THE MENU Cold Baked Stuffed Peppers Sherried Beef Stew Individual Onion Puddings Fresh Pineapple with Coffee Ice Cream and Caramel-Ginger Sauce
THIS MIDWEEK-casual meal for good friends has lots of body and little subtlety, although it is not without its refinements. It begins with green pepper halves stuffed with highly seasoned cooked rice which has the aroma of Provence and would alone make a lovely summer salad. The peppers are baked, but not for too long, so they retain their shape and enough crispiness to make them interesting for themselves. They are served at room temperature with a handsome garnish of anchovy, pimiento strips and small black olives.
Next is a peppery, spicy, aromatic beef stew, full and rich and brown and yet with a lightness which probably can be credited to the sherry, an unusual addition that works. This stew does not overwhelm, as boeuf bourguignon tends to do. It contains carrots and celery and is accompanied by little onion puddings, consisting of onions melted in butter and a yorkshire pudding batter, baked in muffin tins to a brown crispiness. The balance is good.
Dessert is based on fresh pineapple, a fruit that has recently become plentiful and -- mirabile! -- comparatively affordable. Even more remarkable, those I have found, from Hawaii, were not picked so green that they couldn't ever ripen, so the flavor has been superb. The combination of fresh pineapple with coffee ice cream and hot caramel-ginger sauce may seem odd, as it did to me when I lit on it, but is wonderful. The flavors marry well, the textures are startling but not bizarre and the heat of the sauce with the cold of the fruit and the ice cream is agreeable.
Even those who look down their noses at green peppers as coarse, pushy objects approve of the pepper and rice dish because the peppers meet their match. The oil from the anchovies goes into the rice, but is tempered by the olive oil and lemon juice. The shallots and garlic are perfectly at home in such company, and parsley and dill add freshness. Fresh dill, which used to be exotic but is now found almost everywhere, is used in both the rice and the stew. One bunch is ample for the entire meal. I squander some of my treasured Italian green extra-virgin olive oil for this rice because it makes a perceptible difference.
The pieces of meat must be well dried on paper towels before they are browned, whether or not they are dredged in flour. Moisture is the enemy. High heat is needed, and only a few pieces of meat should be added to the pan at a time. Otherwise the temperature will dip, the meat will exude its juices and the result will be a gummy mess, with the meat boiling and never browning. Although I cook stews in a heavy enamel-on-iron casserole, I brown the meat separately in a carbon steel frying pan. Cast iron will do for those willing to wait for it to heat up, as will heavy aluminum. Carbon steel is the material chefs in commercial kitchens prefer for browning because it heats up quickly, retains heat and can take very high heat. It is also a comparatively inexpensive material and, once seasoned, easy to care for. However, it is heavy, as so many good pots and pans tend to be.
I have become so addicted to a seasoning called "Pepper and Spice" that this mixture of black and white peppercorns and other whole spices now has its very own peppermill. It and a variety of other seasonings, packaged in charming little bottles with cork stoppers, are the product of a Maryland woman whose label reads "Vann's Spices." I have found her mixtures at some kitchenware shops and specialty food stores.
Long, slow cooking is one secret of stews. Another is ripening time; stews are always better the day after they are cooked. Once the bulk of the ingredients are added and the stew begins to simmer, it needs almost no attention, although it is always a good idea to stir occasionally to make sure a burned crust doesn't appear on the bottom. For some mysterious reason, adding sherry (and it must be dry sherry) after the stew has cooked for a good bit, seems to be preferable to starting out with it. The al dente carrots and celery make a pleasing contrast with the fork-tender meat.
Potatoes, which could have been added to the stew, were rejected as the starch because they were so predictable and also because I wanted something that would stand separately on the plate. The onions keep the insides of the little puddings smooth and soft, while the outsides have all the appeal of a crispy yorkshire pudding, which in our house is the best kind. The onion puddings can be put together in minutes. The batter benefits from two beatings with a rest in between, much as a crepe batter does. If you reduce the oven temperature to 300 degrees, the puddings will hold for about 25 minutes. One can be served to each person and hot seconds can be brought out later.
In choosing a good pineapple, it is not enough to be able to pull a frond from the stalk with ease. A pineapple should feel ripe under its knobby rind, with some give, but not mushy. It should also exude the kind of perfume that makes you taste it by smelling it. If we used our noses more frequently, we would not end up so often with woody, tasteless excuses for fruit. The ginger can, of course, be omitted, although I cannot imagine doing this. The result will be a perfectly delicious, plain caramel sauce which, by the way, keeps well under refrigeration, with or without ginger.
COLD BAKED STUFFED PEPPERS (8 servings) 4 green peppers 1 cup rice 1 can flat fillets of anchovies 2 tablespoons minced shallots 3 large garlic cloves, minced 2 tablespoons chopped dill 4 tablespoons minced parsley 2 tablespoons lemon juice 4 tablespoons green olive oil plus extra olive oil for the pan 10 to 15 grinds black pepper, or to taste 8 strips red pimiento, either freshly broiled or from a jar 8 black nicoise olives
Wash the peppers, split them lengthwise, stem and seed them and remove extra membranes. Set aside.
Put the rice on to cook. Open the anchovies and turn them into a strainer set over a bowl. Reserve the anchovies. Add to the anchovy oil the shallots, garlic, dill, parsley, lemon juice, olive oil and pepper. When the rice is cooked and while it is still hot, add the sauce and mix well. Pack the mixture into the pepper halves. Pour a film of oil on the bottom of a roasting pan just large enough to hold the peppers. Place the peppers in the pan and cover with foil. Bake the peppers for 45 minutes at 350 degrees. Remove from oven, remove the foil and allow to cool.
To serve, place pepper halves on individual plates and crisscross on each an anchovy fillet and a strip of red pimiento. Garnish with an olive, placed where the two strips cross.
SHERRIED BEEF STEW (8 servings) 3 pounds stewing beef, cut into 2-inch chunks Flour for dredging the meat 3 tablespoons peanut oil 2 large onions, chopped 3 cloves garlic, minced 4 whole cloves 12 whole peppercorns 10 grinds Vann's Pepper and Spice mix (optional) 1/2 cup minced dill 1/2 cup minced parsley 1 bay leaf 2-pound, 3-ounce can Italian tomatoes, drained and chopped 1 1/2 to 2 cups bouillon 1 1/2 cups dry sherry 1 pound carrots, halved vertically and cut into 3-inch pieces 4 stalks celery, strung and cut into 1-inch chunks
Dry the meat on paper towels and dredge in the flour. Heat the oil in a large, heavy frying pan (cast iron, aluminum or carbon steel) and brown the meat over high heat, a few pieces at a time. Remove the meat as it is browned to a large casserole (enamel on iron, if possible). Add the chopped onion to the pot and cook over low heat, stirring, until the onions soften, about 8 minutes. Add the spices, herbs, tomatoes and 1 1/2 cups of the bouillon. Bring to a simmer, cover and cook over low heat for 1 1/2 hours. Then add the sherry and continue cooking for another 2 hours. Stir occasionally and add a little more bouillon if necessary.
While the stew is simmering, parboil the carrots and celery chunks in a little water for 10 to 15 minutes, or until they are cooked but still crunchy. Drain. When the stew has cooked for 3 to 3 1/2 hours, or until tender, add the vegetables and cook for another 15 minutes. The stew can be cooled and refrigerated. To serve, bring to a simmer on low heat and let simmer for 15 minutes to heat it through.
INDIVIDUAL ONION PUDDINGS (8 servings) 1/2 pound onions (about 3 medium onions) 2 tablespoons butter, plus softened butter for greasing the muffin tins Salt and pepper to taste 7/8 cup flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup milk 2 eggs 3/4 cup water
Peel the onions, cut in half and slice very thinly, using, if desired, the thin-slice blade of the processor. Melt the butter in a heavy saute' pan, add the onions and salt and pepper to taste, stir, cover and cook over low heat for 1/2 hour. The onions can be cooked in advance and set aside.
About 1 1/2 hours before the puddings are to be cooked, combine the flour, salt and milk in a mixing bowl. Beat the eggs in another bowl until they are light and then beat them into the flour and milk mixture. Beat in the water and continue beating for 5 minutes at high speed. Set aside.
Butter 16 muffin tins or custard cups generously. Divide the cooked onions among them. Beat the batter once more for about a minute and divide it among the tins or cups. The batter will come to within 1/2 to 1/4 inch from the top of the tins.
Bake in a preheated 400-degree oven for 45 minutes, or until puffed, browned and crisped. Serve immediately.
FRESH PINEAPPLE WITH COFFEE ICE CREAM AND CARAMEL-GINGER SAUCE (8 servings) 2 whole ripe pineapples 1 pint coffee ice cream, approximately
Sauce: 2 cups sugar 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons water 1/2 teaspoon vanilla 1/2 cup butter 1 cup whipping cream 2 tablespoons syrup from preserved ginger 6 tablespoons chopped preserved ginger
Cut the pineapples vertically, through the stalks, into quarters. Remove the cores. Cut the flesh from the rind, using a curved grapefruit knife or a paring knife. Then cut into bite-sized pieces, but let it remain on the rind. Refrigerate.
Scoop eight scoops of the ice cream, using an oval scoop if possible, onto a plate and place in the freezer.
Make the sauce. Combine the sugar with 3/4 cup of the water into a heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil over low heat and cook until it turns a deep caramel color, shaking the pan to assure even coloring. Remove from heat, quickly add the 2 tablespoons water and stand back. When it stops spattering, shake the pan. Add the vanilla and the butter and stir until the butter is dissolved. If necessary, return to heat. Add the cream, ginger syrup and chopped ginger and stir well. Turn into the top of a double boiler over hot water and keep warm.
To assemble, arrange the pineapple on a large platter or on individual plates, place a scoop of ice cream on each quarter and drizzle some sauce over it. Serve remaining sauce separately in a bowl.