I AM A great believer in being the unharried hostess: in not being, when guests arrive, stuck in the kitchen missing all the talk in the living room; in not worrying about peeling the potatoes; in not wondering whether this time I actually remembered to put the napkins on the table.
It is quite enough -- for anybody, but especially for those of us who come home from work and receive guests two hours later -- to have to pull the party together the day of the dinner: to set the table, THE MENU Cold asparagus with egg vinaigrette Roast butterfield rock cornish hens stuffed under the skin Glazed carrots Stir-fried escarole Camarem custard ring with vanilla and cognac-flavored whipped cream and fruit replace burned-down candles, get the last of the meal into the oven and tidy the kitchen. When I have been clever, I will have put together the centerpiece in the early morning, when flowers prefer to be cut. In April and May these are likely to be azaleas in wild assortment. Or, to escape the blowziness of the azalea, I might make several small nosegays of whatever tiny things are blooming. These are charming when set at every other person's place.
Spears of cold asparagus are perfect for starting a meal this time of year.They say spring, and their price is more right than it was a few weeks ago. I get bored with the inexorable vinaigrette sprinkled with mimosa (chopped hard-cooked egg whites and their sieved yolks), so for a change I make a sauce whose deliciousness I first discovered on a grilled salmon steak. This is a classic but uncommon lemony vinaigrette that is thickened and smoothed with the yolks of soft-cooked eggs.
To me it is worth the effort to remove from the asparagus stalks the scales and nobbles, which tend to act as sand traps. However, I feel more than benign about the asparagus if I have done this mindless job while we watch the news or something. The asparagus can be cooked the evening before they are served. They might get slightly crinkled, but the sauce, which is poured on a couple of hours before serving, masks this. The flavor is still good.
Whenever I think chicken, I usually turn to rock cornish hens, because my husband claims these have some flavor. He consistently insults chickens by complimenting the sauce in which it has been cooked, but the meat itself is never worthy even of comment.
I buy the larger rock cornish hens which weigh around a pound and three quarters. Half is then ample for each person. By butterflying them -- cutting through their backs and flattening them -- they can be carved simply by being snipped through the middle before they are placed on a serving platter. And because I stuff them under the skin, with a dressing that has evolved several generations from the one in "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" that inspired it, the birds remain most without needing to be basted or having any other attentions paid during their cooking. I prepare the birds and the stuffing the day before the dinner. The stuffing gets patted under the skin just before they go into the oven, a process that takes no more than 15 minutes.
Rock cornish hens prepared in this way are also very good cold. I sometimes cook an extra one for the next day, and we eat it with a cucumber salad or, when they get to taste like real food, tomatoes. The glazed carrots that accompany the hens add color and a touch of sweetness. The cooked escarole, a vegetable more usual in Italy than here, adds a mild bite. Both have uncompliated, contrasting flavors that are good foils for the little game birds, and they look pretty together on plates.
Our dessert is one that I would never have tried had a friend not wowed us with it one evening. Somehow caramel custard does not sound promsing, especially with whipped cream and fruit. The result, however, looks as though you've just graduated from Lenotre's school; the flavors and textures are heavenly together -- I particularly like to use peaches that i froze last summer -- and considering what it is, it's surprisingly light.
This is a reassuring meal. Very little can go wrong, yet if something should, there would be time to recoup. The recipes can be halved, quartered or doubled, depending on how many you are. No special equipment is needed, nor is any great skill on the part of the cook involved. Yet the results are out-of-the-ordinary, well balanced, not difficult to execute, relatively free of starches and, as such things go these says, inexpensive. ASPARAGUS WITH EGG VINAIGRETTE (8 servings) 40 spears of tight-headed, medium-fat asparagus 4 large eggs 3 shallots, finely minced 1 teaspoon dijon mustard Salt and coarsely ground pepper to taste 1/2 cup olive oil 1/2 cup peanut oil 2 tablespoons parsley, finely minced 1 tablespoon chives, finely cut 3 tablespoons lemon juice 1 tablespoon good red wine vinegar
Line the asparagus spears up at the heads and cut off the ends to fit either a steamer or a 12-inch frying pan. Trim off the scales with a small paring knife if such refinements are worth the effort, and rinse the asparagus. To cook in boiling water in a frying pan, tie the spears with soft kitchen twine into bundles of 10. They can be removed more quickly when they are cooked. Or stand the stalks in the upper portion of an asparagus steamer and set it over boiling water. Start testing the spears after 8 minutes with the tip of a sharp, thin knife. They are done when they are crisp-soft. Turn the asparagus onto a dish towel to drain and arrange them on a serving platter. (Cut the strings if you have made bundles.) Cool, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until an hour or two before serving.
For the sauce, soft-boil the eggs for 3 minutes if they are at room temperatures, or 3 1/2 minutes if they have just come out of the refrigerator. Put them under cold water to stop the cooking and cool the shells so they can be handled. Crack the eggs in half and scoop the yolks into a warmed bowl. Discard the whites and the shells. Whisk in the shalllots, mustard, salt and pepper. Add the oils slowly, whisking all the time, as though you were making a mayonnaise. Beat in the parsley, chives, lemon juice and vinegar. Taste. If it is too acid, add a little more oil. If it is too flat, add a little more vinegar. Adjust the other seasonings. If the dish is not to be served immediately, the sauce can be refrigerated for at least a day. You may have to whisk it before pouring it over the asparagus.
About an hour before your guests arrive, remove the asparagus from the refrigerator, dress it with the sauce and set aside. BUTTERFLIED ROCK CORNISH HENS STUFFED UNDER THE SKIN (8 servings) 4 rock cornish hens, about 1 3/4 pounds each 12 ounces cream cheese 1 1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs 4 tablespoons butter Livers, hearts and gizzards of the hens 2 tablespoons shallots, minced 4 tablespoons parsley, minced 1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon pepper 2 cups chicken stock
Defrost the hens if they are frozen and set aside the gizzard, heart and liver for the stuffing. Cut off the wing tips and put these along with the necks into a plastic bag and freeze. (When you have accumulated enough you can cook them in water with some carrot, celery and onion and make a stock.) Put the birds, one at a time, on their breasts on a work surface. Take a good sharp pair of kitchen shears and start cutting around the pope's nose along the backbone, straight up through the back. Trim off the backbone and the pope's nose and add these to your stock bag. Then turn the birds skin-side-up and give the breast bone a good whack to break it and flatten the hen. Next you separate the skin from the meat. The skin tends to adhere only at the center of the breast. Snip at these places with shears, but cut against the meat, not the skin. Work your hand gently and enlarge the pocket into the thighs. The prepared hens can be refrigerated for a day.
To prepare the stuffing, bring the cream cheese to room temperature to soften it and beat with the bread crumbs. (These can be made in seconds in a food processor.) Peel the gizzards and mince them. Mince the hearts. Cut away any green or fat from the livers and mince them. Heat 2 tablespoons of the butter in an 8-inch frying pan and cook the shallots for about 2 minutes. Add the minced giblets and cook for another 3 minutes.
Remove from heat and beat into the cheese-bread crumb mixture. Add the parsley, tarragon, salt and pepper. If the birds are not going to be cooked immediately, refrigerate the stuffing. Before assembling and cooking the hens, preheat the oven to 425. Lightly grease a roasting pan large enough to hold all the birds, or use two pans. Take a quarter of the stuffing at a time and work it in between the flesh and the skin. Move it around into the thighs and pat the birds until the stuffing makes a relatively smooth layer. Place the hens in the pan and brush them with the remaining 2 tablespoons butter, melted. Cook for 1 1/4 hours and remove to a board to set for 15 minutes.
Deglaze the pan drippings with the chicken stock and reduce by half. Serve the sauce separately in a bowl. Snip the birds down the middle with kitchen shears and arrange on a serving platter. If the platter is large enough, alternate around the edge bundles of carrots, which will have been glazed while the birds were resting, and the escarole, which would have been stir-fried at the same time. Otherwise, serve the vegetables in separate dishes but decorate the hens with watercress or parsley. GLAZED CARROTS (8 servings) 2 pounds carrots, scraped and cleaned 4 tablespoons butter 1 1/2 cups beef bullion, plus water if necessary 1 tablespoon sugar Salt and pepper to taste
Cut each carrot into 3-inch pieces and round off each end to make little carrots. (Add the carrot trimmings to the stock bag and freeze them.) Put the carrots into a shallow saute pan or a frying pan, cover them with cold water, bring them quickly to a boil over high heat and cook for 2 minutes.
Turn the carrots into a colander and drain them. Melt the butter in the pan, add the carrots, and pour in the bullion. The carrots should be barely covered. Add water if necessary. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer, covered, for about 20 minutes. Shake the pan and check for doneness and amount of liquid remaining. There should be almost no liquid left by the time the carrots are tender. It may be necessary to add more water to complete the cooking. The carrots can be set aside at this point.
Just before they are served, reheat the carrots, shaking the pan to make sure they don't burn. Add the sugar, cover the pan and shake it for 2 or 3 minutes. Then uncover the pan and shake it for another minute, or until the carrots are shiny and lightly browned. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Stir-fried escarole (8 servings) 4 pounds escarole 2 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons peanut oil Juice of 1/2 lemon 1/4 cup chicken stock
Wash and dry the escarole, separate the leaves and roll into packets. Slice these crosswise into a chiffonade. (This can be done a few hours in advance of cooking and refrigerated until needed.) Heat the butter and oil in a wide-bottomed pan with about a 6-quart capacity. (The escarole will be bulky but it will cook down to less than quarter of its raw volume.)
Coat the escarole with the butter and oil, add the lemon juice and stock and, over high heat, cook, stirring continuously, until almost soft, about 5 or 6 minutes. Drain the escarole in a strainer over a bowl (and freeze the juices for stock). Caramel custard ring with vanilla- and cognac-flavored whipped cream and FRUIT (8 servings) Caramel: 1 cup sugar Custard: 6 eggs 1/2 cup sugar 1 teaspoon vanilla Pinch of salt 4 cups scalded milk Topping: 1 cup whipping cream 1 tablespoon sugar 1 tablespoon cognac 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract 2 cups fresh strawberries or frozen blueberries, peaches or raspberries (not packed in syrup), defrosted
Turn the cup of sugar into an 8-inch frying pan, put it over moderate heat and cook it, without stirring, until it caramelizes. The syrup should be the color of walnut, not mahogany. Pour it into a 12-inch ring mold and, holding the mold with pot holders, rotate it to coat the bottom. (You can use two 6- or 7-inch ring molds for the custard. The cooking time will be cut by about 10 minutes.)
Bring a large kettle of water to a boil and reduce the flame so the water simmers. Beat the eggs with the 1/2 cup of sugar, vanilla and salt. Then beat in the scalded milk. Set the mold in a roasting pan, pour the mixture into the mold (some will be left over) and put the roasting pan on the center rack of the oven. If some of the mixture spills into the roasting pan, replenish it with whatever has remained. With the door open, add enough hot water to the roasting pan to reach halfway up the sides of the mold. Try to do this quickly. Then shut the oven door and bake the custard at 350 degrees for about 50 to 60 minutes, or until a knife comes out clean.
Lift the mold out of the water and cool it on a cake rack. Refrigerate overnight. Before serving, loosen both edges with a knife and turn out by inverting a serving dish on top of the mold and then flipping both over to release the custard. Whip the cream with the tablespoon of sugar, cognac and vanilla until it just holds its shape. It shouldn't be too stiff. Turn the cream into the center and arrange the fruit around the outside edge of the custard.