ROBERT NATKIN is enjoying himself. At 50, he has achieved recognition. His paintings are in museums everywhere. Twenty-six recent "prints and painted prints" are on exhibition at the Hirshhorn. A BBC film on the artist's life and work opens in London next month. In June, art publishing house Harry N. Abrams is releasing a book on Natkin's paintings.
While Natkin enjoys artistic success -- "I'm one of the greatest artists of this century," he says with no show of modesty -- he also reveals in experimentation in the kitchen.Good food delights him.
Although the outside world tenders Natkin fame for his paintings and prints, his friends consider him famous for his unusual dips and wonderful rice as well as his meatloaves -- which serve as a personal emotional barometer. When he is working out a problem, he needs the spontaneity of making a dish he can get his hands into. The number of unusual ingredients is in direct proportion to the intensity of the problem. His friends are indulgent, his family less so. Whoever heard of coffee or wheatena and cottage cheese in a meatloaf? His son Josh says, "Bob's meatloaves are unbearable. They bite back." His daughter Leda pleads with her father not to make one. She won't touch it. His wife, Judith Dolnick, also a painter and a cook, comments that Natkin cooks the way he paints. He uses too much of everything. In painting, he can cover his mistakes with color. Not so with food. "Bob's meatloaves can be heavy, overspiced, full of uncommon things," she said.
Natkin loves them. And his wife's being appalled by his meatloaves doesn't interfere with his enthusiasm for her work; in fact, he says, "Judy is my favorite painter. A true original."
The Natkins moved to Redding, Conn., 10 years ago. Soon after, their standard colonial was enlarged and transformed into a seemingly simple contemporary that inside reveals white tile floors and skylights -- Natkin's home realization of a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie set. The only thing missing is mirrored dance floors.
In the center of the house is the kitchen, a room of warm oak and white formica with double restaurant ovens, a convector oven and food processor, a house intercom and a busy telephone, in addition to a two-way radio for Josh, a volunteer firefighter.
Entertaining plays an important role in the lives of the Natkins. They have house guests almost every weekend. Often they have dinner parties for 14 and sometimes for 25.
Their two college-age children pitch in whenever they are home. Leda makes soups and desserts, while her father takes care of the dips and the rice. Josh helps with the meat along with his mother, who will prepare anything she cannot get someone else to cook for her.
Natkin is vocal and gregarious when he is in the kitchen. He's also compulsive about putting every dish back the minute it is used. He simply cannot stand the clutter of dirty dishes in the sink. "You can see why I wouldn't like to be working for me," he said.
Along with the whir of the food processor and the firehouse radio, the busy cook might be answering the phone with a "fantastic, you're fantastic" to a man who sold a painting for him as he is slicing mushrooms for the rice. Or he'll be accepting an invitation to dinner with an art dealer and four psychiatrists while he is snipping the dill. Or he's calling up the next night's dinner guests to remind them and give them directions to the house. He involves himself in every happening, puts everyone to work, snacks on an ear of corn and then will go and paint, oblivious to all the confusion around him.
The Natkins avoid such formal tradition as seating plans. They enjoy introducing people to each other and present their food buffet-style. Bob Natkin no longer sits at the head of the table. He prefers the middle of the group, "I feel left out at the head. If I don't miss anything I can contribute more to the conversation."
Even though everything goes smoothly, as usual, Natkin agonizes before every dinner party. He is up most of the night before worrying -- about the people, the food, anything he can think of. His wife functions differently: "My God, Bob, I would be a ruin if I were like that." Natkin ponders a moment, "Food is important to me. When I eat I know I'm all right. I'm really sure I'm alive."
The following are recipes from the "Natkin Collection." All can easily be doubled or tripled, as they are likely to be at the Natkins'. CREAM OF CARROT SOUP (8 to 10 servings) 2 tablespoons butter 1/2 cup onion, coarsely chopped 1 pound carrots, peeled and quartered, (about 10) 1 pound potatoes, peeled and quartered, (about 3) 6 cups chicken broth 2 teaspoons thyme 1 bay leaf 1/2 teaspoon sugar 1/2 teaspoon worcestershire sauce Dash of hot pepper sauce Salt and pepper to taste 1 cup heavy cream (or half-and-half) 1 cup cold milk
In a large soup pot heat butter and add onion. Cook until it is slightly glazed and golden, stirring occasionally. Add carrots, potatoes and chicken broth and bring to a boil. Add thyme, bay leaf, sugar, worcestershire sauce, hot pepper sauce, salt and pepper.
Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 30 or 40 minutes, or until tender. Let cool. Puree mixture in food processor with heavy cream and milk. If the processor bowl is small, repeat procedure several times. Chill and serve or reheat and serve hot.
Note: This recipe can be made a day in advance and is good cold as well as hot, especially in the summer. JUDY'S SALAD DRESSING (makes 1/2 cup) 3 large cloves of garlic, mashed Juice of 2 lemons 2 teaspoons dijon mustard 1/2 teaspoon Herbamare* 5 tablespoons safflower oil Freshly ground pepper to taste
Place all ingredients in shaker. Shake well and refrigerate, covered, until ready to use.
*Note: Available in health food stores or substitute Jane's Krazy Mixed-Up Salt or a seasoned salt. CALIFORNIA MARINADE
Judy Dolnick rubs a steak with dry mustard and rose paprika, salt and pepper. She then combines teriyaki sauce and worcestershire sauce in a 4 to 1 ratio.
The steak (sirloin, filet or any tender cut) should be marinated 4 to 8 hours in the sauces, turning occasionally.
When ready to broil, sear both sides of the meat, then cook. BLANQUETTE DE VEAU A LA MOLLY FINN Veal: 3 pounds boneless veal shoulder, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes 4 cups chicken broth 1 onion studded with 1 clove 1/2 teaspoon thyme 1 bay leaf 4 peppercorns vegetables: 2 tablespoons butter 3 bunches scallions, cut into 1-inch-long pieces 1/2 pound small whole mushrooms Salt and pepper to taste Sauce: 4 tablespoons butter 4 tablespoons flour 3 cups stock (from the cooked veal) 2 egg yolks 1/2 cup heavy cream Juice of 1/2 lemon Salt and pepper to taste
Place veal in large pot. Pour broth over meat. Slowly bring to a boil and simmer, covered, 5 to 10 minutes.
With a skimmer, carefully remove scum from the veal. Add onion, thyme, bay leaf and peppercorns. Cover and simmer about 1 1/2 hours or until veal is tender.
One hour after veal has been started, prepare vegetables. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a saucepan. Add scallions and saute for 5 to 10 minutes, until barely cooked, stirring occasionally. Add mushrooms and saute a few minutes more; remove from heat.
To prepare sauce, strain veal and reserve stock. Add meat to vegetables. Melt 4 tablespoons butter in saucepan. Add flour, stirring until it dissolves. Gradually add 3 cups stock from the veal, stirring constantly. Bring to a boil and simmer 10 minutes.
In a bowl, beat egg yolks and cream with a fork. Beat some of the hot sauce into the eggs, then add to sauce, stirring constantly and taking care that the heat is low, or the sauce will curdle. Do not allow sauce to boil. Add lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste.
Reheat veal and vegetables.Pour sauce over all and serve with Bob Natkin's rice (below).
Note: A shortcut could be to reheat veal and vegetables together in sauce, taking care that sauce does not boil, or it will curdle. BOB NATKIN'S RICE (8 servings) 1-pound box long grain rice 3 scallions, including the green part, chopped 1/3 pound mushrooms, sliced 1 large tomato, peeled and chopped 1/3 bunch dill, finely snipped 1 teaspoon Herbamare* (or substitute Jane's Krazy Mixed-Up Salt) 1 teaspoon Spike* (or substitute McCormick All Seasoning) Juice of 1 lemon 6 tablespoons butter
Soak rice in cold water for 3 hours. Drain. Pour boiling water over rice so that rice is covered. Let stand for 1/2 hour. Drain.
Place rice in an ovenproof casserole with a cover. Add scallions, mushrooms, tomato, dill, Herbamare and Spike. Mix well. Add lemon juice and butter. Cover.
Place covered casserole in 350-degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes or until piping hot. Serve with blanquette de veau.
*Note: Available at health food stores.