By the end of January the cooking doldrums have set in. Holiday feasts are long past and the first baby vegetables of spring remain far in the future. Convention calls for heart-warming casseroles of beef with red wine, for the gamut of root vegetable soups and a final flourish of fruit pie a la mode or an unctuous chocolate cake. Tempting though these ideas are, they leave little scope for the imagination.
Now is the moment for a great escape. For crazy salad -- or "la salade folle" as it was called by young chefs a decade ago when they invented hot-dressing salads on the spur of the moment.
Good greens are obligatory, curly endive suits the season, plus a head or two of belgian endive if you are feeling extravagant. With them go just a few shrimps -- the best your market has to offer -- walnuts for texture and a few slices of exotic fruits such as mango. Body is given to the salad by chicken livers, which are fried at the last minute in oil then tossed with their hot juices with the salad. The pan is deglazed with vinegar; this is tossed again with the greens, which are rushed to the table to serve crisp and still warm.
It may be called crazy salad but the principle isn't crazy at all. Fannie Farmer's hot bacon dressing follows just the same lines. What can become crazy is the combination of ingredients. I've used peach or mandarin orange when lacking mango, and sliced scallops instead of chicken livers. Walnut oil will bolster the taste of the walnuts already in the salad, and this is one of the few occasions when I advocate fruit vinegar (raspberry or black currant) or simple cider vinegar.
The main course makes use of an underestimated ingredient -- boned turkey breasts. Meaty, and with more flavor than chicken, turkey breasts deserve attention. Here they are sliced diagonally to resemble veal escalope (at half the price) and sauteed quickly in butter. So they stay moist and juicy, don't hesitate to use a brisk heat (oil will help prevent the butter from scorching). The escalopes are served with a simple sauce made from the pan juices, wine, cream and a tablespoon of dijon mustard, invaluable for boosting the flavor of white meats like poultry and veal.
The julienne vegetable garnish has become such a classic that I hesitate to include it in a fantasy menu. But the colors are so pretty, and a julienne makes ideal use of the rather limited seasonal vegetables such as carrots, turnips and celery.
Rice pilaf is the easy way to serve rice for it can be cooked ahead and reheated with no problem. To the basic pilaf recipe I've added a pinch of saffron for color and taste -- saffron is the most expensive of spices but a little does go a long way. It easily loses its aroma, however, so always keep it in an airtight container and buy saffron threads rather than powder; they keep their strength much longer.
Floating island must be one of the world's most desirable desserts. Just the name conjures up ideal visions of tropical lagoons. Under the name of snow eggs, the same combination of meringue, vanilla custard and caramel appears on the dessert trolleys of chic restaurants in town. It's a favorite at children's birthdays and, if not a dieter's delight, is relatively low in calories.
Miniature floating islands consist of an island of meringue baked in a ramekin or custard cup, which is turned out into a shallow bowl of egg custard -- the sea. When lifted gently with a metal spatula, the island will float. The top is veiled in caramel, which should be added not more than an hour or two before serving so it stays crisp. It is an ethereal dish that beguiles the imagination -- the perfect end to a fantasy dinner in the depths of snowy winter. TIMETABLE
There's less work in this menu that you might think and it is nicely spaced with some preparation ahead, notably dessert (such a relief to have that out of the way!)
Last-minute cooking starts only 15 minutes before serving if you are prepared to leave guests after the first course and, as it were, cook the turkey escalopes to order. They will be best this way, but you could also saute' them just before sitting down to dinner, keeping them warm in the oven.
Up to three days ahead: Cook rice pilaf and store in refrigerator.
In the morning: Make meringue "islands" and custard for floating island and refrigerate.
Up to 4 hours ahead: Prepare ingredients for salad and refrigerate. Slice turkey escalopes and keep in refrigerator; steam julienne vegetables, cover and keep at room temperature.
Up to 2 hours before serving: Finish floating islands and keep in refrigerator. Set the table.
30 minutes before serving: Set oven at 350 degrees.
15 minutes before serving: Put pilaf in oven to heat. Complete the salad.
After serving salad: Cook turkey escalopes, set on plates with julienne and rice and serve. CRAZY SALAD (La Salade Folle) (6 servings)
Use seasonal greens such as curly endive for this salad. 1/2 pound salad greens 1 mango or 2 oranges 1 stalk celery, very thinly sliced 4 chicken livers 1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts 4 ounces cooked peeled baby shrimps 1/2 cup walnut or salad oil 1 shallot, finely chopped Salt and pepper 3 tablespoons fruit vinegar or red wine vinegar
Wash salad greens and tear large leaves into 2-3 pieces. Dry in a salad spinner or on paper towels. Cut peel from mango and slice fruit, discarding pit. If using oranges, cut away skin and pith with a sharp knife. Separate the sections, discarding membrane. Soak celery slices in ice water to crisp them. Cut chicken livers in 3-4 slices, discarding membranes. Greens, fruit, celery and livers can be prepared up to 4 hours ahead. Cover and refrigerate them separately.
To finish: Put greens in a large bowl with fruit, walnuts and shrimps. Drain celery, dry on paper towels and add to bowl.
In a frying pan heat 3 tablespoons oil, add shallot and cook until it is soft but not brown. Sprinkle chicken livers with salt and pepper, add to pan and fry over high heat 1 to 2 minutes, turning or tossing them constantly. Livers should be brown but still pink in center. Add hot livers and oil to salad and toss again.
Add vinegar to hot frying pan and stir to dissolve juices. Add to salad with remaining oil and salt and pepper. Toss and taste for seasoning. Spoon salad onto individual plates and serve at once.
Tip: Use the crispest greens you can find so they will stand up to the hot dressing. TURKEY ESCALOPE WITH JULIENNE VEGETABLES (Escalope de Dinde a la Julienne de Legumes) (6 servings)
The amount of mustard used in this recipe depends very much on its strength and how piquant you want the sauce to be. 2 pounds whole turkey breast White part of 2 leeks, cut in 1/8-inch julienne strips 3 medium carrots, cut in 1/8-inch julienne strips 3 stalks celery, cut in 1/8-inch julienne strips 1 medium turnip, cut in 1/8-inch julienne strips Salt and pepper Saffron rice pilaf, for serving (recipe follows) 1 tablespoon oil 2 tablespoons butter 1 cup white wine 2 cups whipping cream 1 tablespoon dijon mustard, or to taste
Cut skin and bone from turkey breast. With a sharp knife cut each fillet diagonally into 3 slices, making them as large and thin as possible. Cover and refrigerate.
Bring a large pan of water to a boil and put a rack or large strainer on top. Salt and pepper vegetables put on rack, cover and steam until vegetables are almost tender but still slightly crisp, 10-15 minutes. Vegetables can be cooked up to 4 hours ahead. If cooking ahead, undercook slightly to allow for reheating, cover, and keep at room temperature.
To finish: Reheat saffron rice pilaf. Heat oil and 1 tablespoon butter in a large frying pan. Sprinkle escalopes with salt and pepper. Add 3 escalopes to pan and saute' over medium heat until lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Turn and brown other side. Transfer escalopes to a plate and keep warm. Melt remaining butter in pan, saute' rest of escalopes and keep warm.
Meanwhile reheat vegetables: Bring water back to a boil. Set vegetables on rack over water, cover and steam until hot, 3 to 5 minutes.
For sauce: Discard fat from frying pan. Add wine and boil, stirring to dissolve juices, until reduced to about 3 tablespoons. Add cream and boil until reduced by 1/4, about 3 to 5 minutes. Take from heat, stir in mustard and taste for seasoning.
To serve: Set an escalope to the side on an individual plate and pile saffron rice on the other side. Repeat with remaining escalopes and rice. Stir vegetable julienne into sauce. Spoon vegetables and sauce over escalopes and serve at once.
Tip: The vegetables can be cut in a food processor, but I find the julienne blade can slice too finely. SAFFRON RICE PILAF (Pilaf au Safran) (6 servings)
Do not stir pilaf when very hot as the rice tends to disintegrate. 2 tablespoons butter 1 onion, finely chopped 1 1/2 cups long grain rice 2 1/2 cups water, more if needed Large pinch of saffron threads soaked in 3-4 tablespoons boiling water Bouquet garni: 1 sprig thyme, 1 bay leaf, 6 parsley stems Salt and pepper
Melt butter in heavy casserole. Add onion and saute' until soft but not browned. Add rice and cook, stirring constantly, until butter is absorbed and rice looks translucent, 1 to 2 minutes. Add water, saffron and liquid, bouquet garni, salt and pepper.
Cover and cook in a 350-degree oven for 18 minutes. If liquid is evaporated but rice is not cooked, add more water and cook for a few more minutes until tender. Take from oven and let stand, covered, for 10 minutes. Discard bouquet garni and stir rice with a fork to fluff the grains. Taste it for seasoning.
Rice pilaf can be prepared up to 3 days ahead. Keep it covered in the refrigerator. Reheat it in a 350-degree oven until very hot, 15 to 20 minutes. LITTLE FLOATING ISLANDS (Petites Iles Flottantes) (6 servings)
A rival for chocolate mousse for popularity. Vanilla custard sauce (recipe follows) Butter for cups 1 cup sugar plus extra for sprinkling cups 4 egg whites 1/2 teaspoon vanilla FOR THE CARAMEL: 1/4 cup water 1/2 cup sugar
Make vanilla custard sauce and chill. Butter custard cups or ramekins, sprinkle them with the extra sugar and discard the excess.
For meringue: Stiffly whip egg whites, add 2 tablespoons of the sugar and continue whipping until mixture forms long peaks when beaters are lifted, about 20 seconds. Fold in remaining sugar with the vanilla. Spoon enough meringue into each custard cup to fill it and smooth top.
Set cups in a water bath and bring to a boil on top of the stove. Transfer bath to a 350-degree oven and bake until meringues are puffed and firm, 15-20 minutes. Remove cups from water bath and leave to cool. Note: While cooling, the meringue will shrink; press puffed sides inwards so they shrink evenly into the cups. The custard and meringues can be made up to 8 hours ahead, covered, and refrigerated.
Not more than 2 hours before serving, loosen sides of meringues by running a knife around the edge and turn them out into 6 deep saucers or shallow bowls. Pour custard around meringues and lift each island gently so it floats.
For caramel: Heat water with sugar until it dissolves. Boil without stirring to a golden caramel. Take from heat and let bubbles subside. Pour a little over each meringue "island" letting caramel drip down the sides. Note: Work carefully as caramel is very hot. Keep in refrigerator and serve within 2 hours so caramel does not become sticky. VANILLA CUSTARD SAUCE (Creme Anglaise) (Makes 3 cups sauce) 3 cups milk 10 egg yolks 6 tablespoons sugar 2 teaspoons vanilla
In a heavy saucepan, scald the milk. Beat egg yolks with sugar until thick and light. Stir in hot milk until smooth.
Return custard to the saucepan and heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until it thickens lightly. When done a clear trail will be left when you draw your finger across the back of the spoon. NOTE: Do not boil the custard or it will curdle.
At once strain custard into a bowl. Stir in vanilla and leave to cool.
Tip: This versatile sauce can be the base for french vanilla ice cream.