two cases from thick slices of sandwich bread (Joy of Cooking’s ever-reliable White Bread Plus) and fry them in butter until golden.

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Next was to shell the shrimp and “crush the shells in a mortar and pestle until they are almost a paste.” Easy for him to say! Restaurants obviously use kitchen slaveys and hefty professional equipment for such things. In my small mortar and pestle, the shells just slithered around, staying totally intact. So on to the mini food processor, which after much whirling at least broke the shells into fragments. I’d have to live with that.

Then came what is always the most elaborate part of a classic French recipe, making the sauce. I softened chopped carrot, onion, and shallot in butter, added the shell shrapnel, and cooked it for a few minutes.
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Into the pot I stirred tomato paste, white wine, fish broth, parsley, bay leaf, and thyme. It all simmered covered for 20 minutes, after which it had to be strained. That was a tough job, given my too, too solid shells. It might have been easier if I’d had a chinoise, but I don’t. I managed it with about 15 minutes of mashing the stuff around in my finest-mesh sieve.
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After returning the sauce to a pot I was supposed to reduce it to ⅜ cup. I didn’t. It was hardly more than that already, and nicely thick. I just left it there while I briefly sauteed the shrimp in (of course) butter and then added them to the sauce and simmered for another minute.
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I pulled the shrimp out of the pot, scraping as much of the sauce off them as I could, and put them in the prepared bread cases. As I’d expected, there wasn’t enough room to fit them all in, so I just left some on the side. Then I stirred cream and cognac into the sauce, brought it to a boil, and, off heat, dissolved yet more softened butter in it.

At last we were closing in on consumption time. I topped the shrimp toasts with the finished sauce – of which there was just about enough – and sprinkled on grated Gruyere, omitting the recipe’s final extravagance of a big slice of black truffle.
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I browned them quickly under the broiler and served. Of course they looked nothing like the picture in the book. Frankly, I don’t see how anyone could have achieved that appearance by following the recipe’s instructions.
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So how were they? Bite for bite, utterly delicious – but almost excruciatingly rich and heavy. Aside from the whole shrimp, which seemed more like a garnish than a principal ingredient, there wasn’t a fresh, noncomposed flavor in the dish. It was the classic, complex, Paris restaurant food of Oliver’s bygone era, but it’s not the way we eat today, or would want to, more than once in a very long while.

Still, making the dish was an intriguing culinary experience, a tour de force of nostalgia and digestion!

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For most of my adult life I had zero interest in cooking kidneys. I enjoyed them at good French restaurants, but whenever I’d tried them at home, their urinary undertones were too distressing. Then, a few years ago I found a recipe with a technique that it claimed would solve that problem – and it did! Ever since, I’ve enjoyed an occasional dish of that recipe’s kidneys in mustard sauce.

olney-menusWith the most recent veal kidney from my butcher shop, I thought it was time to try a different approach. In Richard Olney’s The French Menu Cookbook I found a recipe that uses the same “kidney cleansing” technique. Olney’s simple Sautéed Veal Kidneys with Mushrooms is fairly similar to my previous recipe; its main differences are using cognac instead of calvados, omitting mustard from the sauce, and including mushrooms.

The hardest thing about any kidney dish is preparing the kidney itself. Unlike small, smooth, round lambs’ kidneys (delicious but very hard to find locally), a veal kidney is an agglomeration of soft meat lumps held together with a complicated internal chunk of fat and tubes. Beloved Spouse did his usual heroic job of reducing this one to manageable segments.
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horizontal-kidney

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For the cleansing technique, I melted butter in a pan; tossed the salted and peppered kidney pieces in it over high heat very briefly – just until they turned grayish on the outside; and set them up in a strainer, where they gently exuded the reddish-yellowish liquid that carries the uriny taste.
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draining

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The next thing to work on for the recipe was the mushrooms. Coincidentally, I’d just bought a small batch of fresh chanterelles, which I thought should be very compatible with the kidneys and sauce.
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few-chanterelles

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I cleaned, sliced, and sautéed them in the butter remaining in the pan, then set them aside and did the same with minced shallots. When those had softened a bit I deglazed the pan with cognac, white wine, and a little very concentrated homemade broth. The recipe doesn’t call for broth, but I did it because in the headnote Olney remarks that, among professional chefs, “meat glaze usually lends additional body and intensity to the sauce.” Sounded good to me.

At that point I returned the chanterelles to the pan, stirred in heavy cream, and cooked gently until the sauce had reduced and thickened somewhat. Then I was able to set it all aside until dinner time.
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chanterelles

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When dinner was nearly ready I folded the kidneys into the mushrooms and sauce, warmed everything through, being careful not to let the sauce boil, and served.
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kidneys-served

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It was marvelous. Everything blended beautifully, the kidneys were delicately flavorful, and the chanterelles truly loved the sauce. In fact, they were almost tastier than the kidneys. An accompaniment of small boiled potatoes and white asparagus completed a highly satisfying dish.

I know innards aren’t everyone’s first love, but properly prepared they aren’t overpowering. They have gentle flavors, different from those of the familiar muscle meats – and for me, at least, a change is always welcome. I love prime rib, but I don’t want it all the time. Kidneys, liver, brains, sweetbreads: They all have something different to contribute to the kind of diet we’re fortunate enough to be able to enjoy.

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Breakfast Brioches

Around here, everyday breakfast is usually two cups of espresso and something in the bread family: an English muffin, a bagel, a homemade muffin or scone; if nothing else, white toast. Very occasionally, we have croissants or brioches. I buy the croissants, because I’m not good at making them, but I can make good brioches.

When the urge to do so overcame me recently, I dug out my individual brioche tins and started looking through cookbooks. There are some big differences in technique claytonbetween brioche recipes, though none of them is simple. Julia Child’s in Mastering is – predictably – the most complicated, with a six-page master recipe and five pages of shaping variations. Even Irma Rombauer, always a model of conciseness, devotes a whole densely written page of Joy to brioche making. This time I chose to use Bernard Clayton’s basic French Brioche recipe in The Complete Book of Breads, which runs to only four pages.
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Brioche dough – really more like a very thick batter – never gets kneaded, only beaten. To start, I dissolved yeast in water; added a small amount of flour, plus nonfat dry milk, sugar, and salt; and beat that in the heavy-duty mixer for two minutes. Next I added a lot of soft butter and beat that in for one minute. Finally, I beat in eggs and the rest of the flour. Here are those three stages of the batter.
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three-batters

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Then came the tricky part. I quote you the recipe’s instructions:

Grab the dough in one hand . . . pull a large handful of it out of the bowl, about 14 inches aloft, and throw it back – with considerable force! Continue pulling out and slapping back the dough for about 18 to 20 minutes. Don’t despair. It is sticky. It is a mess but it will slowly begin to stretch and pull away as you work it.
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A heavy-duty mixer, at medium speed, can do this in about 10 minutes.

This time I thought I’d give the hand system a try.
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slapping-dough

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It was kind of fun at the beginning – good for working out aggressions – but very soon I gratefully turned the job over to the mixer. After 10 minutes of powerful slapping around, the dough had smoothed out nicely and showed a distinct preference to stick to itself rather than anything else it touched.

The dough then had to rise in a warm place (80-85° recommended) until doubled in bulk. My kithen is nowhere near that temperature, so I put the bowl in a slightly warmed oven. When I checked on it after two hours it had risen tremendously and looked energetic enough to go even higher.
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unrisen-and-risen

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I didn’t let it, though. I gently coaxed it down, covered its bowl tightly, and put it in the refrigerator overnight.

The next morning it hadn’t risen nearly as much as the first time, which worried me a little, but it had to be shaped while it was still very cold, so I went ahead. It behaved beautifully. This was a completely different animal from yesterday’s sticky mess. I was able to shape it into balls and topknots without using a speck of flour.

shaped

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Then they had to rise again, covered, but in such a way that the covering wouldn’t touch the rising dough. Using a lot of glasses and plastic wrap, I built them a sort of greenhouse:

greenhouse

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This time I didn’t let them rise in as warm a place as for the dough’s initial rise, because I’d read somewhere that too high a temperature could cause the butter to start seeping out. As a result, my shaped rolls took 3½ hours to barely double in bulk. Several of the topknots had slipped sideways as they rose (they always do, for me), but as I applied egg glaze to them just before baking, I was able with a careful brush to nudge them back toward the middle.
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final-rise

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My brioches were a little bigger than the recipe anticipates (I have only 8 tins, not 10), so they took more than the indicated 20 minutes to bake. They seemed almost done at 30 minutes, but I kept them in for 10 more, for better browning. In the final oven rising, the topknots slipped sideways again, but not too badly.
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baked

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And so on to the next day’s breakfast – where the brioches were excellent. They had the proper fine, dense crumb and a luscious butter-and-egg richness.

served-2

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Are they worth all the trouble? To us, yes: Fresh brioche spread with homemade strawberry jam, alongside a good espresso – that’s a great way to start your day.

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The soufflés I make always start sinking before they even reach the dinner table. It’s irritating, but I’ve gotten used to it. Deflating doesn’t hurt the taste any, only the appearance. I never make them for guests, though – both for the aesthetics and because it’s hard to fit the timing of a soufflé into a dinner-party menu. It’s easier for an everyday dinner for two: the eating can wait for the dish, not vice versa.

Cheese soufflés are what I mostly make, far more often than dessert soufflés. I usually make them with whatever cheeses I have on hand, not just the statutory gruyère. And since I know my soufflés will never sustain a dramatic puff, I never try to extend the height of the mold with a strip of buttered foil. In fact, I often use a larger mold than indicated, to prevent any possible spillovers. Rough and ready, they’re still always good.

mastering-iThe soufflé recipe I use for a guide is the basic one from the first volume of Julia Child’s Mastering. After years of consulting it, I just recently I noticed in that section a recipe for an unmolded one: soufflé démoulé mousseline. Julia says it’s light and delicious, and while it doesn’t rise as high as the standard soufflé, it sinks only a little bit. Well, that sounded good for a change!

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For the past few days we’d been enjoying an interesting cheese called Alex – a Bavarian mountain cow’s milk cheese, related to that region’s emmenthaler, gruyère, and appenzeller. It seemed just the thing for a soufflé, so I coarsely grated a suitable amount of it and sprinkled a little of that all around the inside of a heavily buttered charlotte mold.

souffle-2

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The cooking technique starts in the usual soufflé way: Melt butter, stir in flour, foam together for two minutes. Beat in boiling milk, salt, pepper, and nutmeg; boil for one minute. Off heat, beat in egg yolks.

souffle-1

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A difference here was slightly smaller quantities of butter, milk, and egg yolk than in the usual soufflé of its size. Also, a larger proportion of egg whites: twice as many whites as yolks. My ever-reliable Kitchen Aid mixer whipped them easily, as always.

souffle-3

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I folded the whites into the base mixture, stirred in the grated cheese, and scooped it all into the mold. I set the mold in a large pot and poured in boiling water all around the mold. That’s like the way you treat a baked custard – not at all what you do to a standard soufflé.
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souffle-4

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Everything then went into a 350° oven for 1¼ hours – again, very different from the 30+ minutes at 400° that a standard soufflé takes.

While it was baking, I prepared the sauce that was to be served with it. Julia called for a fairly elaborate tomato sauce, which I approximated by gussying up a jar of my plain homemade sauce. I sauteed a little chopped onion, carrot, and celery; added my sauce and a dollop of strong homemade broth; simmered it until it thickened a bit.

The soufflé rose beautifully in the oven, but then came the anxious part. Would it unmold cleanly? Or would it fall to pieces? Julia gives directions for dislodging it onto a plate, with reassurance that it should unmold perfectly. But in case of blemishes, she calmly advises, just pour the tomato sauce over instead of around it, “and decorate with parsley.”

I’m happy to say that my soufflé did unmold properly but – inevitably, because it was mine – it immediately sank to about half its original height. Curses, foiled again!
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souffle-5

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Nevertheless: If you didn’t know it wasn’t supposed to look like that, you’d think it was just fine. And so it was: light and spongy, with an enticing smell and a rich, savory taste – a little tangy from the Alex cheese. It liked the tomato sauce very much. Despite deflation, a very successful soufflé.

And it has one more virtue: Before unmolding, this soufflé can sit in its little bathtub, in the turned-off oven with door ajar, for up to half an hour without harm. It’s true: I tried it. So one of these days now I can serve a soufflé to guests.

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Ratatouille

I can’t let a summer go by without making ratatouille at least once. Actually, I’d probably make it several times, but Beloved Spouse prefers the Italian style of vegetable mélange – perhaps because he usually ends up slicing, chopping, and mincing all the components. I like the Italian type too, but there’s a ratatouille recipe I love to make: a very complex one from the Cooking of Provincial France volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series.

VergeThis time I let BS off the hook, because I had found a different version of ratatouille that I wanted to try, and I was prepared to do all the knife work for it on a free afternoon while he watched a pre-season football game. The recipe is from Cuisine of the South of France, by Roger Vergé, the legendary chef of the Michelin three-star Moulin de Mougins restaurant in Provence.  So I approached this experience with high expectations, while BS readied himself for another season of dashed hopes.

Vergé calls it La ratatouille niçoise à ma façon and says that while the usual dish of that name “creates itself during a long slow cooking, taking about 2 to 3 hours,” his gives you “the advantage of keeping the freshness and texture of the individual vegetables.” That sounded attractive, even though my Time-Life book’s recipe (by the redoubtable M.F.K. Fisher) doesn’t cook for anything like that much time. So I gathered a half recipe’s worth of Vergé’s ingredients and set to work.
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ingredients

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Vergé is particular about the type of vegetables to use and the way to handle them. Peeling, seeding, and dicing the tomatoes were no problem, nor slicing up the green pepper and onion. Peeling stripes into the zucchini was attractive, and I duly cut them lengthwise and crosswise as indicated. Cutting up the eggplants – he specifies that long, slender type – was a bit of a poser, because he wants them in pieces “the size of your thumb.” For the size my eggplants were, the pieces would have had to be either fatter and flatter than my thumb or much skinnier than it. I went with fat and flat.

cut up ingredients

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First I cooked the tomatoes in olive oil in a very hot skillet for just 2 minutes and moved them to a plate. In another pan I softened the onions and peppers together in oil for 15 minutes and added them to the tomatoes’ plate. In yet another pan, with high heat, I was to brown the eggplant pieces in oil and drain them in a colander set over a bowl to catch the oil they’d give off. That was a problem.

eggplant

Flat on one side and round on the other, my eggplant pieces refused to brown evenly. Also, they absorbed all the oil, needed more, and gave none back. Same shape and same situation with the zucchini, last to be sautéed.

That was all the cooking any of the vegetables got. At dinner time I mixed everything together in a casserole, merely heated it through, and stirred in minced garlic and chopped basil leaves.

ratatouille 2

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It wasn’t bad, this ratatouille. Those vegetables always blend well together – though parts of the zucchini pieces had a faint flavor of char from my difficulty in browning them evenly. But the vegetables didn’t taste any fresher than they do in my preferred recipe. In fact, the flavors were a little muddled. And there wasn’t nearly as much tomato presence as I like.

The Time-Life ratatouille recipe uses twice the amount of tomato, cuts it in big strips, lays them on paper towels to absorb some of their liquid, and doesn’t cook them separately at all. Also, it carefully layers the individual vegetables in their casserole and simmers it covered for 30 minutes. That way, the vegetables exude a lot of liquid, but you keep drawing it off with a bulb baster and, at the end, boil it down to a luscious glaze that you pour over the ratatouille – which makes a dish that’s much prettier on the plate and far more interesting to eat.

So, though I wouldn’t turn up my nose at another dish of Vergé’s ratatouille if I encountered one somewhere, in my own kitchen I’ll stick with the version I love best.

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Eels are not to everybody’s taste. Their snakelike appearance and alleged insalubrious habits may well be off-putting. When, as a weekend fisherman, Beloved Spouse once inadvertently caught an eel, we found it repulsive to handle, difficult to dispatch, and proverbially hard to skin. But eels can make delicious eating – e.g., smoked, grilled, or in sushi.

One of the Long Island seafood sellers in my Greenmarket has had a fairly regular supply of small eels this summer, very fresh, neatly beheaded, gutted, and skinned – all the nasty work done for us. I’ve bought them twice already.

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Anguille alla Romana

Eels 1.

del riccio romaFor these first two, six-ouncers, I used a recipe for Eels Roman-style from a cookbook I bought long ago in Italy called Le Ricette della mia Cucina Romana. I softened chopped spring onion and parsley in olive oil in a terracotta pan, then floured and browned the cut-up eels in it. Well, sort of browned them – they didn’t change color much.

Next I sprinkled the eels with salt, pepper, and two tablespoons of white wine. As soon as the wine had evaporated, I poured on plain hot water and let them cook covered for about 20 minutes. The eels’ own gelatin turned the liquid into a light, creamy sauce.

in pan 1

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Then I added a cup of blanched fresh shell peas and a little more hot water, and continued cooking for another 20 minutes.

in pan 2

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That was it. A very simple, very satisfying dish. The eels didn’t taste at all fishy, but not quite meaty either. People tend to describe eel as rich, sweet, and oily, like blowfish, monkfish or octopus. To me, it almost tasted like pork. It made a good combination with the peas and was perfectly tender: The flesh came easily off the spine bones.

plated

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Catigot d’Anguilles à la Gardiane

eels 2

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T-L fishMy second pair of eels were smaller – about four ounces apiece. For them I chose a provençal Ragout of Eels recipe from the Fish volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series. It was another very easy preparation. In a broad saucepan I muddled together olive oil, smashed garlic, half a bay leaf, some thyme, a piece of orange peel, and a tiny dried hot red pepper. The eels went in next, along with some salt and ¼ cup of red wine.
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eels 2 in pan

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Again, the main cooking liquid was water, almost to cover, but this time the dish cooked uncovered. The eels took a little over half an hour to tenderize, by which time the liquid had reduced quite a lot but hadn’t thickened. It was too acidic to use as a gravy so I lifted out the eels for serving.

eels 2 served

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They were thoroughly imbued with those provençal seasonings, and very rich. Good tasting, but surprisingly heavy. We actually couldn’t eat too much of them. But it was an interesting experiment in contrast to the very pleasant Roman-style dish.

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I had a birthday recently. Though it wasn’t a biggie (didn’t end in 0 or 5), Beloved Spouse and I decided it rated a very special dinner. That meant dining at home, so he could bring out some of his special older wines to accompany the festive food I’d make. Poultry lover as I am, my thought immediately turned to game birds. Wild-mushroom lovers as we both are, the next thought was morels, since they’re in season. In one of my cookbooks I found a splendid recipe to combine them in.

SchneiderElizabeth Schneider’s Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini is a combination reference work and cookbook, with extended essays on 350 vegetables. In each chapter there are a few recipes of her own for the vegetable, plus a section called Pros Propose, in which she gives “recipe sketches from chefs (and other culinary professionals) too lengthy, complex, or exotic to include in full.” In that section of the morels chapter I found Ragout of Pheasant with Morels and Chives.

The ingredients sounded as if they’d complement each other very well, so I promptly made a shopping list and got ready for the day. Schneider’s recipe sketch had no quantities or timing, just the steps to take, but the details were easy enough to figure out for myself.

Starting in the (regrettably rainy) afternoon, I enriched a stock made from chicken bouillon cubes with carrot, onion, and the pheasant’s neck, gizzard, and wing tips. While that simmered along, I quartered my plump, never-frozen pheasant, browned it in butter, and tossed in halved shallots.

browning pheasant

Next came a sprinkling of flour, minced garlic, white wine to deglaze, a generous batch of lightly sauteed morels, and chopped chives.

adding morels

My chicken-pheasant stock got poured into the pan next, and the whole preparation had to simmer, covered, “until the meat comes easily off the bone.” That took an hour and a half – longer than I’d ever cooked so small a bird before, but it proved to be the right thing to do. Finally, I removed the pheasant and all the vegetables long enough to reduce the sauce and stir in heavy cream, and then I put everything back and heated it through for serving.

pheasant ragout

This was the best pheasant dish I’ve eaten in my life: moist, tender, delicious. You couldn’t call it gamey – this was a farm-raised pheasant, after all – but the interplay of the ingredients made it rich and intensely satisfying. The morels and the bird adored each other. And the 1998 Bouchard Beaune Clos des Mousses that we drank with it made for a happy ménage à trois.

The rest of the meal wasn’t shabby, either. Here’s what else we ate and drank:

  • For apéritifs we sipped 2004 Bollinger Champagne, along with a few gougère puffs.
  • Our first course was Coquilles St. Jacques Nantaise a dish I’ve written about before.  With it, a 2004 Drouhin Beaune Clos des Mouches.
  • For dessert I’d made a rustic apricot tart, and the dessert wine was a 2006 Vin Santo of Chianti Classico.

four wines

We didn’t finish all those wines that evening, I hasten to say. The “leftovers” (though they hardly deserve so uncomplimentary a name) made a second stellar performance two evenings later, when we celebrated our 47th wedding anniversary with another special dinner – this one featuring oysters, a rare rib roast of beef, new peas, a potato gallette, cheeses, and a 2004 Drouhin Chambolle Musigny.

You can probably see why we choose to stay at home for special occasions like these. What a gift it is to be married to a man with a wine collection! And while, as I said at the start, this birthday was no biggie, it was a large enough number to persuade Beloved Spouse that, yes, it’s indeed time to start enjoying some of those wines. Maybe getting really old won’t be so bad after all.

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