THE MENU A HEARTY BUFFET FOR 16 Saute of Chicken with Paprika Ragout of Duck with Organges Cornish Hen with Tomatoes and Olives Potatoes Vinaigrette with bacon Red and White Cabbage Salad Chilled Pineapple Coconut Macaroons
On my office wall hangs an 18th-century print for the month of "Februarius." It shows a rubicund, bare-armed pastry cook holding aloft a giant molded pie. The tail feathers decorating the dish show the contents are likely t be pheasant, and in the back more birds are roasting on a spit. The cook looks triumphant, as well he might.
In those days before refrigeration, the February larder was limited to salted meats and fish from the pond unless the hunter was lucky. Following this lead, I've structured a hearty buffet based on poultry, a menu of simple, French-style dishes that call for the minimum of last-minute work.
Centerpiece of the buffet is a trio of poultry recipes for chicken, duck and cornish hen. The chicken is cooked with sweet paprika, red bell peppers and onion in the classic saute', a dish in which ingredients simmer in their own juices with little added liquid. Flavors concentrate and mellow so that the main ingredient, in this case chicken, is served with only a tablespoon or two of sauce. To make sure that the paprika really penetrates the chicken meat, the pieces are coated with spice before saute'ing in lard or bacon fat (for added body). The finished sauce turns mellow red-gold when sour cream is added, at the last minute.
The popularity of roast duck with orange will surely never wane. Its one disadvantage is last-minute preparation, so in this version the bird is cut in pieces and cooked in orange sauce, making it reheatable. Duck with orange should never be fatty -- a sign it has been poorly (usually under-) cooked. To guard against this, the duck pieces are browned before being cooked in sauce, the key being to fry the pieces very thoroughly so as to render as much fat as possible and then discard it from the pan. Orange, in the form of both juice and segments, must be added at the last minute because any citrus juice turns bitter if it is boiled.
Convention has it that cornish hens lack taste. I would not disagree, but it is easy to compensate by adding other ingredients, and hens do make a pretty presentation. Even cut into four pieces, as they are here to make serving easy, a leg or a wing looks good on the plate. The garnish indulges my weakness for garlic and olive oil. In French eyes, tomatoes and olives add up to southern France, hence the "nicoise" title of the recipe.
Given a bit of imagination, it is surprising what can be done with plain old potatoes and cabbage. To escape from the routine potato salad, try adding fried bacon and, if you like, using some bacon fat in the dressing. After frying, the fat is discarded from the pan and vinegar is added and boiled to reduce it by half, transforming its flavor. Waxy little new potatoes are wonderful for salad if you can find them, though of course last year's will do. Most important is to cook the potatoes in their skins (saving work and adding taste) and to mix the dressing in while they are still warm so that it is better absorbed.
As for cabbage, look what new-style chefs are doing! I've seen cabbage leaves wrapped around fish fillets and used instead of pastry to enclose quiche mixtures of vegetables and custard. This cabbage salad recipe is less extreme, innovative only in the combining of red cabbage with white. For the best effect, shred the leaves in strips as long as possible. To set its brilliant color, the red cabbage is tossed with boiling vinegar -- a useful trick as red cabbage so easily turns a depressing mud-gray. The white cabbage is soaked briefly in boiling water to soften its toughness and sharp taste.
Fruit in February can be a problem, for nothing is really in season except citrus. Pineapple, flown in from Hawaii and the Caribbean, can be good -- to test ripeness, first smell the fruit, then pull a leaf from the plume; it should detach easily.
In Indonesia I saw an unusual way of cutting up pineapple: the body of the fruit is cut in half diagonally, leaving the whole plume attached to the skin, which is hollowed out as a shell for serving. In this simple recipe, the pineapple is macerated in kirsch (or in orange juice if children are around) and mixed with fruit such as strawberry or melon. Be sure it is ripe -- better a good banana than the most exotic of tropical fruits if they are hard and sour.
Pineapple and coconut seem such a natural association of ideas that I nearly added some to the macerated fruit. You could certainly do that if you wish, sprinkling some shredded coconut on the fruit just before serving. But cookies are so popular, to serve with the pineapple or to nibble afterward with coffee, that I've included a recipe for them, too. TIMETABLE
This is a leisurely timetable. After all, 16 people are not so many to cook for, and four out of seven of the dishes in this menu can be completely prepared two days ahead. The remaining recipes, two salads and some macerated pineapple, should not take you more than an hour or so on the day of the party.
Up to one week ahead: Make macaroons and keep in airtight container.
Up to two days ahead: Cook chicken and refrigerate. Cook duck and refrigerate. Cook cornish hens and refrigerate.
Up to eight hours ahead: Make potato vinaigrette and keep in refrigerator. Prepare pineapple and fruit and chill.
Up to four hours ahead: Prepare cabbages and dressing and keep at room temperature. Set the table. Prepare the chilled drinks.
One hour before serving: Take chicken, duck and cornish hen dishes from refrigerator ready to reheat. Arrange pineapple and fruit on platter, cover loosely and chill. Arrange macaroons on platter. Pile potato vinaigrette in serfing bowl and leave at room temperature. Put plates and serving dishes to warm.
Twenty minutes before serving: Reheat chicken, duck and cornish hen dishes on top of stove. Mix cabbage salad. Set salads on buffet table with, if you like, desserts.
Just before serving: Transfer chicken, duck and cornish hens to hot dishes and set on buffet table. SAUTE OF CHICKEN WITH PAPRIKA (Saute' de Poulet Hongroise) (6 to 8 servings)
Lard or bacon fat add body to this dish, but you can use oil if you prefer. 3 fresh red bell peppers or 3 canned pimentos 2 4-pound broiling chickens, each cut in 8 pieces 4 tablespoons sweet red paprika 4 tablespoons lard, bacon fat or oil 2 onions, chopped Salt and pepper 1 1/2 cups chicken stock, more if needed 2 tablespoons flour 3/4 cup sour cream
If using fresh peppers, broil them on all sides until skin blackens and blisters; peel and cut in thin strips, discarding core. Alternatively, cut canned pimentos in thin strips. Roll chicken pieces in paprika until thoroughly coated.
In a large skillet heat 3 tablespoons lard, bacon fat or oil. Add chicken legs and thighs, skin side down. Saute' until they begin to brown; add wings, then breasts. Brown pieces on both sides, allowing 10-15 minutes, then remove from skillet. Note: Cook chicken gently so it browns without scorching paprika.
Discard fat from skillet and wipe clean; add remaining lard, bacon fat or oil and saute' onions until soft but not brown. Return chicken pieces to skillet, sprinkle them with salt and pepper and add 1/2 cup of the stock. Cover and simmer 10-15 minutes. Add fresh peppers (canned pimentos are added later). Continue simmering, covered, until chicken is tender when pierced with a skewer, 10-15 minutes. Add more stock during cooking only if chicken begins to stick to skillet.
Remove chicken from skillet. If necessary, boil pan juices until they are completely set and browned on bottom of the pan; discard all but a tablespoon of fat. Stir in flour and cook 1 minute. Add remaining stock and bring to a boil, stirring until sauce thickens. If using canned pimentos, add them and heat thoroughly. Return chicken pieces to skillet and heat 2-3 minutes. Taste for seasoning.
Chicken can be prepared 48 hours ahead to this point and kept covered in the refrigerator or it can be frozen. Undercook it slightly to allow for reheating.
To finish: Reheat chicken on top of stove over medium heat. Spoon sour cream over chicken. Take from the heat and shake pan gently so cream mixes and marbles the sauce. Note: Do not boil sour cream or sauce will curdle. RAGOUT OF DUCK WITH ORANGES (Ragou t de Canard a l'Orange) (6 servings)
For the best segments, use seedless navel oranges. 5 navel oranges 2 5-pound ducks, each cut in 8 pieces Salt and pepper 2 tablespoons oil 2 onions, chopped 2 tablespoons flour 3 cups veal or chicken stock, more if needed Bouquet garni (1 sprig thyme, 1 bay leaf and 6 parsley stems) 2 tablespoons Grand Marnier
Thinly pare zest from two oranges and cut into the finest possible julienne strips with a knife. Blanch strips by boiling in water 3 minutes, then draining. With a serrated knife cut skin and pith from these oranges and one more. Separate the orange sections, discarding membrane. Squeeze juice from remaining two oranges.
Sprinkle duck pieces with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large skillet and add pieces, skin side down. Saute' over medium heat until well browned and all the fat has been rendered so duck will not be greasy, 15-20 minutes. Turn and brown other side.
Remove duck and discard all but 1 tablespoon fat from the skillet. Stir in onions and saute' until soft but not browned. Add flour and cook, stirring, until browned, 1-2 minutes. Stir in stock and bring sauce to a boil, stirring constantly until it thickens. Replace duck and add bouquet garni, salt and pepper. Cover and simmer until duck is tender when pierced with a skewer, 20-25 minutes.
Remove duck pieces and skim any excess fat from duck sauce. Sauce should be thick enough to coat a spoon. If too thin, boil sauce to reduce it; if too thick, add a little more stock. Replace pieces of duck.
Ragou t can be prepared 48 hours ahead and kept covered in refrigerator, or it can be frozen. Undercook it slightly to allow for reheating and reheat it over medium heat on top of the stove.
To finish: stir orange juice and Grand Marnier into sauce, bring back just to a boil and taste. Add orange segments, heat gently and serve. CORNISH HEN WITH TOMATOES AND OLIVES (Pintadeau a la Nicoise) (6 servings)
Guinea hen (pintadeau) is a popular bird in France and our cornish hen is a near relation. 3 tablespoons olive oil 4 cornish hens, trussed 2 tablespoons butter 3 tablespoons flour 1 cup dry red wine 1 1/2 cups veal or chicken stock plus extra if needed 3 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped 4 teaspoons tomato paste 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped Bouquet garni (1 spring thyme, 1 bay leaf and 6 stems parsley) Salt and pepper 1 cup pitted green olives
In a flame-proof casserole heat oil and brown hens on all sides over medium heat. Remove hens, and melt butter. Add flour and cook, stirring, until lightly browned. Add wine, stock, tomatoes, tomato paste, garlic, bouquet garni and salt and pepper.
Return birds to casserole and bring to a boil. Cover and cook in a 350-degree oven until hens are tender when pierced in thigh with a skewer, 30-40 minutes. Add more stock during cooking if sauce becomes too thick.
Remove hens from casserole and cut each into 4 pieces, discarding backbone. Sauce should be thick enough to coat a spoon. If too thin, boil to reduce it and if too thick, add a little more stock. Return hens to sauce.
Meanwhile drain and rinse olives. If very salty, blanch by putting them in cold water, bringing to a boil, boiling 3 minutes and draining.
Add olives to casserole with hens and taste sauce for seasoning. Hens can be cooked 48 hours ahead, covered and refrigerated; or frozen. Undercook them slightly to allow for reheating.
To finish: Reheat hens on top of stove over medium heat. Discard bouquet garni and serve. RED AND WHITE CABBAGE SALAD (Salade de Choux Verts et Rouges) (8 servings)
Caraway seed is an optional seasoning for this salad. 1 medium head red cabbage 1/4 cup white wine vinegar 1 medium head white cabbage 2 teaspoons caraway seed (optional) FOR THE VINAIGRETTE DRESSING: 6 tablespoons white wine vinegar 2 tablespoons dijon-style mustard Salt and pepper 1 1/2 cups oil
Quarter the red cabbage, cut out core and shred finely with a knife into long strips. Put strips in a bowl. Bring the 1/4 cup vinegar to a boil, pour over cabbage and mix well. The cabbage will turn bright red.
Bring a large pan of salted water to a boil. Shred white cabbage. Put into boiling water, leave 30 seconds, drain and rinse with cold water, draining thoroughly.
For dressing: Whisk vinegar with mustard, salt and pepper until salt is dissolved. Gradually whisk in oil so dressing emulsifies and thickens slightly. Taste it for seasoning. Both cabbages and dressing can be prepared up to 4 hours ahead and kept covered at room temperature.
To finish: Whisk dressing lightly to re-emulsify it. Combine both kinds of cabbage in a large bowl, pour over dressing, add caraway seeds if using and mix well. Taste salad for seasoning and pile in one or two bowls for serving. POTATOES VINAIGRETTE WITH BACON (Pommes Vinaigrette au Lard) (16 servings)
The French would use chunks, or lardons, of bacon in this recipe, but diced, crisp American bacon is just as good. 4 pounds small new potatoes, or medium potatoes, unpeeled Salt and pepper 1/2 pound thickly sliced bacon, diced 1/2 to 1 cup oil 1 onion, finely chopped 1/2 cup red wine vinegar 2 teaspoons dijon mustard
If using new potatoes, put them, unpeeled, in a large pan of boiling salted water and simmer until just tender, 15-20 minutes. Medium potatoes should be put in cold water, brought to a boil, and also simmered. Drain potatoes, let cool slightly, and peel them. Leave new potatoes whole and cut medium potatoes in large chunks.
Meanwhile, in a skillet, fry bacon until crisp, lift it out with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. While peeled potatoes are still hot, pour over 1/2 cup bacon fat with 1/2 cup oil and mix gently. Alternatively, substitute more oil for the bacon fat.
Discard all but 1 tablespoon remaining fat from pan, add onion and saute' until soft but not brown. Add to potatoes with bacon and mix gently.
Add vinegar to pan then boil, stirring to dissolve juices, until reduced by half. Note: Stand back, as vinegar will sting your eyes. Pour hot vinegar over salad and mix again. Add mustard and plenty of pepper, mix and taste; if the bacon was salty, more salt may not be needed. Potato vinaigrette can be prepared up to 8 hours ahead and refrigerated. Let the salad come to room temperature before serving. CHILLED PINEAPPLE (Ananas Rafrai chis) (16 servings)
Pineapple is one of the most handsome fruits for presentation. 2 large ripe pineapples 2 quarts fresh strawberries or 1 large melon or 6 bananas 5-6 tablespoons sugar, or to taste 4-5 tablespoons kirsch or orange juice, or to taste
Cut each pineapple in half diagonally from top to bottom, leaving plume attached to one half of each. Using a curved grapefruit knife, cut flesh from plume halves, leaving skin intact as a shallow shell. Reserve pineapple shells. Cut skin from other halves of pineapple and discard it. Cut pineapple flesh into 1-inch slices, then cubes, discarding the core.
Hull strawberries if using and cut in half lengthwise if large. Cut melon into balls with a ball cutter, or peel and slice bananas. Mix pineapple with other fruits.
Sprinkle fruit with sugar and kirsch or orange juice, stir gently, and taste. Cover and chill at least 2 hours, or up to 8 hours.
To finish: Set pineapple shells, plume outward, at each end of a large oval platter. Pile fruit in the center and serve.
Tip: When refrigerating fruit, particularly pineapple and melon, cover tightly so flavor is not transferred to delicate foods like milk. COCONUT MACAROONS (Macarons de Noix de Coco) (Makes about 30 1 1/2-inch macaroons)
A simple, less expensive version of the traditional almond macaroon. Butter for baking sheets Flour for sprinkling 3/4 cup sugar 1/2 pound sweetened shredded coconut 1/2 teaspoon salt 4 egg whites 1 teaspoon vanilla
Butter two baking sheets and sprinkle with flour.
Mix sugar with shredded coconut and salt. Whip egg whites until frothy but not stiff. Beat egg whites into coconut mixture a little at a time until mixture draws from sides of bowl in a ball. All the egg white may not be needed. Beat in vanilla.
Shape mixture into walnut-sized balls, rolling it between your hands. Set balls well apart on baking sheets and flatten to 1 1/2-inch rounds with a fork dipped in water.
Bake in a 250-degree oven, one tray at a time, until macaroons are lightly browned but still soft in the center, about 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer them to a rack to cool. Macaroons can be made up to a week ahead and stored in an airtight container.