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Start With A Fresh Ham

By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Maybe this season, the realities of dinner on a budget pertain to your Christmas meal as well.

You'd still like to serve family and friends a gloriously succulent entree, colorful side dishes and a dessert that delights. But this year, you have a closer eye on the bottom line.

One of Washington's favorite chefs, Ris Lacoste, showed us the way in accepting the Food section's holiday challenge: Create a cost-conscious yet festive three-course dinner for 12.

She did not seek out bargains all over town. Presumably, it would be possible to buy the same components and spend less than her total of $130. She bought ingredients at her neighborhood Whole Foods Market, where she gets lunch most days. "I shop there all the time," she says. "I see prices that are comparable with Safeway's."

Like the true sports fan she is, Lacoste went in with a game plan and stuck to it. Her dishes would be characteristic of the food she likes to cook. "Let's call it rustic elegance," she said, which also defines the cuisine of her long-awaited restaurant, Ris, scheduled to open in the West End next summer.

Lacoste, 52, calls herself a cook who likes to make big pots of things that simmer. That much was clear, watching her start the challenge dishes in her Glover Park kitchen. First up: a fresh ham that she studded with garlic cloves, covered with onions and shut tight in a pot in one of her two ovens. She said the pork was an obvious choice to feed a crowd, especially at $2.49 a pound. Next came the beautifully clear yield of her chicken stock, made for her first course of sweet potato and bourbon soup. The meat of the stock's gently poached whole chicken would provide a bonus meal or two.

The chef's self-description doesn't quite cover her breadth of experience, which includes recent years of consulting for restaurants such as Rock Creek in Mazza Gallerie, 10 years as head chef at 1789 and her years of service at Kinkead's in Foggy Bottom and at 21 Federal in Nantucket, Mass.

Those in Washington's food community know Lacoste as a calm, generous teacher on the line and as a bighearted professional who rarely turns down a worthy cause. Her neighbors, such as "Meet the Press" producer Michelle Jaconi, reap the benefits when the chef cooks great quantities at home, then dispenses some of it to select friendly households. (When it was revealed that the photographer on assignment lived close by, the chef jotted down her address for future deliveries.)

With practicality, Lacoste added to the soup some of the same herbs that would appear in other dishes, apologizing immediately for binding the bouquet garni with a rubber band. "It comes with the parsley. I haven't killed anybody this way yet," she said.

Most of the soup's dose of bourbon evaporates during the early cooking stages, but its taste remains to heighten the potatoes' sweetness. (Asked for a nonalcoholic alternative, she couldn't think of one.) Chunks of vegetables and orange halves imbue the soup with depth, brightness and acidity.

As the soup simmered uncovered and close to the brim of its large enameled pot, Lacoste checked on the fresh ham in the oven, basting with cooking juices until its final hour, when she would apply a killer glaze of molasses, mustard and sage.

"My mom, who cooked for seven kids and does Christmas for a huge family -- 37 at Thanksgiving -- makes a four-hour ham," Lacoste said. Incredibly, this was the chef's first attempt at it, and she wanted to do it in less time.

Dessert needed her attention next, in between trips to open the back door for her greater Swiss mountain dog, Genny. The chef chose to make individual pear and white chocolate bread puddings, a recipe she loves from Terri Horn, the woman famous in these parts for concocting a salty oatmeal cookie sold at Teaism.

Bread puddings can appear quite homey, but this one comes together looking as lovely as any restaurant creation. It took a series of steps, none of them difficult: Lacoste combined cubes of challah with pieces of Bosc pear, then stuffed the mixture into ramekins to overflowing. "Those pears are my favorite for cooking," Lacoste said. "Make sure the ones for this dessert are just on the firm side of ripe."

She started studding the puddings with white chocolate chips but quickly sighed and announced her preference for using large chunks: "These little pieces take too much time; it's killing me. I'm not a baker."

She spiked the custard with a bit of pear-flavored liqueur, only because she had it on hand and likes that extra emphasis of flavor. Then she made space in each ramekin to pour in the custard.

Lacoste likes using extra-large eggs for the custard because it gives her enough for a creme Anglaise sauce for presentation. Some of the custard will leak into the roasting pan that holds the ramekins in their water bath, she said, but "that's okay." The puddings soaked up the first round of custard before a final top-off, and, after hot water was poured into the pan, into Lacoste's second oven they went.

The side dishes came together in quick succession: braised cabbage, sauteed to a soft purplish-red with additions of red wine vinegar, brown sugar, onions and bacon; thick quarters of red potatoes, simply seasoned and roasted; the green-on-green action of garlicky beans and spinach; and a classic French applesauce, cooked down with butter and sugar.

Even as the chef was keeping track of oven times and calculating recipe yields aloud, Lacoste understood what it takes to keep many pots going.

"People tend to freak out when there is so much to do in the kitchen," she said. So she made sure notes were added to recipes that could be made hours or days in advance: the stock, the soup, the puddings, potatoes and applesauce. The chef preferred that the ham, cabbage and green side dish be made the day they are served.

Near the end of a busy four-hour session, Lacoste discarded the orange halves and herb bundle from the soup in order to puree it in batches (there was probably too much of it to use an immersion blender). The soup had been off the heat and was still hot, but not so hot that it would color her counter a deep shade of orange if it shot out of the whirring blender, as hot liquids can do. "I already did something like that when I taught a soup class recently at CulinAerie," she said. She covered the vented blender lid with a dish towel and removed any dramatic threat.

Adding heavy cream elevated the soup to its proper smoothness. Plating it with drizzles of sour cream, toasted pecans and bits of Virginia ham transformed it into a sensory experience. "More elegant than rustic, I guess," she admitted.

The same went for one of the puddings, which had baked up puffed and golden and was easily coaxed out of its ramekin. It joined forces on a plate with a dollop of sweetened whipped cream, a swath of sauce, a few sheer slices of fresh pear and a sprig of mint from her garden.

Surveying the full complement of dishes and prepared for her close-up, Lacoste blessed everything on the table; everyday ingredients had been transformed into a feast.

Except for the ham: "It has good flavor, but it's a little dry," she said. In customary fashion, the chef cooked three more hams in the next few days to make sure readers would have a recipe that worked.

"I'm happy with it, and they will be, too," she said. So will her neighbors.

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