Illustrative Dinner

2007.Nov.05 Monday · 0 comments

in Casa SaltShaker, Food & Recipes

 Some people have been kind enough to call me a fine artist. I’ve always called myself an illustrator. I’m not sure what the difference is. All I know is that whatever type of work I do, I try to give it my very best. Art has been my life.”

– Norman Rockwell, Illustrator (per his preference)

Buenos Aires – Émile-Antoine Bayard was born 170 years ago this weekend and since we missed his other birthday parties, we decided to throw him a three day fete. You likely don’t recognize his name right off the bat, but you might recognize his work. He was a book illustrator, and a fairly famous one, most well known for having illustrated Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, a good number of Jules Verne’s books (he’s sometimes considered the first “space artist”, having illustrated From the Earth to the Moon in 1865), and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He was born outside of Paris, in the Ile-de-France region, and so, I set my sights on the cuisine of that area as I planned the weekend’s menu. So off it was to a bit of French style cooking – strangely, on two of the nights, there were offbeat conversations about casseroles – I’m not sure what engendered them, but Saturday, a whole long discussion about “7-layer casserole” – you know, ground beef, onions, velveeta, etc… topped with fritos or doritos (the choice of which was the crux of the argument), and then last night the group got on to green bean casseroles and whether one found Durkee onion rings to be an acceptable topping (versus, I gathered, breadcrumbs, almonds, and/or shoestring potatoes). I only catch snippets of these as I go back and forth between kitchen and dining room, so I’m not always the most enlightened…

Brie TorteThe region is famous for its Brie, and I’ve had a recipe sitting on the back burner ever since getting into this whole cheesemaking kick that I wanted to present – this was the perfect opportunity. I didn’t make the Brie, I’m not quite there, but perhaps at some point in the near future… I am going to save a bit of the rind with its mold to grow and see if I can use it as a coating on one of the cheeses I make – you just put it in a jar with some moistened bread and let the bacterial culture grow, occasionally letting a bit of air in – obviously not a way to handle long term storage, but an approach for obtaining cheese molds that are difficult to purchase. The recipe, a Brie Torte, credit goes to a chef I used to work with, Colleen McCullough, not sure if it was hers or one she got from someone as well – into a blender: 12 ounces each of Brie and cream cheese (I did make the latter), 2 ounces of cream, 1 teaspoon worcestershire, 1 teaspoon hot sauce, 8 extra large eggs, some sauteed shallots and leeks (about ¼ cup of each), salt and pepper to taste. Bake in springform pan at 350°F for about 45 minutes, until lightly puffy and browned, and set in the center. Cool and serve either room temperature or chilled.

White Asparagus SoupNo, it’s not modern art. It’s just a closeup on the White Asparagus Soup. The region of Ile-de-France is/was famous for its white asparagus, and since they’re in season right now, it was a perfect chance to use them in a soup. I used a mix of the whey from making the cream cheese and vegetable stock as the base (just vegetable or light chicken stock will work fine). In that, I simmered a potato, a bundle of white asparagus, and some sweated white onions – all coarsely chopped. When the vegetables were all soft, I pureed them in the blender, then strained them (don’t use an overly fine strainer, you want a little texture left to it). Seasoned with salt and white pepper, and then topped with a grated cheese – I used a local one called goya, a fairly hard grating cheese with a slightly tangy flavor. The idea is to keep everything pretty much a creamy white color. You could also, if you like, just use plain vegetable or chicken stock (which, if you haven’t just made some cheese, is probably the best choice anyway), and if you like, add some cream – I didn’t, I really just wanted the flavor of the asparagus to shine through.

Beggar’s Purses of french style peasAnother local favorite, petits pois à la française – fresh peas that have been blanched and shocked, same with a chopped head of butter lettuce, then sauteed with some garlic and green onions in butter and little chicken stock, seasoned with salt and pepper – now, because I didn’t want a soupy dish, I used a cheat… yes indeed… instead of chicken stock, I used a chicken bouillon cube, crushed it up, and sauteed it in the butter first and then added the other ingredients. Then I drained the mix in a colander and let it cool. Stuffed into empanada skins to make little beggar’s purses and baked in the oven until nice and brown. Drizzle with a little tarragon oil, and, as the French might say, voilà!

MateloteThere are probably as many recipes for matelote as there are people attempting to cook it. At its heart, however, it’s a very simple fish stew – probably, after bouillabaisse, France’s second most well known one – and various regions have their own versions. Key ingredients, fish and wine. Beyond that, it seems to vary, but onions and mushrooms tend to figure in. First, I like a slightly smoky flavor in this – gently render a slice of smoked bacon in a small amount of olive oil (one night we had two people who didn’t want any red meat, so I left the bacon out and used smoked salt instead of plain salt, it works too). To this, add a couple of thinly sliced onions, turn up the heat, and cook until just starting to color. Add chopped green peppers, a couple of chopped shallots, a handful of sliced garlic cloves, about 1½ tablespoons each of dried parsley and thyme, 1 teaspoon of powdered bay leaf (or two whole dried bay leaves), and a crushed mixture of black peppercorns and allspice, roughly a teaspoon of each. Cook that all together for a couple of minutes, then add about three cups of whatever leftover wine you have around and an equal amount of fish stock. Simmer away for about half an hour until the peppers are soft. Meanwhile, slice up about a pound or more of mixed mushrooms – I used white button, small portobellos, and oyster mushrooms, and saute them over high heat in olive oil until they’re nicely browned. Cube about 2 pounds of mixed fish into bite sized pieces – freshwater fish is better for this dish if you have it – I used a mix of both freshwater and saltwater fish, as there wasn’t alot of freshwater fish available. About ten minutes before you’re ready to serve, bring the stock mixture up to a simmer, add the mushrooms and fish, bring it back up to a simmer, and just let it all poach together.

Cuajado with strawberriesFinally, inspired by a classic area dessert, fromage blanc with strawberries and cream, I decided to play with one of the things I learned in cheesemaking class. In Spanish it’s called cuajado, I’m not sure what we’d call it – essentially, it’s cheese that hasn’t been “cut” – part of the process of cheesemaking is after adding rennet, the enzyme that curdles the milk, you let it sit for awhile to firm up, and then start cutting it with a knife, which separates the mass into curds and whey – as you gradually move it around, it separates more, and eventually you drain it – the amount of cutting and stirring affects the final texture of the cheese – in this case, you don’t do that – you do your best not to disturb the mass and just leave it set – which means working very quickly. The basic process – a mix of mostly milk with some heavy cream for richness warmed gently, then plain yogurt is added to give it acidity, and left to sit to develop for about 15 minutes. Sugar and vanilla added to taste. At the ready, dessert glasses or bowls, filled with a handful each of strawberry slices. Add the rennet to the milk mixture and immediately – really, immediately – ladle into the bowls – by the time you get to the last ones it’s already setting up pretty firmly – so you don’t want to make too many of these at once – a dozen and I was already finding it difficult to be gentle enough with it while ladling so as not to have it completely separate when I did. Let it setup and cool, then refrigerate until ready to serve.

Happy Birthday Émile!

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