THE MENU Gravad Beef with Green Sauce and Red Caviar Cold Rock Cornish Hens Stuffed with Toasted Rice and Herbs Tomato Aspic Squares or Chickens Peaches in Red Wine
THIS IS A cold meal to take the bark if not the bite out of dog days. Original, whimsical and good to eat, it can be made in advance, with just a few no-sweat, hassle-free final preparations left for the day of the party in a mercifully cool kitchen.
Dinner begins with a new discovery brought back from Sweden: steak that has been cured, rather than cooked, with the same salt and sugar mixture that turns salmon into gravad lax, but with the addition of thyme and sage, instead of dill. Paper-thin slices of the gravad beef are topped with wilted cucumber slices, a refreshing green sauce and red caviar for color and tang. The main course consists of rock cornish hens, roasted, cooled, halved and presented cut side down. The toasted rice and herb stuffing that has cooked in the birds is revealed only when the little hens are eaten. The serving platter is garnished with a shimmering accompaniment of intensely flavored tomato aspic cut in shapes, preferably of small chickens (with an appropriate cookie cutter), for a summertime giggle. Dessert is simple and fresh, a bowl of ice-cold, sliced ripe peaches in a fruity red wine.
The gravad beef combines mystery and elegance with the virtue of a great bargain. Unlike carpaccio, the Venetian raw beef dish that really requires top of the line steak, gravad beef is made with reasonably priced top round steak, with one pound yielding eight ample servings. Five days before it is to be eaten, the round steak is rubbed with the gravad mixture, refrigerated in a plastic bag and turned every day to ensure an even cure. The cured meat is cut diagonally on a wide angle against the grain into paper-thin slices for which a long, sharp knife is essential. The meat is distributed among first-course plates and its deep brown color is brightened with wilted cucumbers (preferably pickling cucumbers or even the long hothouse kind whose wax-free skins can be left on), an uncomplicated green sauce consisting of sour cream, dill and chives and a dollop of red lumpfish or salmon caviar. Thin slices of french bread and unsalted butter are the perfect accompaniment. The green sauce is also delicious with any fish pa te' and an excellent change from tartar sauce with crab cakes, especially when half as much mayonnaise is beaten into the sauce along with some minced scallion and a finely chopped cornichon.
The rock cornish hens can, of course, be made a day in advance since they are served at room temperature. They are stuffed, cooked, refrigerated and halved easily when they are cold. Toasting the rice in a hot oven imparts a nutty flavor that is particularly agreeable. The stuffing is also spiked with softened scallion, the minced livers, gizzards and hearts of the birds plus, if you can possibly manage it, fresh herbs.
Half of a larger hen with the rice stuffing is simply too much for one portion so I use only tiny birds that weigh about three-quarters of a pound. I do cook an additional small hen to calm my fears that a heavy eater might leave our table hungry. Such anxieties usually pay off in leftovers which are wonderful the next day, either cold or hot. A trussing needle, which is usually about eight inches long and has an eye large enough for kitchen string, makes trussing a snap and even a joy.
The tomato aspic, a recipe I have changed only slightly from the one in Irma Rhode's excellent and unpretentious little book, "Cool Entertaining," is also made a day in advance and is delicious with the hens. Chili sauce bolsters tomato juice for a more substantial result. I cut out the aspic with my chicken cookie cutter and slip a spatula under the jelly to lift it off. The leftover bits of aspic can be remelted and placed in a small container to solidify and then more aspic chickens can be made. The cutout aspic sits on a plate in the refrigerator and is added to the platter with hens just before serving.
Dessert, which could not be more simple, does depend on the availability of decent peaches and a reasonable, fruity red wine. I have tried it with our usual vin ordinaire and it does not do. I have had luck finding edible peaches at farmers' markets these last weeks. Supermarkets seem to have more than their usual share of hard, green, perfumeless peaches and on top of that they are full of bruises, which guarantees they will rot before they ripen. Cling peaches do not make beautiful slices, so it is best to look for freestone. GRAVAD BEEF WITH GREEN SAUCE AND RED CAVIAR (8 servings) For curing the beef: 1 pound boneless top round steak 2 tablespoons coarse (kosher) salt 1 tablespoon sugar 1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves 1/2 teaspoon leaf sage For the green sauce: 1/2 cup sour cream 1 tablespoon minced chives 1/4 cup tightly packed dill leaves, minced For the garnish: 3 small pickling cucumbers or 1/2 hothouse cucumber, unpeeled, or 1 medium cucumber, peeled 1 tablespoon coarse salt 2 ounces red salmon or lumpfish caviar
Start to cure the steak five days before it is to be served. Pat the steak dry with paper towels. Mix the salt, sugar, pepper, thyme and sage and rub into both sides of the meat. Place it in a plastic bag, tie tightly and refrigerate for five days, turning the bag every day. A few hours before serving, remove the meat from the bag, scrape off the herb mixture and dry with paper towels. Slice the steak into paper-thin slices against the grain and on the diagonal to make slices about 2 to 3 inches in width.
The sauce can be made a day or two in advance. Combine the sour cream with the minced chives and dill. Refrigerate until needed.
The cucumbers can be prepared in the morning or up to 2 hours before serving. Slice the cucumber thinly, mix with the salt and allow to sit in a bowl at room temperature for 1 hour. Drain and squeeze dry. Refrigerate until needed.
To serve, divide the slices of cured beef among eight first-course plates. Arrange the drained cucumber slices on the center of the meat on each plate. Place a tablespoon of the green sauce on the cucumbers and a rounded demitasse spoon of the caviar on the sauce. Serve with thinly sliced french bread. COLD ROCK CORNISH HENS STUFFED WITH TOASTED RICE AND HERBS (8 servings) For the hens: 5 rock cornish hens, each weighing about 3/4 pound, defrosted For the stuffing: 1 1/2 cups converted rice 3 cups canned condensed chicken broth 4 tablespoons butter 6 scallions, white bulbs plus three inches of green parts, minced Livers, gizzards and hearts of the hens, trimmed and minced 10 fresh thin sage leaves, minced, or 3/4 teaspoon dried leaf sage 4-inch stem fresh rosemary, leaves removed and minced, or 1/4 teaspoon dried rosemary leaves, crumbled 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves or 1/4 teaspoon dried 4 tablespoons minced parsley Salt and pepper to taste For cooking the hens: 3 tablespoons melted butter 10 1/2-ounce can chicken broth
Clean the hens, remove wing tips and freeze with necks for later use to make stock. Pull out all loose internal organs and discard. Reserve the livers, gizzards and hearts for the stuffing. Pat the hens dry inside and out and refrigerate until needed.
Place the rice in an even layer in a 9-by-13-inch cake pan and toast in a 375-degree oven for 8 to 10 minutes, shaking the pan every few minutes so the rice browns evenly. Continue until the rice is well toasted but not burned. Turn into a large strainer and rinse under cold running water until the rice stops sizzling. Drain well. Bring the chicken broth to the boil in a heavy saucepan and add the rice. Cover and cook over low heat for 18 to 20 minutes, or until the rice is just cooked and the chicken broth is absorbed.
While the rice is cooking, melt the butter in a saute' pan or frying pan and cook the minced scallions over low heat until soft and transparent. Add the minced livers, gizzards and hearts and cook, stirring, for two minutes. Add the fresh or dried herbs and cook for another minute. Stir the mixture into the cooked rice, season with salt and pepper and adjust seasonings.
Stuff the birds with the rice mixture (there may be some left over) and truss so that the cavities are closed. Julia Child et al's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," Volume I, has excellent trussing directions. Brush the birds all over with the melted butter and roast in a 425-degree oven for 1 hour, basting frequently and turning the birds every 10 or 15 minutes to brown them evenly. Remove to a platter and allow to cool. Refrigerate. Pour off any butter in the roasting pan, add the chicken broth to the pan and bring to a boil, scraping the brown bits with a wooden spoon. Pour the deglazed juices into a bowl and refrigerate.
Two hours before serving, cut the birds in half and place them cut side down, on a serving platter. Discard the fat from the pan juices and splash the juices over the hens. Return to the refrigerator until an hour before serving.
Arrange the tomato aspic shapes around the hens before bringing to the table. TOMATO ASPIC SQUARES OR CHICKENS (Makes 16) 2 cups good quality tomato juice 12-ounce bottle good quality chili sauce Juice of 1 lime 1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce 2 1/2 envelopes (2 tablespoons plus 1 1/2 teaspoons) plain gelatin
Combine the tomato juice, chili sauce, lime juice and hot pepper sauce in a saucepan, sprinkle the gelatin over the liquid and bring to the boil over low heat, stirring constantly. Pour into an 8-inch square cake pan, cool and refrigerate until set. Cut into eight 2-inch squares or use a 2-inch chicken-shaped cookie cutter and cut into chicken shapes.
Just before serving, place the aspic shapes around the hens.
Note: The aspic also can be poured into a 4-cup mold and allowed to set. PEACHES IN RED WINE (8 servings) 2 1/2 pounds ripe peaches 2 tablespoons sugar, or to taste 1 bottle (3 1/2 cups) red wine, preferably a fruity beaujolais
Scald the peaches in boiling water for 30 seconds and slip off their skins. Slice the peaches, discarding the pits and place the slices in a bowl. Sprinkle sugar over them. Stir, cover tightly with plastic wrap and allow the peaches to sit at room temperature for half an hour. Pour the wine over the peaches. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours. The peaches should be served very cold.