FRIVOLOUS FOOD is what I call the dishes my husband likes to cook. He won't stock the freezer, cook a pot of stew or chili or spaghetti sauce or even demonstrate his talents with pot roasts or baked chicken. He doesn't care about how happy I would be on nights when I get home late from work and could depend on something thoughtfully frozen weeks earlier.
Oh no. He'd rather bake bread--not a simple kind, of course, but spiral herb loaves or croissants. Do you know how many hours it takes to prepare croissants? No wonder Bloomingdale's charges 65 cents apiece.
While I cook the tomato sauce, he's making pasta. Not for us the ease of opening a box from the supermarket. We have to eat homemade noodles composed of the best flour mixtures; though with every chair, table and countertop in the kitchen draped with pasta dough, who can eat anything? It's up to me to fill the ravioli and tortellini, layer the lasagna and stuff the manicotti, but he gets all the credit because he made the pasta with his own hands. It's enough to cause me -- thin as I am -- to go on a diet.
Once when I went out of town overnight, I returned to find a beautiful dinner waiting. I'd love it if my husband did that, my friends tell me, but do they understand that he spent two days cooking one small b'stilla? It's true that when we ate this phyllo-dough-layered pigeon pie in Casablanca, I raved over its delicious taste. But that didn't mean I wanted two days of my husband's valuable work time -- which he could have spent staining the front door, weeding the garden or clearing a path through his tools to the freezer in the basement -- wasted on a ten-inch-round morsel that took five minutes to consume.
Undaunted by the unavailability of pigeons, he substituted rock cornish hens, and though he'd never worked with phyllo dough before, he did turn out a creditable b'stilla -- a tad too sweet, it's true, but still good. But does that compensate for the scratches on my new kitchen counter made by dragging the unglazed bottom of the sugar canister across the surface?
Naturally, my husband can't bear to see any food wasted; so when I made the mistake of using two dozen lemons and limes for ices, he decided to cook candied fruit peel, remembering how delicious it was when his grandmother made it. But what he didn't remember was that it took three days of skillful blanching, heating and cooling to produce candy-counter-perfect peel. For some reason, his turned out to be a huge mass of inedible, stuck-together, bitter-tasting stuff. He tried it once more with the same results, but he'll never get another chance. Since then, fruit peel goes in the garbage disposal as fast as it's used, just as a precaution against uncontrollable impulses to try just one more time.
Free food is another of this man's obsessions. Last year, after reading about cooking with wild persimmons, he noticed some growing along the road and, against my loud and persistent protests, sneaked out to pick them. Home he came with soggy paper bags full of -- he claimed -- perfectly ripe (read soft and mushy) pockmarked fruit. After several hours of washing, peeling and deseeding, and ignoring the sticky orange mess everywhere, he proudly displayed a large bowl of persimmon pulp ready to be transformed into delectable cakes and pies. When I suggested tasting the fruit first, he confidently put a spoonful in his mouth, expecting it to be gourmet-shop delicious. But he couldn't hide the pucker effect. The entire bowl of persimmon pulp was completely inedible; down the disposal it went.
Just recently -- the man never learns -- he arrived home with a large carton of fresh basil. Now I love pesto as much as anyone else does, but not enough to clean and process a whole boxful.
"Give it back," I shouted. "If you think I'm going to wash all that basil, you're crazy."
"How can I?" he retorted. "George was nice enough to offer it to me. How can I insult him like that?"
So he spent an entire Sunday cleaning, pure'eing, salting, oiling, packaging and freezing what turned out to be 25 packets of pesto base, each enough for a pound and a half of pasta. That's a lot of pesto, considering that we still have five packets left over from the batch I made last year.
One good thing did come of this time spent running his hands under cold water all day -- he admitted that he never realized how much time it takes to clean fresh basil. Years of complaining were vindicated. It was almost satisfying enough to make me ignore the dark green stains all over the counters and even on the doors of the kitchen cabinets. But he did vacuum and wash the floor when he was finished, so how can I object?
DICK FOREMAN'S B'STILLA (4 servings as a main course, 8 as an appetizer) 3 sticks (1 1/2 cups) butter 4 rock cornish hens 1 1/2 teaspoons salt Freshly ground black pepper, to taste 2 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons minced garlic 2 cups thinly sliced onions 1 teaspoon finely chopped ginger 2 sticks cinnamon 2 small dried whole red peppers 1/4 cup chopped parsley 1 teaspoon turmeric 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
Water 1 1/2 cups blanched almonds
3 tablespoons butter 1/4 cup powdered sugar 1 teaspoon or more cinnamon 6 eggs 1/4 cup lemon juice 18 sheets phyllo dough 3 tablespoons powdered sugar 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Make clarified butter: Place 3 sticks of butter in a one-quart measuring cup or saucepan and place in 200-degree oven until melted. Without disturbing the liquid, remove from oven and cool. Refrigerate until hardened. Scrape off the soft, foamy layer and discard. Invert cup so that the hardened clarified butter comes out in 1 piece. Wipe off remaining soft layer with paper towels. Refrigerate until needed. Melt before using.
Rub hens inside and out with 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste. Place in a dutch oven. Add 2 tablespoons butter, remaining salt, garlic, onions, ginger, cinnamon sticks, red peppers, parsley, tumeric, nutmeg, cardamom, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper and enough water to barely cover. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until tender, about 40 minutes. Let cool in broth. When cool enough to handle, remove and shred meat, discarding skin and bones. Reserve meat. Reduce broth until there is about 1 cup liquid, strain and cool.
Brown almonds in 3 tablespoons butter. Drain well on paper towels. Chop coarsely. Add powdered sugar and cinnamon and combine well.
Beat eggs. Add lemon juice to reserved stock. Bring stock to a boil, reduce heat to simmer and slowly add eggs, stirring constantly. Cook until firm, about 10 minutes. Drain well.
Generously grease as 10-inch or larger cast-iron skillet or cake pan with clarified butter. Lay phyllo dough on a flat surface and keep covered with a damp towel when not working with it. Brush top layer with melted clarified butter, lift off and place in skillet, buttered side up. Working quickly, repeat process until there are 8 layers of dough in the skillet. Each layer should be placed at an angle to the ones below so that the sides of the pan are covered uniformly. Spread 1/2 of the shredded hens over the top, leaving a border at the edge. Cover with egg mixture. Spread with remaining meat. Sprinkle with 1/2 of the almond mixture. Dribble clarified butter over the top. Add 4 more buttered sheets of dough in a similar fashion. Sprinkle with remaining almond mixture. Add six more buttered sheets of pastry. Tuck edges under to seal pie. Brush with clarified butter. Bake at 425 degrees for 20 minutes. Turn over onto a cookie sheet or pizza pan, brush with butter and bake 15 minutes more or until browned. Combine remaining sugar and cinnamon. Slide pie onto a serving platter. Sprinkle top with sugar mixture in a star shaped pattern. Serve hot, cut in wedges.
DICK FOREMAN'S HERB BREAD (Makes 2 loaves) 7 cups unbleached flour 1 tablespoon sugar 1 tablespoon salt 2 packages yeast 1/4 cup solid shortening 2 cups hot tap water (120 to 130 degrees) Salad oil 1 egg, lightly beaten 1 pound mushrooms, chopped 1 tablespoon butter 2 cups chopped scallions 1 cup chopped parsley 1 tablespoon coarsely ground fresh black pepper 3/4 teaspoon salt 1 egg, lightly beaten
Combine 3 1/2 cups of the flour, sugar, salt and yeast in a large bowl. Add shortening and water and mix well by hand or with an electric beater at medium speed for 2 minutes. Add 2 1/2 cups flour and mix well by hand. Let stand 10 minutes. Coat dough with 1/2 cup flour. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth, about 10 minutes, adding remaining flour as necessary. Place in a bowl greased with oil and grease surface of dough. Cover and let rise until double in bulk. Turn out onto a floured surface, punch dough down and divide in half. Shape into balls and roll into 1/4-inch-thick rectangles. Brush lightly with beaten egg. Spread with filling (instructions follow), leaving a 1-inch border. Fold edges over. Roll like a jelly roll and pinch edges to seal. Place in 2 greased 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pans, seam side down. Brush tops with remaining egg. Turn on oven to warm setting for 1 minute and turn off. Place loaves in oven and let rise until 1 1/2 inches above the top of the pan, about 1 hour. Turn oven to 350 degrees and bake loaves 40 minutes or until done. Bread should sound hollow when tapped. Remove from pans and cool on a wire rack.
To make filling, cook mushrooms in a skillet with butter until almost all mushroom liquid is evaporated. Add scallions and brown lightly. Add parsley, pepper and salt. Cool. Add 1 beaten egg and mix well.