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In every book of Martin Walker’s “Mystery of the French Countryside” series, police chief Bruno Courrèges finds time between pursuing criminals and preserving the peace in his Périgord village to make fabulous meals for his friends. When Bruno cooks, readers are right there in the kitchen with him, and for enthusiastic home cooks, the urge to step in and help out is almost irresistible.

A dinner Bruno makes in The Templars’ Last Secret did prove irresistible for Tom, our friend Hope, and me this week. Being all Bruno devotees, we were intrigued by this very unusual menu of his and decided to try making it for ourselves:

Venison Pâté with Haitian Epice
Fish Soup
Blanquette de Veau with Rice
Salad and Cheese
Wine-Poached Pears with Ice Cream

Of course we couldn’t reproduce that meal exactly: Much of what Bruno eats he grows or gathers for himself, or else buys from artisans at his village’s outdoor market. But we came as close as we could.

 

Venison Pâté with Haitian Epice

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Bruno wasn’t originally planning to have this course, but one of his guests, a young Haitian woman from the Ministry of Justice, brings him a jar of épice, her mother’s version of Haiti’s all-purpose spicy green sauce. Bruno opens a can of his homemade venison pâté so everyone can taste Amélie’s gift with it.

We couldn’t find a venison pâté, so we substituted a rabbit terrine and created our own épice with guidance from recipes on the Web. It was very easy to make. We simply pureed small amounts of green and red Bell peppers, two hot Serrano peppers, a tiny red onion, scallions, garlic cloves, lots of parsley, and a little basil in the food processor.

It was a lively sauce, tasting bright and intensely vegetal at first, with a sneaky zing of heat just as you were swallowing. It gave a nice lift to the lushness of the terrine. We could even have taken it a bit hotter – maybe try a Scotch bonnet pepper next time. With this appetizer Bruno served a sparkling Bergerac rosé wine. We drank an Alsace crémant, a regional transgression that nevertheless worked quite nicely.

 

Fish Soup

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One way to tell this must be a Périgord recipe is that it starts by cooking diced potatoes and crushed garlic in a casserole with duck fat. Fish soup made with duck fat! – totally new to us. Fortunately, I had duck fat in the refrigerator, so we were off to an authentic start. Continuing to do as Bruno did but guessing on quantities, most of which aren’t given in the story, we then added cubes of fresh cod, chopped canned tomatoes, stock that we’d made from shrimp shells, and a glass of white Bergerac. All that simmered along until the fish was done, when we adjusted the salt, poured in another glass of the wine, stirred in chopped parsley, and served.

It was unexpectedly rich and hearty for a thin-bodied soup made so simply from cod. We could just detect an undertone of the shrimp-shell stock’s flavor. The wine also made a definite contribution. We were lucky to have found that bottle of Bergerac. It’s uncommon here and was very distinctive: slightly herbal-spicy and only barely not sweet. But there was something more unusual in the soup’s flavor that we struggled to identify. Finally we remembered: the duck fat! It gave the soup an almost meaty essence. We three liked it as much as Bruno’s guests did. And we, like them, happily drank white Bergerac with it.

 

Blanquette de Veau

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Even at first reading, we were each struck by the oddity of serving a soup and a stew at the same meal. We were still dubious about it after deciding to make the full menu, but we put our trust in Bruno and went ahead.

To save some work on the cooking afternoon – and since stews are always better the second day – Hope undertook to prepare the blanquette herself on the preceding day and bring the finished dish to us. This entailed simmering two pounds of cut-up veal with aromatic vegetables, separately sauteeing a pound each of shallots and mushrooms in butter, thickening the veal cooking liquid, and stirring in the veal, shallots, mushrooms, and much heavy cream.

The blanquette was luscious, especially since Hope had used shiitake for half the mushrooms, instead of all small whites. The sauce had perversely not thickened quite as much as it should have, but it made a delicious dipping medium for crusty bread, as well as a sauce for the rice. With this course, Bruno served Pécharmant, a light red Bergerac wine made in Bordeaux-blend style. We had a modest Bordeaux wine of the same grape blend.

 

The Missing Salad and Cheese

We know Bruno intended to have salad and cheese at this meal. Before the guests arrive, he picks and washes salad greens from his garden and takes cheese out of his refrigerator. But that’s the last they’re heard of. As the dinner progresses, Bruno offers second helpings of the blanquette, and in the next paragraph he brings in the dessert. Well, even Homer nods. We had our salad and cheese, but to honor Bruno’s omission, I didn’t take a photo of them.

 

Wine-Poached Pears with Ice Cream

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Bruno poaches his pears in red wine to cover, with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and half a glass of his own vin de noix. We did the same except for the walnut liqueur, which is unattainable here. Also, Bruno seems to have left his pears whole, but we halved and cored ours first, because they’re so much easier to both cook (less wine, less time) and eat (no maneuvering around the cores) that way. We did, however, follow his manner of serving them, with a splash of sparkling wine and a scoop of excellent vanilla ice cream in each bowl. To make up for the absence of vin de noix, we awarded ourselves glasses of Bruno’s favorite dessert wine, Monbazillac.

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We three thoroughly enjoyed each part of this meal, as well as the making of it. But, for all our admiration of Bruno and his creator, we can’t commend the dinner as a whole. For us, the sequence of soup and stew didn’t work. The two dishes were too similar in color, texture, and general character for the palatal contrasts that are part of the pleasure of a truly great meal. Just too much of the same thing – especially with the richness of the duck fat, cream, and butter. We’d had greater success with the harmony of a previous Bruno feast we’d tried.

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Contrary to our characters as it may seem, Tom and I don’t cook for this holiday. Our tradition is to join a pair of good friends at their table, bringing along a few interesting edibles and drinkables to supplement the bountiful dishes awaiting us there.

I always bake breads for the feast. This year I made ciabatta to go along with the soup and turkey courses, and walnut bread for the cheese course. My ciabatta recipe comes from Maggie Glezer’s Artisan Baking Across America, a truly splendid book. The walnut bread is my adaptation of a recipe I found on The Hungry Tiger website, which itself was a Glezer adaptation. Thus do traditions get passed along!

Here are the ciabattas:

Now, you may think they’re kind of pitiful-looking. I wouldn’t deny it. But they’re supposed to be like that. In Italian, “ciabatta” means an old worn-out slipper.  But this is a great, rough, country bread. It starts with a 24-hour pre-ferment using four kinds of flour: all-purpose, bread, rye, and whole wheat. The very soft dough then gets long risings, gentle handling to prevent deflating, and baking on a stone in a very hot oven. The result is a rich flavor, an airy open crumb, and a good crunchy crust. Molto artigianale, as they say in Italy.

The walnut breads are more attractive little bombs of loaves. You can find their recipe here. My major alteration to it has been to include some fat in the dough – walnut oil when I have it, olive oil when I don’t – to make the bread less dense. (Though the no-oil version is good too.) This bread goes very well with any kind of cheese. Not bad toasted for breakfast, either.

And then there was a dessert. My hostess was making a pumpkin pie, so I wanted my contribution to contrast in flavor and texture. I decided to try something with pears. (Regular readers of this blog may remember that I’ve had some bad luck with pear desserts in the past, but I don’t give up.)

Lee Bailey’s Country Desserts is a book whose photos are utterly seductive. I was attracted to his recipe for a pear tart for the frivolous reason that it’s made in a long narrow pan rather than the typical round one, and I happen to have a long narrow pan that I rarely have a chance to use. The recipe was also interesting for its additional flavors: After the sliced pears are arranged on the raw pastry crust and moistened with lemon juice, you sift onto them a mixture of sugar, cornstarch, nutmeg, and black pepper; and when the tart comes out of the oven you drizzle some melted raspberry jam over it. The black pepper on fruit particularly intrigued me.

The tart came out well and tasted fine. The nutmeg and black pepper gave it spiciness, and raspberry is a flavor that goes well with pears. But – to make a short story long – the making of it gave me a few bad moments, which were entirely my own fault.

As I said above, I don’t use that long narrow pan very often. On Thanksgiving morning when I went to roll out the chilled dough, I noticed for the first time that the recipe specified a 4½ by 14 inch pan. Mine is 4½ by 19 inches – about one-third larger. Eek! Would I have to make another batch of dough? Would there even be time to do that?

The size of the sheet of dough my rolling pin produced was totally inadequate. But, luckily, the recipe was for a boiling-water crust made with only vegetable shortening (Crisco), not butter or lard. That kind of dough behaves practically like putty, so I was able to press it into the pan with my hands and squeeze it out – thinly, thinly! – just enough to cover the bottom and sides. It took a lot of persuading, and I used every last speck of the dough. After that harsh treatment any other kind of crust would have baked into concrete, but to my great relief, this one stayed decently tender and flaky. Also luckily, I had bought enough pears to fill the long pan. And I wound up actually liking the proportion of crust to filling.

So my contribution to the holiday feast was successful. Tom’s was too. He brought along two bottles of grappa. Not that it was needed – the hosts also had grappa, but for a Thanksgiving meal there’s never too much of a good thing, is there?

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Week 40: Pears Sicily

Many years ago, when I was a graduate student, I was charmed to find a paperback by Peg Bracken called The I Hate to Cook Book. I didn’t hate to cook, but I didn’t know much about cooking except for the plain dishes my mother had made, without benefit of cookbooks, and I found Bracken’s ingenious recipes as intriguing as her witty prose.

I’ve hardly looked at it since those days, but when I learned, a while ago, that the book is being reissued in a 50th anniversary edition, I got curious and pulled out my copy to see if there was anything in it that I’d still enjoy making and eating. I’m afraid the answer was Not Much. By the time I’d ruled out dishes that I had made as a graduate student (since this blog is for recipes I’ve never made before) and all the others that called for things like condensed cream of mushroom soup, canned shrimp, and processed cheese spread, there wasn’t a lot I was willing to try.

But there was a simple dessert recipe called Pears Sicily, whose only ingredients were fresh pears, almonds, almond extract, butter, and sherry. That sounded promising, if in no way Sicilian. So I set to it. I halved and cored some Bartletts; filled their cavities with a mixture of chopped almonds, melted butter, and a drop of almond extract; set them in a baking dish and poured sherry over them; and baked them for half an hour.

They were a big disappointment. The fruit itself tasted if I had faithfully recreated canned pears. The almonds just sat there, tasting only of themselves. There was no evidence of the sherry in the juices. The absence of sugar in the recipe had been a plus to me when I read it, and indeed the pears were sweet enough. (Seems as if it’s going to be a good season for pears here.) But I wonder now if the presence of some sugar would have helped the other ingredients get acquainted. I also wonder if Bosc pears would have stood up for themselves better. But I doubt if I’ll try the recipe again to find out.

When I next want a pear dessert, I think I’ll stick with my own recipes. There are three of them in The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen: a simple, good way to bake pears, a spiced pear tart, and pears poached with mascarpone and gorgonzola. Here’s my baked pear recipe from the book:

 Baked Pears

One of those genius-of-simplicity dishes. If you’re using the oven for something else, your dessert can be baking simultaneously; a lower oven temperature simply means a longer cooking time. We’ve tried various kinds of pears baked this way, and all seem to come out fine. Devoes, in particular, have a very nice texture baked.

4 large pears
6 to 8 teaspoons sugar

Preheat the oven to 400˚ F. Wash and dry the pears and set them upright in individual custard cups.  Place the cups on a baking sheet and bake in the oven for 30 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the pears meets no resistance.
Remove the pears from the oven and delicately peel away their skins, taking care not to mash the tender flesh. Put the sugar on a small plate and roll each pear in it. Place the pears on serving dishes to cool. As the sugar draws out the pear juices, spoon them back over the pears (or let each diner do so when served). Serve warm or at room temperature.

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Every now and then Tom and I do a cooking extravaganza with our friend Hope: a whole elaborate meal of some particular cuisine. The three of us cook together all afternoon and then sit down to enjoy the fruits of our labors. We’ve had splendid Mexican, Indian, Chinese, and French dinners that way. This time we decided to stay in the USA – selecting four recipes from Patrick O’Connell’s book Refined American Cuisine. O’Connell is the owner-chef of The Inn at Little Washington, an extremely luxurious small hotel and renowned restaurant in Virginia. Tom and I had had the pleasure of a two-days’ stay there as a retirement gift from my company. Our meals were extraordinary, so of course I had to buy the cookbook. I hadn’t actually tried any of its recipes before now. The book is as glamorous as the Inn, with mouth-watering photos. In each section below, the book’s photo of the dish is on the left, and a picture of our version is on the right.     .

Watercress Soup

soups.

This soup starts with a parmentier-like base of potatoes and onions cooked in chicken stock. Lots of watercress quickly wilted in a bit of oil goes in, and the mixture is cooked some more, pureed, and finished with cream and butter. (Tom heroically washed and trimmed what seemed like a bushel of watercress.) It was a very smooth, tasty soup, and even more vibrantly green than the book photo. An auspicious start to the meal.

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Truffle-Dusted Maine Diver’s Scallops on Cauliflower Puree

two scallops

Here we began to diverge from the book’s presentation. As you can see, we skipped the herbed potato crisp that perches atop the book’s scallop; it was too much complicated work for something purely decorative. Also, we took advantage of O’Connell’s permission to substitute whole black sesame seeds for the minced-truffle coating of the sautéed scallops.

The cauliflower puree also has potato, heavy cream, and butter. The sauce around the outside starts with a syrupy reduction of red wine and balsamic vinegar with shallot. Then many bits of butter are added, in a beurre-blanc-like technique. Our scallops weren’t actual divers, just the biggest sea scallops we could find. Not as perfectly shaped as the book’s, but perfectly tasty. The sesame seeds mostly just added texture, but the cost differential made them a better choice for us than a black truffle.

Our sauce was a lot darker than the book’s, probably because the reduction got away from us at the end, producing something more tarry-looking than syrupy. But the butter smoothed it out to a good consistency. There was much more puree than the book’s picture indicates, but that was all right because it was good. It liked the wine-reduction sauce, as did the scallops. This was a little gem of a dish, but it did exact a huge amount of work.

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Pistachio-Crusted Lamb Chops on Rutabaga Rösti with Gingered Carrot Sauce

lamb I’ll say at the start that this was a delicious way to do a rack of lamb. But the book photo is totally unrealistic – a food stylist’s fantasy. There are no Brussels sprouts, whole carrots, or watercress in the recipe. If you look at the boned-out chops on the rear right (where the pistachios are placed on top, which is not where they’d be if you’d followed the directions), they’re thick enough to be filet mignons. If that’s a portion for one, the rest of the diners would receive mighty skimpy plates. Nonetheless, it’s a lovely treatment for meat.

The lamb rack is partially roasted, then coated with a slurry of Dijon mustard and brown sugar, rolled in chopped pistachios, and roasted again for 10 minutes before being carved into chops. To our surprise, the large amount of brown sugar instantly dissolved in the mustard, providing just a light touch of sweetness to mellow the bite of the mustard and the nuttiness of the pistachios. The sauce is an intense reduction of carrot juice and fresh ginger root, finished with crème fraiche – unusual and surprisingly good on the lamb. Let me tell you, though, it takes a long time to reduce a pint of carrot juice to half a cup!

The rutabaga rösti was the weakest part of the preparation. It’s hardly visible in the book’s picture, probably because it isn’t picturesque – as our photo makes only too clear. Grated potato, rutabaga, and onion are formed into cakes and sautéed in butter. Good potato pancakes are tricky to get right, and the added moisture of the rutabaga (my least favorite root vegetable) made these cakes almost soggy, despite our efforts to get them crisp and crunchy. And of course the ensemble is all in tones of brown, which – despite that fact that much good food is that color – is anathema to professional food photography.

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Pear Tart

tarts

By the time our initial menu planning had gotten to dessert, we figured we’d better pick something easy. One of O’Connell’s recipes is a pear trio – a tart, a soufflé, and a sorbet. We did the tart alone: Pears poached in sugar syrup flavored with star anise and cinnamon, sliced and fanned out over a plain pastry base, and glazed after baking with pear jelly.

Though the little tarts took three times as long to bake as the recipe said, we were pleased enough by the way ours looked. (That is, considering that the chocolate syrup in the book’s picture is not in the recipe; it didn’t specify puff pastry, as shown there; and I don’t have a pear-shaped cookie cutter.) But to our dismay the pears tasted as if they had come straight out of a can. Maybe my star anise was too old. Maybe I should have bought Boscs instead of Bartletts. Maybe we should have poached them in wine instead of water. Fortunately, we’d had enough palatal stimulation from the first three courses of the dinner that this wasn’t a catastrophe; we’re none of us big dessert eaters, anyway. We contented ourselves with espresso and Cognac.

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It seems to me that the recipes of prestigious American chefs often don’t adapt well to home preparation. To pull them together properly needs a large staff of workers, a large space to work in, and a lot of pots and pans (or a designated dishwashing person pacing you as you cook along – in our case, that was me). The many flavor and texture combinations in this book’s recipes seem to be designed more for impressiveness than for natural compatibility. While there’s nothing wrong with an impressive dinner at an elegant restaurant, it’s not the kind of cooking I really care to do at home.

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