Janine Pierce takes her New Year's Eve dinner one step at a time, from sending out the invitations the day after Thanksgiving to washing -- by hand -- the last of 10 dozen glasses on Jan. 4. After 15 years of doing her formal sit-down dinner for 20 to 24 people, preparing and serving the entire 6-course dinner herself -- with help in shopping, carving and serving the wines from her husband, architect H. L. Pierce -- she has worked out a system.
After the invitations -- which require a reply by Dec. 20 -- Pierce's first task is to clean the silverware and take stock of cooking utensils so she can borrow what she lacks. "I try to wipe it out of my mind until after Christmas," she confesses, but seldom succeeds. She starts browsing through cookbooks for recipes that can be cooked with a single oven and four burners. One year when she tackled cornish hens and vol au vents and found she need more oven space, she learned that lesson.
Asked where she learned to cook, Pierce replies, "I didn't learn to cook." Apparently that was unnecessary for a girl growing up in France's Bordeaux region. Such knowledge was just absorbed automatically. Pierce's Basque grandmother had cooked for a wealthy family from age 13, and her mother had always loved cooking so she was raised with good food. But she never cooked until she was on her own. She has inherited recipes from her mother, but they are no more specific than "a little bit" or "a pinch," so for large dinners -- where she must adjust recipes to serve 20 people -- Pierce relies on her favorite cookbooks. "I am an great believer in Julia Child," Pierce declares. But she also has the experience and instinct to know which ingredients need to be increased and by how much, when quadrupling recipes.
Her biggest problem in devising the menu is the vegetables; the choice in her nearby supermarkets is too limited to suit her taste, requiring her to alternate between braised celery, braised endive, brussels sprouts with chestnuts and carrots with butter and parsley. One year she revised her menu the last minute when she encountered fresh asparagus, and last year she was delighted to find celery root in the market. The fish course became a problem when her nearby Giant supermarket closed its fresh fish counter, so now she must buy her fish the day before -- the freshest fish fillets she can find in the markets, as close to the same size as she can get them.
It is easier, with a large group, to serve dishes that are already portioned, Pierce learned one year when she had a cold souffle on the menu and it was a bother. Ducks, she learned another year, are entirely too complicated to cook and carve for a crowd. She no longer fusses with elaborate pastries like vol au vents. And after last year's disaster with a veal roast that fell apart in the carving to reveal a heart of fat, and sliced ham that crumbled when she tried to form it in cornets, Pierce is careful to examine the musculature of any meat she purchases.
Twelve years ago she began to keep a notebook, saving the menus and seating charts from each year so that the group of old friends who gather annually don't find the evenings repetitive. The notebook has gradually grown more complex, now including responses to the invitations, recipes and their sources, lists of what needs to be bought and what needs to be done each day. "Thursday: Cook ducks. Bone chickens. Keep bones," reads a souvenir from the disastrous year of the duck.
This year's menu starts with soupe au citron, a French version of Greek egg-lemon soup, which is made the day before and finished at the last minute with the liaison of egg and lemon whipped into the broth. Rolled stuffed fish fillets, the second course, are also prepared the day ahead but cooked at the last minute.As for the meat course, filet de boeuf chasseur, its sauce is cooked three days ahead. She needs two whole filets for this dinner, and sautes them in a baking pan positioned over two burners. With the beef -- smothered in mushrooms -- will be either frenched green beans or broccoli with lemon and butter.
Pierce always has a salad, usually Boston lettuce or escarole, with a basic French dressing of 3 parts oil to 1 part vinigar, seasoned with shallots and herbs growing in her basement from last summer's garden. She learned early in the last 15 years that her guests eat a lot of salad, two or three large bowls for the group.
The salad course signals a slower pace, a moment when Pierce can relax in preparing the greens. She will by this time probably have kicked off her shoes. "By the time you hit the salad, your guests have eaten well and are relaxing and talking a lot," explained Pierce, "so they can wait while you fix the salad . . . if you have space left anywhere in the kitchen."
The cheese course was deleted years ago because find satisfactory cheese is difficult in Virginia, and her guests were eating little of it anyway. Bread remains a problem; Vie de France has to be bought the same day and her nearby markets have sometimes run out before she bought hers; and San Francisco sourdough takes valuable oven space for its last-minute browning. Said Pierce, "My husband has been known to go all over Northern Virginia to look for bread."
Pears pralines satisfy all her qualifications for a dessert choice: She can poach the pears two days ahead and leave them in their syrup. She can make the praline two weeks ahead and keep it in a jar in the refrigerator. Soupe au citron (20 servings) 22 cups homemade chicken stock (see note) 3/4 cup long grain rice 2 teaspoons salt 4 eggs 1/4 to 1/2 cup lemon juice Lemon slices or whipped cream for garnish
The day before, combine chicken broth with rice and salt in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer until rice is tender.
The next day reheat the soup 15 minutes before serving. Remove from the heat. Beat the eggs in a bowl until fluffy, then beat in lemon juice. Slowly stir about 2 cups of the hot broth into egg and lemon mixture and whisk vigorously. Pour the mixture into the rest of the soup and whisk until slightly thickened. Soup may be reheated again just before serving, but stir constantly and do not boil or the soup will curdle.
Pour into a warm soup tureen. To serve, top each bowlful with a small piece of lemon or a little dollop of whipped cream.
The soup can be served chilled also. Let it cool after heating with egg mixture, then refrigerate.
Note: Canned chicken broth can be substituted for homemade stock by diluting 9 cans of condensed broth with 6 cans of water. Add more water so to have at least 1 cup of broth per person and 2 cups for the pot. ROLLED STUFFED FISH FILLETS (20 servings) 20 white fish fillets, such as pike, perch or sole 2 sticks (1/2 pound) butter, approximately 12 slices white bread, trimmed and diced (about 5 cups) 1 cup small cooked shrimp, chopped 6 tablespoons chives, finely cut 1/2 teaspoon thyme 1/2 teaspoon tarragon 1 teaspoon salt Pepper Sauce: 1 cup sour cream 2 tablespoons flour Fresh lemon juice Salt 2 tablespoons tomato puree
This dish can be fixed the day before dinner.
Wash fish fillets and pat them with a paper towel. Place fillets on a flat surface and trim to equal sizes, reserving the trimmings.
Melt 3 tablespoons of the butter in a skillet. Stir in the shrimp and the trimmings from the fillets. Cook for 5 minutes and transfer to a bowl.
Add 6 more tablespoons of butter to the skillet and drop in the bread cubes.
Toss them until they are a light gold, then add the cubes to the shrimp and fish in the bowl. Sprinkle the mixture with the herbs and salt and pepper. Toss together.
Coat the bottom and sides of 2 to 3 flameproof baking dishes, large enough to fit the fillets in a single layer, with butter. Place 2 tablespoons of the herbed stuffing on the narrow ends of the fillets and gently roll up. Arrange the rolls seam side down in the baking dishes. Dot with butter and refrigerate.
Take out of the refrigerator 1 hour before serving. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. While eating the soup, cook fish fillets for 15 minutes, or until the fish feels firm. Before serving, place the fish rolls on a warm platter and keep on the open door of the oven while you prepare the sauce.
To prepare sauce, combine sour cream and flour in a pan. Place over moderate heat and with a whisk beat in the lemon juice and salt. Stir in tomato puree and taste for seasoning. Spoon sauce over the fish rolls or present sauce separately in a heated sauceboat. BRAISED FILET OF BEEF CHASSEUR (20 servings) For the espagnol sauce: 9 tablespoons oil 10 tablespoons onions, finely diced 10 tablespoons carrots, finely diced 5 tablespoons celery, finely diced 3 tablespoons flour 10 tablespoons tomato paste 5 tablespoons mushrooms, chopped 6 cups brown stock or canned beef broth Bouquet garni Salt and pepper For the beef: 2 5-pound filets of beef 2 tablespoons oil 1 large onion, sliced 2 large carrots, sliced 2 pounds mushrooms Butter for sauteing 3 shallots, finely chopped 1 cup white wine 3 tablespoons tomato paste
The sauce should be made 1 to 2 days ahead of serving.
To prepare the sauce, heat oil and add diced onions, carrots and celery. Lower heat and cook gently until vegetables are about to brown. Stir in flour and brown it slowly, stirring constantly. When brown, remove from heat and cool slightly.
Stir in the tomato paste, chopped mushrooms, 3 cups of the stock, bouquet garni and seasoning. Bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Cover and cook gently for 40 minutes.
After cooking, skim off any scum that rises to the surface. Then add remaining stock and cook for another 10 minutes. Strain the sauce, pressing the vegetables gently to extract any juice. Clean pan and return the sauce to it. Simmer sauce until it becomes very glossy and the consistency of heavy cream.
Prepare beef about 2 hours before serving. To brown beef, first tie filets with string at 2-inch intervals to keep them in shape. Put roasting pan on stove, on top of two burners if necessary. Heat the oil and add beef. Brown on all sides and remove. In the same pan, add onion and carrots and cook slowly and gently for 10 minutes. Return the beef to the pan and cover with espagnol sauce.Cover with foil and braise in a 350-degree oven for 50 to 60 minutes (for rare beef).
While filets are cooking, prepare the mushrooms. Trim mushroom stems level with the caps and saute quickly in butter until tender. Stir in shallots. Cook for 1 minute, then pour in wine. Continue cooking until liquid is reduced by half, then add the tomato paste. When filets are finished cooking, remove and keep warm. Strain sauce from the roasting pan and add to mushroom mixture.Bring to a boil and taste for seasoning.
When the guests have almost finished the filet of fish, carve beef in 1/2-inch slices and arrange down the center of 2 hot serving platters. Lift mushrooms from the sauce with a slotted spoon and arrange them on top of the slices. Moisten the beef with some of the sauce, but serve the rest of the sauce separately. PEARS PRALINEES (20 servings) For syrup: 1 1/2 cups of sugar 4 cups of water or enough to cover the pears 1 vanilla bean or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 20 ripe pears, peeled For the praline: 1 cup whole unblanched almonds 1 cup sugar Oil for pie pan For the cream: 4 cups heavy cream, whipped 4 egg whites 2 tablespoons sugar (or to taste) 20 macaroons (optional) Rum or liqueur to taste, about 1/2 cup (optional)
The day before serving, peel the pears and scoop out the cores from the base with a teaspoon, leaving stem intact and the pear looking whole when upright. Heat the sugar with the water until dissolved. Add vanilla and simmer for 5 minutes. Add pears, cover and poach 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat and store in syrup overnight in refrigerator.
To prepare the praline, put almonds and sugar in a heavy saucepan and cook. Let sugar melt and begin to brown before stirring to toast the nuts on all sides. When almonds are well glazed with the caramelized syrup, cook 1 to 2 minutes longer making sure they are well toasted, but be careful not to burn. Pour in an oiled pie pan and leave until they harden. Grind the praline a little at a time in a blender or pound it finely with a rolling pin.Store in a screw-top jar until needed.
The day of serving, prepare the cream by whipping egg whites with sugar until they form stiff peaks. Fold together with whipped cream. Stir in a few tablespoons praline, to taste.
To assemble the dessert, drain pears and place on a serving dish or in champagne glasses. If desired, a macaroon may be placed in the bottom of each dish and sprinkled with rum or liqueur to taste. Spread a rough coating of whipped cream mixture on the pears, leaving the stems showing. Sprinkle with remaining praline and chill well before serving.