IT'S THE Sunday before Income Tax Day and all through the land dining room and kitchen tables are out of commission, covered with forms and expense records. But there is at least one sunny corner in this gloomy scene. Today the Georgetown kitchen of Jerome Kurtz, the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, is much more likely to be covered with pasta rather than papers.
First, Jerry Kurtz had to set a good example. He did his taxes early. Second, whatever your stereotype of the Tax Man may be, Jerry Kurtz doesn't fit it. His weekends aren't spent closing loopholes or opening other people's bank books. He'd rather cook in concert with his artist-wife, Elaine, and chat with friends at a casual meal in the evening.
The kitchen is a focal point of the Kurtz's restored Georgetown home. Architect Hugh Newell Jackson created an airy, well-lighted room with a cooking island and room for a large, circular table that can seat eight or 10 comfortably. Herbs, plants and flowers soften the stark white walls and the Kurtz's themselves, dressed in jeans, are advertisements for the virtues of informality.
Mid-afternoon last Sunday a visitor was greeted by the hum of an electric pasta machine, Jerry, half-glasses perched on his forehead, was rolling out dough that would become noodles that would become the vehicle that evening for a wonderfully rich first course sauce of cured salmon and cream. Elaine sat at the table carving two blocks of chocolate into "truffles" and coating them with carob or cocoa. An outsized saute pan, at least 18-inches in diameter, dominated the stove top. Under its cover veal shanks were simmering quietly.
The Kurtzs have been married for 24 years, and if the kitchen is any testing ground for compatability, theirs is a solid union. They negotiated such potentially explosive issues as the amount of pasta to make, whether the veal shanks had cooked long enough and worked together for a time with what she called "the two-person pan."
"We work pretty well together," Jerry Kurtz said in answer to a question.
"Jerry makes pates and I do the decoration," Elaine said. She, it turns out, usually bones the meat when he makes the pate, and she makes them, too. Either one may take on the main course or the salad. "Elaine does decorative food," her husband said. "She's wonderful with glazes, cold foods and aspic." She also is specialist in soups.
They both read cookbooks and tempt each other with recipes they find. Jerry tends to follow a recipe, making variations in seasoning to suit his taste. Elaine, on the other hand, is described by her husband as an "instinctive cook. She reads several recipes for a dish and then puts them all away and just does it."
"Each year we seem to find something we're very excited about and will make it several times," Elaine said. A current example is brie baked in brioche dough, a recipe from Jacques Pepin's "La Methode." Though baking is "a weak spot," they have made it repeatedly and served it at various times as an appetizer, cheese course and as dessert with fruit.
With their two daughters both away at school, the Kurtzs, who moved to Washington from Philadelphia in 1977, follow a simplified eating pattern during the week. Elaine spends the day working in her studio (a converted) garage at the base of their garden). Jerry eats lightly at lunch time, frequently a sandwich at his desk. The evening meal, a family ritual, will be a quickcooked main course of chicken or veal some nights, a stew or pot roast another. "We have a lot of soup in the winter and a lot of salads in the summer," Elaine Kurtz said. "Sometimes I'll serve leftover pate or a cold roast and salad; sometimes I'll do steak on the grill."
"No desserts," her husband continued. "Cheese -- a lot of cheese -- and fruit." He laughed, like a taxpayer under scrutiny, then confessed: "And some ice cream once in a while." "And brownies," Elaine added."I keep some in the freezer." "They taste better frozen," Jerry said.
"I don't spend a lot of time on cooking," Elaine concluded, "but I won't serve prepared foods, and use very few frozen things. Jerry has never eaten a TV dinner."
Their formal, business-related entertaining is done almost exclusively during the week. The meal is served in a library-dining room and usually will consist of a first course, main course, salad and cheese and dessert. One or two wines will be served, something "that tastes pleasant and doesn't cost a lot of money," according to Jerry Kurtz.
"I think the menu is the most important part of entertaining," offered Elaine Kurtz. "Deciding what goes with what and what will serve well with help, if we have it, or without. When we're shorthanded, the first course is always on the table when the guests are seated. It's very important that it not become frantic."
A woman with a considerable sense of humor, she tells a joke on herself about a dinner that began with melon wrapped in ham, went on to pasta and then to a dessert prepared by their part-time housekeeper, who stayed on to serve. "Pretty good, Mrs. Kurtz," the housekeeper said. "I made the dessert, Mr. Kurtz made the pasta and you made the melon." She also admits that the first time she saw the ingredient quatre epices in a French recipe, she did not realize it was a formula and used the first four spices that came to hand. "I can't remember what they were," she said, "but the recipe tasted fine."
The Kurtzs' marriage and adventures with food began in France where he, an Army enlisted man but one with some unusual credentials -- an accounting degree and an editorship on the Harvard Law Review -- was assigned to an auditing job based in Paris. "We were living in hotels and for a year and a half we ate almost all our meals in restaurants," Jerry Kurtz said. "We became very interested in food and in the French classic tradition of cooking. When we returned to Philadelphia, we couldn't find anything like it, so we started to cook in desperation. We joined a gourmet group. We've been cooking ever since."
"It's therapy for him," Elaine said.
"It is relaxing," her husband agreed, "and completely different from what I do. But I only do it occasionally. Maybe I wouldn't enjoy it so much if I had to do it all the time."
"I don't mind cooking everyday," Elaine responded, "but shopping gets to be a drag. Sometimes we will try something new and tough just to test ourselves. But I tend to take shortcuts. Jerry makes the pasta. I don't want to make pasta. If it were up to me, I'd go down to that new shop (Pasta, Inc.) and buy it. But I'll peel all those oranges and he never would. Or put aspic over beef a spoonful at a time. That's not too much trouble."
"You're an artist," her husband said. "It's a skill you have.I don't have a craft, so I like doing these things."
"Patience," said Elaine Kurtz. "Cooking takes different kinds of patience." BRAISED VEAL SHANKS (6 servings) 1/3 cup olive oil 4 tablespoons butter 6 to 12 slices veal shank (1 to 1 1/2 inches thick) 1 cup flour Salt and freshly ground pepper 1 1/2 cups dry white wine 2 tablespoons lemon zest, minced 5 tablespoons parsley, chopped fine
Melt butter with oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Dredge veal slices in flour (on a plate or low soup bowl) on both sides. When butter stops foaming, add veal pieces in a single layer. Brown meat well on both sides. Season with salt and pepper and add the wine. Cover pan tightly and turn down heat to obtain a gentle simmer. After 10 or 15 minutes, as liquid evaporates, add 1/3 cup warm water. Add more warm water from time to time as needed and cook meat until tender enough to cut with a fork, 2 to 2 1/2 hours.
When done, remove to a warm platter. Add lemon zest and parsley and turn heat to medium. Cook and stir for a minute, scrapping the bottom of the pan. Boil down liquid if watery. Return veal to the pan and turn in the juices. Serve veal with juices poured over it. -- Adapted from "More Classic Italian Cooking" by Marcella Hazan.
The Kurtzs find it easiest to have the veal sliced at least 1 1/2 inches thick and serve only one slice per person. They prepare a few extra to hold in reserve for hearty eaters. JERRY KURTZ'S SALMON PINK PASTA (6 servings) 1 to 1 1/4 pounds pasta, either hand-made using 3 eggs and 2 1/4 cups flour, or commercial fettuccini 1/4 pound butter 1/2 pound smoked salmon, cut in thin pieces 2 tablespoons pink peppercors*, or to taste, lightly crushed Salt 1/4 cup brandy 1 1/2 cups heavy cream 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
Heat water for pasta. Melt butter in a skillet. Add salmon and saute until heated through. Season with peppercorns (reserving a few) and salt, then add brandy and flame. When flame dies add cream and cook over brisk heat until cream reduces and thickens. Keep warm over low heat as pasta cooks.
Bring up heat under sauce and add cheese. Taste and adjust seasoning and toss with drained pasta. Scatter reserved peppercorns over the bowl or individual portions just before serving.
*Pink peppercors are sold in several specialty food stores and cookware stores in the area. Freeze-dried green peppercorns may be substituted, or use a small amount of freshly ground white pepper. ELAINE KURTZ'S ORANGE ORANGES (6 servings) 6 naval or other eating oranges 2 cups granulated sugar 1 1/2 cups water 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar 1/4 cup Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur
Use a vegetable peeler to remove the thin covering (the zest) from each orange. Carefully cut away all the white rind and the navel, leaving the orange naked and unblemished. Set aside in a bowl or deep dish.
Using a sharp knife, cut the zest into thin strips or shreds. Place these in a pan, cover with water and boil for 5 minutes. Drain and repeat the process. Meanwhile, put the sugar, water and cream of tartar into a heavy saucepan and place it over the flame. When the sugar dissolves, add the orange strips and continue to boil until the liquid becomes a syrup. Remove from heat and stir in liqueur. When syrup has cooled, pour over oranges. Refrigerate for at least an hour (or all day), turning the oranges from time to time. Serve in small bowls or high-sided plates with zest strips piled atop oranges. ROSE MARIE CUSHMAN'S CEVICHE (6 servings) 1 pound flounder or sole, cut in 1/2-inch cubes Juice of 4 lemons and 4 limes 4 scallions (green part included) finely sliced, or 1 large red onion, finely sliced 2 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped 1/2 cup tomato juice 8 pimento-stuffed olives, sliced 1 hot green chili pepper, sliced (or more to taste) 2 tablespoons finely minced coriander leaves 1/2 teaspoon oregano 1/2 teaspoon cumin (optional) Salt and pepper to taste Hot pepper sauce to taste
Place fish in a glass bowl. Cover with lime and lemon juice. Marinate for 6 to 8 hours in refrigerator. Drain fish. Rinse well under cold running water. Drain well and dry with paper towels. Combine remaining ingredients and mix with fish. Taste and correct seasoning. Refrigerate for 2 or more hours. Rose marie cushman's chocolate truffles (Makes about 36) 8 ounces German sweet chocolate 1 stick less 1 tablespoon butter, softened 1 1/4 cups chopped brazil nuts, almonds or filberts 3 tablespoons brandy or coffee liqueur 3 ounces semisweet (or unsweetened) chocolate, coarsely grated
Spread the chopped nuts on an oven tray and broil for 3 to 4 minutes to brown them a little. Shake the tray every minute to avoid burning. Set aside.
Break German chocolate into pieces as small as possbile. Place them in a heat-proof porcelain bowl. Set the bowl inside a skillet with barely simmering water. Stir often. Once the chocolate is melted, let it cool partially. Then add the butter, mixing thoroughly until smooth. Add the toasted nuts and, finally, the brandy. Refrigerate until very hard.
Take teaspoonsful of the mixture and roll them in grated semisweet or unsweetened chocolate to make irregular balls. Place in fluted paper cups and refrigerate or freeze.
Note: Elaine Kurtz serves two versions of this recipe. One contains brandy and is rolled in carob powder. The other contains orange liqueur and grated orange peel and is rolled in cocoa.