THIS IS a perfect early fall meal, using as it does many of the wonderful ingredients that are available only at this time of year.
The first course consists of artichokes, which are at a price that probably never will be lower. These are served with a quickly made mustardy-mayonnaise sauce, highly flavored with the fresh mixed herbs that are flourishing in gardens.
Next is a chicken dish with enough determination to stand up to a cool evening, yet not so heavy that it wouldn't do if the weather were to turn unseasonably warm, as it might. The chicken is combined with the red bell peppers, now making their welcome autumnal appearance on produce stands and even at supermarkets, along with tomatoes (the prime time of which is sadly ending rapidly), onions, a bit of garlic and hot Italian sausages. Accompanying this dish is homemade linguine, for those who love to use their pasta machines, or a decent brand of commercially made spaghetti.
Dessert was inspired by a reader who wrote about an Italian prune-plum filled, apricot-jam-glazed, cinnamon-flavored torte on a short Viennese dough called murber teig . The torte she recalled had come from the now-defunct and still-lamented Window Shop restaurant in Cambridge, which used to fill Brattle Street and, it sometimes seemed, all of Harvard Square with the heavenly smells of freshly and expertly made butter-filled cakes and pastries. In my day, clever young men courted their dates with boxes of pastry from the Window Shop, and far more successfully than they would have with long-stemmed roses.
While we are all doubtlessly grateful that overcooked vegetables are looked upon with the disdain they deserve, I wish to state the case against undercooked vegetables. While they may be high on crunch, they are seriously deficient in flavor. Asparagus and string beans suffer much from new methods of undercooking, but perhaps no vegetable is more short-changed by being served close to raw than the noble artichoke.
The artichokes in this meal are trimmed of their prickly tips before they are cooked and afterwards have their chokes scooped out, both acts of thoughtfulness that the cook can well afford to commit because they take such little time and save guests so much anguish. The sauce with its thick consistency, is easier to handle at the table than an equally delicious vinaigrette, which can be made following this recipe, but leaving out the egg yolks and adding, to taste, a bit more vinegar.
The chicken is a terrific company dish because the whole concoction can, if desired, be made a day in advance. It also serves well from a buffet. Combining the chicken with red peppers, those fully ripened and most flavorful of the bell peppers, adds interest that some persons claim chickens lack. The onions, garlic and tomatoes form a lovely sauce, and the hot Italian peppers, because they are sliced rather fine, contribute benign body without burning sensitive palates.
I made fresh linguine to accompany the chicken for three reasons: first, I love to use my electric pasta machine; second, homemade pasta is delicious; and, third, most people who make pasta think the dough must be rolled as thinly as possible. This is true for fettucine and stuffed pastas but other possibilities exist. By leaving the strips of dough comparatively thick and cutting them on the noodle cutter, the result is a flat, nicely square-cut linguine, with the substance needed for the chicken dish.
The easiest way to roll a large batch of dough is to roll each strip through the machine at one setting, lower the thickness a notch and roll the pieces through again at that setting. Repeat the process at each lower notch until the strips are as thin as needed.
There is nothing wrong with using a commercially made spaghetti or linguine for this dish. The pasta water can be put on to boil when guests sit down for the first course so that the pasta can be cooked while the table is being cleared. There is no way that pasta can be cooked in advance. Again, al dente does not mean raw. The pasta must not be mushy, nor should it bite back. The only way to tell is to keep testing as it cooks. The teeth know better than the timer when to turn the contents of the pot into the colander.
The short dough for the torte is more between cake and cookie than a traditional short pastry dough, yet it is less crumbly than a pate sablee . I made this murber teig , which came from a recipe in Lilly Joss Reich's excellent "Viennese Pastry Book," both by hand and in a food processor. The handmade product was so far superior and more tender than the machine-made dough that it is worth the five minutes it takes to work it by hand. Because of the high butter content (and only unsalted butter should be used), the dough should not spend more than half an hour chilling in the refrigerator, lest it become too hard to roll out.
While the torte also can be made with fresh cherries or apples, this is the time to fill it with Italian prune-plums, which are enjoying their short but delightful season. The prune-plums are amazing in that they can be boring-to-dull when raw but succulent once cooked. The several times I made this torte it leaked some juices, which did not bother the pastry at all. I let the torte cook a bit and then simply spooned the juices over the filling. Because of its size, it was easier to cut the torte on the jellyroll pan and serve it somewhat surreptitiously from the sideboard. ARTICHOKES WITH FRESH HERB-MUSTARD SAUCE (8 servings) 8 artichokes 1 tablespoon minced chives 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves or other fresh minched herbs 4 tablespoons minced parsley 4 tablespoons minced shallots 2 egg yolks 1 tablespoon dijon mustard 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar Salt and pepper to taste 1 1/2 cups olive oil
Prepare the artichokes by cutting or breaking off the stems, cutting half an inch off the tops and trimming the leaves with scissors to remove the prickly tips. Place in a large pot, cover with cold water, bring to a boil and cook for 18 to 20 minutes, or until the heart can be pierced easily with a sharp, thin knife. Turn the artichokes into a colander to drain, tops down. When they are cook enough to handle, squeeze the artichokes gently to rid them of excess water and turn them on a plate, right side up. Remove the center leaves in a clump and scoop out the hairy chokes with a teaspoon. Discard the chokes and return the clumps of leaves to the centers. The artichokes can be prepared a day in advance, refrigerated and brought to room temperature before serving.
To make the sauce, combine the minced chives, thyme or other herbs, parsley and shallots in a bowl and set aside. Place the egg yolks, mustard, vinegar, salt and pepper in a food processor with the steel blade and process for about 30 seconds. With the motor running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Turn the resulting mayonnaise-like sauce into the bowl with the herbs and mix well. Serve the sauce with the artichokes. CHICKEN SAUTEED WITH RED BELL PEPPERS, TOMATOES, ONIONS AND SAUSAGE (8 servings) 2 2 1/2-pound to 3-pound frying chickens, each disjointed into 8 pieces, plus 2 whole chicken breasts, halved 1/2 cup olive oil 8 hot Italian sausages 3 medium onions, thinly sliced 3 large cloves garlic, minced 5 medium-large red bell peppers, stemmed, seeded and julienned 2 pounds ripe tomatoes (about 6 medium), skinned, seeded and julienned, or a 2-pound, 3-ounce can imported Italian tomatoes, drained Salt and pepper to taste
Dry the chicken pieces thoroughly with paper towels. Heat the oil in a frying pan or saute pan large enough to hold all the ingredients. If necessary to use two pans, divide the oil between them and cook half the ingredients in each of the pans.
Brown the chicken pieces quickly over high heat on all sides, a few at a time, and remove them to a bowl as they are browned. Next, brown the sausages, remove and cut into quarter-inch slices. Pour off all but four tablespoons of the fat and return the chicken and sausage slices to the pan. Add the onions and garlic, cover and cook until the onions are soft, about 8 minutes. Remove the cover once or twice and stir. Then add the peppers, stir and cover the pan. Cook for another 8 minutes.
Finally, add the tomatoes, salt and pepper and cook, uncovered, stirring frequently, for another 5 minutes. The dish can be cooked up to several hours or even a day in advance to this point. If the chicken is to be held, remove the pan from heat and cook the contents with the lid askew before refrigerating.
To serve, reheat the dish quickly and spoon, with the sauce, into a large dish. Surround with cooked homemade linguine (see recipe) or 1 1/2 pounds cooked packaged spaghetti or linguine. HOMEMADE FRESH LINGUINE (8 servings) 3 cups flour 4 large eggs
Place the flour in a food processor with the steel blade. With the motor running, add the eggs, one at a time. Process until a dough forms which works itself into a ball around the blade. Turn the dough onto a board and knead a few times, gathering any loose bits of dough into the ball. Place in a plastic bag and let the dough sit for half an hour.
Divide the dough into 11 or 12 equal pieces, about the size of small lemons. Replace the pieces in the plastic bag to keep them from drying out. Set the rollers of the pasta machine at the widest opening and feed each piece of dough through about a dozen times, folding the dough in half each time it passes through the rollers. This kneads the dough. When all the pieces have been kneaded, reduce the opening one notch and feed each piece of dough through the rollers. Continue reducing the opening one notch at a time through opening no. 3 1/2. The strips of dough will be thickish and will measure about 10 to 12 inches in length. Place waxed paper on the backs of chairs or on spindles or whatever, and hang each strip of dough over the paper. Allow the strips to dry for 15 minutes and then turn them over and let them dry for another 15 minutes. To cut the dough, feed the strips through the narrow noodle cutter of the pasta machine. Place the linguine carefully on a jellyroll pan lined with a clean dish towel. Cover with another towel and set aside until the pasta is to be cooked.
To cook the pasta, bring a large pot of water to a boil and add 3 tablespoons of salt. Feed the linguine into the water, a small handful at a time, so that the water doesn't stop boiling. The linguine will need about 5 minutes or perhaps more of cooking but begin to taste it for doneness after 3 minutes. Turn the cooked linguine into a colander, run hot tap water over the pasta, drain well and arrange around the chicken. ITALIAN PRUNE-PLUM TORTE ON A SHORT DOUGH (Murber Teig) (8 to 10 servings) For the short dough: 2 cups flour 1/3 cup sugar Pinch of salt Grated rind of a lemon 10 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter, cut into 20 pieces 1 egg 1 egg yolk 2 1/4 teaspoons white vinegar mixed with 2 1/4 teaspoons water For the filling: 2 pounds Italian prune-plums 1/2 cup apricot glaze (1/4 cup apricot jam heated with 2 tablespoons quetsch, dark rum, vanilla-flavored brandy or cognac, and pushed through a sieve) 1/4 cup blanched silvered almonds 1/2 cup sugar mixed with 2 teaspoons cinnamon 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted 1 egg, lightly beaten
To make the dough, combine the flour, sugar, salt and grated lemon rind in a large bowl and cut the butter in until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. Make a well in the center and place the egg and the egg yolk in it. Using a table knife, fold the eggs into the flour. Still working with the knife, gradually add the vinegar-water mixture. Then, using only the fingertips gather the dough together. Finally, knead the dough a few times until a medium-firm dough is formed. If the dough is sticky, add a sprinkling of flour. Form into a ball, flatten the ball into a thick rectangle, place in a plastic bag and refrigerate for 20 to 30 minutes, no longer.
While the dough is chilling, prepare the filling by halving and pitting the prune-plums and measuring out the remaining ingredients.
Using a floured rolling pin, roll out the dough on a lightly floured pastry board until it measures 18 inches long by 12 inches wide. Keep turning the dough as it is being rolled and sprinkling the board with flour so that the dough does not stick. Trim the sides evenly and reserve the trimminqs for any repairs that might be needed. Transfer the dough to a jellyroll pan, which will be almost completely covered by the pastry. If the dough should rupture during the transfer, simply press it together with the fingertips and if necessary repair any cracks with the reserved trimmings.
Leaving a two-inch margin on all four sides, arranqe the prune-plums, cut side down, in rows on the dough. Using a pastry brush, paint the prune- plums with the apricot glaze. Next, sprinkle the silvered almonds over the fruit and then the sugar-cinnamon mixture. Starting with the short sides first and ending with the long sides, fold the margins of the dough over twice and form edges for the torte with the fingers. Drizzle the melted butter over the filling and brush the edges with the beaten egg.
Bake in a 350-degree over for 35 to 45 minutes or until the pastry is a deep golden brown. Let the torte cool to room temperature. To serve, cut the torte lengthwise down the middle and then into horizontal slices about 2 1/2 inches wide.