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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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I’m very fond of Indian food, but I don’t cook it often. The recipes are usually quite complex, and the flavors seem to want to be matched with others of their kind. Thus, making a full Indian meal is a lengthy, fairly hectic procedure, with many steps to be taken at almost the same time.

In an attempt to break out of that rut, I decided, the other day, to put just one Indian dish on an otherwise-familiar American-style dinner plate: a vegetable to accompany a veal chop. Madhur Jaffrey’s Vegetarian India gave me a trove of recipes to choose from, including one that’s the simplest Indian dish I’ve ever seen: Aloo Gobi, or stir-fried cauliflower with potatoes. Granted, it calls for 10 ingredients, but there are really only a few cooking steps. It seemed ideal.

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For my half recipe, I first had to boil a potato. (Jaffrey says day-old leftovers do fine in the dish, but I didn’t have any.) When it had cooled, I cut it into ¾ inch dice. And I cut up half a small head of cauliflower to make a heaping two cups’ worth of florets. Then I stirred up a fragrant spice mixture: ground cumin, coriander, and turmeric; grated fresh ginger root. red chili powder, salt, and water. Those were all the ingredients.

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I heated my ancient, disreputable looking (but well-seasoned) wok on a stove burner, quickly sizzled some whole cumin seeds in oil, and added the cauliflower and potatoes.

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These were to be stir-fried for 10 minutes “or until the vegetables are well browned in spots.” Mine took almost twice that long to brown even minimally. I poured on the spice mixture, kept stir-frying for 1 minute, added some more water, and continued cooking gently. Per the recipe, the vegetables should have absorbed all their liquid and been tender in 2 to 5 minutes. Mine were not. Again, they took about twice that long, and the potato was mushy before the cauliflower was soft. Maybe it was supposed to be that way, since the potato had been fully cooked to begin with?

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Meanwhile I’d also been cooking the veal chops, using a technique that Tom Colicchio, in Think Like a Chef, calls pan-roasting. I browned them slowly in a little butter for 3 minutes on each side, cooked for 5 more minutes on each side; dropped in a big lump of butter and cooked for a final 10 minutes, turning and basting the chops with the butter. Very restaurantish, all that butter!

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The chops then had to sit off the heat at the back of the stove for 10 minutes, to draw their juices back in. That rest period made it easier to finish the vegetables and have them ready to serve when the chops were.

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Then came the taste test: inspired combination or culture clash? More like the latter, I’m sorry to say. The aloo gobi and the chop shared a plate amicably enough, and both were good of their kind, but on the palate they didn’t do anything for each other. The veal wasn’t enhanced by the spiciness of the vegetables, and the aloo gobi hardly seemed to recognize the flavor of the meat. Both would have been more pleasing with accompaniments in their own style. (Jaffrey suggests rice, a dal, and a raita alongside aloo gobi.) Beloved Spouse thinks the vegetables would have worked better with a moist braised meat – say, lamb or goat.

Well, it was a learning experience for me – to save Indian cooking for days when I have a lot of time to spend in the kitchen, and perhaps when I have a few extra helping hands. However, there’s one potential benefit to the experiment: Since we didn’t finish all the aloo gobi, I’m saving the rest of it to try as a samosa filling.

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The calendar says it’s spring, but the weather hasn’t been fully cooperative. What do you do on an unseasonably raw, dark, damp day? Easy: Have friends over for a bollito misto dinner.

In English, a “mixed boil” doesn’t sound overly attractive, but this northern Italian meat extravaganza is truly marvelous. I remember a long-ago winter day in Ferrara when Beloved Spouse and I lurched out of the icy blasts and into the warmth of a restaurant where all the lunchtime patrons were comforting themselves with bollito misto, served from a steaming silver cart that a waiter rolled around to each table. That was our first taste of this now-indispensable bad-weather balm.

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For this occasion, I embellished the bollito with a multi-course menu of dishes from my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. We started with an antipasto of grilled radicchio with smoked mozzarella.

Several red-leaved members of the chicory family are known as radicchio. This dish wants the long, slender Treviso variety. The radicchio heads are halved and pan-grilled with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper; then placed in a baking pan, topped with smoked scamorza or mozzarella (scamorza is better, if you can find it), and baked until the cheese melts. The combination of smoky-lush cheese and savory-bitter radicchio makes a bracing wake-up call to the appetite.

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Next came a first course of passatelli in brodo.

Long, gentle boiling of several kinds of meat – on this day eye of chuck, chicken thighs, and veal tongue – produces a wonderfully rich broth. A bowl of it is purely ambrosial with passatelli. To make these tiny shreds of dumpling, you mix breadcrumbs, grated parmigiano, eggs, parsley, salt, pepper, and nutmeg into a soft paste. Dip out a quantity of broth into a separate pot; bring it to a boil; set a food mill over the pot; and mill the passatelli mixture directly into it. Cook two minutes, let rest two minutes, and serve. This is the soul’s plasma, so be prepared to offer seconds.

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Finally, the main event of the evening: the meats and their condiments.

In addition to the beef, chicken, and tongue, I separately cooked a large, unctuous cotechino sausage. Alongside we had potatoes mashed with parmigiano; salsa rossa (a thick, nubbly sauce that I make from roasted sweet peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and red wine vinegar), and mostarda di Cremona – fruits preserved in a strong mustard syrup (jars of which I bring back from every trip to Italy). All in all, they made richly satisfying platefuls, with the sweet/sharp flavors of the two condiments playing beautifully off the lushness of the meats.

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And to finish the meal, a pizza dolce, or ricotta torte.

The pastry for this looking-toward-Easter dessert is a tender pasta frolla. The ricotta filling is flavored with confectioners’ sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, chopped almonds, and chopped candied citron and orange peel. For this evening’s torte I diverged a bit from my published recipe: I used very fresh sheep’s milk ricotta; orange peel alone, and a combination of almonds, walnuts, and hazelnuts. Came out just fine!

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After exploring new restaurants during our recent stay in the Lazio countryside, Tom and I were ready for old familiar places and old favorite dishes when we got to Rome for the second half of our trip.  Here are some that we enjoyed.

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Ar Galletto, just off the Piazza Farnese, used to be a simple down-home trattoria. We were dismayed to find it had moved just into the piazza and upgraded to a severe – not to say stark – modernity. That elegance took away some of the fun for us, but happily, the kitchen hadn’t changed. Since it was high porcini mushroom season, the highlights of that dinner were my primo of fettucini con funghi porcini and Tom’s secondo of porcini ai ferri. My pasta was lavishly adorned with the mushrooms, and Tom’s grilled caps were huge and succulent.

Rome 1

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Still in the fungus category, there were white truffles all over Rome. When we ordered tonnarelli ai tartufi bianchi at Fortunato al Pantheon, another old favorite place, the aroma of truffle when the cart was wheeled over to prepare our dish perfumed half the restaurant. We weren’t given all those truffles in the picture on the left below, but they didn’t stint. The picture on the right is a half portion (we shared the dish). Those truffles were even better than the ones Tom had in his white truffle menu in Lazio.

Rome 2

BTW: 2014 should be a great year for white truffles, because the north of Italy had a lousy summer – chilly and frequently rainy – which, though terrible for grapes, is just what truffles like. The subterranean beauties will be abundant and delicious, and maybe less expensive than in the past few years.

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La Sagrestia, near the Piazza Rotonda, for years was the only pizzeria in the centro storico that offered pizzas at midday. That’s not true any longer, but Sagrestia is still a must-stop place for us for a reasonably modest lunch. Roman pizzas are very different from Neapolitan ones: The crust is as thin as a matzoh and extremely crisp. (I’m speaking of individual round pizzas, not the very large rectangular slabs – pizza al metro – sold by the slice.) We had one pizza with sausage and one with lardo di colonnata. I was hesitant about a lardo topping – it’s pure fat, after all – but curiosity prevailed. It was amazingly good. I’m going to try it next time I make pizza at home.

Rome 3

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Roman dining used to be very tied to the seasons. Now it seems that many formerly time-limited delicacies are available year-round. For instance, abbacchio – milk-fed baby lamb – was always a springtime specialty. But I had it on Halloween this year at the Trattoria dal Cavalier Gino, and it definitely hadn’t been frozen. It’s a very rich meat, for all the delicacy of its appearance.

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BTW again: Gino is a tiny, hidden-away, deeply Roman trattoria, with this inscription in Roman dialect blazoned across one wall: Chi cia li sordi e se li magna e beve arisparambia er pianto dell’erede. What it means (translation from my friend Lars) is “He who has money and spends it on food and drink spares the tears of his heirs.” An encouraging if rather self-serving sentiment!

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Similarly out of season – or so we’d thought – all the restaurants were offering carciofi alla romana and alla giudia (big globe artichokes, braised or deep-fried), fiori fritti (stuffed fried zucchini flowers), and fragoline (tiny wild strawberries). We gobbled as many of all these as we could hold.

Rome 4

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Our last dinner in Rome was at La Campana, yet another old favorite. (I have a menu from the place dated October 28, 1990, which was far from our first meal there. Very little has changed except the prices.) As always, everything we had was delicious. The standout dish this time was my main course, maialino con patate al forno. The suckling pig had the perfect contrast between meltingly tender flesh and crisp, chewy crackling. Terrific potatoes, too.

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Our stay in Rome ended with a short walk to say goodnight to the Pantheon – for us the perfect emblem of the Eternal City.

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Peppers and veal are naturally good companions. Though considered a delicate, mild-flavored meat, veal can hold its own lustily in sautés, stews, and braises involving sweet peppers – whether slender, thin-walled frying varieties or blocky, fleshy bells. Of course, versatile veal also does lovely, elegant things with cream and butter and mushrooms, but that wasn’t the set of flavors I had in mind for the two pounds of boneless veal shoulder that I took out of my freezer on a recent evening. I wanted something bright and acidic, not rich and creamy.

WillanI found my recipe in Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking. Pebronata is in her section on Provence, which I thought was a little odd, because the headnote explains it’s a Corsican dish, usually made with kid but here used with veal. Well, whatever. As a French possession, Corsica has to be included somewhere, I guess. I liked the recipe. It was more elaborate than my usual ways of cooking veal with peppers, but the seasonings looked very interesting – perky, not sedate, and that was what I wanted.

I started by browning the cut-up veal in lard, in a heavy casserole. I salted, peppered, and floured the meat, stirred in a cup of broth and a cup of white wine, covered the pot and put it in the oven for 1½ hours, stirring a few times.

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While the veal cooked, I made the pebronata sauce, which involved two separate preparations. In one pan I softened chopped onions in olive oil, added chopped garlic, thyme, and parsley, then canned, peeled tomatoes (the recipe called for fresh ones, but it’s winter!) and cooked it into a thick, nubbly pre-sauce. It perfumed the kitchen very nicely.

tomatoes 2

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Then I took another pan for the peppers. I used two very large ones – grown in Mexico, which I’ve found provides the most reliably flavorful ones at this time of year. When my faithful knife man had reduced them to neat strips, I sautéed them in olive oil along with a bay leaf and four crushed juniper berries. Then I salted, peppered, and floured them, stirred in a cup of red wine, and cooked that for a while. It turned quite a lurid purple.

peppers

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To finish the sauce I stirred the tomato mixture into the peppers and cooked until it became extremely thick. Finally, I took the veal out of the oven. It had become very tender, and its liquids had reduced mightily. I mixed the pebronata sauce into it, and simmered it all together for a final ten minutes. That contributed another intriguing kitchen aroma.

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I’d call the dish a moderate success. The veal and peppers themselves were fine, but the sauce, while tasty, was more glutinous and acidic than we like. Tom said he could taste the flour in it; I couldn’t, but I’d have been happier with it thinner. Its heaviness seemed to mute the effect of the various seasonings, and the large amount of wine that had gone into it over-intensified the natural acidity of the peppers and tomatoes.

However, the plain rice we had with it was a good addition, counteracting the sauce’s acidity and loosening up its texture. I’ll do this dish again some time, but I’ll cut back – maybe halving – the flour and the wine. And I bet it would be seriously flavorsome with kid, if I can lay my hands on some.

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I’m a carnivore. I can’t help it: I would if I could. . . . Maybe.

I do like vegetables, fruits, grains, cheeses, pasta — all those good things. And I know that, according to current nutritional ideas (which mysteriously change over time, remember), those are the healthful way to eat. But me, I need meat.

So, at regular intervals I have to satisfy my carnivorous instincts with a large hunk of animal protein. This week I took two rich opportunities to feed the beast. One evening I grilled a gigantic veal chop for myself, and a few days later, Tom and I made toast à la moelle.

Grilled Veal Lombatina

Tom doesn’t much care for plain veal chops, whereas for me they’re wonderfully elemental meat. So we made a dinner in which I had my chop and he had something else. (He even bought the chop for me from our butcher. This is a sign of a really good marriage.)

I prepared it simply, from a recipe in The Union Square Café Cookbook by Danny Meyer and Michael Romano. It’s a thoroughly Italianate approach, which takes thick-cut, dense-grained American veal – which would count as vitellone in Italy and can get quite tough if you don’t handle it carefully – and treats it more or less like a bistecca fiorentina.

For each person, the recipe calls for a two-inch-thick chop weighing 14 ounces. The huge chop Tom bought for me was two inches thick all right, but it weighed in at 1½ pounds. Even after taking off the tail, it was over a pound. Are American cattle growing larger than ever? Is it because of steroids or growth hormones? (I suppose I should worry about this – but I don’t.)

All the recipe had me do with this magnificent chop was rub it with olive oil, salt, and pepper; cook it for 10 minutes on a side in my favorite, heavy-duty grill pan; set it on a platter, drizzle it with a mixture of extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and chopped parsley; and serve it with a cut lemon to squeeze over the meat.

I was in heaven just looking at this massive hunk of fragrant, juicy, succulent meat. Even more in heaven eating it – or what I could of it. When I was younger, I could have gotten through the whole thing, but now in my latter days, I managed a bit more than half. Saved the rest for a lovely carnivorous lunch on another day. Sigh of happiness.

Toast à la Moelle

Roasted marrow bones are probably the Ur meatlover’s experience. They make you feel like Henry VIII. The preparation is totally simple: Get a bunch of two-inch segments of beef marrow bones, put them in a hot oven until the marrow just begins to melt, and serve them in a bowl with lots of toasted French bread alongside. You dig out the luscious marrow from the holes in the center of each bone, spread it on the bread, add salt and pepper, and luxuriate in the rich, unctuous flavor. You drink strong red wine with it.

But this time I wanted to try a more elegant approach, as described by Raymond Oliver in La Cuisine. Oliver is a culinary legend of ancient days, when his restaurant Le Grand Véfour in the Palais Royale in Paris had three Michelin stars. Tom and I ate there once, in 1974. It was incredible, classic, haute cuisine. I rely on Oliver’s cookbook for a number of dishes, and though many of the recipes are extremely elaborate, some are brilliantly simple.

His version of toast à la moelle is not one of the simple ones. The bones are not roasted at all. First, the marrow is carefully scooped out and soaked in salt water for 24 hours. Then, it’s cut in thick rounds and poached for a few minutes. These instructions worried me a bit: wouldn’t the marrow sort of deliquesce after all that soaking? So I left my marrow in the bones for the long soak:

It didn’t deliquesce, but the bath did draw out a lot of blood, which in theory should have made the final dish look prettier. (It didn’t.) Even after that softening, my bones were very reluctant to let go of the marrow. My personal knife man (a.k.a. Tom) had to dig it out with great care – and messiness. Marrow contains high-quality protein but also a great deal of fat, so much that it gums up everything it touches. The poaching tamed it a little and drew out more “impurities,” but the now-ready-for-final-touches marrow still looked a lot like fat. (The bones went into our soup-scrap bag in the freezer, which we maintain for making stock all winter long.)

While Tom was performing the surgery, I was sautéing slices of my homemade white bread, crusts removed, in butter. We set those in a baking dish, topped them with the poached rounds of marrow, and ran the dish under the broiler until the marrow just began to melt.

Then we ate it – and with it drank strong red wine. This was a dish that took us back to la belle époque. (Think Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.) It was really almost stultifying – definitely over the top, even for me, the famous carnivore. We thought the butter-fried bread was too strong a presence, and a little too sweet, conflicting with the intense meatiness of the marrow. We decided we prefer the plain roasted bone preparation, which has a cleaner, pure marrow flavor.

I suppose in a restaurant like Le Grand Véfour, in those grand old days, when nothing as vulgar as a wine bottle appeared at table – just a discreet presentation of the cork to verify what was in the cut-glass carafe – one didn’t bring dishes full of great clunky bones to the elegant diners’ tables. Consequently M. Oliver had to develop a more a genteel presentation. We’re not so elegant or genteel nowadays – and a lot more calorie conscious, alas – but Oliver’s version was fun to try once.

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