THE MENU Shrimp in Wine Sauce Duck and Pears in Aspic Salad with Duck Livers, Hearts and Crispy Skins Hazelnut Cheesecake
THIS most stylish meal satisfies late May yearnings for balanced elegance. It starts with a stellar first course of warm herbed shrimps and finely julienned vegetables in a sauce worth eating by itself. Next comes a cold main course of succulent duck and pears in aspic whose flavor is underscored with a fragrant pear vinegar. With the aspic is a fashionable salad that combines the fresh sweetness of boston lettuce with slices of broiled livers and hearts of the ducks and bits of their crispy skins. The salad presents delicious contrasts in taste and texture and looks very handsome. For the end, there is a creamy hazelnut cheesecake worthy of a place on the most elaborate dessert cart.
Nothing is wasted in this meal. Even the shells of the shrimp are used to deepen the flavor of the sauce. The dish's component parts are prepared quickly before guests arrive, with the final assembly taking about three minutes just before diners sit down. Dry white wine, and there is nothing wrong with using a decent jug wine here, is cooked down with the shrimp shells and some minced shallots; the strained reduction is simmered with cream and augmented with an egg-yolk enrichment. The sauce is poured over the lightly saute'ed vegetables and shrimps that have been flavored with fresh herbs. The dish is served with a fork and spoon so that not a drop of the sauce need be left behind.
One of the joys of May is to see fresh tarragon pushing up in the garden or to find tarragon and young basil plants at herb specialists and nurseries. Basil, if it is used for flavoring, can be gathered by pinching back the top shoots, which will benefit the young plants later and the dish now. Should neither fresh tarragon nor basil be available, do not use dried. Simply stick to parsley.
The main course is equally frugal in its use of every bit of each ingredient. The preparation is done in two stages, starting two days before the dinner. First, the ducks are roasted in a hot oven. They need no attention during this process, not even to be pierced with a fork to drain off fat, since the cooked skins will be peeled off and crisped later for the salad. After the meat is removed from the birds, the carcasses are crushed and used with wing, thigh and leg bones as the basis for the aspic. Those willing to sacrifice the satisfaction derived from such commendable thrift can use only canned chicken broth for the aspic's liquid, but the end product, while acceptable, is not quite as good. Some of the stock is also used to deglaze the roasting pan juices so that none of the goodness is lost.
The inspiration for this dish came from a wonderful pear vinegar I found at a kitchenware shop. The vinegar combines the quintessence of pears with a mild acidity that benefits both the pears and the aspic. The pears, which should be hard but with perfume, are cooked with a little sugar and some of the vinegar. All the tendons and membranes that make duck tough are carefully removed from the meat along with any fat, and the duck is cut into a coarse julienne. By placing the pieces of meat and pear wedges so that they radiate in a star shape from the center to the edges of the mold or bowl, wedges of the aspic can be cut easily and without resistance. The aspic can be unmolded an hour or two before guests arrive and held in the refrigerator. It is removed and allowed to sit at room temperature when the meal begins to rid it of its chill.
The livers and hearts can be broiled the day the ducks are cooked. They are refrigerated until the salad is assembled, when they are sliced thinly. The skins are cut into a 1/4-inch dice and stir-fried a few hours before the party in a saute' pan or frying pan to render them of their fat and make them crisp. It may be necessary to reheat them for another minute just before serving. A mildly mustardy vinaigrette is poured over the salad just before serving.
The cheesecake, which can be made two or even three days in advance and refrigerated, offers a golden opportunity to use frozen egg whites that accumulate so aggressively in my freezer. The cake, which uses no yolks at all, is light in texture and white in color. Frangelico, the Italian liqueur that tastes like pure hazelnuts, flavors both the cake and the topping. Toasted hazelnuts give flavor and texture to the graham cracker crust and adorn the top of the cake. Any leftover cheesecake takes well to freezing. SHRIMP IN WINE SAUCE (8 servings) For the shrimps: 1 3/4 pounds medium shrimp (40 to 50 count) 1 large carrot, peeled and trimmed 1 large inner stalk celery, strings removed 4 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons minced parsley 2 tablespoons minced fresh tarragon or basil For the sauce: 4 cups dry white wine 4 tablespoons minced shallots 1 1/2 cups heavy cream 2 egg yolks
Shell the shrimps by cutting through the backs with kitchen shears. Place the shells in a colander, rinse under cold running water and reserve for the sauce. Devein the shrimps and rinse under cold running water. Place the cleaned shrimps in a bowl, cover and refrigerate.
Cut the carrot and celery into a very fine, 2-inch-long julienne. Cook the vegetables in the butter in a medium-large saute' pan or frying pan for about 5 minutes, or until they are cooked but retain a bit of crispness. Leave in the pan and set aside.
Combine the wine, shallots and shrimp shells in a non-reactive saucepan such as stainless steel, anodized aluminum or enameled cast iron, and cook over medium heat for about 15 to 20 minutes, or until the liquid has reduced to 1 cup. Strain the liquid into another non-reactive saucepan, pushing down on the shells to extract all the fluid. If more than 1 cup remains, reduce further over medium heat. Add 1 cup of the cream and simmer for 5 minutes. Set aside.
To finish the shrimp and the sauce, add the shrimp to the pan with the vegetables and saute' over medium heat, turning the shrimp, for about 3 minutes, or until the shrimp take on a pink color and stiffen. Beat the remaining half cup of cream with the egg yolks. Bring the wine-cream reduction to a simmer and whisk in the egg-yolk cream mixture. Cook, stirring, over low heat until the sauce thickens but do not let it boil. Meantime, heat the shrimp and julienned vegetables and stir in the minced parsley and tarragon or basil. Pour the sauce over the shrimp and stir to mix thoroughly. Serve immediately in gratin dishes, in small souffle' dishes or on first-course plates, dividing the shrimp evenly and spooning the sauce over them. Serve with forks and spoons for the sauce. DUCK WITH PEARS IN ASPIC (8 servings) For the ducks: 2 4-pound ducks, defrosted if frozen; wing tips, necks and gizzards reserved, if desired, for stock; hearts and livers reserved for the salad (see recipe) For the stock (optional but desirable): Wing tips, necks and gizzards of the ducks, chopped, if possible, into 1-inch pieces Carcasses of the cooked ducks, broken up, plus wing, thigh and leg bones without duck meat 3 carrots, peeled, trimmed and cut into 2-inch chunks 3 onions, peeled 2 stalks celery, cleaned and cut into 2-inch chunks 6 sprigs parsley 1/2 teaspoon thyme Salt and pepper to taste For the pears: 8 small, hard pears with some perfume 4 cups water 1 cup sugar 4 tablespoons pear vinegar For the aspic: Degreased duck stock plus enough chicken broth to make 12 cups, or 12 cups chicken broth 5 1/2 tablespoons (envelopes) plain gelatin 4 tablespoons pear vinegar 4 egg whites, lightly beaten 1/2 cup medium-sweet madeira
Two days before the dinner, roast the ducks on racks in roasting pans in a 450-degree oven for 1 hour. Allow the ducks to cool. Discard the fat in the roasting pans and reserve the pans for deglazing with the stock.
Remove all the skin from the ducks, place in a bowl and refrigerate for use in the salad (see recipe). Remove all the meat from ducks, including the wing and leg meat, cover and refrigerate. Reserve the wing, thigh and leg bones and the carcasses for the stock.
Two days before the dinner, make the stock if you elect to do so. Combine the uncooked wing tips, necks and gizzards, the wing, thigh and leg bones and the carcasses, broken up, in a large pot, cover with cold water and bring to a boil. Skim the scum, and when the water is clear, add the carrots, onions and celery. Skim again until clear. Then add the parsley, thyme, salt and pepper plus more cold water, if needed, to cover. Simmer, with lid slightly askew, for 2 hours. Strain the stock into a large bowl. Add one cup of the stock (or chicken broth) to each roasting pan and simmer, stirring with a wooden spoon, until all the brown bits have loosened from the bottoms. Add the deglazed mixture to the stock. Refrigerate overnight and remove fat that will have congealed on the surface.
The pears can also be cooked two days before the dinner. Peel the pears, core and cut each into six wedges. Bring the water, sugar and pear vinegar to a boil, stirring. Add the wedges, reduce heat and simmer, without stirring, 10 to 15 minutes, or until the pears test just tender when pierced with a long, thin knife. Cool the pears in the cooking liquid and refrigerate.
The day before the dinner, make the aspic and assemble the dish. Combine the duck stock with enough chicken broth to make 12 cups, or use all chicken broth, in a large saucepan with the gelatin, pear vinegar and lightly beaten egg whites. Bring to a boil over medium-low heat, stirring constantly.
Line a large strainer with several layers of wrung-out cheesecloth, set the strainer over a bowl and ladle the aspic through. If the egg white debris clogs the cheesecloth, lift the strainer, take it to the sink, turn it over and wash the cheesecloth under hot water. Reline the strainer and continue until all the aspic has been clarified. Stir in the madeira. Cool the aspic and refrigerate until it is slightly syrupy. If it jells, it must be melted and recooled.
While the aspic is cooling, finish preparing the duck meat and pears for the final assembly. Turn the pears into a strainer placed over a bowl and drain them well. The pear cooking syrup can be refrigerated and reused. Trim the duck meat carefully of all gristle and membranes, then cut it into strips 2 inches long by 1/4-inch wide.
Ladle a cup of aspic into a 2 1/2-quart metal mold or wide-bottomed bowl and arrange pear wedges into a sunburst pattern, rounded sides down, radiating from the center of the bowl. Arrange a layer of duck, also radiating from the center of the bowl out to the sides and ladle aspic on to cover the duck. Then add a layer of pears, a layer of duck, with aspic poured over each layer, until all ingredients are used. Cover the contents with aspic, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Pour any leftover aspic into a cake pan and refrigerate.
An hour or two before the guests arrive, unmold the aspic by running a knife around the inside of the bowl and dipping the bowl in a dishpan of hot water for about 10 seconds if the bowl is metal, longer if it is not. Place a platter over the bowl and invert. Chop any extra aspic and use to decorate the platter. Refrigerate until 20 to 30 minutes before serving. SALAD WITH DUCK LIVERS, HEARTS AND CRISPY SKIN (8 servings) 3 tight, firm heads boston lettuce 2 reserved duck livers 2 reserved duck hearts Cooked skin reserved from 2 ducks 1/2 teaspoon dijon mustard 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar 1/2 cup olive oil Salt and pepper to taste
Separate the lettuce leaves, wash, dry and tear into bite-size pieces. Place the lettuce in a salad bowl or in a large, shallow bowl such as a pasta serving dish.
Place the livers and hearts on a foil-lined pie plate and broil for 3 minutes. Turn the livers and hearts and broil for another 3 minutes, or until the livers are pink when cut but not bloody. If necessary, broil the livers, but not the hearts, for another minute. Thinly slice the livers and hearts and strew the slices over the lettuce.
Cut the cooked duck skins into 1/4-inch pieces and saute' over medium heat in a frying pan, stirring frequently, until all the fat is rendered and the skins are crisp. Drain fat, pat the skins with paper towels and strew them over the lettuce and liver and heart slices.
Whisk together the mustard, vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. Pour over the salad just before serving and toss lightly. HAZELNUT CHEESECAKE (8 or more servings) Softened butter to grease a 9-inch springform pan ? For the crust: 1/2 cup toasted hazelnuts (filberts) 16 graham crackers (each approximately 2 1/2 inches square) 1/4 cup melted butter For the cake: 5 egg whites 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar 3 8-ounce packages cream cheese, softened to room temperature 2 tablespoons hazelnut liqueur (Frangelico) For the topping: 1 pint sour cream 2 tablespoons sugar 1 teaspoon hazelnut liqueur (Frangelico) 1 cup toasted hazelnuts, coarsely chopped
Grease a 9-inch springform pan liberally with butter and set aside.
Toast the 1 1/2 cups hazelnuts needed for both the crust and the topping. Place the nuts in a pie plate or toaster-oven tray and toast in a 425-degree oven (or toaster oven) for 10 minutes. Turn the nuts into a cloth towel and rub them against each other to loosen the skins. Discard the skins and do not worry if bits of skin remain on the nuts. Measure 1/2 cup of the nuts for the crust and reserve. Chop the remaining cup of nuts coarsely and set aside for the topping.
Make the crust. Crumble the graham crackers coarsely and combine with the 1/2 cup of nuts in a food processor bowl. Process with the steel blade, turning the motor on and off, until reduced to fine crumbs. Pour the melted butter into the bowl and process until amalgamated. Turn into the buttered springform pan and line the bottom and as much of the sides as possible with the mixture.
Beat the egg whites until they foam. Continue beating, adding the sugar a couple of tablespoons at a time, until stiff but not dry. Then beat in the softened cream cheese and the hazelnut liqueur. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan, level with a spatula and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.
Mix the sour cream with the 2 remaining tablespoons of sugar and the teaspoon of hazelnut liqueur. When the cake has baked for the first half hour, remove it from the oven and pour on the topping, leveling it if necessary with a spatula. Sprinkle with the cup of chopped hazelnuts and continue baking at 350 degrees for 30 minutes more. Cool the cake in the pan on a cake rack. Unmold it and slide it onto a serving plate, using a spatula to loosen it from the bottom part of the pan and to guide it. Refrigerate. Serve the cake chilled.