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 A few coincidences set the stage for a very interesting dinner at home this week.

  • Beloved Spouse, having decided to write a post for his wine blog on a comparison between prosecco and champagne, brought home a representative bottle of each, first for a formal tasting, then to test with dinner foods.
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  • I had just read Fatal Pursuit, a detective novel by Martin Walker that has Perigord police chief/gastronome Bruno Courrèges making blinis of an unusual kind to serve with local caviar – a kind I wanted to try to make.
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  • We had a little jar of American transmontanus caviar in the refrigerator.

Everyone who reads the Bruno books knows that their lavish descriptions of the hero’s cooking are virtually narrative recipes. I’ve written about re-creating some of his dishes here. The blinis in this story are not the traditional Russian ones in several ways. Bruno doesn’t use any buckwheat flour; he adds chopped chives to his batter of flour, milk, egg yolk, and melted butter; and – because he doesn’t have time to raise the blinis with yeast – he beats the egg white into peaks and folds it in. I did the same.
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I dropped the batter by tablespoonsful into very hot butter in a frying pan. (Bruno remarks that this is one of the few places he doesn’t use duck fat!) They cooked quickly and neatly, making 20 fluffy 2-inch pancakes.
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After we’d had the formal tasting of the sparkling wines alone, we opened our caviar and sat down to find out how the champagne and prosecco would go with our dinner dishes. The blinis themselves were fine – light and delicate, an excellent vehicle for the caviar. I think the leftovers, which I froze, may be just as good with smoked salmon or sturgeon.
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We did the same tasting of the two wines along with the dinner’s main course, which was sauteed soft-shell crabs on toast and a summer vegetable mélange of okra, corn, and tomatoes (which I’ve also written about here).
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I’ll leave the detailed results of the wine-wine and wine-food comparisons for Tom’s blog post to report. What I’ll say is simply that Bruno’s blinis were a success, all the food was delicious, both the wines were delightful, and the entire evening sparkled like the wine.

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Though Tom and I were away on a trip last week, we still had a Christmas dinner at home – one day on the week before the actual holiday. It was a full-fledged feast.

It started with a trial of three kinds of caviar, all osetra style: one from California, one from Israel, and one from Italy. We liked the Californian, from American transmontanus sturgeon, best. It was also the most expensive of the three, but still only a fraction of the cost of Caspian Sea caviar from actual osetra sturgeon. This led to reminiscing about the days when “real” caviar was affordable, if expensive, and when occasionally you could find some at a great price: It fell off the truck, no doubt. The Israeli caviar came in second, for both price and preference. The Italian, alas, was the least of them. (I’m putting all this on the record so I’ll remember it for next year.)

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Then we went on to an outrageous indulgence for a two-person dinner: a four-???????????????????????????????pound prime rib of beef – two beautifully trimmed and tied, juicy ribs. Call it the king of all planned-overs. I roasted it in a way entirely new to me. I had just bought myself The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook – a hefty tome of almost 900 pages. The book is full of earnest expositions of why its recipes are best of breed. For “perfect prime rib” it calls for roasting at 200° F, a much lower temperature than I’d ever used before.

Since total slow roasting leaves an unsightly fatty exterior, the book says to brown the entire piece of meat on the stove before putting it in the oven, so that’s what I did. My biggest cast-iron skillet served well for both the browning and the roasting.

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Assuming you want your roast medium rare, the recipe calls for cooking it 30 minutes to the pound, which would have been 2 hours for mine. Since Tom and I like our beef practically still mooing, I gave it an hour and 20 minutes, plus a 25-minute rest before carving. It came out beautifully, and tasted every bit as good as it looked.

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Our vegetable accompaniments were leeks braised in broth with a dab of tomato paste and a dash of Cholula hot sauce; and a puree of Green Mountain potatoes and parsnip, gratineed with cream and an egg. Also in the photo is a 1985 Biondi Santi Brunello – a very special wine, which to our surprise still wasn’t fully ready to drink. It could have taken ten more years of aging, even after the far-from-optimum conditions of our storage. An amazing wine.

Finally, at the back of the table you can see the tiny apple tart I’d made for dessert. Perfectly lovely Christmas fare, all of it, even if it wasn’t enjoyed on December 25 – and it provided luscious leftover beef for another full meal for two, plus sandwiches.

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Today starts my third year of weekly reports on my cooking adventures. In 2010, per a New Year’s resolution, I wrote only about making new-to-me recipes from my cookbook collection. Last year I broadened out to old favorites as well. For 2012 I’ll keep that openness. This post, about my just-past New Year’s dinner, covers one recipe of each kind.

Lobster Thermidor, despite the name, always strikes me as an ancien régime dish. It’s sinfully rich, but Tom and I get a yen for it occasionally. It has the kind of lushness and voluptuousness that is missing from much contemporary cuisine. In the same class, champagne and caviar, that seasonal classic, seemed a suitably over-the-top way to precede the lobster. And, in keeping with the ancien régime theme, I decided to try my hand at making blini to serve the caviar on.

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Blini

I had recipes for these tiny yeast-raised Russian pancakes in several cookbooks. The most authentic one called for buckwheat flour, which I haven’t been able to find lately, so I settled on the white-flour version in Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking. The whole recipe was said to make 24 two-inch cakes; I thought 16 would more than do for the two of us and cut quantities accordingly.

Flour, milk, a bit of sugar, and yeast made the first sponge, which rose exuberantly in 1½ hours. Next I had to beat in egg yolks, blended with softened butter, more flour, and salt. Here I made what could have been a bad mistake. Without thinking, I broke the whole eggs over the butter and was already mixing them when I realized what I’d done. In the immortal word of a recent Republican presidential hopeful, Oops!  What to do – throw it out and start again? No, Tom counseled; just go with it. OK, I thought; after all, it’s only a glorified pancake batter; what could hurt? So I just went with it.

The next rising was even more vigorous than the first, producing a giant bowl of gloppy sponge that vaguely resembled the extraterrestrial creature from The Quatermass Experiment. This was the point at which the egg whites were supposed to have been whipped and folded in, but of course I didn’t need to do that. So on to the cooking.

The sponge was much thicker than a normal pancake batter, making it difficult to drop neat circles onto the griddle, but the little blini behaved beautifully, and didn’t stick at all. But oh, there were a lot of them! We ended up with 36, not the 16 that my two-thirds of the recipe was supposed to make. (Irma, what happened there?) Well, the extras will freeze, giving us an excuse to eat more caviar in 2012.

We had two kinds of caviar to taste that evening, both from American sturgeon. In the photo below, the one on the left is hackleback and the one on the right is transmontanus.

The transmontanus was twice as expensive, but it was also twice as good – like fresh osetra, compared to the hackleback’s saltier sevruga style. Having been lovers of true osetra before we were priced out of the market for it, the transmontanus is a happy new year’s discovery for Tom and me. (But it’s worth noting that we’ve had hackleback from other suppliers that was both less expensive and more osetra-like than this day’s batch. Clearly, the world of domestic caviar holds many mysteries.)

Our transmontanus caviar

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Lobster Thermidor

Though labor-intensive, Lobster Thermidor really isn’t difficult to make. Despite the name, it doesn’t actually date from French revolutionary times. It was invented in Paris in 1896, in honor of a new Sardou play named Thermidor at the Comédie Française. An old-fashioned dish it may be now, but it’s incredibly good. I use Julia Child’s recipe from the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which is more elaborate than some versions, less so than others. The whole dish can be prepared well in advance, leaving only 15 minutes of finishing in the oven at dinner time.

The recipe starts simmering together wine, water, aromatic vegetables, and herbs, in which the lobster is then steamed. Here’s my two-pounder, fresh from the pot.

The steaming liquid is strained and used to make a velouté sauce, which is then enriched with the lobster’s coral and tomalley, dry mustard, egg yolks, and heavy cream. The lobster meat is cut up, sautéed in butter, and doused with cognac. Some of the sauce is mixed with the lobster meat, along with a few sliced mushrooms, previously stewed in butter and lemon juice. The mixture is heaped in the halved lobster shells; topped with the rest of the sauce, grated cheese, and dots of butter; and finished in a hot oven. Voilà!

This lavish a dish wants simple accompaniments; we had steamed asparagus and small boiled potatoes. Tom’s wine closet produced a lovely 2000 Corton-Charlemagne to drink with it.

Rich as the dish was, we had no trouble finishing it.

So, Happy New Year to all, and my thanks to the faithful followers of this blog. In 2012, I hope to hear more from you in comments — whether to agree, disagree, or just tell your own cooking stories!

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