YOUR COOKING skills are well honed. Your kitchen is equiped with all the tools you'll ever need and more. The larder is filled with foodstuffs, both porsaic and mundane. So get on with planning dinner or that meal of company. What's the problem?
Too often, at my house at least, when I want to stretch my taste buds outside the norm the problem is deciding what to make. It's difficult enough to select a main course or dessert, but trying to flesh out the menu for a complete meal can become more time consuming than the preparation itself. There are so many ethnic possibilities, so many foods available -- even in winter's dotage, so many cookbooks wanting to entice and inspire. Sometimes too much inspiration can snuff out the flickering candle of inspiration as quickly as too little.
So what to do? The European theory is to go to market and let the specials of the day make your mind up for you. A great theory, and in practice I'm usually willing to insert one dish or change another on a whim. But for most of us some sort of framework is as essential as the security blanket of ice cream in the freezer in case the dessert flops. Picking a theme -- dishes of a specific nation or a region -- helps narrow the potential choices.
But the most useful prods of all for working folk who have to live within their incomes are the limitations of time and price. If one dish you are longing to try requires considerable effort, you almost have to flesh out the menu with simple recipes and buy some prpared foods or postpone the meal. If you must have a can of truffles to make the authentic recipe or can't control your craving for shrimp, the menu probably will be reduced in scope by a nearly empty purse.
Luckily we are living in an era of informality and experimentation. Despite inflation, or perhaps because of it, formal menus are found only at embassy dinners and in museums.With slimming the new national pastime, leaving out a course or two is more likely to bring applause than the anguish of having angry guests tear all the color photographs from your copy of Gourmet magazine. Unknown wines don't demand to be married to recipes with royal pedigrees.
Furthermore you can set nearly whatever pattern you like and serve food in almost any room in the house that suits your mood. Currently, regional Americana can hold the spotlight by itself or share it with recipes of exotic origin. Fresh pasta can appear at any course but dessert (not that noodle desserts are unknown). You will receive almost as much credit for finding great food as for making it. Brag about your Trois Petits Cochons pate, your West Coast salman or pepper jelly from the Georgetown Wine and Food Shop, your baguette from the Bread Oven, the coffee from New Orleans. Skip the sauce with beef. Instead offer three or four different mustards.
Free-form menu planning has only one disadvantage. It is virtually without rules. I can offer here only a few modest signposts, folowed by some menus and recipes that have worked well. Menu I: HAIL TO SPRING Risotto Superbo Shad with Tarragon Mustard Butter and Roe Cheese Baked Grapefruit
This meal has several advantages. You eat the heaviest course first, you are presenting a great spring classic, and by selecting the cheese with some care you can serve white wine only and get through the evening with a single wine glass per person.
Make the mustard butter in advance, precook and cool a simple vegetable such as string beans if you want some color on the plate with the shad, cut and section the grapefruits. Lighly oil the shad and place it in a baking pan. Melt an excessive amount of butter in a frying pan and set it aside with the roe. This frees you to concentrate on the risotto.
Step 1: Begin in the kitchen. Surrround yourself with one or more gifted conversationalist, a glass of wine of whatever, a ladle and a strong wooden spoon. About 20 minutes later you emerge with the first course.
Step 2: Return to broil the shad and saute the roe (allow half a fillet of shad and half a set of roe per person). This takes no more than 10 minutes. Cook the shad under the broiler until it is firm but still yields to the press of a finger, 6 minutes perhaps. Spread butter on the shad before serving. Meanwhile saute roe over low heat, basting with butter and turning them only once. Once the roe is ready, remove it, turn up the heat and add the beans to the frying pan. They will heat through quickly. Place lemon wedges on plates and extra butter on the table. Turn the oven down to 350 before leaving the kitchen.
Step 3: While the cheese is being passed, set the grapefruit in a baking pan. Pour a tablespoon of dark rum or brandy into each half and sprinkle brown sugar atop. Bake for about 10 minutes. This is a popular company dessert at our house because we receive monthly shipments of grapefruit through the winter and by spring there is an overbundance. TARRAGON MUSTARD BUTTER (Makes 1/2 pound) 2 sticks butter 1 generous, tablespoon tarragon mustard, or Dijon-style mustard plus 1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon 1 scallion, minced Salt and pepper to taste
Soften butter without melting and beat in remaining ingredients. Chill or freeze until ready to use. RISOTTO SUPERBO (4 servings) 1 cup long-grain or imported Italian rice 4 cups (about) chicken stock 1 slice bacon, diced 1/4 cup chopped scallions or onion 4 tablespoons butter 1 medium carrot, peeled and cut in a dice 1/2 cup chopped mushrooms 1/4 cup vermouth Salt and pepper to taste Grated parmesan cheese
Render the bacon in a frying pan. Remove pieces and a reserve. Add 1 tablespoon butter to drippings and saute half the onion, carrots and mushrooms until just cooked. Season with pepper and set aside. Heat 2 tablespoons butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and saute remaining onion until just soft. Add rice and turn to coat grains. Add vermouth and cook and stir rice over medium heat until liquid has neraly evaporated. Now add a ladleful of broth. Stir frequently, adding liquid as needed to cover but not drown the rice. After 12 to 15 minutes, bite into a grain. Continue cooking until rice is al dente. Stir in remaining tablespoon of butter, the reserved bacon and vegetables. Serve at once and pass parmesan at the table.
Note: What lifed this risotto into the "superbo" class was a leftover pork bone and about half a cup of pork meat. The bone was added to simering chicken broth and cooked about an hour the night before. The meat was diced and added to the vegetables. Menu II: A LATE NIGHT FEAST WITH CHINESE CHILI Egg Rolls or Dim Sum Chinese Chili with Rice or Noodles Chilled Fruit and Almond Cookies
This is a quick meal with a twist. The chili comes from so far west that it's east. The original recipe, somewhat modified here, is attributed to William Mark, a gastronome who makes his home in Hong Kong. You make the chili in advance, show off your microwave rather than your cooking skill by serving prepurchased egg rolls or dim sum and remember to purchase the cookies when you go for the egg rolls. For dessert serve either Oriental canned fruit or fruit cocktail (fresh, not canned). CHINESE CHILI (About 20 servings) 5 pounds beef brisket or top round, cubed 1/4 cup vegetable oil 1/4 cup soy sauce 1/2 teaspoon sugar 16 grinds of a pepper mill 2 cups chopped onion or (preferred) 1 cup chopped onion and 1 cup sliced scallions 1/2 tablespoon sesame oil 2 tablespoons flour 1/2 teaspoon cumin seed, crushed 4 large or 6 small cloves garlic, peeled and crushed 1 tablespoon chopped dried red chillies, without seeds 2 sticks cinnamon 1 tablespoon chili powder 1/2 teaspoon Chinese five-spices powder 1 slice lemon 1/4 cup or more chopped Chinese parsely (cilentro) 8 cupps beff bouillon or stock 2 tablespoons cornstarch, softened in 1/4 cup water (optional) Cooked rice or Oriental noodles Chopped scallion greens (for garnish) Chopped Chinese parsley (for garnish)
Heat oil in a large kettle. Add beef and toss until browned on all sides. Add soy sauce, sugar, pepper, onion, sesame oil and cook briefly. Add flour and stir at least 1 minute without burning flour. Add cumin seed, garlic and chilies. Stir briefly, then add cinnamon, chili powder and five-spices powder.Add lemon, parsley and bouillon. Bring liquid to a boil, cover pot and simmer 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Remove cinnamon. Thicken with corn starch if needed.
Cool and chill until needed. Reheat and taste. Adjust seasoning as desired with chili pepper (or hot sauce), sesame oil, soy sauce or salt. Serve over rice and noodles and garnish each serving with scallion greens and Chinese parsely. MENU III: QUICK AND LIGHT SUPPER Pan-Fried Bass Fillet Sauteed Cucumber Oriental Asparagus Salad Cheese and Fruit
This is a quick and easy way to forget the troubles of the day behind. You'll need to show a bit of skill with a slicing knife, but when that is done open a bottle of chardonnay or another tasty white wine and relax.
Step 1: Allow 5 or 6 asparagus per person. Wash them and snap off base of each stalk. Prepare cucumbers. Pour a generous portion of flour into a soup plate or other low dish. Add salt and pepper and mix together. Ready cheese and fruit, plus crackers or bread.
Step 2: Bring water to a boil under a steamer. Make your favorite oil-and-vinegar salad dressing or take the top from your favorite Italian-style bottled dressing.
Step 3: Steam cucumbers and asparagus (asparagus on top). Remove asparagus when done to salad plates. Season with salt and pepper and pour on dressing while still warm. Transfer cucumbers to a saucepan as indicated in recipe that follows. Heat a frying pan with a light coating of oil in the pan. Dip fillets (sea bass or another white-flesh fish such as perch or rock; allow 1 per person unless they are small) in flour, coating both sides lightly and place in pan. Cook for 5 to 6 minutes, turning once.
Step 4: Place fish on a warm, not-too-large plate. Top with tarragon-mustard or another composed butter such as anchovie, spoon cucumbers on as well and serve. (If no one is counting calories, rice or steamed potatoes can be served, too.) SAUTEED CUCUMBERS ORIENTAL (2 servings) 1 medium cumuber 1 tablespoon butter 2 scallions, minced 2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger, or a sprinkling of powdered ginger 1 tablespoon imported soy sauce
Peel cucumber, cut in half lengthwise and scoop out seeded. Cut across each half to make slices 1/4-inch or thinner. Stream over salted water until tender. (This may be done ahead). Heat butter in a saucepan or skillet. Add scallion and, ginger and cook until scallion has softened. Add soy sauce, then cucumber and toss until cucumber is heated through. MENU IV: AN ENGLISH AMERICAN BRUNCH Danish Marys or Champagne and OrOrange Juice Fresh Strawberries and Cream A Trio of Herrings in Marinades Eggs Scrambled with Dried and Fresh mushrooms Brioche and Croissants and Assorted James and Jellies New Orleans-Style Coffee
R. W. Apple Jr., a reincarnation of Lucullus in the guise of a foreign correspondent, delights in entertaining in his London flat with American products (bagels) or concepts (serving fruit at the beginning of a brunch rather than at the end). Armed with herring and aquavit he had purchased whil on anan assignment in Scandanavia, plus some beautiful strawberries and double cream, he prepared brunch between crises for a dozen persons one Sunday last fall. The herring were wonderful. They are less good here, but dressed up in the sauce that follows, they make a welcome change from bacon, ham or whatever else usually is found just before you reach the egg platter. WINDOWS ON THE WORLD HERRING IN MUSTARD SAUCE (4 servings) 1/2 cup Dijon mustard 1/4 cup olive oil 1/4 cup wine vinegar Juice of 1/2 lemon 5 teapoons sugar 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill 4 matjes herring fillets, drained, patted dry and cut in 1 1/2-inch slices 1/2 red onion, sliced in rings
In a bowl stir together mustard, lemon juice, vinegar, sugar and slowly add oil. Stir in 1 tablespoon dill. Place herring slices on a platter. Spoon saouce over them. Garnish with onion rings and chopped dill. MENU V: A FRENCH FEAST Almost Instant Curried Fish Soup Leg of Lamb Spinach Molds La Varenne Orange Tart
The tarte should be made the day before the meal. Roast the lamb at the same temperature (350 degrees) at which you will cook the spinach in this recipe from the famous Paris cooking school La Varenne. Serve the lamb with a simple deglazing sauce. Make this while the lamb rests before it is sliced. Pour off the fat and add 1/2 cup white wine or dry vermouth to the pan. Put the pan over a stove-top burner and as the liquid boils, scrape the bottom to loosen the brown bits. Stir, season with salt and pepper and pour into a sauceboat just before serving. Do the soup before company arrives, so they won't realize how simple it is. CURRIED CLAM SOUP (4 Servings) 1 large shallot or 2 scallions, minced 1 tablespoon butter 1 can (10 ounces) condensed chicken broth 1 can (7 ounces) clams 1 can Crosse & Blackwell cream of curry soup Sour cream Chutney
Melt butter in a saucepan. Add shallot and stir over medium heat until soft. Add chicken broth and juice from the can of clams (but reserve the clams). Bring to a simmer then add cream of curry soup. Add the clams and immediately turn off the heat. Spoon soup into cups or bowl. Float a tablespoon of sour cream on each serving and top this with a demi-tasse spoon of chutney. LA VARENNE SPINACH MOLDS (4 servings) 1 1/2 pounds fresh spinach or 1 large package frozen chopped spinach 3 tablespoons butter 1 cup fresh white breadcrumbs 1 1/2 cups hot milk 2 eggs, beaten 1 egg yolk Pinch of ground nutmeg Salt and pepper
If using fresh spinach, wash and remove stems. Select 12 to 14 large leaves and blanch them in boiling water for 1 minute. Drain on paper towels and reserve. Cook remaining spinach or frozen spinach in boiling salted water for 5 minutes. Drain well, squeeze hard to remove liquid and chop. Butter a 3-or-4 cup mold (or 4 custard cups) and line the inside surface with blanched spinach leaves.
Soak the breadcrumbs in the hot milk. Melt 3 tablespoons butter, add the chopped spinach and stir for 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat. Add the breadcrumbs,plus the beaten eggs, egg yolk and seasoning. Spoon into the mold and cover with buttered foil. The mold may be refrigerated at this point for 6 to 8 hours before baking.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees 45 minutes before serving time. Place mold in a pan in the oven. Pour in boiling water to come half way up the side of the mold. Close oven and bake for 45 to 55 minutes (20 to 25 minutes for individual cups) until mixture is firm. Remove mold from water an allow to cool slightly before unmolding.