"Things taste better in small houses" wrote Queen Victoria in her diary. How reassuring. We regularly pack too many people into our small Washington apartment with just that hope.Now that it's winter, supper on the weekend can turn into a festivity as we crowd around the fire.
Dishes with a touch of warming spice seem in order, like Creole Stew, an eclectic version of jambalaya mixing chicken, ham and shrimps with plenty of tomatoes and a dash of hot spice. Here the idea is to use what you have on hand, for instance a few hot sausages or vegetables such as zucchini, mushrooms, okra or turnip; slice or dice them and include with the onions and celery. Rice is the classic accompaniment, either plainly boiled or cooked with a little onion and chicken stock as pilaf.
First course of piquant blue cheese ramekins is a no-fail souffle' that puffs under the most trying conditions. The recipe calls for blue cheese and parmesan and cheddar, but any well-flavored cheese will do, provided it is not too salty. To add substance, I sometimes scatter a few croutons in the dishes under the cheese mixture.
Dessert gets a warming touch from calvados apple brandy, heated and flamed with carmelized apples which have been fried French-style in butter and sugar. (Lacking calvados or the American equivalent, applejack, you can flame brandy or bourbon). The apples are good by themselves and even better spooned flaming over vanilla ice cream.
To complete the occasion comes mulled red wine, heated almost to the boiling point with cinnamon, cloves and sliced lemon. Avoid an aluminum pan and be sure not to boil the wine, nor to heat it too long or it will be bitter. I find mulled red wine more mellow than white, but either will add a festive glow to outlast any cold journey home through the night. Timetable
Appropriate to the weekend, this menu calls for little work, and all at a gentle pace. The main dish is prepared ahead and, if guests help mull the wine and flame the apples, the job is almost done.
Up to 2 days ahead: Make Creole Stew and refrigerate. Make rice pilaf and refrigerate.
In the morning: Make cheese mixture for ramekins and refrigerate. Peel and slice apples, toss with lemon and keep in refrigerator.
One hour before serving: Set the table.
45 minutes before serving: Heat oven to 375 degrees.
35 minutes before serving: Reheat rice in oven.
20 minutes before serving: Whip egg whites and finish cheese ramekins. Take rice from oven and keep warm. Bake ramekins in oven. Reheat stew on top of stove.
After serving stew: Fry and flame apples. BLUE CHEESE SOUFFLE RAMEKINS (10 servings)
The cheese mixture can be baked in a large dish instead of ramekins; allow 20 to 25 minutes for cooking.
1/2 cup butter
1 cup flour
3 cups milk
6 eggs, separated
8 ounces blue cheese, crumbled
8 ounces parmesan or dry cheddar cheese, grated
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
Salt and pepper to taste
In a saucepan melt the butter. Off the heat, work in flour with a wooden spoon, then stir in milk. Heat the mixture, stirring constantly, and cook until it thickens and comes away from sides of pan.
Take from heat, let cool slightly and beat in egg yolks. Stir in crumbled blue cheese, grated parmesan or cheddar, and season highly with cayenne, salt and pepper. Note: Salt may not be needed as the cheese is already salty. Cheese mixture can be prepared up to 12 hours ahead and kept, tightly covered in the refrigerator.
Half an hour before serving, heat oven to 375 degrees. Butter 10 ramekins or custard cups (1 cup capacity). Stiffly whip egg whites. Warm cheese mixture slightly over the heat. Note: Do not boil or it will cook into strings. Fold egg whites into cheese mixture as lightly as possible. Spoon mixture into prepared ramekins and bake in oven until puffed and brown, 15 to 18 minutes. Serve at once. CREOLE STEW (10 servings)
Relying on the contents of a modestly stocked larder, this stew needs only a few items from the grocery store to round it out. The more red hot pepper sauce you add, the more Creole the flavor will be.
8 ounces bacon, diced
3 tablespoons olive oil
5 onions, coarsely chopped
1 bunch celery, cut in 1/2-inch slices
3 green peppers, seeded and cut in 1-inch pieces
6 to 8 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 28-ounce cans peeled tomatoes, with their juice
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
Salt and pepper to taste
2 pounds smoked ham, cut in 1-inch pieces
2 pounds peeled raw shrimps
Red hot pepper sauce (optional)
Rice pilaf, for serving (below)
Remove meat from chicken, discarding skin and bone, and cut it in 1-inch pieces. In a large casserole fry bacon until brown in 1 tablespoon of oil. Add onions and celery, stir to coat with fat, cover and cook over medium heat until vegetables are soft but not brown, about 3 minutes.
Add peppers, garlic, tomatoes and juice, thyme, oregano, bay leaf, cayenne, salt and pepper. Stir, crushing tomatoes to release juices. Cover and simmer over low heat 10 to 15 minutes.
Meanwhile heat remaining oil in a large skillet. Add half of the chicken pieces and cook, stirring, until lightly browned, 3 to 4 minutes. Repeat with remaining chicken. Stir chicken into tomato stew, leaving fat in skillet. Lightly brown ham in skillet and add to stew, discarding fat.
Simmer stew, stirring occasionally, until chicken is cooked and feels firm, 5 to 8 minutes. Season stew to taste with salt, pepper and cayenne. Stew can be prepared up to 2 days ahead and refrigerated.
Just before serving, reheat stew on top of stove, add shrimps and cook until pink, 3 to 5 minutes. Mound rice on a large serving dish and spoon stew on top. RICE PILAF (10 servings)
An excellent accompaniment to any dish with a sauce.
2 onions, finely chopped
3 tablespoons butter
3 cups long grain rice
1 1/2 quarts chicken stock, or water, more if needed
Salt and pepper to taste
In a heavy casserole fry onion in butter until soft but not brown. Add rice and cook, stirring, until it looks transparent and butter is absorbed, about 2 minutes. Add stock or water, salt and pepper and bring to a boil.
Cover and cook in a 350-degree oven for 18 minutes. If liquid has evaporated but rice is not tender, add more liquid and continue cooking a few minutes longer. Take rice from oven and let stand 10 minutes before stirring with a fork to fluff the grains. Taste it for seasoning.
Rice pilaf can be prepared 2 days ahead and reheated in a oven for 15 to 20 minutes. Undercook it slightly to allow for reheating. NORMAN FLAMED APPLES (10 servings)
Golden delicious, granny smith, or any apple that holds its shape in cooking is good for this recipe.
7 to 8 pounds apples
Juice of 2 to 3 lemons
3/4 cup butter
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup calvados, applejack, or brandy
Peel, halve and core the apples. Cut them in eighths and toss throughly with lemon juice to prevent discoloration. Cover tightly with plastic wrap. Apples can be prepared up to 4 hours ahead and refrigerated.
In a large skillet melt 2 to 3 tablespoons butter, add enough apples to cover base of pan and sprinkle with 2 to 3 tablespoons sugar. Fry apples briskly until brown, 5 to 8 minutes. Note: Toss or stir them often so the sugar caramelizes evenly.
When brown, take pan from the heat, add 2 to 3 tablespoons calvados and flame, standing well back. If possible, serve apples while flames are still burning. Fry remaining apples in the same way. SAVOYARDE MULLED WINE (10 servings)
The French province of Savoy offers splendid skiing and the most famous Alpine peak of all, Mont Blanc.
3 bottles red wine
1 cup sugar
2 3-inch pieces cinnamon stick
6 whole cloves
Sprig of thyme
1 bay leaf
3 lemons, sliced very thin
In a large saucepan (not aluminum) put wine with sugar, cinnamon, cloves, thyme and bay leaf. Cover and heat gently 8 to 10 minutes until wine is almost boiling. Add lemon slices.
Meanwhile heat a punch bowl by filling with very hot water, leaving 2 to 3 minutes, then wiping dry. Pour in wine and serve at once.