How well parties are staged in Beverly Hills. A few months ago I was one of several hundred members of the International Association of Cooking Professionals who were lucky enough to attend a showcase of the top chefs of Los Angeles. Such luminaries as Susan Feninger of the City Cafe, Michael McCarty of Michael's, Piero Sal Veggio of Valentino's and a dozen others cooked hors d'oeuvres, while we sampled a selection of wines from equally distinguished California vineyards.
We roamed from stand to stand, tasting a tidbit of this, a toothpick of that. With chefs from a dozen culinary backgrounds, the only link in this culinary odyssey seemed to be the freshness and originality for which California is so famous. Think of making carpaccio with venison or guacamole with green peas.
Here are just a few of the many ideas I encountered, deliberately chosen so they can be made in advance. All hold well at room temperature with one exception -- an amusing fritter of cod stuffed with Smithfield ham and seasoned with roasted Sichuan pepper and salt. The cod cubes and batter can be prepared ahead, but like all deep-fried dishes, they are best served fresh and piping hot.
As I bit into a neat little roll of eggplant, I wondered what was inside until I recognized my favorite creamy mozzarella, spiced with red pepper and generously drenched in the finest olive oil. The rolls marinate a day or two with seasonings that include balsamic vinegar, ending up wonderfully redolent and rich.
Also presented as a roll is an elegant combination of homemade gravlax (raw salmon pickled with salt and dill) filled with a mousse of smoked salmon and cream cheese. A quick dip in caviar adds the final touch of color -- and of luxury.
A simple little skewer of marinated shrimp and mushrooms took a while to recreate until I hit just the right combination of olive oil, wine and lemon juice backed by bay leaf and plenty of garlic. After cooking, the shrimp and mushrooms rest in this marinade, and I'm sure other ingredients such as cauliflower sprigs or baby onions would take happily to the same treatment.
This all adds up to quite a feast. In fact, next time we have friends to dinner, I plan to make just one or two of the recipes and offer them as an appetizer, serving them with the cheese brioche bread I've added to this menu to balance the impact of so many complex flavors. Add to them a good California wine or two.
Timetable Up to three months ahead: Make roasted salt and pepper and store in airtight container. Bake cheese brioche and freeze.
Up to four days ahead: Broil eggplant and marinate in refrigerator.
Up to three days ahead: Prepare gravlax and marinate in refrigerator; make salmon mousse and refrigerate.
Up to one day ahead: Cook shrimp and mushrooms and leave to marinate at least 2 hours. Meanwhile assemble eggplant rolls and refrigerate. Finish salmon and gravlax rolls and refrigerate. Finish shrimp and mushrooms and keep in refrigerator.
Up to six hours ahead: Prepare cod for deep-frying and chill; make batter. Defrost cheese bread. Chill the wine.
One to two hours before serving: Arrange all cold hors d'oeuvres in lines or cartwheels on trays. Cover with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature. Slice cheese bread and toast it if desired.
During the party: Deep-fry cod cubes and serve at once.
PIQUANT ROLLS OF EGGPLANT WITH MOZZARELLA (Makes 50 to 60, for 4 to 6 servings when served alone)
A fruity extra-virgin olive oil is ideal for this dish.
4 small (about 1 1/2 pounds) eggplant
1/4 cup coarse salt
1 cup olive oil
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons crushed red pepper
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 pound mozzarella
Trim stem and blossom ends of eggplants. Cut eggplants lengthwise into 3/8-inch thick slices. Scatter salt over both sides and leave eggplant 30 minutes to draw out juices.
Heat grill or broiler. Rinse salt and liquid from eggplant and pat dry with paper towels. Brush with oil and grill 3 to 5 minutes until browned. Turn, brush again with oil and brown the other side.
Arrange eggplant slices in layers in a deep dish, seasoning each layer with garlic, pepper, vinegar and remaining oil. Cover and leave eggplant to marinate in the refrigerator at least 6 hours, or up to 3 days.
To finish: cut mozzarella in 2-by-3/8-inch sticks. Lift out eggplant, letting marinade drain back into dish. Set a mozzarella stick on one end of an eggplant slice and roll it up. Cut into 1-inch rolls and secure each with a toothpick. Pack rolls back into dish, toothpicks upward. They can be assembled a day ahead and refrigerated. Let them come to room temperature before serving.
SMOKED SALMON MOUSSE WITH GRAVLAX AND CAVIAR (Makes 50 to 60, for 6 persons when served alone)
As a less expensive version, sea trout and smoked brook trout can be substituted for the salmon, with chopped chives instead of caviar.
1 large salmon fillet (3 pounds)
1/4 cup coarse salt
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
Large bunch fresh dill
2 ounces caviar
FOR THE MOUSSE:
10 ounces smoked salmon
6 ounces cream cheese
1/2 cup whipping cream, more if necessary
Salt and pepper to taste
For the gravlax: lay salmon fillet on a tray and season both sides with salt, sugar and peppercorns. Spread a large piece of plastic wrap on the work surface and set the salmon on it, skin side down. Sprinkle with any remaining seasonings and lay dill sprigs on top. Wrap fillet tightly with plastic, and set in a shallow dish with a weighted plate on top. Leave in refrigerator to marinate 2 days, turning every 8 hours.
For the mousse: pure'e smoked salmon in a food processor with cream cheese. With motor running, pour in enough whipping cream to make a mixture of spreadable consistency. Taste mousse for seasoning; it can be refrigerated up to 2 days.
To finish: wipe gravlax with a paper towel to remove dill seasonings. Cut salmon in the thinnest possible diagonal slices, leaving behind the skin. Spread a spoonful of smoked salmon mousse on each slice of gravlax and roll it up. Trim ends of rolls and, if they are very long, cut them in half. Dip one end in caviar to coat it lightly. The rolls can be refrigerated up to a day.
Shortly before serving, pierce rolls with toothpicks and arrange on a platter. Bring to room temperature.
SHRIMP AND MUSHROOMS WITH LEMON (Makes about 60, for 4 to 6 persons if served alone)
2 pounds mushrooms, stems removed
3 cups olive oil
2 bay leaves
2 whole cloves
6 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 cup white wine
1 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup parsley springs
Salt and pepper to taste
TO COOK THE SHRIMP:
2 quarts water
2 bay leaves
Pared zest of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon peppercorns
2 pounds raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
Heat mushrooms, oil, bay leaves, cloves and garlic until boiling, stirring constantly. Reduce heat and simmer until mushrooms are tender, about 5 minutes. Add wine, lemon juice and parsley and simmer 2 minutes longer. Let mushrooms cool, then taste for seasoning.
To cook the shrimp: bring water, bay leaves, lemon zest, salt and peppercorns to a boil. Add shrimp and poach just until firm and pink, about 2 minutes. Drain shrimp and add to mushroom mixture, stirring so they are coated with marinade. Marinate mixture in refrigerator at least 2 hours, and up to 6 hours.
To finish: drain shrimp and mushrooms, reserving a little marinade. On toothpicks spear mushrooms with shrimp curled around them. Pack them in a serving dish, toothpicks upwards, and moisten with reserved marinade. Shrimp and mushrooms can be refrigerated up to 24 hours. Let them come to room temperature before serving.
DEEP-FRIED COD FILLET STUFFED WITH HAM (Makes 40 to 50 pieces, enough for 4 to 6 persons if served alone)
Any lean fish with thick fillets, such as haddock, sea bass or pompano, could be substituted for rock cod.
FOR THE ROASTED SALT AND PEPPER:
2 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns
1/4 cup coarse salt
FOR THE FISH:
2 pounds thick cod fillets
A thick slice (4 ounces) Smithfield ham
Oil for deep-frying
FOR THE BATTER:
1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 tablespoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 tablespoons sesame oil
For roasted salt and pepper: put peppercorns in a small heavy skillet and scatter with salt. Heat gently, stirring occasionally, until peppercorns release their aroma and start to smoke, 8 to 12 minutes. Let them cool. Crush mixture in a mortar and pestle, or seal in a paper bag and roll with a rolling pin. Roasted salt and pepper keeps indefinitely if tightly sealed.
Cut cod fillet into 1-by-1 1/2-inch cubes. Cut a 1/2-inch slit on one side of each cube. Cut ham into 3/8-by-1-inch strips. Insert strips into slits cut in fish.
For the batter: combine flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl and make a well in the center. Add water and stir, gradually drawing in flour to make a smooth batter. Stir in sesame oil. Fish cubes and batter can be refrigerated up to 6 hours.
To finish: heat oil for deep frying to 375 degrees. Dip fish cubes in batter to coat evenly and deep-fry them, a few at a time, 2 to 3 minutes until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. The fish is best served at once, but can be kept warm in the oven with the door open for up to 15 minutes.
Spear cubes with toothpicks and arrange on a platter covered with a napkin or paper doily. Set a bowl of roasted salt and pepper in the center for dripping.
CHEESE BRIOCHE BREAD (Makes 1 medium loaf)
An excellent bread for toasting. Recipe needs to be doubled to make two loaves.
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) butter
1 teaspoon sugar
2 1/2 cups flour, more if needed
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
1 cake ( 1/2 ounce) compressed yeast or 1 package ( 1/4 ounce) dry yeast
3/4 cup grated gruye`re cheese
1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese
1 egg, beaten to mix with 1/2 teaspoon salt for glaze
Heat milk, butter, and sugar until butter melts and leave to cool to lukewarm. Sift flour into a bowl with salt and make a well in the center. Add warm milk and hot pepper sauce and crumble or sprinkle yeast on top. Leave 5 minutes or until yeast is dissolved. Add eggs and mix central ingredients with your fingers, gradually drawing in flour to make a smooth dough. It should be soft and slightly sticky; if necessary work in a little more flour.
Turn dough onto a floured work surface and knead for 5 to 7 minutes until it is smooth and elastic, adding more flour if it sticks. Alternatively knead dough in an electric mixer with a dough hook. Put dough in a warm place to rise, 45 to 60 minutes or until doubled in bulk.
Butter two 8-by-4-by-3-inch loaf pans. Knead dough lightly and work in grated gruye`re and parmesan cheeses. Divide dough in half, shape it into two loaves and set them in the pans. Brush with glaze, cover loaves with a damp cloth and leave again in a warm place, 45 to 60 minutes until dough reaches top of the pans.
Brush loaves again with glaze and slash the tops or snip a "hedgehog" design with scissors. Bake in a 400-degree oven for 25 to 35 minutes until brown and the bread sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. Transfer loaves to a rack to cool. Cheese bread is best eaten the day of baking, or it can be frozen