"Ah! We start fresh!" Michel Gue'rard, the most impish and one of the most talented of all the chefs of France, spread his hands over the salad bar of the Georgetown Safeway. He grinned, he laughed, he sang, he whistled, he fairly sparkled as he contemplated the produce aisles, the cheese displays, the meat cases, the frozen food tundra of this super-American supermarket. He was about to shop for lunch.
Any smoker who has gone cold turkey would understand the enormity of the task Gue'rard had set himself. No tiny perfect vegetables grown solely for execution by his knives. No foie gras. No truffles. Whereas price may be no object for either feasters or those dieting on the cuisine minceur at his three-star restaurant in southwestern France, Les Pre's d'Euge'nie, now Gue'rard was going to prepare lunch for eight on a budget.
First he headed for plain, ordinary oysters -- in the shell, of course. None? He looked dismayed for only a moment. And settled on cod. "It's not expensive," he bravely offered. And his mind started working aloud: "Vinegar and port sauce . . . and a mousse of vegetables . . . I don't know . . . Perhaps parsley."
Gue'rard may have been doing without wild mushrooms and fresh turbot, but he wasn't doing without help. Along on the excursion was his number one chef, Didier Oudil -- not to mention a couple of public relations people, a reporter, a local pastry chef who was helping to translate, and a few stray shoppers who joined the entourage for moments here and there.
Oudil, impassive as he ordinarily looks, turned a shade grimmer as he surveyed the whole chickens. They looked bad, he said, and finally settled on chicken wings.
But after the first few indecisive minutes, the two chefs tore through the store as if they shopped there weekly, efficiently snatching up just what they needed and occasionally consulting each other when the stock didn't meet their needs. This was a whirlwind of efficiency.
Like any classic entertainment team, one was the cut-up and the other the straight man. Gue'rard joked and played and posed, while Oudil remained unshakably the serious chef. He smelled the parsley and garlic, he tasted the watercress. He even tried to smell the prosciutto in its plastic wrapper.
Still, in between the straight-man/comic routine they both revealed themselves as not only serious and efficient but habitually devoted to detail. Oudil passed a taste of watercress to Gue'rard and discussed it. It was too strong, they agreed, so they added a little broccoli to their cart to soften the flavor. They smelled the mint, and became briefly diverted by egg roll wrappers. They looked over the mushrooms and discussed them quietly, making slicing motions with their hands as if they were already cooking. Oudil's hands never stop when he talks; he probably minces and slices in his sleep. They decided in the interest of economy to limit themselves to one box of mushrooms. As for the tomatoes, they chose the ones Americans might pass up, those very ripe ones bursting their skins. And they compromised with the plum tomatoes, buying them even though a bit shriveled, since they were cheaper than the other tomatoes. While they were tempted by fresh figs, they rejected them: "Too expensive."
These were cool professionals -- until Gue'rard encountered the rolls of plastic produce bags, which refused to yield neatly to his tugs. He was also slowed down temporarily by the passiveness expected of American shoppers: He tried to break off a stalk of celery to test it before he chose, not anticipating that Americans are expected to buy without trying. "I'm sorry," he blushed when admonished. That didn't stop him, however, from uncapping the vinegars to taste them before he chose California red wine vinegar.
The two were also daunted by the pears, not realizing that in America if you want ripe pears you must buy them days ahead; they settled on canned pears. And the types of apples were unfamiliar to them. Which are the most flavorful type, Oudil wondered.
The staff of the Safeway began to join the party. One showed Gue'rard how the pineapple cutter worked. Another wanted to know where Gue'rard came from. And Gue'rard turned to focus on a large man in a pale fur coat and cowboy hat.
Back to business, Gue'rard sought "une petite verre de whipping cream," showing that he knew enough about American customs to call it whipping cream rather than double or thick or heavy cream. Oudil ticked off the menu in order to calculate how much butter they would need -- 1 1/2 pounds, he figured; unsalted, of course.
Then Gue'rard came to a full halt. He had discovered the Lean Cuisine. "You know, they came to Euge'nie six or eight years ago to see how I cooked cuisine minceur," he explained. And he kept asking about the success of diet entrees. He even returned to the frozen food case to write down the product names, and was enchanted by the design of the Classic Lite packages. "What means lean?" Oudil demanded, as he became absorbed by the shelves of natural foods and their diet claims.
The major decisions had been made, most of the ingredients had been gathered, and the playfulness returned. Gue'rard joked about substituting Coca Cola for port in the fish sauce once it was explained he would have to go to a separate store for the wine.
Oudil kept finding disappointments: He couldn't buy raw ham, or have prosciutto sliced to order. Pa te' in plastic wrap looked dreadful to him. There was no vanilla powder, so he would have to settle for liquid extract.
"I begin to be hungry," announced Gue'rard.
Oudil looked over the breads. "We're French. We need bread," he announced.
They even stopped to examine the books and magazines, Gue'rard's eye caught by "Survival Guide for the Divorced Woman." "Is there one for divorced men?" he wanted to know, then wondered, "Why not?"
By then an hour had passed and $58.12 worth of groceries had been accumulated. "This would have cost $300 at his restaurant," one of the group volunteered, but others considered that an understatement. Gue'rard helped the clerk pack the bags and noted that there was so much food, "We could invite the neighborhood." And he made a great show of driving the cart out to the pick-up station as if he were warming up for the Grand Prix.
He was still hamming it up in the kitchen of Chanterelle caterers, which had been borrowed for the occasion. But the pace of activity picked up. By 2:50 Gue'rard and Oudil had changed into white jackets and set to work, first putting pots of water to boil on the stove.
"This fish is not very tasty, so before cooking it I will salt it a little," Gue'rard announced. Having done so, he turned to cut the chicken wings. Oudil finished cleaning the parsley and set to sharpening the knives. He even sharpened the food processor blade. "Always," he explained. As he worked, Oudil's senses were always drawn into the project. He continually tasted, smelled, touched, poked at the food.
In between each procedure Gue'rard washed his hands, "It is very important to have always our hands clean," he insisted.
For the next two hours the two-man choreography went on, one mincing and one saute'eing, one whisking and one pure'eing. There was no longer any need to confer; they knew what they were doing without having to speak. Gue'rard, though, for the four hours and 16 minutes it took to prepare the luncheon (which was served at 5:06), kept up a steady stream of singing and humming.
As the preparations progressed to the saucemaking finale, the mood became so infectious that even Oudil began to turn comic. "Mmm, I'm great," he waved his hands and crowed after he tasted his first sauce; "I am proud of me!" He stuck a sprig of thyme upright in the fish; "It's Christmas," he joked.
Gue'rard asked about the table. Was it set? With flowers? It was time to sit down, and the kitchen was nearly clean, for the chefs cleaned as they worked and their public relations people kept up a steady stream of dishwashing. Gue'rard set aside and wrapped the unused ingredients -- half the ham, two cucumbers, most of the celery, two carrots, 11 eggs, some chicken and fish, shallots and garlic -- to show that the meal could have been even less expensive, though the bill had not included the rum, cognac, vermouth and port.
And everybody was ready to eat. Gue'rard offered not a blessing, but a proclamation: "We have cooked without lobster, without truffles, without caviar."
Yet nobody at that meal noticed anything missing.
Here is what Gue'rard and Oudil cooked:THE MENU: Cod with Vinegar and Port Sauce Mousse of Parsley, Broccoli and Watercress Chicken Wings with Cucumbers Gratin of Apples and Pears with Raspberries MOUSSE OF PARSLEY, BROCCOLI AND WATERCRESS (8 servings)
3 bunches parsley
2 bunches watercress
1 bunch broccoli
3 tablespoons butter
2 pinches sugar
2 tablespoons whipping cream
Salt and pepper to taste
Wash parsley and strip leaves from stems. Blanch leaves in a large pot of boiling salted water for about 5 minutes until tender. Drain and chill in cold water. Squeeze dry. Repeat with watercress. You should have 1 cup parsley and 1/2 cup watercress. Pure'e in food processor or blender.
Cut broccoli into florets. Blanch in boiling salted water about 10 minutes, until tender. Pure'e in food processor and measure 1 cup to use. Pure'e broccoli, parsley and watercress together in food processor and push through a fine sieve.
In a saute' pan heat butter and let it brown, being careful not to burn it. Add green pure'e. Add sugar and whipping cream. Whisk over high heat until hot. Season to taste. Spoon mousse onto plates and serve topped with fish and sauce as below. COD WITH VINEGAR AND PORT SAUCE (8 servings)
Salt to taste
8 cod fillets, cut into 2-by-4-inch rectangles
Pepper to taste
Flour for coating fish
4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) butter
1/4 cup oil
5 cloves garlic, unpeeled
8 sprigs thyme
Minced chives for garnish
Salt cod lightly and pepper it. Let it sit until ready to cook. When green mousse and sauce are finished and the fish is ready to cook, dip in flour and shake off excess.
In a large saute' pan melt butter with oil and add 5 unpeeled cloves garlic. Heat until fat bubbles. Add fish and saute' over medium heat, about 4 minutes, until brown. Turn and saute' other side about 4 minutes until brown and fish is just cooked. Drain on paper towels.
Assemble plates by spooning green mousse onto each, topping with a fillet of fish and decorating each with a sprig of thyme. Spoon sauce around fish and sprinkle with chives. VINEGAR AND PORT SAUCE
8 cloves garlic or as desired
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter
1 pinch thyme
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1 cup port
1/2 chicken bouillon cube
1 teaspoon minced tarragon, fresh if possible
Pepper to taste
Boiling broth, made from 1/2 chicken bouillon cube, if necessary
Peel shallots and mince. Peel garlic and mince. Melt 1 tablespoon butter in saucepan and add garlic, shallots and thyme. Add vinegar, port and 1/2 bouillon cube. Bring to a boil and reduce by half.
Peel tomatoes by dipping in boiling water for a few seconds until skins loosen. Juice and seed tomatoes thoroughly and dice flesh. Measure out 2 tablespoons to add to sauce at end and reserve all the tomato.
In a saucepan bring to boil 2 tablespoons water. Whisk in remaining butter over medium heat, whisking just until foamy. Remove from heat.
Reheat vinegar-port mixture and add more vinegar if necessary. Stir in foaming butter over high heat; do not whisk. Cook 2 minutes. Add tarragon and tomatoes, except the 2 reserved tablespoons. Add pepper to taste. If sauce needs thinning, stir in 1/4 to 1/2 cup boiling chicken broth. Add reserved 2 tablespoons tomato. CHICKEN WINGS WITH CUCUMBERS (8 servings)
32 chicken wings, wing tip removed and wings disjointed
7 tablespoons butter, more if necessary
Pepper to taste
1 stalk celery
1/2 pound mushrooms
3 slices prosciutto or other smoky, strong ham
2 teaspoons minced thyme, fresh if possible
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablepoons cognac
1 cup French white vermouth or white wine
2 tablespoons chicken broth or as needed
3 cups whipping cream
3 pinches sugar
1/2 cup diced tomato
Minced parsley for garnish
Set a large pot of salted water to boil. Take the wing halves with two parallel bones and hack off the ends of each so the two bones are exposed at each end. Simmer in boiling water 5 minutes. Drain and push out the bones so that you have boneless balls of chicken.
Salt the drumstick-shaped wing halves. Heat 4 tablespoons butter in a large saute' pan. Add drumettes in one layer. Brown 3 to 5 minutes. Turn and brown another 3 minutes. Cover, lower heat and cook, turning occasionally, until done, about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from pan and set aside. Add boneless chicken balls to pan, adding more butter if necessary, but fat in pan will probably be enough. Salt and pepper chicken, saute' until browned and remove from pan. Keep warm in a low oven.
Peel 3 carrots and dice finely. Peel celery and dice. Dice mushrooms. Add 1 tablespoon butter to saute' pan and saute' carrots and celery 2 minutes. Cover and let cook another 3 minutes. Uncover and add mushrooms. Salt and pepper. Saute', stirring occasionally, as you dice the ham. Add ham to the pan with thyme and saute' a couple more minutes. Add garlic. Measure 2 tablespoons cognac and 1 cup vermouth and add to pan. Boil and scrape a couple minutes until mixture is thickened. Moisten with a couple tablespoons chicken broth if it gets too thick. Add cream and bring to a boil. Simmer, shaking pan occasionally, about 5 minutes, until slightly thickened. Test by dipping a spoon in the cream and running your finger down the back of the spoon. If your finger leaves a trace, the sauce is thick enough. Add a pinch of sugar. If sauce gets too thick, thin with water.
Seed cucumbers and cut into ovals. Cook until tender in boiling water to cover. Drain. Melt 2 tablespoons butter and saute' cucumbers with 2 pinches sugar until lightly browned.
Spoon sauce and its minced vegetables onto plates. Sprinkle with diced tomatoes. Arrange chicken pieces on top of sauce in a sunburst pattern. Arrange cucumbers on top. Sprinkle with parsley and serve. GRATIN OF APPLES AND PEARS WITH RASPBERRIES (8 servings)
5 pears, ripe if available, canned if necessary
4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) butter
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons vanilla
FOR THE ALMOND CREAM:
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1 cup almond powder (pulverize approximately 4 ounces slivered almonds)
1 tablespoon rum
12 ounces raspberries, fresh or frozen
Peel apples and pears, core and slice thinly. In a large saucepan melt butter and add 1 cup sugar. Cook until sugar browns. Add apples, tossing rapidly. Cook until tender, about 10 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons vanilla. Slice pears; if they are fresh, cook as the apples; if they are canned, use as is.
Make almond cream: Let butter warm to room temperature in a bowl. Whisk it well. Add confectioners' sugar and whisk well again. Add almond powder and beat with a wooden spoon until it is incorporated. Beat in egg, then rum.
Mound raspberries in center of 8 plates. Arrange apples and pears alternating in a circle over the raspberries. Pour pan juices over fruit. When ready to serve dessert, spoon almond cream over fruit, smoothing it and spreading it to cover the fruit. Put under broiler for a few moments until browned. Serve immediately.