Putting guests at their ease is a rare talent, and during the dozen years I've known her, Margo Miller invariably has done just that. Her welcome is cordial but not effusive, her Boston apartment elegant but relaxed. The dishes on her menu, cooked at home, are just a little different. Once she gave us a delicate cream of cabbage soup flavored with caraway; another day it was wild rice salad with scallions and bell pepper.
A couple of years ago Miller discovered root fennel (sometimes called anise) at her local market. Around it she constructed this simple salad, with pears for sweetness and watercress for piquancy and color. A few sprigs of leaf coriander accented the fennel. Miller's vinaigrette dressing was made with olive oil and Italian balsamic vinegar, but this would be a good occasion to create your own variation using nut oil or a light vegetable oil and a tart fruit vinegar such as raspberry or black currant.
All good menus have a theme, and Miller stayed Italian with fresh green fettuccine and a remarkable venison sauce that turned out the rose-red of colonial brick. Miller's summer home is in the woods of southern New Hampshire, where deer are commonplace, so she can find wild venison. In New Hampshire, as in many states, hunters can give away but not sell what they kill. If this is your situation and you don't have an accomplished hunter as a friend, you'll find raised game (often frozen) in gourmet markets.
This sauce recipe suits anything from bear to buffalo to goose or pheasant. Lacking game, you could use lean beef, to which I'd add two or three ounces of finely chopped beef kidney or liver for richness. Long, slow cooking gives the sauce a mellow flavor. If the meat is cooked too fast -- if it is overbrowned before liquid is added, or if it is boiled rather than simmered -- it will be tough and chewy.
It is debatable whether grated parmesan cheese is an appropriate accompaniment to fettuccine with a sauce. Classically, grated cheese is served with vegetable sauces but not with delicate seafood; meat is middle ground, with advocates on both sides. Personally, I think cheese gilds the lily of a superlative sauce, but it's no sin to give bite to a bland mixture with a dusting of parmesan.
For dessert, what could be more Italian in spirit than a torte of chocolate and hazelnuts, this one based on an almond and chocolate recipe from Maida Heatter's encyclopaedic "Book of Great Chocolate Desserts" (Knopf, 1980). Half fudge, half cake, the torte is baked in a low oven so it sets while remaining moist in the center. Beware of overbaking, for the torte loses its dense smoothness if it becomes dry. Served with whipped cream or, best of all, the thick heavy cream still produced by some small dairies, the feast is complete. Warm and welcoming, dinner with Margo Miller is always a pleasure. Timetable
Ideal for the hostess with a career, this menu can be prepared ahead at leisure, with at most an hour's preparation to do just before the party.
Up to 1 week ahead: Bake cake and store in an airtight container.
Up to 3 days ahead: Make dressing for salad and keep in an airtight container. Make meat sauce and store in refrigerator.
Two hours before serving: Prepare salad, arrange on plates, add dressing and keep covered in refrigerator. Chill white wine. Set the table.
Fifteen minutes before serving: Boil water for fettuccine. Reheat venison sauce on top of stove. Sprinkle confectioners' sugar on cake. Whip cream for serving.
Five minutes before serving: Cook fettuccine, rinse, then leave in warm water.
After serving salad: Drain fettuccine and toss in butter. Pile on individual plates, spoon sauce on top and serve. SALAD MARGO (8 servings)
For best effect, arrange alternate slices of pears and fennel in a fan shape on the plate.
FOR THE DRESSING:
4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon dijon-style mustard
Salt and pepper to taste
3/4 cup olive oil
FOR THE SALAD:
4 ripe pears
Juice of 1 lemon
2 medium bulbs fennel root
2 bunches watercress
Few sprigs fresh leaf coriander (optional) for garnish
To make the dressing, whisk vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper in a small bowl until mixed. Gradually whisk in oil so dressing emulsifies and thickens slightly. Taste for seasoning. Dressing can be made up to 3 days ahead; store at room temperature in an airtight container.
Not more than 2 hours before serving, peel, core and cut pears in 8 slices. Add lemon juice to prevent pears from discoloring and mix very well. Trim root and tops of fennel, discard any tough outer "leaves" and cut bulb in thin, wedge-shaped slices.
Wash watercress, discard stems and arrange tops in a bed on 8 individual plates. Arrange pear and fennel slices in a fan on top. Whisk dressing lightly to re-emulsify it, then spoon over pears and fennel. Add coriander sprigs, cover salads loosely and refrigerate. VENISON SAUCE FOR FETTUCCINE (8 servings)
Long, slow cooking for up to 3 hours gives this sauce its mellow flavor. In the oven it needs less attention, though it also can be simmered on top of the stove.
6 tablespoons olive oil
6 tablespoons butter
2 onions, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
2 pounds ground venison, or any game
2 cups white wine
1 cup milk
2 pounds Italian plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped or 2 pounds canned plum tomatoes, chopped, with their juice
Salt and pepper to taste
2 pounds fresh green fettuccine for serving
Grated parmesan cheese for serving (optional)
If using oven, heat it to 350 degrees. In a heavy flameproof casserole, heat oil and butter and fry onion until soft but not brown. Add celery and carrot, then cook until soft, stirring.
Add venison and cook, stirring constantly, until it loses its raw red color, 2 to 3 minutes. Note: Do not allow vegetables or meat to brown. Add wine and cook until evaporated, about 20 minutes. Add milk, reduce heat and cook gently until milk is evaporated, about 15 minutes.
Stir in tomatoes with salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil and cook, uncovered, in oven or over very low heat on top of stove for 2 to 3 hours, stirring occasionally. If sauce gets very thick, add a little water. At end of cooking, sauce should be thick enough to just hold its shape. Taste it for seasoning. Sauce can be made up to 3 days ahead and refrigerated or frozen.
Just before serving, reheat sauce on top of stove. Cook fettuccine (below), pile on individual plates and spoon sauce on top. Pass grated parmesan cheese separately, if serving.
To Cook Fettuccine
Allow 2 pounds fresh noodles (fettuccine) to serve 8. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add fettuccine and stir. Bring rapidly to a boil, reduce heat and simmer 1 to 3 minutes depending on thickness of noodles. Test by tasting -- noodles should remain quite firm, or al dente.
Drain and rinse with hot water to wash away starch. To hold noodles up to 1 hour, return them to pan, cover generously with warm water and leave in a warm place.
To finish: Drain noodles thoroughly. Melt 4 tablespoons butter in the pan, add noodles and heat, tossing, until very hot, 1 to 2 minutes. Pile on individual plates and spoon sauce on top. CHOCOLATE HAZELNUT TORTE (8 servings)
This torte also can be made substituting half, or all, ground almonds for the hazelnuts. The almonds should be blanched but not toasted before grinding.
1 2/3 cups (8 ounces) shelled hazelnuts
7 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1 cup unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
4 eggs, separated
Confectioners' sugar for sprinkling
Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream for serving
Butter an 8-inch springform pan, line base with waxed paper and butter the paper. Toast hazelnuts in a 350-degree oven until brown, 12 to 15 minutes. If not already peeled, rub with a coarse cloth to remove skins. Lower oven to 300 degrees.
Grind hazelnuts with chocolate in 2 batches in a food processor, or a little at a time in a blender. Alternatively grind nuts and chocolate separately with rotary cheese grater, then mix.
Cream butter, add all but 4 tablespoons of the sugar and beat until soft and light. Beat in egg yolks, then stir in chocolate mixture. Stiffly whip egg whites, add reserved sugar and continue whipping until glossy, about 30 seconds. Fold egg whites into mixture in 3 batches.
Spoon mixture into springform pan and smooth the top. Bake in a 300-degree oven until firm and a skewer inserted in center comes out clean, 40 to 50 minutes. Let torte cool in pan, then remove sides of pan. Note: Torte is very delicate and must be handled gently. You may prefer to serve it from the base of the pan. Cake can be stored in an airtight container up to a week, or frozen.
Just before serving, sprinkle cake with confectioners' sugar and serve with whipped cream.