THE MENU Ham and Asparagus Rolls with Sherry Vinegar-Hazelnut Oil Sauce; Spiced Fish and Shrimp Stew American Strawberry Shortcake
THIS MEAL includes plentiful, reasonably priced spring foods that have already begun to pall, so they are prepared in ways to whet and jog lulled senses.
The first course has asparagus--yet again, so cheap, so available, so, dare it be said, boring. But here it is made into a mystery with a lovely mayonnaise flavored with sherry vinegar from Spain and hazelnut oil from France. The cooked asparagus, rolled in a thin slice of baked or Smithfield ham or prosciutto, is good to look at and to eat.
Next is a spicy fish and shrimp stew that, despite the quantity of its Indian flavorings, owes allegiance to no one country or even continent. A heady amalgam of tastes, the stew is a soupy dish in which spicy fish and shrimp go a long way. It is served over rice in a soup plate and eaten with a spoon. Dessert is the uncomplicated deliciousness of real American strawberry shortcake, with the berries piled on and between a flaky, buttered, special baking powder biscuit and topped with lightly whipped, barely sweetened, flavored whipped cream. This is a far cry from the dessert based on the pale, packaged sponge-cakes available commercially and makes a clean ending to the melange of tastes that precede it.
The first course can be prepared in advance--the sauce the day before, the asparagus perhaps cooked in the morning--and assembled just before you sit down. An affinity among asparagus and sherry vinegar and hazelnut oil, two exotica of the nouvelle cuisine available in specialty food and cookware stores, results in a nuttiness with a tiny overlay of muskiness that most find very agreeable. Hazelnut oil should always be kept in the refrigerator after the tin or bottle has been opened; no other oil I know will turn rancid as quickly. The basis of the sauce is the thick processor mayonnaise that is so adaptable to many variations. Those who are not ready for experimentation can make an equally delicious sauce by substituting lemon juice in the recipe for the sherry vinegar, by using all peanut oil and no hazelnut oil and by thinning the result with a well-flavored sherry such as Dry Sack.
Supermarket delicatessens are usually willing to cut thin slices of baked ham or Smithfield ham on request. Prosciutto should be bought only at Italian groceries that do a brisk business, to assure buying it at its best. A small bit of the sauce smeared over the slice of ham holds the asparagus nicely in place and imparts its good flavor. The sauce can also be used to put two smaller pieces of ham together if large enough slices cannot be found. The asparagus should, as always, be peeled or deknobbed before being cooked and, for this recipe, cut to even lengths. The heads are placed on the ham so that they stick out of the top; thus, when the ham is rolled nobody has to wonder just what is on the plate.
The stock for the fish stew can be made two days or more in advance, although the fish and shrimp should not even be bought until the day they are to be eaten. While frames and heads make the best stock, the clam juice-white wine reduction is acceptable and an easy substitute for the real thing, especially in this stew whose spices tend to obliterate subtleties. If fish frames and heads are to be had, these should be either made into a stock and frozen or frozen as is and prepared when such refinements make a difference.
The base for the stew--the actual soup in which the fish is cooked--should be made at least a day in advance and allowed to sit in the refrigerator overnight to blend its flavors. Red pepper in quantities up to a tablespoon can be used, depending on the cook's preferences. The only thing left for the night of the party is to cook the fish and shrimp in the soup, check the seasonings and put the rice on. Any leftover fish and shrimp stew is delicious reheated the next day.
Pound cake and sponge cake bases for strawberry shortcake may be acceptable for some, but as any New Englander or Southerner knows, the genuine article is made with baking powder biscuits, especially when they are split and slathered with sweet butter the minute they are removed from the oven. The shortcake recipe here, with its sugar and extra shortening, and the tips for successful biscuit-making came from Dorothy Lagemann, who learned all from her North Carolinian mother. Foremost, biscuit dough must not be worked any more than absolutely necessary. Although the shortening can of course be cut in with a pastry blender, my friend has a mystical feeling about the fork, which she feels goes with biscuit-making. She mixes the dry ingredients, cuts the shortening in and stirs in the milk to make a dough, all with this homely utensil. Bleached flour will result in a whiter biscuit, but those with no objections to a slightly tan color can make a delicious biscuit with unbleached flour. The amount of milk is meant to vary with the flour, but I have never used more than the minimum. The mixture is stirred just until a dough forms and comes away from the sides of the bowl. It is then turned onto a lightly floured board, where it is kneaded only three times and then patted, never rolled out, to the desired thickness. The large three-inch cutters make a generous single portion. The extra biscuit or two from the recipe can be offered as seconds. If the baked biscuits contain brown flecks, the shortening wasn't cut in finely enough. Even a desultory cook can prepare these biscuits from start to oven-readiness in less than 20 minutes.
HAM AND ASPARAGUS ROLLS WITH SHERRY VINEGAR-HAZELNUT OIL SAUCE (8 servings)
For the sauce: 1 egg yolk 2 teaspoons sherry vinegar (available in specialty food shops) 1/2 cup peanut oil 3 tablespoons hazelnut oil (available in specialty food shops) Salt and pepper to taste
For the rolls: 8 thin slices baked ham, prosciutto or Smithfield ham, each slice about 5 inches wide and 5 to 6 inches long, or 16 smaller slices that can be pieced to make the needed size 32 medium or 40 thin stalks asparagus, cleaned and peeled, cut into equal lengths, cooked and cooled
Place the egg yolk and sherry vinegar in a food processor bowl and process for about a minute. With the motor running, slowly add the peanut oil through the feed tube, then the hazelnut oil. Turn into a bowl and add salt and pepper to taste.
To assemble the rolls, spread each ham slice with a bit of the sauce. If two slices are needed to construct one of the size needed, overlap them slightly and paint on some sauce to hold the pieces together. Then place little packets of 4 or 5 asparagus spears on the edge of the ham, allowing the spears to protrude. Roll and place seam-side down on individual plates. Garnish with a dollop of the remaining sauce.
SPICED FISH AND SHRIMP STEW (8 to 10 servings)
For the stock: 4 8-ounce bottles clam juice 3 cups water 2 cups dry white wine 1 onion, sliced 1 stalk celery, cut into 1-inch cubes
For the stew: 5 tablespoons olive oil 1 1/2 cups minced onions 2 1/2 tablespoons curry powder, preferably Madras 2 tablespoons powdered cumin 2 1-pound, 12-ounce cans imported plum tomatoes, drained well and processed briefly to a coarse puree 6 cups fish stock (from recipe above) 2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves 1/2 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon crushed red pepper (optional) 3 large garlic cloves, crushed 2 cups dry white wine 2 pounds fresh cod or haddock, or other firm, white fish, cut into large chunks 3/4 pound medium shrimp, shelled and deveined Salt and pepper to taste 4 cups hot cooked rice 4 tablespoons minced parsley
To make the stock, use a stainless steel or enameled, not aluminum, pan. Combine all ingredients and cook uncovered for 30 minutes over medium heat. Strain the liquid and measure. If necesssary, return to pan and reduce to 6 cups. If there is less than 6 cups, make up the difference with white wine. Cool, cover and refrigerate until needed.
To make the stew, heat the oil in a 6-quart stainless steel or enameled, not aluminum, pan, add the onions and cook for about 7 minutes, or until soft and transparent. Do not let brown. Add the curry powder and cumin and cook, stirring constantly, another 3 minutes. Add tomatoes, stock, thyme, optional red pepper, crushed garlic and wine. Bring to a simmer and cook, uncovered, over medium-low heat for 20 minutes. This makes the soup that constitutes the base for the stew and is best made a day or two before. Cool, cover and refrigerate until needed.
About 45 minutes before the stew is to be served, bring the base to a simmer and add the fish. Cook only until it begins to lose its transparency and do not be concerned that it breaks into smaller pieces or flakes. Turn off heat, cover and let "ripen" on the stove for about 30 minutes. Just before serving, bring to a simmer, add the shrimp and cook over low heat for 5 minutes to cook the shrimp. Taste for salt and pepper.
To serve, place some hot rice on the bottom of a flat soup plate, ladle fish and shrimp stew over it and garnish with minced parsley.
AMERICAN STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE (8 servings)
For the strawberries: 2 pints ripe strawberries 2 tablespoons sugar 1 tablespoon kirsch For the biscuits: 2 cups bleached all-purpose flour 1 tablespoon baking powder 2 tablespoons sugar 1 teaspoon salt 6 tablespoons vegetable shortening 2/3 to 1 cup milk Unsalted butter to butter to the biscuits
For the topping: 1/2 pint heavy cream 1 tablespoon sugar 1/2 tablespoon or more kirsch or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Prepare the strawberries a few hours before serving by washing, stemming and slicing them. Place in a bowl, stir in the sugar and the kirsch, cover and refrigerate until needed.
Up to an hour before sitting down to dinner, prepare the biscuits. Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl and mix together with a fork. Cut in the shortening either with a fork or a pastry blender until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. Make a well in the center and add the milk, beginning with the minimum amount. Using a fork, gather the dry ingredients into the milk until a dough forms and pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Add more milk if necessary. Work lightly and do not mix more than necessary. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured board and knead three times. Then pat the dough out until it is 1/2-inch thick. Cut out biscuits with a 3-inch cutter and work scraps lightly together to make a last biscuit. Place on an ungreased baking sheet or jellyroll pan and bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes, or until the biscuits are lightly browned. Remove from oven, split the biscuits in half and slather the bottoms with butter. Replace the tops and set aside on a plate until needed.
Just before assembling the shortcakes, make the topping. Whip the cream with the sugar until it is lightly whipped. The cream should not be stiff. Beat in the kirsch or vanilla.
To assemble the shortcakes, place the bottoms of the biscuits on individual dessert plates, pile each with sliced strawberries and a bit of the juices that will have accumulated, top with the lids, pile with more strawberries and drizzle the cream over them.
Fresh peaches, when they come into season, will be a wonderful substitution for the strawberries.