THE MENU Seasoned Shrimp in Shells Braised Veal Chops Saute'ed Leeks Tiny Pasta Shells with Mushrooms Glazed Oranges with Ginger
IN MIDWINTER it is good to have a little elegance -- what with the piles of sweaters -- plus a small reminder that spring will come, not soon, but someday. So this meal begins with a light, cold course that would work as well in May or even July, but has a freshness that is particularly reassuring now.
Chunks of fresh shrimp are first seasoned with minced shallots, parsley, lemon juice and a fruity green extra virgin olive oil from Italy. Just before serving, the shrimp is enrobed with a little mayonnaise and then piled into individual shells that have been lined with shredded lettuce.
Next are loin or rib veal chops, small enough not to break the bank, but large enough to make adequate servings. The meat is braised to a wonderful tenderness with chives and parsley, seasonings that are perfect with it and with the saute'ed leeks in cream. The sauce, a reduction of the veal juices, dry vermouth, white wine and bouillon, is lovely not only on the meat but also puddling into the tiny pasta shells with saute'ed mushrooms. Dessert is a pristine navel orange for each person. The fruit is peeled down to the flesh, drenched with a liqueur-reinforced syrup and topped with candied julienned peel and glazed strips of fresh ginger.
Many of the ingredients seem lavish, yet are not, especially when a little is made to go a very long way. Thus, a pound and a half of medium shrimp (whose cost is bearable) is ample for eight, especially when the shrimp are cut into pieces, though left large enough to give the teeth something to bite on. I like to serve seafood in seashells, particularly since I replaced my old large, clunky shells, which were too shallow to hold food safely, with deeper shells that measure about five inches across. Each shell holds an adequate first-course serving and can be used for hot dishes as well. Six-ounce ramekins or individual souffle' dishes would also work, as would portions heaped on beds of shredded lettuce or in lettuce cups on individual plates.
Shrimp should not be overcooked, lest they become unpleasantly mealy. I keep very good green olive oil on hand for dishes such as this, where it makes a difference. The recipe for the whole egg mayonnaise results in a lighter, not quite authentic sauce that happens to be very nice with the shrimp. It has the added advantage of being able to be made in two minutes flat in a food processor. However, a decent commercial mayonnaise would not be ruinous.
I pick up nice, small veal chops at the supermarket when they look particularly pale, fresh and pretty. These are stashed in the freezer until I want to cook this dish. The braising would make even less-than-superior chops better than they have a right to be. I prefer to use two frying pans to cook the chops because crowding them can mean trouble. When they are being browned, the butter is more likely to burn and when they don't have enough space they tend to steam rather than braise, which inhibits a nice reduction of the sauce. The meat can conceivably be cooked before guests arrive and quickly reheated just before serving. However, with a little planning, the timing can be worked out so that the chops cook when you sit down. They are then finished off while the first-course plates are being cleared, either by a spouse or a helpful guest or both. While the emphasis on food being hot when it is served can be exaggerated, this dish is best placed on a super-hot serving platter and then dished out onto super-hot dinner plates.
Do not panic when the leeks cook down to what seems to be a pathetically small amount. The leeks are as rich as they are delicious and are meant to be eaten with restraint, more as a condiment than as a full-blown side dish. Flavor rather than bulk is important here. This most heavenly, underappreciated vegetable can be found everywhere now. Leeks accumulate sand and dirt because they are trenched to keep the bottoms white. It is, of course, essential to wash away all the grit, which is possible once the leeks are split down the middle. The leeks can be saute'ed the day before and reheated with the cream just before they are served. The green parts can be washed, cut up and frozen for use later in making stocks.
The baby sea shells made by Conte Luna or the orecchiette (little ears) made by De Cecco are excellent foils for the veal. The tiny shapes have the appeal of the miniature as well as the capacity to hold onto sauce. The mushrooms add depth to the pasta. By now it is probably unnecessary to warn against overcooking pasta.
I buy large, brightly colored California navel oranges which are shockingly expensive, at least compared to last year, or was it the year before? Nevertheless, only one orange is needed per serving, so after all they are not completely outrageous. I do not use my zester, to which I am devoted, on the orange peel since the julienne should be a bit more substantial for this dish. It is admittedly a bother to cut the peels, so it is a good idea to take advantage of the fact that the oranges can be made a day in advance. The process, which requires only rudimentary concentration, seems to go faster when the evening news is on. A good, sharp chef's knife is invaluable for cutting the peel and the ginger.
Ginger will keep indefinitely if it is peeled, placed in a jar, covered with sherry and refrigerated. The sherry can later be used to flavor something wonderful. Blanching the orange peels does much to remove any bitterness.
SEASONED SHRIMP IN SHELLS (8 servings) 1 1/2 pounds medium shrimp 1 medium onion, sliced 1 bay leaf 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper 3 tablespoons minced shallots 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1/4 cup olive oil, extra virgin oil if possible 10 grinds of a peppermill with white peppercorns Salt to taste 1/4 cup minced parsley 1/2 cup mayonnaise, homemade if possible (see recipe below) 9 leaves romaine lettuce
Rinse the shrimp and place them in a saucepan with the onion, bay leaf, teaspoon of salt and cracked pepper. Cover with cold water, bring to a boil and immediately remove from heat. Let sit for 5 minutes and drain into a colander. When the shrimp are cool enough to handle, shell and devein them and cut each shrimp into three pieces. Place in a bowl with the shallots, lemon juice, olive oil, white pepper, salt and parsley. Mix thoroughly, cover tightly with plastic and refrigerate for at least two hours or overnight, if desired. Just before serving, add the mayonnaise and mix lightly to mask the shrimps.
To serve, stack the romaine leaves, cut all in half vertically and make a thicker, narrower stack. Roll the lettuce leaves and make a chiffonade by slicing into narrow, horizontal strips. Divide the lettuce among 8 medium-size (5 inches across) seashells or 6-ounce individual souffle' dishes. Divide the shrimp mix among them and serve on individual plates. Garnish, if desired, with chopped egg or watercress leaves or black olives.
WHOLE-EGG MAYONNAISE (Makes 1 cup) 1 egg 1/4 teaspoon dry mustard 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup vegetable oil 1/2 cup olive oil
Place the egg in a food processor with the metal blade and beat until the egg is thick. Add the mustard, lemon juice and salt and continue processing until blended well. Leave the motor running, and through the feed tube add the vegetable oil, then the olive oil gradually, in a thin, steady stream.
BRAISED VEAL CHOPS (8 servings) 8 loin or rib veal chops, each weighing 4 to 6 ounces About 1/2 cup flour, or enough to dredge the chops 1/4 pound butter 2 tablespoons vegetable oil Salt and pepper to taste 1/2 cup dry vermouth 1/2 cup dry white wine 1 cup beef bouillon plus another 1/2 cup if necessary 3/4 cup minced parsley 1/2 cup minced chives, fresh or frozen
Pat the chops dry with a paper towel and lightly coat them with flour. Use two frying pans if one is not large enough to hold all the chops comfortably in one layer. Divide the butter and oil into the two pans and heat. When the foam subsides, add four chops to each pan. Brown them on both sides without burning the butter, and lightly salt and pepper them. Add half the vermouth and wine to each pan plus a half a cup of bouillon to each. Divide the parsley and chives in two and add half to each pan. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat for 20 minutes. Remove the lid and turn the chops several times to coat them with the herbs. Add more bouillon if the sauce has been reduced so much it is like a heavy syrup; or if it is too liquid, reduce it rapidly over high heat, turning the chops as this is done. Turn the chops onto a warm serving platter and pour the sauce over them.
SAUTEED LEEKS (8 servings) 3 bunches (about 12 medium) leeks 6 tablesppons butter Salt and pepper to taste 6 tablespoons heavy cream
Trim the roots off the leeks and all but 1/4 inch of the green leaves. Reserve the green part for stock. Slice the leeks in half vertically, separate the leaves and wash under running water, making sure all the sand and dirt are removed. Drain the leeks and dry them on a dish towel. Cut them into a 3-by- 1/4-inch julienne.
Melt the butter in a saute' pan, add the leeks and salt and pepper and cook for a couple of minutes over heat, stirring constantly to prevent them from coloring. Turn the heat down to low and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. The leeks can be set aside for several hours or refrigerated overnight. Just before serving, add the cream and, stirring, reheat.
TINY PASTA SHELLS WITH MUSHROOMS (8 servings) 3/4 pound mushrooms 6 tablespoons butter 1 pound tiny pasta shells or orecchiete (little ears) Salt and pepper to taste
Wipe the mushrooms clean and trim the bottoms of the stems. Cut the mushrooms into quarters and saute' them in hot butter over low heat until they give off their liquid. Turn heat up to medium-high and continue to cook, stirring, until the liquid cooks off. Set aside.
Boil the pasta according to package directions until al dente (cooked but not mushy). This usually takes 10 minutes, but start to test after 8 minutes. Turn the cooked pasta into a colander, drain well and return to the pot. Add the mushrooms, toss and heat through.
GLAZED ORANGES WITH GINGER (8 servings) 8 large navel oranges 2-inch piece fresh ginger 3 cups sugar 1 1/2 cups water 2 tablespoons Grand Marnier, Cointreau, Triple Sec or Mandarine Napoleon
Carefully remove the peel from the oranges. Use a vegetable peeler and leave all the white pith behind. Cut the peel into a 2-inch-long matchstick julienne. Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil and cook the peel in it for 7 minutes. Drain into a strainer, refresh under cold water, pat dry and set aside.
Peel the ginger and cut it into matchstick julienne. Bring the sugar and water to a boil and cook, stirring slowly, until the syrup is clear. Put a lid on the pan and cook for another 2 minutes. Remove the lid and cook until the syrup reaches a temperature of 244 degrees on a candy thermometer. Add the liqueur along with the orange rind and ginger, and cook, stirring, for a few minutes more.
Use a sharp knife and cut every bit of the white pith from the oranges. Pull out the little white tail from the center and cut a slice from the bottom so that the oranges will stand up straight. Set them in a shallow, flat-bottomed serving dish, spoon some of the rind and ginger onto each of the oranges and pour the syrup over them. Refrigerate for a few hours or overnight.