THE MENU Mussels with Joseph Alsop's Fresh Coriander Bearnaise Veal Ragout with White Onions, Mushrooms and Artichoke Hearts Cauliflower Puree Strawberry or Other Fresh or Canned Fruit Tart
THIS FALL MEAL combines familiar flavors with wonderful surprises. It starts with plump steamed mussels on the half shell glazed with a sauce that is not merely delicious but is a masterpiece. Joseph Alsop's pale green bearnaise is flavored unexpectedly and most successfully with fresh coriander rather than tarragon. The result is subtle, fascinating, beautiful to look at and utterly delicious not only with mussels but also, says Alsop, "with boiled and grilled fish, with hot and cold boiled or roast chicken and with various families of shrimp-like crustaceans, as well as crabmeat."
Next is a veal ragout cooked in a rich brown sauce with small white onions, sliced mushrooms and artichoke hearts. A good stock and some full-bodied dry sherry contribute the depth to make a dish that gives considerable satisfaction. Accompanying the ragout is a cauliflower pure'e. This looks like chive-strewn mashed potatoes but the flavor, which has none of the cabbagey undertones associated with cauliflower, is a triumph.
Dessert is a fresh strawberry tart with a pastry for my friends whose eyes glaze over the minute I try to assure them there is no great trick to rolling out a crust. This pastry is made by working the ingredients together with the fingers and then pressing the resulting dough with the hands into a two-piece tart or quiche pan. When baked, it becomes a nut-brown, buttery, light container for any kind of fruit, fresh or canned.
The bearnaise is made in minutes in an old-fashioned blender (I was tempted to discard it when I acquired a food processor but am grateful I did not since I have yet to achieve a successful bearnaise or hollandaise with the processor). The processor can be used in this recipe, but only to chop the coriander if the sauce is to be made by hand, as many traditional cooks prefer. Coriander, also sold as cilantro or Chinese parsley, is, after an end-of-summer hiatus, once again available in many supermarkets. It can always be found in Spanish and Oriental food stores. This recipe requires a substantial bunch of coriander. The sauce can be made just before the mussels are cleaned and cooked.
Eight mussels make a generous first-course portion, and even six would do since the sauce is not without a certain richness. In any case, buy a few more mussels than you think you need because inevitably a few must be discarded when they do not pass the aliveness test, which consists of tapping those that are open. If they do not close when tapped, throw them out. Also, after the mussels are cooked, discard any that do not open.
While mussels are usually sold by the pound, people who work at fish markets seem willing to count out the required number to be weighed. Mussels used to be a bother to clean, but most of those being sold now are grown on strings and do not often acquire the barnacles and assorted debris which these shiny black bivale mollusks used to carry as normal baggage. This is not to say that mussels do not need considerable attention. They must be cleaned, preferably just before they are cooked. Mussels are never soaked in water. Rather, place them in a colander and run cold water over them. Next, using a paring knife, scrape off any mud or junk that adheres to the shells. Then debeard them by grasping the beard between the knife and the thumb and pulling down from the pointed end of the shell toward the rounded end. The mussels for this recipe are steamed first and then reheated on the half shell with the sauce in a slow oven.
Every once in a while veal is worth the splurge, and it is not such a wild indulgence if stew meat cut from the shoulder is bought on sale and stocked in the freezer. The enamel-on-iron casseroles in which I braise meats are not for browning because the intense heat pockmarks the enamel and ruins the surface. The veal must be thoroughly dried before it is browned, and in order to keep the temperature of the fat high, only a few pieces should be added at a time. Otherwise the meat will render its juices and boil rather than brown. Homemade stock is best and is a less painful prospect if the cook makes it in great batches and freezes the result in various-sized jars. Basic cookbooks have recipes for brown beef or veal stock.
Canned artichoke hearts are perfectly acceptable if they are carefully rinsed under cold running water to rid them of any aftertaste they might have acquired from the liquid in the can.
Cauliflower, which has been disgracefully expensive, is now in full season at delightfully low prices. The pure'e here is a nice departure from the usual ways of eating this vegetable and adds panache to the serving board. The texture is lovely when the cooked cauliflower is whipped with an electric mixer, far better to me than when it is put through the processor.
For the dessert, I double the recipe for the tart shell and make two. One gets used immediately and the other goes into the freezer. It is a great convenience when dessert is needed for unexpected guests. The extra shell can be defrosted and filled with pastry cream or even whipped cream. If you make a double recipe of the pastry cream, half can be frozen, as unlikely as this seems, and defrosted along with the reserved shell. Whatever fresh or canned fruits are at hand can be used for the topping. The red currant jelly glaze will even take away the white starkness of fresh sliced pears while it imparts a pleasant tartness. MUSSELS WITH JOSEPH ALSOP'S FRESH CORIANDER BEARNAISE (8 servings) 70 fresh mussels, cleaned 1 cup dry white wine 1/2 cup water 1 medium onion, peeled and quartered 6 parsley stems 1/2 bay leaf 1/4 teaspoon thyme 6 whole black peppercorns
Clean the mussels just before cooking (see above). Combine the wine, water and remaining ingredients in a pot large enough to hold the mussels very comfortably. Bring the liquid to boil and cook over moderate heat for 5 minutes. Add the mussels, place the lid on the pot and turn the heat up to high. Shake the pot every couple of minutes, making sure your hands are holding the lid down tightly and that pot-holders are firmly between your hands and the pot. After 5 or 6 minutes, when the shells have opened, remove from heat and turn the mussels immediately into a large colander placed over a bowl. (This broth can be strained through several layers of cheesecloth and frozen as-is for a soup or reduced and frozen for a sauce.)
Discard the top shells of the mussels and loosen the meat from the bottom shells with a sharp paring knife. Place the mussels close together on jellyroll pans and spoon a bit of Joseph Alsop's fresh coriander bearnaise over each one. The mussels can be set aside for an hour at this point. To serve, place the mussels in a 250-degree oven for 10 minutes. Arrange 8 of the warmed mussels on individual first-course plates and serve with french bread. JOSEPH ALSOP'S FRESH CORIANDER BEARNAISE (Makes 1 1/2 cups)
This sauce can be used not only for mussels, but for crabmeat, shrimp or other crustateans, boiled fish, grilled fish and hot and cold boiled or roast chicken. 1/4 cup red wine vinegar 1/4 cup dry white wine 1 tablespoon minced shallots 1 bunch fresh coriander (also called cilantro or Chinese parsley), coarse stems removed 2 1/4-pound sticks unsalted butter 3 egg yolks Salt and white pepper to taste
Combine the vinegar, wine and shallots in a small saucepan and cook over moderate heat until the liquid is reduced to 2 tablespoons. Strain the liquid into a second saucepan and add the fresh coriander. Stir over low heat until the coriander is wilted. Set aside and allow to cool.
Cut one stick of the butter into 8 pieces and melt it to foaming in a small saucepan over moderate heat, then lower the heat. Place the egg yolks in the container of an electric blender and blend at highest speed for about 15 seconds, or until the yolks are very thick. Add the vinegar-wine reduction with the wilted coriander and blend at highest speed for another 15 seconds, or until the coriander is macerated. It may be necessary to stop the motor once or twice to push the coriander down the sides of the container with a rubber spatula.
With the motor running still at highest speed, feed the hot butter into the container, preferably through the small opening in the cover, in a very thin but steady stream. Continue blending at high speed until the sauce thickens. Should it remain thin, turn it into a measuring cup and feed it into the blender once more in a thin, steady stream with the motor running at high speed. Turn the sauce into a bowl and heat the second stick of butter until it foams. In a thin steady stream, beat the butter into the sauce with a wire whisk. The sauce can be made an hour or two in advance. VEAL RAGOUT WITH WHITE ONIONS, MUSHROOMS AND ARTICHOKE HEARTS (8 servings) 3 1/2 pounds boneless veal shoulder, cut into 2-inch pieces 4 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons oil 2 large cloves garlic, minced 2 tablespoons flour 4 cups beef stock, veal stock or beef bouillon 1/2 teaspoon thyme leaves Salt and pepper to taste 1 tablespoon tomato paste 6 tablespoons full-bodied dry sherry, such as Dry Sack 3-inch strip lemon peel 24 small white onions, peeled and trimmed 1/2 pound mushrooms, cleaned and sliced 2 14-ounce cans artichoke hearts, the hearts rinsed in a colander under cold water, drained, halved and trimmed of any brown spots on the leaves
Trim the veal of any sinews and fat and dry the pieces thoroughly between paper towels. Heat the butter and oil in a large aluminum or iron frying pan and brown the veal, a few pieces at a time, on all sides. Use tongs to turn the meat so it is not pierced, otherwise the juices will escape. Remove the browned meat to a 6-quart enamel-on-iron or other heavy casserole. When all the veal is browned, discard all but two tablespoons of the fat in the frying pan.
Turn the heat to low, add the minced garlic to the remaining fat and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Then add the flour and cook, stirring, still over low heat, for another 2 minutes. Stir the stock, thyme, salt, pepper, tomato paste, sherry and lemon peel into the flour mixture, bring to a boil and cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to loosen all the brown bits. Add the stock to the veal in the casserole, bring to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes. Then add the onions, bring back to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes more. Then add the mushrooms and cook for 5 minutes more. Finally, add the artichoke bottoms, return to a simmer and cook for a final 5 minutes. The veal will cook for one hour in all. The ragout can be served immediately or it can be cooled, refrigerated and reheated over a low flame. CAULIFLOWER PUREE (8 servings) 2 medium-large heads cauliflower 1 tablespoon lemon juice 6 tablespoons butter 1/2 cup heavy cream Salt and pepper to taste 2 tablespoons minced chives
Trim the cauliflower of the leaves, coarse stems and any dark spots, separate into large florets and wash well. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and add the florets. Cook for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the cauliflower is soft but not mushy. Drain well in a colander, then return to the pot. Shake the cauliflower in the pot over high heat for a few minutes to rid it of any excess moisture. Then turn it into the large bowl of a standing electric mixer or any large bowl if you use a hand mixer. Beat the cauliflower with the mixer fitted with beaters until it is light and fluffy. Then, one after the other, beat in the lemon juice, butter, cream and salt and pepper. Adjust seasonings. The pure'e can be made several hours in advance to this point. To serve, heat the pure'e over moderate heat, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon. Turn it onto a serving platter or into a bowl and sprinkle with chives. STRAWBERRY OR OTHER FRESH OR CANNED FRUIT TART (8 servings) 1 sweet tart pastry shell (see recipe below) Red currant glaze (see recipe below) Pastry cream (see recipe below) 2 pints strawberries, washed and hulled, or fresh or canned fruit of choice
To assemble the tart, paint a thin layer of warm glaze over the bottom and sides of the cooled shell, using a brush. Pour the cooled pastry cream into the shell and, starting in the middle, set the strawberries on the cream in ever-increasing circles. Reheat the glaze if necessary and, with a brush, paint each strawberry, letting the glaze run over to coat any pastry cream that shows. Refrigerate until one hour before serving. The tart is best if assembled no more than four hours before serving. DOLORES CASELLA'S SWEET TART PASTRY SHELL (Makes a 10-inch shell)
2 cups sifted flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) butter at room temperature
2 egg yolks
Combine the flour, sugar and salt in a bowl, add the butter and egg yolks and work the mixture with your fingers until it comes together into a dough. Break off pieces of dough the size of small lemons and press these into a 10-inch, two-piece French tart or quiche pan and pat to make an even bottom layer and sides. Bake at 300 degrees for 55 to 60 minutes, or until the shell is a lovely nut brown. Cool on a rack for 10 minutes, then place the tart pan on a can and allow the rim of the pan to drop down. Finish cooling and slip the shell off the bottom of the pan onto a serving platter.
This recipe can be doubled and two shells made. The second shell can be frozen when it is cooled. To use, defrost the shell, crisp in a 300-degree oven for 10 minutes and fill as desired. RED CURRANT GLAZE 1 cup red currant jelly 2 tablespoons Cointreau, Grand Marnier or other liqueur
Just before using, combine the jelly and the liqueur in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Remelt the glaze if it cools to the point where it cannot be spread easily. PASTRY CREAM (Makes 2 generous cups) 2 cups milk 6 egg yolks 2/3 cup sugar 1/4 cup flour 1 tablespoon butter 4 teaspoons vanilla 2 teaspoons Cointreau, Grand Marnier or other liqueur Dab of butter to rub on the surface of the completed pastry cream
Bring the milk to a boil and lower heat to keep the milk at a simmer. Combine the egg yolks and the sugar in a bowl and beat with an electric mixer until the mixture becomes very light and forms a ribbon when the mixer whisks are lifted. Stir in the flour with a wire whisk. Then, whisking constantly, add the hot milk to the mixture in a thin stream. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and, whisking constantly, bring the cream to a boil and boil for 1 minute. Remove from heat and beat in the butter, vanilla and liqueur. Rub the surface of the pastry cream with a little butter to keep a skin from forming and set aside to cool.