REFLECTIONS OF the hostess, Barbara Witt, the morning after a dinner party ". . . which began promptly and properly at 7 p.m., 21 March and ended somewhat less properly at 1 a.m., 22 March . . .
"The chef remembers little about the assembly of the camera-clicking, guest-clucking, drop-of-the-hen repast, but had plenty of time to reflect the next noon while she plucked well chewed bones from the rug and lugged almost a case of reisling bottles to the trash!
"There are definite advantages to the well planned dinner party over the pot-luck variety. The Cornish hens would have had enough time to thaw and would not have thrown off so much liquid, thehrefore steam/roasting instead of evenly browning. I would have tested the Snail Pot Pie and would have decided to bake the puff pastry rounds separately to maintain their flakiness. Sealing the ramekins with the pastry causes the same flaw found in Beef Wellington. In truth the whole idea of puffy pastry and snails in butter should rightfully disappear in the pages of culinary history!
"I wouldn't still have a bag of crisp, clean red lettus and Boston in my fridge, along with a pint of perfect salad dressing.
"I wouldn't have found two bottles of wine in the freezer this morning with their corks forced out and oozing wine slush into the tray of ice.
"I would have increased the sugar in the almond tart filling just a tad, and the stawberries would have had longer to absorb their marinade.
"And I would have had either creme fraiche or sour cream in the house to give the hen sauce a bit more character.
"There would have been tasty nibbles with cocktails, Portuguese pewter, the old Imari service plates, flowers at your place, name cards, a perfect nest of pepper puree, an obligation to keep your shoes on, a lot of depressing politicial and economic conversation and I, for one, would have enjoyed it a whole lot less!"
In all honesty, Barbara Witt, who owns and operates the Big Cheese restaurant in Georgetown, had four days in which to prepare for that dinner party, but she didn't do one thing about it until 3:30 Friday afternoon when she was driving home from the restaurant. According to one of the restaurant's board of directors, John Vorhes, who was also a guest at dinner that night, "Barbara didn't give this meal more than 20, no, more than five minutes time. I know because all day long she was negotiating, dealing with personnel problems . . . the usual harassment."
Witt's dinner invitations are almost always "come for what ever is in the refrigerator." Those who know her snicker, not because they don't believe her, but because she has the knack for turning nothing into something. So swears Vorhes because one evening she begged the contents of his refrigerator, confessing that for once she had nothing in hers with which to feed him.
"Two stale English muffins and a single sausage. I don't know what she did but she turned them into a beautiful pizza," he says as he and the other guests stand around the countertop that separates Witt's kitchen from her dining room, "helping" her cook.
"Everyone always stands here," she explains "because I'm never ready on time."
Ann Karras is reminded of time Witt invited her to watch the Olympics and have what's in the refrigerator. "I came and I was furious," Karras says with mock seriousness. "The table was beautifully set. There were fresh asparagus and homemade mayonnaise."
Too much praise her guests decide. "Lets talk about the bad meals we've had here," one suggests. Everyone agrees. Silence. Followed by laughter. No one can remember one.
Witt admits that she stopped at the grocery store on her way home that afternoon, to fill in the missing ingredients for the menu she had conjured up as she drove up Massachusetts Ave. She bought the lettuce that never was used, cucumbers, strawberries, kiwis, whipped cream cheese and an orange, but that's all. "My kitchen," she explains, "has everything, that's why it's easy to put things together."
That depends on your definition of easy. Most people can't plan menus without sitting down, pencil and paper plus cookbooks in hand, much less remember what's in the refrigerator, freezer and cupboards while driving up Mass Ave. But then there aren't many people as creative as Barbara Witt, who once earned her living at the U.S. Information Agency and elsewhere as a specialist producing foreign exhibitions. She left the agency and opened The Big Cheese when her boss told her, "and it's a direct quote," she says, "'the guy down the hall has to send two kids to college and, after all, whom do you have?'"
Besides, she says, "the agency lost a lot of its creativity."
Even though there seems little connection, Witt says her work made it possible for her to run a restaurant successfully. "The only reason I felt I could do the job was because in the kind of job I had, I had deadlines for opening projects. I had to work within a budget. I had to deal with people. i had a lot of administrative experience. I thought there was no reason I couldn't transfer the expertise from one thing to another."
And she did. That was seven years ago. Now a branch of the restaurant, perhaps to be called The Little Cheese, will open in July in Baltimore's inner harbor redevelopment.
Witt's interest in good food goes back to her childhood.Her father, who often traveled, felt young children should know how to behave in the best restaurants; so the family ate out frequently, especially in New York, not far from Witt's childhoood home in Silvermine, Conn. As an adult, Witt traveled abroad extensively where she was introduced to many different foods.
The dishes on the restaurant's menu were arrived at through Witt's improvisation, not unlike what she was doing Friday night. For instance the Snail Pot Pies. "I had a can of snails and slug butter." (That, it turns out, is a restaurant term for garlic and butter mixture in which snails are usually served.) "I always keep some puff pastry dough in the freezer. I get it from the French Market," Witt explained as she rolled it out to fit the ramekins. "So we're going to have Snail Pot Pies." But Witt added the touch that made a difference -- a few Italian plum tomatoes. Though she may have been disappointed in the Snail Pot Pies, others were not and how can you let a dish with a name like that die?
As she removed the hens from the oven to turn them, her friends, eager to rib her, proclaimed in Greek chorus fashion" "Oh the cook's burning the dinner." The hens were getting a tad too brown on top while the rest of them were not cooking. But they did come out tender, not always the case with that variety of bird.
No cheese in any dish prepared by the owner of the Big Cheese? "Heavens no," she said with such emphasis one of her earrings fell off. SNAIL PIT PIE (8 servings) 40 medium canned French snails, well rinsed 4 canned Italian plum tomatoes, drained and torn into strips 12 ounces elassic snail butter 1 pound puff pastry
Melt butter; toss snails and tomato strips in butter and stir. Divide among eight 4-ounce souffle dishes. Roll out pastry and cut into rounds slightly larger than the souffle dishes. Bake pastry on cookie sheet at 450 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes, until puffed and golden brown. Heat snails at same temperature for 10 minutes. Place pastry "hats" on tops of snails and serve. ROAST CORNISH HENS (8 servings) 8 Cornish hens Salt and pepper Basting Sauce: 1/2 cup honey 1/2 cup dry Vermouth or dry sherry 2 tablespoons dark soy sauce 1/4 cup safflower or other vegetable oil Cream Sauce for Hens: 3 cups chicken, veal or turkey stock 6 to 8 chopped scallions 2 teaspoons dried thyme or 1 sprig fresh rosemary, thyme or tarragon 3 tablespoons ace to balsamico (Italian honey vinegar) 3 cups heavy cream 2 to 3 heaping tablespoons creme fraiche or sour cream Fresh snipped chives
Clean, wash and drain birds and tie legs together with string. Pull strings criss-cross under back and tie across wings to keep body compact. Mix together honey, vermouth soy sauce and oil. Roast birds in pan(s) at 400 degrees for about 1 hour, or until legs can be wiggled easily. Baste a couple of times after the first 15 minutes.
While hens are roasting make the cream sauce. Add the scallions and thyme to the stock. Boil it to reduce it by half. Strain. Add vinegar. Bring cream to a boil and reduce by half. Combine stock and creams and continue reduction, until sauce has thickened. Just before serving stir in creme fraiche and lots of chives. Keep sauce warm and pass separately with birds. SWEET PEPPER PUREE (8 servings) 8 large sweet red peppers 1/4 cup oil 1 cup rice 5 cups water 6 tablespoons sweet butter 3 large cucumbers, peeled, seeded and julienned 3 or 4 tablespoons butter
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Seed and core peppers and quarter. Place in a casserole and drizzle with oil, salt and pepper. Roast for 15 minutes, stirring frequently to keep peppers oiled. Reduce heat to 350. Add rice and water and cover.Bake for 20 minutes. Remove lid. Continue baking until rice is tender and water is absorbed. Run pepper and rice through food processor using steel blade or place in blender until smooth, light and fluffy. Add sweet butter in the process and adjust seasoning.
Prepare cucumbers in advance and keep crisp in cold water. Just before serving, drain on paper towels and stir-fry quickly in hot butter.
Serve pepper puree shaped like a nest, the nest filled with the cucumbers.