In Washington we are always busy discovering something -- a scandal, a deficit, a charismatic candidate. This year we are discovering America.
In the hotels -- the Park Terrace, the Bristol, the Westin, the Vista International, the Sheraton Washington, the Mayflower -- the culinary emphasis is American. So many new young American chefs are making news here that the CIA is as likely to mean the Culinary Institute of America as the Central Intelligence Agency.
Even the French restaurants are serving New Orleans blackened redfish.
Paris-born Gaby Aubouin likes to swim against the tide, however. Or maybe ahead of the tide. Aubouin saw the patriotism and regionalism emerging in American kitchens, which inspired him to reexamine Paris, looking at it as a region rather than as a world capital.
The third generation of chefs in his family, Aubouin followed his father as chef of the French embassy in Washington. In the years since then, he has been chef at La Brasserie, a sleeper of a restaurant on Capitol Hill, which insiders know as having a serious and exciting kitchen hidden behind a cafe'/garden nonchalance.
* "To be a complete chef, you must learn the cooking of all the regions of France," he recalled. But when one thinks of the culinary regions of France, Paris is not on the list. Paris is more likely seen as the place to eat international food, or to sample the citified versions of the other regions' cuisines.
Aubouin ventured from his kitchen to the Library of Congress, which he calls "an Ali Baba Cave of every book in the world." And he produced an essay, "On the Trail of the Forgotten Parisian Cooking," which revealedthat Aubouin is as much a poet as a scholar and a chef.
"The largest garden in Paris is Rungis," Aubouin said of the gigantic wholesale market that serves that city, "and early in the morning you can see 'the chef gardening in the market.' " But the Parisian countryside also produces food as well as sells it -- Clamart's butter and cream, Argenteuil's asparagus, Montreuil's peaches, Vaugirard's tiny peas. In Montmartre there is still a small vineyard, the last mark of this as a wine-producing city.
Before the French Revolution, wrote Aubouin, Paris had 4,300 cafe's and taverns open day and night, one for each 350 people. And with communications between Paris and other regions sketchy over the centuries, the city had to develop its own style of cooking. And so it invented those magical puffed potatoes called pommes souffle's, plus veal chop foyot, chicken financiere and creme chantilly, not to mention the ubiquitous onion soup. Pressed duck was created in Paris, and the luscious giant cream puff ring known as Paris Brest, named after a bike race.
And the city created more than dishes -- it created a style of eating. The fork was first used in a public place at the Parisian restaurant La Tour d'Argent, though the restaurant is better known for its pressed duck, each serving of which is still officially numbered. Its stork pa te' has not remained so popular. And of course Paris has grown that most important culinary product of all: great chefs.
Turning from the library to the pantry, Aubouin brought his research to life with an all-Paris dinner, presented in the private dining rooms of La Brasserie, which are in an adjacent town house furnished like a Parisian dining room. His menu began with two pure'ed soups, of white beans and of sorrel, swirled in one bowl to create a green and white yin and yang design. Next were crayfish -- like everything else in the dinner, historically a product of Paris -- served with both white and green asparagus, the incomparable and rare white flown in from Argenteuil. The third course was sweetbreads Clamart, which means with tiny fresh peas, in this case in little pastry boats with shallots and bacon. Its accompaniment was wild mushrooms -- morels -- stuffed with chicken mousse. Even more rare, the garnish was classical but one I have never actually tasted before -- cockscombs. Louis XVI would have been proud; in fact, he probably would have ordered the dish named after him. The main dish was that most Parisian creation, pressed duck, in which the carcass of the blood-rare duck is squeezed in a large silver contraption to extract all its essences, to be blended with wines, liqueurs and stock into a deep, intense sauce. The great trick of this nowadays is in obtaining a fresh duck, for it must retain its blood in order to create the sauce.
Dinner went on to a salad of ma che tossed with duck hearts, and then the dessert was wheeled in.
The Paris Brest was certainly in the style of Ca reme, the legendary Parisian chef who turned pastry making into a branch of architecture. It was three tiers high, decorated with roses and sugared violets, draped in a cloud of golden angel hair made of spun caramel. The utter ending was the cherries of Montmorency, marinated in grain alcohol for a year so that the cherries become highly alcoholic, their syrup sweet and mild. Anyone nibbling just the fruit to avoid the alcohol is likely to become quite drunk in the process. But then that's Paris: It's hard to not be intoxicated by it.
My second-favorite recipe is one I pilfered from "Al Cross' Insider's Report," the frenetic advertising newsletter of National supermarkets in St. Louis. It is called Gracie Allen's Perfect Roast Beef. The ingredients are 1 large roast of beef and 1 small roast of beef. The instructions are as follows: Take the two roasts and put them in the oven. When the little one burns, the big one is done.
My favorite recipe of all? A medieval one, in which a perfect chop is cooked between two other perfect chops, after which you are instructed to eat the inside one and throw the two outside ones away.
Which leads to my favorite vegetable: beet greens. Everyone else is cooking the beets and throwing away the greens. I'd rather do it the other way around.
PARIS-BREST (10 servings)
1 cup water
7 tablespoons butter
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons flour
4 large eggs
1/2 cup apricot preserves
1/2 cup slivered almonds
FOR THE FILLING:
1 pint milk
Small piece of vanilla bean
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
4 egg yolks
3/4 cup flour
2 tablespoons hazelnut paste (optional)
2 teaspoons Frangelico liqueur
1 cup whipping cream
In a saucepan bring water, butter, salt and sugar to a boil. Remove the saucepan from the heat and add the flour all at once and stir with a wooden spoon until thoroughly mixed.
Return the saucepan to the stove and cook over medium-high heat, beating constantly and vigorously with the wooden spoon, until a thin film forms on the bottom of the saucepan and the batter no longer sticks to the sides of the saucepan or to the wooden spoon but holds together in a mass in the center of the pan (this takes about 1 to 2 minutes).
Remove saucepan from the heat and transfer batter to a medium-sized bowl. Beat in eggs one at a time.
Transfer batter to a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch tube. Pipe a circle about 9 inches in diameter on a parchment-lined pastry sheet. Pipe a second circle just outside of the first and a third circle on top of the first 2 circles to cover the seam.
Bake the pastry at 350 degrees until puffy and light golden brown, about 25 to 35 minutes.
Cool the baked pastry completely and cut into 2 layers, removing soft center with a spoon. Spread top layer with apricot preserves and sprinkle with sliced almonds. Brown in a very hot oven for 2 minutes.
Heat milk with vanilla bean, but do not boil. In a bowl, beat sugar and egg yolks until pale. Add flour and mix well. Blend in half the milk. Return flour/milk mixture to milk in saucepan and add hazelnut paste. Stir over medium heat until smooth and thick. Add Frangelico and chill.
Before serving, whip the cream and combine with hazelnut filling. Spoon or pipe into bottom of pastry, cover with the apricot-glazed top and serve immediately.