THE BEST days to come home from school, when I was a child, were the days after my family had a roast chicken. Those days, instead of serving me pretzels and tea, my grandmother pulled out of the refrigerator the carcass of the bird. We had eaten most of the meat the night before; or if there were substantial amounts left, they had been removed and saved for casseroles and pies. But, truth to tell, my favorite part of the chicken was the moist, tasty morsels hidden in the crannies of the skeleton, too small and irregular to be removed by any instrument but the fingers and teeth. My small fingers became adept at the operation.
I had a fantasy as I worked on those bones: I conceived an epicure king who would eat only the meat closest to the bone, distributing the more solid portions of the fowl to the populace at large -- who, no doubt, never knew what they were missing. I don't know what this meant about my incipient sense of social order. It was, however, an early instance of a continuing affection for such unheralded delicacies.
We all have our favorite morsels. I think the meat inside the last segment of a shrimp -- usually considered part of the tail and left decorously on the side of the plate -- is the tastiest. The pleasure is a private one: I don't talk about it, but I always leave that bit for last. The oyster of the chicken -- the tender oval of dark meat nested in the crook of the back -- is another such treat. The New Yorker's John McPhee says the orange growers of Florida eat only the sweeter, blossom end of their fruit and throw the rest away.
Caviar, truffles and chevre are officially prized, in large part because they can't be mass produced or packaged. If salted fish eggs, underground fungi, and molded goat's milk are culinary treasures for that reason, aren't your choice morsels just as special? Certainly the meat from my chicken carcass was as laboriously obtained, and if it were served at presidential dinners, it would even acquire cachet.
Are there ways to share such esoteric delicacies? Sure. Imagine the first time someone served an artichoke to a friend. "Go ahead, just close your teeth and pull. No, don't swallow the whole leaf, you'll prick your tongue. Really, it's good. And the best part is the bottom -- after you take out all those nasty hairs."
The Chinese have no qualms about serving ducks' feet, chicken skin, the hard crust of rice from the bottom of the pot. 'm sure these specialties had their origins in some observant cook's realization of what the true highlights of his or her meals were. What a generous imagination glorified them into banquet dishes. The fried potato skins served by some restaurants in the area represent the same impulse.
Friends of mine once caught 13 giant bluefish on a fishing trip. The unexpected treat was the cheeks. We removed them all from the fish heads and deep-fried them in a tempura batter. Fresh and hot, they were better than fried clams. The Canadians, of course, make a specailty of langues de morue -- not just the tonges also the cheeks of cod.
When I served pineapple to company, I quarter the fruit lengthwise with the leaves attached. I carve out each quarter, leaving the flesh from the stem end only -- the bottom half of the pineapple -- and slice or chop it. I put it back in that half of the boat and fill the other half with some other fruit. Try it; in a pineapple, unlike an orange, the stem end is much sweeter and juicier then the top half. Your guests will wonder how you managed to find such luscious fruit in Washington. (Take the top half, slice and sugar it, and serve it the next day, after the juices have been brought out.)
Foods tend to seem luxurious when they consist of items discreetly selected from the bountiful variety of nature. The crust of fine bread tastes as good as the center, but there is a sense of extravagence in sandwiches or croutons of trimmed bread. However elegant roast duck is, the breast served fashionably alone is more so. Perhaps one of the reasons caviar is so haute is that we don't see any sign of the mother.
If you let yourself be guided by your own perferences, you can achieve the samd kind of elegance in original ways. I have a special fondness for the solid stems of broccoli and cauliflower. If you peel some stems of each, cut them carefully into uniform cubes, steam them, and butter them, you will have a very sophisticated dish. Kohlrabi, another member of the cabbage family, would go well too, giving you three delicate shades of green and white.
Of course, elegance becomes decadence when it means waste. But if you sort the strawberries in your bastket by size and serve the small ones one night -- say, in the upper halves of your pineapple boats -- and the large ones the next, you will be splendid both nights. You needn't feel guilty about your crustless croustades if you use the crusts in a pudding or a stuffing. By paying attention to your personal affections, you may end up relying less on conventional delicacies.
Some treats ought to remain private, though. Quietly, picking away at my chicken bones for half an hour was a good way to calm me down from the excitement of the day. Graham crackers dipped in hot cocoa may be the American version of madeleines and tea -- and who would want to make a party out of that experience? BROCCOLI AND CAULIFLOWER MONDRIAN (4 servings) 2 cups peeled broccoli stems* 2 cups peeled cauliflower stems* 3 tablespoons butter Salt 1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Dice the stems into even cubes about 3/8-inch square. Place the cubes in a steamer basket and steam just until barely tender -- not much more than a minute. Remove basket from pot.
Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a pan that will hold the cubes in a layer less than an inch thick and that can be moved to a broiler. Add the broccoli and cauliflower; toss until well coated with butter. Add salt to taste. Even out the layer; sprinkle with cheese; and dot with the remaining tablespoon of butter. Run under a medium broiler until just golden. BROCCOLI AND CAULFLOWER TRIFOLATI (4 servings) 2 cups peeled broccoli stems* 2 cups peeled cauliflower stems* 1 tablespoons butter 1 tablespoon olive oil 2 medium cloves garlic Salt Pepper
Slice the stems into thin, even discs about 1/8-inch thick. Place in a steamer basket and steam for about 1 minute.
Place butter and oil into a frying pan and heat over a medium flame. Put garlic through a press, into the pan and saute for a few seconds. Add broccoli and caulflower; toss and stir. Saute until tender; the edges may be light brown. Add salt and pepper to taste.
*Note: Diced khlorabi can be substituted for part or all of either vegetable, and each of the vegetables can be used alone.