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Shrimp “au Poivre”

I tried an unusual shrimp dish this week. Most of the time, when I serve shrimp it’s either in a traditional shrimp cocktail – briefly boiled, chilled, and dressed with a spicy ketchup-based sauce – or cooked in a way that uses a lot of fat: frying, sautéeing, or broiling with butter or olive oil. Itself almost pure lean protein, shrimp seems to revel in being bathed in tasty fats.

There’s very little fat in the recipe for shrimp au poivre I found in Joyce Goldstein’s Kitchen Conversations. The premise of the entire book is capitalizing on balancing contrasting flavors. In this recipe the contrasts are shrimp for sweetness, lemon juice and zest for sourness, and garlic and black pepper for heat. Goldstein says her inspiration was steak au poivre, in which the meat is coated with cracked peppercorns, sauteed, and served with a deglazing sauce.

I’ve had mixed success with this book’s recipes, so I was skeptical about whether shrimp could really handle the amount of pepper this one calls for, but interested enough to try it. I scaled down the recipe quantities by a third to provide two portions and assembled the ingredients.
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You see up there two generous teaspoons of coarsely ground Tellicherry pepper. Actually, the recipe called for cracked pepper, but I’ve never enjoyed the sensation of biting into peppercorn chunks, so I took the liberty of making that change.
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Moving right along, I salted the shrimp lightly and seared them quickly in minimal olive oil.

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I took out the shrimp, deglazed the pan with white wine and fish stock; stirred in minced garlic, minced lemon zest, lemon juice, and the pepper; and cooked briskly to reduce the liquid by half.
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Then all there was left to do was return the shrimp to the pan, give them another sprinkle of salt, heat them through, swirl in a little softened butter to smooth out the sauce, and serve.
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It was an almost startling dish. The sauce certainly made a contrast with the sweetness of the shrimp. Tellicherry peppercorns, said to be the richest and sweetest variety, also have a lot of fire, and it was all on display here. I’d say it was even intensified by the lemon juice and zest. The garlic, normally a perceptible presence in any dish, was pretty faint in this one.

The overall effect was weird at first, but as we ate along, it grew on me. Not, I’m sorry to say, on Tom, for whom the dish simply never came together. Despite being a major shrimp lover, I doubt I’ll make this recipe again – but I can imagine enjoying the dish if it were served to me some time in the future.

Beef Wellington

Last week, for a dinner party to celebrate two recent birthdays, Tom’s and our friend Betty’s, I made a Beef Wellington. I couldn’t even remember when I’d last made one, but Tom, who had a hunger for a big piece of first-rate beef, had requested it and I was happy to indulge him. This pastry-wrapped beef fillet roast is a delicious and impressive dish in the high old classic style that I love, and really not all that difficult to make.

The recipe I’ve always used is one I copied out from someone else’s Gourmet Magazine cookbook – the original version from the 1950s. Over the years I’ve made a few alterations of my own, trying different kinds of pastry crust, omitting bacon slices for the initial roasting, and replacing the recipe’s blithe demand for “3 or 4 truffles” with a layer of mushroom duxelles.

The pastry recipe I like at present, a pâte brisée from Simca’s Cuisine by Simone Beck, uses a whole egg and half a cup of white wine instead of water. It produces a lot of a nicely savory crust, the excess of which can be frozen for future use. I made up a batch a day in advance.

Early the next day I rubbed my two-pound chateaubriand, cut from the thick end of the fillet, with cognac, salt, and pepper. It looked good enough to eat just as it was!

 

It went into a 425° oven for just 15 minutes and then I set it aside to cool while I made the duxelles. I finely chopped a quarter-pound of mushrooms, ferociously twisted small handfuls of them in a cloth to squeeze out their water, and sautéed them in butter and oil along with a little minced shallot. Some recipes say you don’t have to do the squeezing – the liquid will evaporate if you cook the mushrooms long enough. OK, but I think the results are better with the shorter sauté. Also, the squeezing is kind of fun – it’s amazing how much water comes out of apparently dry mushrooms.
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Now all was ready to assemble the dish. I rolled out a big sheet of dough and, on the area where the beef would lie, spread a thick layer of duck liver mousse. (That was purchased, not homemade, and I chose it as a middle ground between the recipe’s options of foie gras and chicken liver pâté.)
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I set the meat on the mousse and spread the duxelles over the top.
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I wrapped the dough snugly around the meat and its accompaniments, trimmed off the excess, and sealed the seams with beaten egg.
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I turned the loaf seam-side-down and moved it to a baking sheet, where I gave the whole thing a brushing with the egg. Then for fun, I cut flower shapes from the leftover dough, lined them up along the loaf, and brushed them with egg too. They were a little silly looking, but they gave it a festive air.
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By then it was still only mid-afternoon, so I refrigerated the pastry until evening. The recipe called for baking it 30 minutes at 425°, but since mine had been cold, it took a little longer. It came out looking very cute, sort of like a cross between a loaf of country bread and a child’s decorated football, with an aroma that carried a promise of great things.
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And it delivered on the promise. When sliced into, the pastry crumbled a bit, but the beef was rare to perfection – absolutely gorgeous. It simply melted in the mouth, moist with beef sweetness, and the accompanying flavors of mousse and duxelles enhanced every bite of the savory crust they’d annealed to. Duchesse potatoes and sauteed spinach – the latter dotted with pignoli and raisins – played excellent supporting roles on the plates.
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This was a properly festive dish for the two birthday people, and it matched beautifully with the 1982 Chateau Montrose St. Estèphe that Beloved Spouse had chosen to pair with it. Need I say we all thoroughly enjoyed the celebratory meal?

Gratineed Ham Crêpes

I’m an inveterate list-maker. Besides shopping lists and to-do lists, I keep lists of foods in the freezer and bottles in the wine closet. For dinner parties I list the timing of every step in the final cooking and serving. And tucked into many of my cookbooks are lists of recipes I want to try some day. The day just came for one of those.

Today’s dish is from my list for Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine: gratineed ham crêpes. The filling sounded tasty, the creamy sauce was made with an unusual technique, and the final gratin was also unusual. His separate recipe for making the crêpes themselves didn’t attract me, but I could work with the Julia Child crêpe recipe I’ve always relied on. So on to the attempt.

One day in advance, I put together the crêpe batter – mixing flour, salt, milk, water, eggs, and melted butter in my old blender. Crêpes are about the only things I still use a blender for: I’ve found that the food processor can leave lumps. The batter needs at least two hours of chilling, but it’s perfectly happy to sit in the refrigerator overnight.

Next day, feeling quite professional, I assembled my batterie de cuisine on top of the stove: two crêpe pans, a little dish of oil and a brush to grease them with, a plate to receive the cooked crêpes, the blender jar of batter, a quarter-cup measure to dip it out with, and a little bowl to hold the wet cup. All was set up for fast, efficient cooking of two crêpes at a time.
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Pride goeth before a fall! It had been too long since I’d last used those crêpe pans. They’d lost their seasoning, so when I poured in the first batter it instantly cemented itself to the pans, even though I’d greased them. It had to be scraped off in bits – which didn’t do the pans any good.
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Chastened, I selected the less-bad-looking pan, scrubbed it with salt, oil, and paper towels, re-seasoned it as well as I could at the moment, and resumed cooking my crêpes – slowly and carefully, with just the one pan. They gave no further trouble, thank goodness.
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That taken care of, I could go on to make the sauce, while Tom minced half a cup of good smoked ham, shredded half a cup of gruyère, and beat an egg yolk with two tablespoons of heavy cream.
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The sauce started as essentially a bechamel, but made differently from the way I’m familiar with. First, I had to brown the mixture of butter and flour, rather than letting it foam along without browning. Then the milk to be added had to be lukewarm, not boiling. Third, after additions of nutmeg and cayenne it had to cook for 10 minutes, which is a longer time than I’m used to, before being enriched with the egg yolk-cream mixture.
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I set part of the sauce aside for topping the filled crêpes and mixed all the ham and most of the gruyère into the rest of the sauce. I remembered to lay out the crêpes ugly side up, so when rolled they’d show their better sides. It seemed like very little filling.
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I laid the rolled crêpes in a buttered baking dish and topped them with the remaining sauce, thinned out a little with cream, the rest of the grated gruyère, dots of butter, and – what for me was another unusual feature – fine dry bread crumbs.
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The dish baked for 15 minutes at 400°. It came out looking quite nice, except that the butter had made little puddles rather than spreading out. I guess my dots were too big. No harm, though.
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The crêpes were excellent. Richly flavorful, despite the modest amount of filling; though Tom would have liked a stronger ham presence. The texture of the dish was one of its best features: soft in the center but pleasantly crunchy on top from the breadcrumb gratin. I may adopt that gratin for when I make other kinds of crêpes – which I must do soon. Gotta keep those pans seasoned!
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I should have been in Spain today.

For months, Tom and I had planned to spend this week in Madrid. Then came the government shutdown. Overstressed air traffic controllers (those who hadn’t called in sick) were working double shifts. TSA screening lines were lengthening. Airplane maintenance crews weren’t working. Flights were being delayed, rerouted, cancelled. Though the shutdown ended (for now), its consequences were still looming. With the addition of potential threats from this winter’s polar vortex, it just seemed that too many things could go wrong with this trip. We’d go to Spain another time.

So here I was at home, thinking of the wonderful Spanish food I’m missing. What else could I do but put together a fine dinner from my Spanish cookbooks as a consolation prize?

For the centerpiece of my dinner menu I chose Lomito de cordero relleno de hongos: a roasted rack of lamb stuffed with mushrooms and scallions, from Penelope Casas’s La Cocina de Mama. The book’s picture of the dish was enticing:

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Happily, I had a small lamb rack in the freezer, just the right size to serve two. When it was defrosted, Tom carefully cut slits in the meat so that when the chops were cut apart each would have a layer of stuffing in the middle.
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He also minced ¾ cup of mushrooms and ¼ cup of scallions for me for the stuffing. I sauteed them in olive oil until the mushrooms were softened; salted and peppered them; poured on 2 tablespoons of Madeira, and cooked until it evaporated. (The recipe actually wanted a sweet sherry, but I had an open bottle of Madeira, which was close enough.)

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I stuffed that filling into the slits in the lamb rack, put it in an oiled baking pan, sprinkled on salt, pepper, and dried thyme, and drizzled olive oil over the meat.
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Meanwhile I was also making two easy vegetable dishes to accompany the meat. These were zarrangolo murciano – zucchini stewed with onion – a recipe from Teresa Barrenechea’s book The Cuisines of Spain, and patatas pobres – poor man’s potatoes – from Penelope Casas’s first cookbook, The Foods and Wines of Spain.

The zucchini dish needed two saute pans: one for slowly softening minced onions and garlic in olive oil, the other for cooking diced zucchini, also in olive oil, until it had rendered up its liquid. That done, the recipe called for draining the zucchini, transferring it to the onion pan, salting, peppering, and cooking everything together for just five minutes. The separate cooking allowed each vegetable to retain its own character, while the final mixing just gently blended the flavors.

The potatoes, sliced very thin, also simmered in olive oil, in a covered pan, being turned often enough to keep them from caking together. I turned up the flame at the end to brown them lightly, then tossed them with minced garlic and parsley. (But I forgot to photograph them: my bad.)

Now back to the lamb. After the stuffed rack had 15 minutes in a 400° oven, I poured a little white wine and lemon juice into the pan and roasted for 10 more minutes. That was all the cooking it needed. I was pleased to see that it came out looking not totally unlike the book’s picture.
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The chops and their stuffing were heavenly together, in both aroma and taste. The meat was still rare enough to please two serious carnivores, and the two vegetables made good flavor contributions, with a lightly sweet allium presence knitting the components together. This combination of recipes made a harmonious plate, hearty and satisfying, but with elegance and complexity.
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Tom gave us a very good Spanish wine from his wine closet – a 12-year-old Prado Enea grand reserve Rioja from Muga – to drink with the meal. It made an excellent companion to the lamb, being elegant and complex in itself, even though El Exigente would have wished it ten years older.

Finally, to complete our consolation-for-Spain meal, after coffee and clean-up we poured snifters of 1866 Gran Reserva Brandy. We discovered this wonderfully intense, aromatic after-dinner drink on a trip to Spain four years ago and brought back a bottle, which we’ve been doling out for special occasions ever since. It isn’t sold in the USA, and the shipping cost from Spain is prohibitive. We’d been counting on buying at least two more bottles in Madrid this week. Alas, it wasn’t to be. One more reason to reschedule that trip!
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Egg Foo Yung

I don’t know what put egg foo yung into my mind. I hadn’t given the dish a thought since, as a child, I began discovering “exotic” substances like chop suey at a suburban Chinese restaurant with my family. Chinese food in America has come a long way from the ubiquitous Cantonese-and-MSG style of those days, but many of the old-time flavors are still pleasant.

So, on a day when I was idly thinking about French omelets, Spanish tortillas, and Italian fritattas, egg foo yung popped into my mind. Why not try my hand at those Chinese egg pancakes in a brown sauce? Three of my four Chinese cookbooks had recipes for the dish – some quite elaborate. Remembering the modesty of that long-ago restaurant, I decided to make the simplest version, which was in the Chinese Cooking volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series.

From my experience with the pace of cooking Chinese recipes, I knew I’d have to assemble and measure out all the ingredients before starting. These weren’t very many for half a recipe’s worth: eggs, chicken stock, mushrooms, shrimp, bean sprouts, soy sauce, salt, and cornstarch.
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My shrimp had to be peeled, cut in small pieces, and stir-fried in a lightly oiled wok for just one minute by themselves.
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Before doing anything more, I made up the sauce, starting by dissolving the cornstarch in a bit of the cold chicken stock and mixing the salt and soy into it. Then I was to bring the rest of the stock to a boil, add the cornstarch mixture, and simmer for two minutes until the sauce was thick and clear. It thickened quickly enough, but the soy coloring kept it from being what I’d call clear.
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But it was translucent, though it doesn’t look that way in the picture, so I assume that’s what was meant. I kept the sauce warm at the back of the stove while I assembled the pancake mixture.

Shrimp, mushrooms, and bean sprouts all went into the bowl of beaten eggs. Since the half recipe was to make three pancakes, I took the prudent approach of dividing the mixture evenly in three little bowls rather than trying to estimate quantities on the fly.
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The frying went fast and well in the very hot wok, each pancake taking only about a minute on each side.
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Then plating and saucing, and the recipe was done. I can’t say I had a Proustian recollection of my childhood when I smelled the dish, but the aroma was pleasing.
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The pancakes and their sauce were very good in a mild, homely, old-fashioned way. That sauce was absolutely essential. When I took a bite of the pancake alone, it was bland almost to tastelessness, but the smooth, thick, salty sauce immediately brought up the flavors, as well as the nice textural variety of the crunchy bean sprouts, tender egg custard, and nubbly bits of shrimp and mushroom. So, egg foo yung: a pleasant little walk down Memory Lane.

 

If I had to choose only one kind of animal protein to eat all my life long, it would be chicken. Love of chicken is something I have in common with Julia Child (in addition to extreme tallness and big feet*), who says in From Julia Child’s Kitchen, “I can go on eating chicken forever.”

Looking through that book recently, I was struck by the way cut-up chicken is both sauteed and baked in a recipe called Poulet sauté à brun, croustillant, a.k.a. Crisp Brown Sauteed Chicken. Julia calls it the French answer to American fried chicken: crisp and brown on the outside, moist and tender inside. Sounded like a winning combination.

Also interesting was an assurance that, at two points during the cooking, the pan could be taken off the heat for several hours and continued later. That seemed potentially very useful on a busy day, so I tried doing it that way, even though I didn’t need the pauses then.

In the late morning I dipped four chicken thighs in milk, salted and peppered them, and shook flour over them to coat.
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I put the pieces to brown in butter and oil, skin side down at first, in a cast-iron pan that I’d eventually bake them in.
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After about 10 minutes, both sides were nicely browned. I moved them to the back of the stove and left them there.
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In midafternoon I continued with the recipe. This stage didn’t take long. I heated the chicken on the stove until it was sizzling, basted the pieces with the cooking fat, turned them skin side down again, and transferred the pan to a 375° oven.
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Five minutes later I turned the pieces, basted them again, and baked for another five minutes. Then off the heat again and onto the back of the stove. The thighs hadn’t changed much but still looked good.
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As dinner time approached I repeated the stove-top reheating and the two five-minute bake-and-bastes. I transferred the thighs, now even a richer brown, to a platter and kept them warm in the turned-off oven while Tom made a little pan gravy (I was tending the dinner vegetables).
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The gravy, which the recipe calls a brown deglazing sauce, involved chopped shallots, white wine, broth, and a bit of crème fraiche that we had left in the refrigerator. It went very well with the chicken, which was indeed crisp and brown on the outside, moist and tender inside. Not harmed at all by its off-heat rest periods. And very, very tasty – even my non-chicken-loving spouse had to agree!

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* Once I had the good fortune of being on a food writers’ trip with Julia. When we were introduced, she looked me up and down and said “Where do you buy your shoes?”

Three Chickpea Recipes

Every now and then I come across something in the back of a pantry shelf that I’d completely forgotten about. Current case in point: most of a package of imported Italian dried chickpeas. Since they clearly had seniority among my dried beans and pulses, I felt I should make a special effort to use them.

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A timely email newsletter I received from the heirloom bean company Rancho Gordo featured a recipe for a winter salad of garbanzo beans (Rancho G uses the hispanic name) and carrots. So I started by making that.
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I soaked my chickpeas overnight in cold water. Next day I tossed them in a small mince of carrot, onion, and celery sauteed in olive oil, covered them generously with water, simmered until they were tender, drained and let them cool.

The remaining vegetables were raw: grated carrot, thinly sliced shallot, minced garlic, and chopped parsley. All were tossed together with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and ground cumin. I cut back on the recipe’s carrot quantity. It wanted 5 or 6 large ones to a cup of cooked chickpeas, which seemed like much too much.

It made a pretty dish, but it’s definitely one for lovers of the allium family: the amount of shallot and garlic were almost shocking at first taste. But the interplay of that sharpness with the sweetness of the carrot, the savoriness of the chickpeas, and the spiciness of the cumin grew on me. I wouldn’t want it often, but it was an interesting discovery.

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Next I tried a new-to-me chickpea soup. Soupe aux pois chiche is a Languedoc recipe in Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking, a book I usually find very reliable. This dish was not a success.
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Several aspects of the instructions seemed peculiar. To start with, there was an odd initial treatment of the chickpeas. After an overnight soak, there was a one-hour simmer, uncovered, starting with fresh water; then another uncovered simmer, in yet more fresh water, for another hour or more, until the chickpeas were tender. Wouldn’t all that plain water leach out some of the peas’ flavor?

Meanwhile I softened a sliced onion and a big sliced leek in olive oil, added a cut-up tomato, and cooked for a few more minutes. Then I was supposed to drain the chickpeas; return the water to the pot and bring it to a boil; add the sauteed vegetables and half the chickpeas; and cook until they could be crushed easily. The rest of the chickpeas were to be kept for another recipe. What was the point of that?! I just used half the amount of chickpeas to begin with.

I pureed the soup, reheated it and served it with croutons, as directed. It was totally insipid. The chickpeas could have been excelsior, the other vegetables were undetectable, salt was desperately needed, and when it went in, salt was all you could taste. I expect to occasionally come upon recipes I don’t like, even from cooks I respect, but this one was truly dismal.

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After that disappointment, I turned to a tried and true recipe for the rest of my chickpeas: pasta e ceci, from Tom’s and my second cookbook, The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. The dish this simple recipe produces is the sort of thick soup or wet pasta on which generations of Italian peasants gratefully survived winter. Pure southern Italian soul food.
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After the chickpeas are initially reconstituted (the recipe uses the two-minute boil plus two-hour hot-water soak method rather than the overnight cold-water soak; either is fine), they’re drained, returned to the pot, and stewed with canned Italian plum tomatoes, olive oil, salt, and fresh water, absorbing flavor as they go. Needing only an occasional stir, the chickpeas simmer along gently until tender. Since that can be anywhere from two or four hours, depending on their freshness, it’s good to do this in advance.

The pot can sit on the back of the stove until dinner time approaches. Then you bring it to a boil, stir in short pasta, such as shells or ditalini, and cook for about 20 minutes, until the pasta is done. Add an aromatic mince of garlic, basil, and parsley, some olive oil, and lots of freshly ground black pepper, and serve. Ambrosia!