Spring to me means baby vegetables and this menu celebrates their arrival -- tiny carrots with a frond of green leaf, tubby little turnips, sweet fresh green peas, frail scallions, and the first bushy green herbs. Of course I'm idealistic, but it's surprising what farmers' markets, or even a good supermarket, can offer.
The opening soup in this menu welcomes all vegetable contributions. Included in the recipe are dried beans, onions, carrots, celery, leek, green beans and tomatoes, but broccoli, zucchini, radishes or cucumber could be substituted or added. For a green soup, leave out the carrots and tomatoes and add shredded spinach or cabbage. For a more robust soup, include macaroni and transform it into Italian minestrone.
During cooking, the vegetables are added one by one, first the toughest like carrots and onions, ending with tomatoes, which fall apart easily. This requires care, for at the end of cooking all the vegetables should be tender but not overdone. And tender is the word -- new-style crisp vegetables are not appropriate in soup, where they are unpleasant to eat and, more importantly, will not have transferred enough flavor to the broth.
A turban of fish, molded in the pink and white stripes, has just the right touch of gaiety for spring. This recipe is a classic, calling for fillets of white fish (sole) to line the mold, which is then filled with pink salmon mousse. In this recipe the mousse is bound with a panada, a flour, butter and milk mixture, which holds together the pure'ed fish, and the cream that is added to enrich it.
A food processor is a boon here -- frankly I wouldn't tackle the dish without it -- for the fish is pure'ed in it and the other ingredients incorporated with its help. The mousse takes a little time to make, but it can be cooked well ahead and reheated without harm, an unusual attribute for fish dishes.
With the mousse comes an equally classic sauce -- a veloute' made with fish stock using the salmon bones and skin. It is flavored with tomato paste, giving it a rosy color that earns it the title aurore, or dawn, in French. Be sure the consistency is light, so the sauce does not mask the pink stripes of the mousse, and color it delicately so it blends with salmon pink and with the shrimps added to decorate the platter.
Shelling baby peas is tedious, but your patience will be rewarded, for big peas are invariably tough. Indeed, if mature, fat peas are all you can find, I'd recommend trying this recipe with frozen ones. Sugar peas (which should be stripped of strings and left whole) are another option. The peas are lightly braised with scallions, then flavored with fresh mint, a combination familiar from my childhood in Yorkshire, where mint invaded the vegetable beds every summer.
Strawberry galette is a cross between strawberry shortcake and strawberry pie, but simpler than either. It consists of a round crisp sweet pastry, topped with fresh strawberries glazed with red currant jelly and decorated with chantilly cream. The pastry, a giant cookie, can be baked ahead, and the galette is assembled a few hours before serving. Fresh fruit is mandatory. If your strawberries are acid, use any other ripe, fresh fruit (berries, grapes, peaches), remembering that juicy fruit will soak into the pastry more quickly so the galette can be assembled only just before serving.
Selecting the wine for this spring menu poses no problem. My choice would be something along the lines of a white graves from France or a domestic chardonnay, something dry enough to be a foil to the richness of the mousse and the sauce.
If you look at the timetable you'll see that, though there's a fair amount of cooking involved in this menu, it is all done ahead. When the first precious days of warm sun arrive, I'm certainly not going to be trapped in the kitchen before dinner. I'll be out there enjoying myself with the guests. TIMETABLE
What a snag-free schedule for the cook! All lengthy operations can be done ahead (the turban will take a little time) and dishes are simply reheated at the last minute.
Up to two days ahead: Bake pastry for galette and store in airtight container. Cook peas and refrigerate.
Up to one day ahead: Make vegetable soup and keep in refrigerator. Prepare tomato veloute' sauce and refrigerate.
In the morning: Prepare and cook salmon mousse and refrigerate.
Up to 3 hours before serving: Finish galette, transfer to a platter, and keep in refrigerator. Set the table. Chill the wine.
Ten minutes before serving: Reheat soup. Set parmesan cheese on table. Reheat salmon turban on top of stove in a water bath. Bring sauce just to a boil on top of stove. Warm peas over low heat.
After serving soup: Pour boiling water over shrimps, leave one minute and drain. Unmold turban, pour sauce over and around it, and decorate with shrimps. Transfer peas to serving dish. SPRING VEGETABLE SOUP (Potage Printanie re) (6 servings)
A French version of minestrone. 1/3 cup dried white beans, soaked overnight and drained 1 small onion, stuck with 1 clove, and 2 medium onions, thinly sliced 4 tablespoons olive oil 2 carrots, cut in thick julienne strips 3 stalks celery, cut in thick julienne strips 1 1/2 quarts water 1 bay leaf 1 leek, cut in thick julienne strips 10 green beans, cut in 2-inch lengths 1 clove garlic, crushed Salt and pepper to taste 1/4 small cauliflower, divided in flowerets 2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and cut in strips 3 tablespoons chopped parsley 3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese (for serving)
Put beans in a saucepan with the whole small onion and cold water to cover. Cover pan and simmer until beans are almost tender, 1 1/2 hours. Add more water during cooking as it is absorbed by the beans; there should be 1/2 cup liquid left at end of cooking. Discard onion.
In a large saucepan heat oil and saute' carrots, two onions and celery until lighly browned, stirring occasionally. Add water, bay leaf, white beans and their liquid and bring to a boil. Add leek, green beans, garlic, salt and pepper. Cover and simmer 5 minutes.
Add cauliflower and continue simmering until vegetables are almost tender, about 10 minutes. Add tomatoes and simmer until all vegetables are tender, about 5 minutes more. Taste for seasoning.
Soup can be made up to 24 hours ahead, covered and refrigerated; undercook vegetables slightly to allow for reheating.
Just before serving, reheat soup on top of the stove and stir in parsley. Pass grated parmesan cheese separately. HOT TURBAN MOUSSE OF SALMON (Turban de Saumon) (6 servings) The pink color of salmon gives a characteristic striped effect to this mold, though a white fish such as sole or perch could be substituted. 2/3 cup milk 1/4 cup butter plus extra for mold 1/2 cup flour 1 pound salmon fillets or steaks 2 egg whites, beaten to mix Salt and white pepper to taste 3/4 cup whipping cream 4 sole fillets (about 10 ounces each) 6 to 8 large cooked shrimps, peeled or unpeeled FOR THE FISH STOCK: Bones and skin from salmon 1 onion, sliced 1 carrot, sliced Bouquet garni (1 sprig thyme, 1 bay leaf and 6 parsley stems) 1/2 teaspoon peppercorns 3 cups water
In a saucepan heat milk with butter until melted and bring just to a boil. Take from heat, add flour all at once and beat vigorously with a wooden spoon until mixture pulls away from sides of pan. Return to heat and cook, beating constantly, until mixture forms a ball, about 1 minute. Let mixture cool.
To make fish stock, cut bones and skin from salmon. Put them in a pan with the onion, carrot, bouquet garni, peppercorns and water. Bring to a boil, simmer 20 minutes, strain and measure 2 cups. Make the sauce (recipe follows).
For salmon mousse: Cut salmon flesh in pieces and pure'e in a food processor. Gradually add egg whites, followed by cooled flour mixture. Continue working until smooth. Put bowl of salmon mixture in a pan of ice. Add salt and white pepper. Beat in cream, a little at a time. Taste the mixture for seasoning. The mixture should be quite stiff, but if not, leave it over ice 30 minutes to chill.
Butter a 1 1/2-quart ring mold. Cut sole fillets in half lengthwise. Line mold with fillets, skinned side up, letting broad end of fillet hang over outer rim of mold, and tapered end hang over inner rim. Space fillets evenly, leaving gaps between them. Spoon salmon mixture into mold and fold fillet ends over top. Cover mold with buttered foil.
Set mold in a water bath and bring to a boil on top of the stove. Transfer mold to a 350-degree oven and cook 35 to 40 minutes until mousse is firm to the touch. Tip mold to drain off excess liquid. Mold can be prepared 6-8 hours ahead and refrigerated. Reheat it in a water bath on top of the stove until hot to the touch, 10-15 minutes.
To finish: Put shrimps in a bowl, cover with boiling water and let stand until hot, about 1 minute, then drain them. Reheat the sauce. Unmold salmon onto a round platter and wipe away any liquid. Spoon sauce over exposed salmon mousse sections of mold, leaving fillets uncoated. Cover platter with sauce and set shrimps around the edge. Serve remaining sauce separately.
Tip: The mousse mixture can be formed into dumplings and poached and served with the sauce aurore for an elegant first course. TOMATO VELOUTE SAUCE (Sauce Aurore) (Makes 2 cups, enough for 8 servings)
If the sauce tastes acidic from the tomato paste, add a pinch of sugar. 3 tablespoons butter 3 tablespoons flour 2 cups fish stock from salmon Salt and pepper to taste 1/2 cup whipping cream 1 to 2 tablespoons tomato paste
In a heavy pan melt butter, whisk in flour and cook until foaming. Add fish stock and bring to a boil, whisking constantly until sauce thickens. Season lightly and simmer it 2 minutes.
Stir in cream and enough tomato paste to color sauce a deep but not too vivid pink. Simmer 2 more minutes and taste for seasoning.
Sauce can be made up to 24 hours ahead; rub surface with a lump of butter to prevent skin forming, cover and refrigerate it. Just before serving, reheat it on top of the stove, whisking until smooth. GREEN PEAS WITH ONION AND MINT (Petits Pois a la Menthe) (6 servings) Mint and green peas pair naturally. 2 tablespoons butter 4 to 5 cups (1 1/2 pound) fresh shelled peas 10 scallions, sliced 1/2 cup boiling water 2 teaspoons sugar Salt and pepper to taste Bouquet garni (1 sprig thyme, 1 bay leaf and 6 parsley stems) Bunch of fresh mint
Melt butter in a large saucepan. Add peas, scallions, boiling water, sugar, salt, pepper and bouquet garni. Shake well to mix. Cover and simmer 15 to 20 minutes or until peas are tender. Remove lid and, if any liquid remains, boil rapidly until evaporated.
Coarsely chop mint leaves, discarding stems. Stir mint into peas, discard bouquet garni and taste for seasoning.
Peas can be prepared up to two days ahead, covered and refrigerated. Undercook them slightly to allow for reheating and reheat them on top of the stove. STRAWBERRY GALETTE (Galette aux Fraises) (6 servings)
Wonderful with any berries! 1 3/4 cups flour 3/4 cup butter, softened 2/3 cup confectioners' sugar 4 egg yolks 1/2 teaspoon vanilla 1 quart strawberries 3/4 cup red currant jelly FOR THE CHANTILLY CREAM: 2 teaspoons sugar 1/2 teaspoon vanilla 1/2 cup whipping cream, stiffly whipped
Sift flour onto a work surface and make a large well in center. Put butter, confectioners' sugar, egg yolks and vanilla in the well and mix with your fingertips until smooth. Gradually work in flour to make coarse crumbs, then press dough into a ball. Lightly flour work surface and blend dough by pushing away with the heel of your hand and gathering it up with a pastry scraper or metal spatula. Dough should be smooth and peel easily from work surface. Wrap and chill 30 minutes or until firm.
Roll out dough to a 10-inch circle. Transfer it to a baking sheet and flute edges between your fingers and thumb. Chill 30 minutes or until firm.
Prick dough with a fork and bake until firm and very lightly browned, 15-20 minutes, in a 350-degree oven. Let pastry cool on the baking sheet. It can be baked up to two days ahead and stored in an airtight container.
To finish: Hull strawberries and wash only if sandy. Halve berries if very large. Melt red currant jelly, stirring gently until smooth. Brush pastry with melted jelly and arrange strawberries in circles on top, leaving a 1-inch border. Brush berries generously with remaining glaze.
For chantilly cream: Beat sugar and vanilla into whipped cream and continue beating until cream stiffens again. Fill cream into a pastry bag fitted with a star tube and decorate edge of pastry with rosettes. Strawberry galette can be completed up to 3 hours before serving. Keep it in the refrigerator.