This is the time of year I start to get nervous. With Labor Day behind us, I suddenly realize that the freedom of summer dining -- no fixed hours, a carefree approach to cooking and even more casual dress -- has come to an end. So join me in a last fling of summer favorites, all of them with Mediterranean roots.
Take stuffed mussels, for example. Now there's a dish to satisfy the soul. From Marseilles to Marbella, mussels on the half shell arrive by the dozen on trays, stuffed with tomato, mushroom, anchovy, topped with cheese and redolent of garlic. Unlike oysters, which are shucked raw to be baked with stuffing, mussels are cooked lightly to open them before the stuffing is added. They can be prepared several hours ahead, ready to broil at the last moment.
Just such another invitation to gourmandise is daube of lamb, a Provenc ale stew that takes its name from the rotund earthenware pot in which it is traditionally cooked. The meat is first marinated in red wine, then layered with vegetables and slowly baked for so long that the meat can be cut with a spoon. As you can imagine, a wonderfully aromatic flavor develops, with olives and orange peel as key ingredients.
No more nor less than Italian cornmeal mush, polenta makes an excellent alternative to pasta as an accompaniment to stews. The cornmeal -- white or yellow, coarse or fine -- is boiled steadily with water over the heat until it pulls from the sides of the pan.
Polenta can be eaten at this stage, but I prefer to let it cool and set, then slice it to toast agreeably brown. To the polenta, I've added a very American seasoning of chile pepper, but you may prefer to leave it plain.
When I first heard of red wine tart, I was skeptical. How could red wine flavored with cinnamon ever bake to a palatable sweet pastry filling? But recollections of mulled wine encouraged me at least to try. The combination proves to be as enjoyable as it is unexpected. And, with its five ingredients whisked simply together, what could involve less work? Like the rest of this menu, it is a lazy cook's delight.
Timetable The cook can enjoy the last of summer with a menu that involves no last-minute preparation at all.
Up to 3 days ahead: Make daube and refrigerate.
Up to 2 days ahead: Cook polenta and keep in refrigerator. Make red wine tart and refrigerate.
Up to 6 hours ahead: Prepare mussels for broiling and refrigerate. Unmold polenta and cut in squares for broiling.
Thirty minutes before serving: Reheat daube gently on top of stove. Take tart out of refrigerator to come to room temperature.
Fifteen minutes before serving: Heat broiler.
Five minutes before serving: Broil mussels.
After serving mussels: Broil polenta.
MEDITERRANEAN STUFFED MUSSELS (8 servings)
3 pounds large mussels
1/2 cup white wine
3 tablespoons butter
1 onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 pound tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
Sprig fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
FOR THE TOPPING:
3/4 cup grated gruye`re cheese
2 tablespoons melted butter
To clean mussels, pull off their string-like beards with a knife and scrape any encrustations off the shells. Discard any mussels that do not close when pinched. Fill a large bowl with cold water and rub mussels against each other with your hands. Transfer mussels to a colander. If there is sand at the bottom of the bowl, repeat the process.
Put mussels in a large pan with the wine. Cover and cook over high heat, 4 to 5 minutes, or until mussels open, stirring them once. Discard top shell from mussels and remove rubbery ring around each. Discard any mussels that are still closed.
Melt butter in a large skillet and saute' onion until soft but not brown. Add garlic, tomatoes, thyme, salt and pepper and simmer, stirring often, until the mixture is thick, 10 to 15 minutes. Discard thyme sprig and taste for seasoning.
Spoon a little tomato mixture over each mussel and divide them among 8 heatproof dishes or trays, filled with rock salt. Set them in the rock salt, packing them as closely as possible. Sprinkle them with cheese and melted butter. The mussels can be refrigerated up to 6 hours.
To finish: heat the broiler. Broil mussels as close as possible to the heat for 2 to 3 minutes until browned.
DAUBE OF LAMB PROVENCALE (8 servings)
The firm texture of lamb shoulder is vital to daube. The tender leg meat disintegrates before the sauce can develop maximum flavor.
4 pounds boned lamb shoulder
FOR THE MARINADE:
Large bouquet garni of 12 parsley stems, 2 bay leaves, 2 thyme sprigs
2 pared strips orange rind
2-inch piece cinnamon stick
3 whole cloves
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
3 cups dry red wine
2 tablespoons olive oil
FOR THE DAUBE:
1 pig's or calf's foot, split
1 1/4 cups green olives, pitted
3/4 pound lean bacon, cut in 1/4-inch strips
3 medium onions, sliced
1 pound carrots, sliced
2 pounds tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
3 cups water
Cut lamb in 2-inch cubes, discarding sinew and fat. Put it in a bowl in layers with the marinade flavorings and pour over the wine. Spoon over the olive oil, cover, and refrigerate at least 12 and up to 24 hours, stirring occasionally.
Blanch pig's or calf's foot by putting it in cold water, bringing to a boil, boiling 5 minutes and draining. Blanch the olives also if they are salty. Drain the meat, strain, and reserve the marinade. Tie flavorings in cheesecloth.
In a deep casserole, arrange the following ingredients in layers: lamb, olives, bacon, onions, carrots, tomatoes, garlic, ground pepper. Salt is not needed because the olives and bacon are salty. Tuck pig's or calf's foot down one side. Pour over marinade and water and add bag of flavorings. Cover and cook in a 400-degree oven until boiling.
Lower oven heat to 300 degrees and cook daube until lamb is so tender it can be cut with a spoon, 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Remove pig's or calf's foot, pull meat from the bone, cut it in pieces and add to daube. Discard bag of flavorings and taste the sauce. Daube can be refrigerated up to 3 days.
CHILI POLENTA (8 servings)
As a twist on lasagne, layer leftover polenta with the sauce from daube, then bake in the oven.
2 quarts water, more if needed
Salt to taste
2 cups (4 ounces) cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper, more to taste
Generously butter an 8-by-11-inch jelly roll pan. Salt the water and bring to a boil in a large pot. Stirring continuously, pour in cornmeal in a slow steady stream. Note: do not add too much cornmeal at a time or lumps can form. If polenta becomes too thick to stir at this point, add more water.
Reduce heat and simmer polenta, still stirring continuously, until it is very thick and comes away from side of the pan. This takes about 20 minutes, but time depends on type of cornmeal. Season polenta to taste with red pepper and salt. Pour mixture into jelly roll pan, spread in an even layer and rub with butter to prevent a skin forming. Leave polenta to cool and set. It can be refrigerated up to 2 days.
To finish: light the broiler. Warm base of jelly roll pan to melt butter, then turn polenta onto a board. Cut it in squares. Set squares on a buttered baking sheet. Broil polenta until brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Turn and brown the other side. Serve hot or at room temperature.
RED WINE TART (8 servings)
A slightly tannic red wine is perfect for this tart.
FOR THE PATE BRISEE:
2 cups flour
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
2 egg yolks
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons cold water, more if needed
FOR THE FILLING:
2 cups dry red wine
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 cup sugar
Make pa~te brise'e: Sift flour onto a marble slab or board and make a large well in the center. Pound butter to soften it slightly. Place butter, egg yolks, salt and water in the well and work together with your fingertips.
Gradually work in flour, pulling dough into large crumbs. If crumbs are dry, sprinkle over a tablespoon more water. Press dough firmly together -- it should be soft but not sticky. Work on a lightly floured surface, pushing dough away with the heel of your hand and gathering it up with a dough scraper until smooth and pliable.
Press dough into a ball, wrap it in paper and chill it 30 minutes.
Butter two 8-inch tart pans with removable bases. Roll half the pastry on a floured surface to a 10-inch round and line one of the pans with dough. Repeat with remaining dough. Chill tart shells until firm, at least 15 minutes.
Prick bases of the shells with a fork. Whisk together wine, cornstarch, cinnamon, sugar and eggs. Pour half the wine mixture into each tart shell and bake in a 400-degree oven until pastry is crisp and wine mixture has set, 35 to 45 minutes. Tart can be made up to two days ahead and refrigerated. Serve warm or at room temperature