THE MENU Sole or Flounder and Smoked Salmon Pinwheels Very Lemony Roast Chicken Braised Carrots Roasted Potatoes Kohlrabi in Cream and Dill Sauce Strawberries with Rum Cream
WHAT IS wanted in mid-March is a light, pretty, easy meal that says spring but has enough substance should the weather regress yet again to January. This dinner starts with lovely white, pale pink and green pinwheels, made of sole or flounder fillets layered with smoked salmon butter and blanched spinach, then rolled, poached, cooled and sliced. The pinwheels are served on a puddle of dilled cream and lemon sauce and can be topped with crushed pink peppercorns. This dish and a bowl of tulips on the table will do much to sweep away any remnants of a winter depression.
Next is a moist, pleasantly tart chicken, prepared by tucking lemon slices and garlic slivers between the flesh and the skin and basting while it roasts with flavored or plain olive oil. The meat inspires enthusiasm even in those who are at best indifferent to this bird.
The chicken is accompanied by thyme-flavored sliced carrots cooked to a succulence without benefit of a drop of water, potatoes roasted in more of the same olive oil, and kohlrabi, a mystery vegetable unmasked and discovered to be different, delicious and well worth eating.
Dessert consists of strawberries, finally down in price and up in fragrance, left whole and unsugared. They are embellished with only a simple rum cream that smooths and highlights their fruity goodness.
The entire meal costs about $3.50 per person, despite the comparative priciness of the ingredients for the first course, where a little is made to go a long way.
Sole and flounder are both acceptable for the pinwheels. I make the choice on the basis of which is fresher, less expensive or available. I will not buy prepackaged fish because I don't know what it will smell like when I unwrap its plastic covering. Make sure the fillets, especially flounder fillets, have been completely skinned on both sides.
In experimenting with this dish I rolled some of the fillets with a layer of sliced smoked salmon and others with a layer of salmon butter. The salmon butter was superior both in texture and flavor. Happily the recipe takes a quarter of a pound of smoked salmon very far indeed (which, considering its price, is a blessing) and can be made in seconds in a processor. It is easier to cut the coarse ribs out of the spinach leaves after parboiling. I fastened one batch of the fish rolls with toothpicks and poached them bare in a court bouillon. An easier way, which also resulted in neater rolls, was to wrap each in its own buttered foil package. These are placed in simmering court bouillon for only four minutes. The cooking is completed as the rolls cool in the foil. The sauce is an uncomplicated combination of heavy cream and lemon juice with dill, although any combination of fresh herbs would be pleasant. Dried dill weed is a disaster that can easily be avoided. Fresh dill is always available at the Giant, Magruder's and other markets and freezes well. It should be washed and spun in a salad dryer. The coarse stalks are then discarded and the branches placed in a plastic bag. The frozen dill is brittle, so it crumbles nicely when spooned out of the bag. Pink peppercorns, which are available in specialty food and cookware stores, are a matter of taste. I like them and find the color attractive, but the option is with each cook.
Since the flavor has carefully been bred out of chickens, the constant challenge is to make them taste like something. You are one step ahead of the game if the chicken you buy has never been encased in a plastic bag. The combination of lemon and garlic always suggests a solution, yet even great quantities of these stuffed in the cavity only hint at the possibilities. Nor has basting with lemon juice been the answer. This time I loosened the skin (which can be done amazingly easily) and slipped lemon slices and garlic slivers directly on the flesh throughout the body. This turned out to be a wonderful way to cook chicken. The meat becomes fragrant and moist and is permeated with a lemony freshness.
The peeled lemon slices disappear with cooking, while the garlic slivers become delicately fragrant and buttery soft in texture and taste. The unpeeled garlic cloves which cook in the cavity are used later to flavor the sauce. For this it is worth the little effort to make a stock of the giblets and wing tips. The chicken is basted with olive oil (the best green extra-virgin quality is not too good for this dish) or with a flavored olive oil I first made up as presents a couple of Christmases ago. The oil can be flavored with any combination of herbs, preferably dried and on the branch. I like dried wild fennel stalks and a combination of thyme, oregano and savory along with a few unpeeled garlic cloves. Herbs in branch form are sometimes available at Williams Sonoma, but more often can be found at the French Market.
The carrots can be julienned by hand if there is time, or sliced vertically in a food processor. This works most efficiently when the carrots are packed tightly in the smaller opening of the wide-mouthed container top. Potatoes do not hold well, so it's a good idea to time their roasting according to when the chicken is to be served. The potatoes won't suffer too much if kept in a turned-down oven for five or 10 minutes, but are best eaten as soon as they are done.
My experience with kohlrabi, which can be found now at Safeway, Magruder's and other stores, has until recently been limited to curiosity, but from a distance. Descriptions of it as a cabbagey turnip or a turnipy cabbage were not encouraging. However, I succumbed to a bunch because it was wonderful to look at. I vaguely considered using the kohlrabi as part of a vegetable centerpiece. Instead I cooked it according to Madeleine Kamman's recipe in her marvelous book, "When French Women Cook," and a great success it was--delicate, interesting, a good change.
Strawberries should never be dumped into water, which is the enemy. They should be hulled only after they are washed quickly under cold running water, to keep the flavor from going down the drain. The tip of a potato peeler is the perfect instrument for hulling strawberries.
SOLE OR FLOUNDER AND SMOKED SALMON PINWHEELS (8 servings) 6 fillets of sole or flounder, skin removed, weighing a little more than a pound Milk to cover the fish 3/4 pound fresh spinach leaves 1/4 pound smoked salmon 6 tablespoons butter%T1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice Salt and pepper to taste
Melted butter to coat the foil
1 1/2 cups water For the sauce:
1 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons minced fresh dill, or 1 tablespoon minced parsley mixed with 1 tablespoon minced fresh chives, or fresh tarragon to taste, or 1/4 teaspoon dried tarragon mixed with 1 tablespoon minced parsley 1 teaspoon pink peppercorns, finely crushed (optional)
Wash the fish fillets, pat them dry and slit each in two, following the backbone. Check with fingers and cut out any bones that might remain. Place in a gratin dish, cover barely with milk and refrigerate.
Wash the spinach and drain it. Bring a large (6-quart) pot of water to a boil, add the spinach and blanch it for 1 1/2 minutes. Turn into a colander and refresh under cold water. Open the spinach leaves flat and spread them between layers of paper towels to dry them.
Combine the smoked salmon, butter and lemon juice in a food processor and reduce to a pure'e with the steel blade. Season the mixture highly with salt and pepper. The amount of salt will vary according to the saltiness of the salmon.
Prepare 12 6-by-8-inch pieces of aluminum foil and brush each with melted butter.
To assemble, remove the fillets from the refrigerator and pat them dry with paper towels. Spread them with the salmon butter. Remove the coarse ribs from the spinach leaves and cover each fillet with a layer of spinach. Starting at the narrow end, roll each fillet as tightly as possible. Place each roll on a piece of buttered foil, fold over and seal lengthwise and at the ends. Repeat until all the fillets are wrapped in foil.
Bring the water to a simmer in a frying pan or saute' pan just large enough to hold the fish rolls. Add the rolls, cover and steam for 2 minutes. Turn them over (with tongs, if you have them), cover the pan again and steam for another 2 minutes. Remove the rolls, the small ones first, to a plate and set aside.
When the rolls are completely cool, remove and discard the foil. Using a very sharp knife, even off the ends of each roll (these are the cook's reward) and slice into thin pinwheels. Place on a platter in one layer, cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate unless the dish is to be served within the hour. The pinwheels can be made to this point one day in advance. They should be removed from the refrigerator one hour before they are served.
To prepare the sauce, pour the cream into a bowl and whisk in the lemon juice, the dill or whatever herbs you wish, plus salt and pepper to taste.
To serve, ladle the sauce onto eight salad plates and place an equal amount of pinwheels on each. Sprinkle with finely crushed pink peppercorns.
VERY LEMONY ROAST CHICKEN (8 servings) 2 3 1/2-pound chickens
For the stock: 1 tablespoon vegetable oil Wing tips and giblets of 2 3 1/2-pound chickens, hacked, if possible, into smallish chunks 1 carrot, scraped and cut into chunks 1 onion, peeled and cut into chunks 1 stalk celery, washed and cut into chunks 1 bay leaf Pinch of thyme Salt and pepper to taste
For assembly: 2 large lemons 8 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced 20 cloves of garlic, unpeeled Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup or more flavored olive oil (see recipe below) or plain olive oil, for basting the chickens 2 1/2 cups stock made from giblets (see below) or chicken broth
2 springs fresh rosemary, or 1/4 teaspoon dried rosemary
Pull out the lungs and other organs from the cavities of the chicken, along with any pieces of loose fat. Reserve the livers for another use. Cut off the wing tips. Make stock by heating the oil in a saucepan and adding the giblets, wing tips and vegetables. Brown over high heat, stirring constantly. Add the bay leaf, thyme, pepper, a little salt and the water. Cover, leaving lid slightly askew, and simmer over a low flame for about 1 1/2 hours.
Remove the yellow part of the peel from the lemons, using a potato peeler or a zester. Blanch the peel for 3 minutes in a quart of boiling water. Turn into a colander, refresh under cold water and set aside. Cut away every bit of white pith from the lemons and slice them as thinly as possible. Discard the seeds. Turn the chickens breast side up. Run your fingers between the body and the skin. Separate the skin if it adheres, usually at the breast bone, by cutting with scissors close to the flesh so as not to pierce the skin. Work the skin loose as far down as the drumsticks. Repeat on second chicken. Distribute the lemon slices and the slices of garlic under the skins of both chickens at even intervals. Place some salt and pepper and half the blanched peel plus 10 unpeeled garlic cloves into each cavity. Truss the chickens and brush them all over with the flavored or plain olive oil.
The chickens should roast for about 65 minutes in a 425-degree oven. Place them on a roasting rack in a pan on their sides and roast for 15 minutes. Baste with oil and turn them breast down. Roast for another 15 minutes, baste again (this time using oil from the bottom of the pan if there is enough) and turn them on their other sides. After 15 more minutes, baste again and turn them on their backs, breast side up. Roast for an additional 20 minutes, basting once again after 10 minutes. The chickens are done when a thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh reads 165 degrees. They may need an additional 5 minutes of roasting. Remove the chickens from the oven when they are done. Remove the trussing strings and scoop out the unpeeled garlic cloves from the cavities. Place the chickens on a platter and cover them loosely with a foil tent. They should sit for 10 to 15 minutes before carving.
Remove the rack from the pan and add the unpeeled garlic cloves and the rosemary. Strain the stock into the pan or use 2 1/2 cups of any chicken broth. Bring to a boil, scrape the brown bits from the pan and cook over high heat for about 5 minutes. Press down on the garlic cloves and keep stirring. Strain the sauce into another saucepan and degrease. Taste for salt and pepper. When the chicken is carved, reheat the sauce and serve separately.
FLAVORED OIL (Makes 1 pint)
This is for basting chicken, lamb or fish, or to use with tomatoes, in vinaigrette or on goat cheese. 2 stalks dried wild fennel
Sprigs of dried thyme, savory and/or oregano 3 unpeeled garlic cloves
2 cups olive oil
Place the herbs and the garlic in a pint bottle, add the oil and let sit for a week or two before using.
BRAISED CARROTS (8 servings) 2 pounds carrots 1/4 pound (1 stick) butter 1/2 teaspoon sugar 1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves Salt and pepper to taste
Scrape the carrots, cut off the ends and slice. If you do this with a food processor, use the thick slicing blade. Put the carrots, along with the remaining ingredients, in a heavy pot, preferably enamel on cast iron. Stir over medium heat to coat the carrots with the butter as it melts. Reduce the heat to very low, cover and cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. If the carrots are old, they may need an additional 10 minutes of cooking. These carrots can be made well in advance and reheated over a low flame.
ROASTED POTATOES (8 servings) 2 1/2 pounds boiling potatoes 2 tablespoons flavored or plain olive oil 2 unpeeled cloves garlic
Salt and pepper to taste
Peel the potatoes and trim them into approximately 1 1/2-inch small potatoes, or cut them into chunks. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add the potatoes and boil for 5 minutes. Drain. Place the oil in a roasting pan and add the garlic and the potatoes. Turn the potatoes around to coat them with oil. Roast for 40 minutes in a 425-degree oven (along with the chickens), shaking the pan periodically to brown the potatoes evenly. Time the cooking so that the potatoes finish after the chickens are carved and just before they are to be served. To serve, discard garlic and sprinkle the potatoes with salt and pepper.
MADELEINE KAMMAN'S KOHLRABI IN CREAM AND DILL SAUCE (8 servings) 2 bunches (8 heads) kohlrabi 1 quart water Salt 2 tablespoons butter 1/2 cup heavy cream
Pepper 1 tablespoon chopped dill$ 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
Peel the kohlrabi and slice them into a 1/4-inch julienne. Bring the water to a boil. Add salt and the kohlrabi and blanch for 4 minutes. Drain.
Heat the butter in a saucepan, add the kohlrabi and toss. Add the cream and pepper and cook until the cream coats the kohlrabi. Add the dill and lemon juice, taste for salt and serve. Can be made in advance and reheated.
STRAWBERRIES WITH RUM CREAM (8 servings) 3 pints strawberries
3 pint sour cream$ tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons dark rum
Wash the strawberries, one at a time, under cold running water and hull with the tip of a potato peeler. Place in a perforated strawberry bowl or other serving bowl. Turn the sour cream into a small mixing bowl and whisk in the sugar and then the rum. Beat well. Serve with the strawberries.