VIRGINIA WOOLF started it, years ago when I was reading by flashlight after lights-out in the dorm at school. The book is "To the Lighthouse." The Ramseys and their guests are at a dinner in the summer seaside dusk.
The cover of a great brown dish is removed and the exquisite scent of olives and oil and juice is released. The cook has spent three days on this dish with its savoury brown and yellow meats and bay leaves and wine. It is proclaimed a triumph and Mrs. Ransey says it is boeuf en daube, from an old French recipe of her grandmother's.
To me, halfway between dinner and breakfast, it was a cruel enticement. Five years later, in my kitchen, it is a challenge. Three days to prepare a beef stew? Brown and yellow meats? We do research in French cookbooks, estimate, improvise and proceed.
We shall never know if the fragrance rising from our brown casserole is like that at the Ramseys', but it too is proclaimed a triumph, and will be often repeated.
Thomas Wolfe, in "The Web and the Rock," says of the character who is himself, He wanted to eat and drink the earth. Towering Thomas of enormous appetites and passions, writing in his lonely room, imagines a night with a beautiful woman. First, however, they must dine, and thereby we are launched on a search for a certain tomato soup.
It is a heavy tomato soup, mahogany in color. A grilled steak next, scattered with chopped mint and a dash of cinnamon, glazed with butter, flanked by crisp fried potatoes, pearl onions in butter and cream, white endive, followed by a hot deep-dish apple pie with cheese and strong coffee. A meal, we suspect, to induce torpor rather than ardor in beings less massive than Thomas.
The mint and cinnamon steak proves to be an interesting change, but the tomato soup is not so simply produced. Our first try is very good, but it is tomato red, although we base it on a strong beef stock. The second time we are inspired by the dark brown pan juices from a well-baked brisket, thickened by whole wheat flour. Mahogany, and superb.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, in "Tender is the Night," does not disclose the menu at the Divers' terrace dinner party, high above the Mediterranean. But we know that Nicole Diver has been translating a recipe for Chicken Maryland into French for her cook, as she sits on the beach in the sun, her brown back hanging from her pearls.
We are somewhat disappointed to learn that Chicken Maryland is simply what we call oven-fried chicken. But Maryland is as famous for its seafood as for its poultry, and the Mediterranean is a veritable orchard of fruits of the sea. We combine the chicken with shrimp and crab and the result is delicious.
In "Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay," the poet writes from Vienna to her lover in America and comments sadly on her daily fare. It is weiner schnitzel, cabbage, hot breads and beer, while she longs for a bowl of rice and an apple.
We understand this, since we conclude traditional holiday feasts with tart lemon pie rather than mince and pumpkin. And from the simplicity of rice and from the snapping crispness of a good apple, we devise a light rice and apple dessert and serve it chilled, garnished with thin slices of unpeeled red apple.
Nancy Hale, "The Prodigal Women," designs for us, step by lucious step, a picnic fit for the most demanding gods. The main dish is lobster in the fashion of Brittany, but called a l'americaine. While the dish conducts its love affair with the oven, a basket is packed with dark bread, mixed greens, camembert, red wine and utensils.
Basket, blankets and napkin-wrapped casserole are carried to the flat top of a boulder at the edge of the sea. Wisps of garlic drift into the twilight breeze. Voila, says the cook. "Voila," we say at Rockport on Cape Ann, around our flat rock table by the pewter evening sea, as the stem from our Dutch oven meets the salty air. Our hamper holds hot rolls, cole slaw and warm blueberry pie, but the felicity is the same.
We owe much to the late, sorely missed Rex Stout. Nero Wolfe and his chef, Fritz, have led us to oyster fritters, saucisse minuit for Sunday sausages, and three-egg spoonbread.
In the last Nero Wolfe story, Archie and Nero are in the office solving the crime and Fritz is getting lunch. Bluefish stuffed with shrimp. That is all we are told, but we are not daunted. The next time the fishermen present us with a big blue just caught off Indian River Inlet near Bethany, we will get to work, sleuths again ourselves. Cherchez l'herbe! APPLE RICE MILLAY (6 servings) 1/2 cup raw long grain rice (not converted) 2 cups milk 1 teaspoon butter 1/4 cup sugar 2 envelopes unflavored gelatin 1/4 cup apple juice, unsweetened 1 cup chopped tart apple (mcintosh is best) and 6 thin slices, unpeeled 1 cup heavy cream, whipped 1 tablespoon or more calvados or other apple brandy Sliced apple for garnish
In top of double boiler, cook rice, milk until very soft. Stir in sugar and butter. Put through ricer or blend slightly in food processor.
Soften gelatin in apple juice, then dissolve in double boiler over hot water. Add strained rice mixture and chopped apple. Cool, fold in cream and apple brandy and pour into a wet mold or bowl and chill at least 3 hours.
At serving time, unmold, decorate with slices of apple (peel up), and serve. BOEUF EN DAUBE VIRGINIA WOOLF (6 servings) Marinade: 2 pounds trimmed lean beef, cut into 2-inch cubes 2 whole skinned and boned chicken breasts, cut into 2-inch cubes 2 cups dry white wine 1/4 cup cognac 1/3 cup olive oil Daube: 3 tablespoons olive oil 3 tablespoons butter 1 cup onion, sliced 2 cloves garlic, chopped 1/2 pound cubed thick bacon 3 bay leaves 1/2 teaspoon thyme 1/2 teaspoon salt Freshly ground black pepper 2 cups beef bouillon, or more if necessary 1/2 cup pitted green olives 1/2 cup pitted black olives 2 tablespoons tomato paste Peel of 1/2 small orange 2 tablespoons chopped parsley 2 tablespoons cornstarch (optional)
Put beef and chicken into 2 separate bowls, and cover each with equal amounts of wine, cognac and oil. Marinate, covered, in refrigerator overnight.
The next day, drain beef and chicken, saving marinade. Heat the oil and butter in a flameproof casserole on top of the stove. Add the onions and garlic and cook until the onions are slightly browned. Remove with slotted spoon and set aside.
Brown the beef in the casserole with the bacon. Return onions and garlic to the pot and add bay leaves, thyme, salt and pepper. Add enough beef bouillon to almost cover meat. Cover and place in 375-degree oven for 1 hour.
Remove and stir in olives, tomato paste, orange geel, parsley and chicken. Return to oven for 1/2 hour. Remove and test for tenderness; cook longer if necessary.
Strain, setting solids aside temporarily, and return strained liquid to casserole. Adjust seasoning and thicken, if desired, with constarch. Replace solids in sauce and cover. Heat for another 20 minutes before serving.
For a perfect blending of flavors, refrigerate another night and heat through before serving. Serve with pasta, rice or cornbread. Tomato Soup Thomas Wolfe (6 servings) 2 quarts ripe fresh tomatoes, peeled and chopped, or 2 quarts undrained canned tomatoes 3 cups beef stock or beef bouillon 1 large onion, chopped 1 cup celery, chopped 1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 bay leaves 1 teaspoon thyme 1 teaspoon marjoram 1 clove garlic, pressed 1 cup pan juices and scrapings from cooked beef or 1 cup gravy made from roasted or potted beef 1 teaspoon tarragon vinegar 1 teaspoon sugar Minced parsley or twisted lemon slices for garnish
Combine tomatoes, beef stock, onion, celery, peppercorns, salt, bay leaves, thyme, marjoram and garlic in a pot and bring to a boil. Simmer 15 minutes, covered, stirring at least twice. Strain in colander, pushing solids down with large spoon. Return to pot, add dark pan juices or gravy, tarragon vinegar and sugar.
Heat and serve, garnished with minced parsley or twisted lemon slices. This freezes very well. CHICKEN AND SEAFOOD F. SCOTT FITZGERALD (6 servings) 3 small chickens, halved and seasoned with salt and pepper Cornmeal, 1 beaten egg and fine crumbs for chicken coating 1 stick butter, melted 2 tablespoons olive oil 1 cup small shrimp, cleaned and deveined 1 cup picked crabmeat 1 cup sliced or button mushrooms, cooked Thyme and paprika to taste 1 cup white sauce or heavy cream 1/2 cup dry sherry Lemon slices and black olives for garnish
Dip chicken in cornmeal, then in beaten egg, then in fine bread crumbs.
Place chicken in a single layer in an oiled shallaw baking pan. Let stand at least 30 minutes. Brush with melted butter and olive oil, and bake in a 350-degree oven for 1/2 hour. Test for doneness by poking thickest part with a fork; bake 15 minutes longer if juices run pink instead of colorless.
While chicken is baking, cook shrimp until pink. Drain. Add crabmeat, mushrooms and sprinkling of thyme and paprika. Mix in small saucepan with white sauce or cream and sherry. Cook at low heat on top of stove, stirring until heated through.
When chicken is cooked through and crisp, place on a large platter and flank on both sides with the seafood in sauce. Serve garnished with lemon slices centered with black olives. The secret of this dish is to keep the crispness of the chicken and the smoothness of the sauce separate, but complimenting each other in texture as well as in flavor. LOBSTER CASSEROLE NANCY HALE (6 servings) Meat of 2 large steamed lobsters (or substitute 3 cups king crab meat) 2 sticks butter 1/4 cup olive oil 2 minced garlic cloves 1/2 cup shallots (or mild onions), minced 1/2 cup cognac 1 1/2 cups chopped tomatoes (or strained canned tomatoes) 1/3 cup beef or chicken broth 2 cups dry white wine Cayenne pepper to taste 2 tablespoons chopped or sprigged parsley and wedges of lemon for garnish
Lin a large casserole (earthenware is best) put lobster meat, cut into bite-sized pieces, with coral. Leave claw meat in large pieces. Add 1 stick of the butter, olive oil, garlic and shallots. Heat cognac and put into casserole, then flame it.
Add tomatoes, broth, white wine and a sprinkling of cayenne. Cover casserole and put in preheated 400-degree oven for 20 minutes.
Remove casserole, strain, set solids aside, and boil sauce slowly on top of the stove for 15 minutes.
Return strained lobster and solids to sauce, add the other stick of butter, slivered, and heat on top of stove until bubbling. Garnish with chopped or sprigged parsley and lemon wedges and serve.