This year we're celebrating New Year's in style -- French style. We'll be sheltered in the countryside of Burgundy, with vineyards down the road, produce markets at hand and a vegetable garden just outside the back door. For months I've had dinner exactly planned.
We'll start with hot bacon salad made with chewy, succulent curly endive, one of the greens that thrive at this time of year. To toss them with a dressing of hot fried bacon and vinegar, boiled down to deglaze the pan, is simplicity itself. The hot dressing wilts the leaves just enough so they are crisply piquant.
For the festival of New Year, there is bound to be fresh wild venison in the local market. Here in the United States, more and more gourmet stores carry farm-raised venison that is guaranteed to be tender -- by no means the case with meat from wild animals. Beef fillet is an alternative if you can't find venison and you'll be surprised by the flavor it develops after marinating with juniper, pepper and red wine as in this recipe. Cream and red currant jelly complete the spicy-sweet sauce.
With the meat comes a melting confit or preserve of baby onions cooked until mellow with wine and a little sugar. If sealed in sterilized jars, the preserve keeps well and is an excellent accompaniment to duck, ham and cold meats as well as game.
Turning again to the garden, with luck I will find a root or two of celery to pure'e with chestnuts gathered from the trees outside the gate by a kind neighbor. Wild chestnuts these, a nuisance to peel, but with a delicate floury texture that amply rewards the time spent. Or, if I'm feeling lazy, I'll buy chestnuts canned in water and I'll spice the pure'e generously with nutmeg.
Last course is a long-time family favorite -- a fluffy, hot chocolate souffle'. The chocolate has sufficient body to need no thickening of flour and I've found to my delight that the completed souffle' can be held an hour or two in the refrigerator before baking, thus saving the last-minute effort of whisking the egg whites. The souffle' bakes in only 15 to 18 minutes, with a soft center that acts as sauce for the crisp outside.
After that, what more could be asked than a glass of good red wine, culled from the Cote d'Or vineyards only a couple of hours' drive away. Surely an auspicious beginning to a happy 1988!
Timetable For the busy cook, this schedule allows for advance preparation, with cooking carried out quickly at the last minute.
Up to three days ahead: Make onion confit.
Up to one day ahead: Wash salad greens. Marinate venison.
Up to four hours ahead: Make celery root and chestnut pure'e. Prepare chocolate mixture for souffle'.
Twenty minutes before serving: Whip egg whites and add to souffle'.
Fifteen minutes before serving: Saute' venison steaks and wrap in foil to reheat; make the sauce. Heat oven to 425 degrees.
Five minutes before serving: Fry bacon and finish the salad.
After serving salad: Reheat venison steaks briefly in oven. Reheat onion confit, and venison sauce on top of stove, then arrange with venison on plates. Reheat vegetable pure'e, beating well, and add to plates.
After serving venison: Cook the souffle'.
HOT BACON SALAD (8 servings)
For a more substantial salad, fry a few sliced chicken livers in with the bacon.
2 medium heads curly endive or escarole
2 tablespoons oil
6-ounce piece bacon, diced
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
Thoroughly wash the greens, drain and dry them. Wrap them in a towel or plastic bag and refrigerate up to 24 hours.
To finish: put greens in a salad bowl. Heat oil and fry bacon until lightly browned but still tender.
Discard all but 1/2 cup fat from the pan. Pour bacon and fat over greens and toss well. The heat will wilt the greens slightly.
Add vinegar to hot pan, standing back from the fumes. Boil, stirring, until reduced by half. Pour hot vinegar over greens, tossing well. Taste salad for seasoning and serve at once.
MEDALLIONS OF VENISON WITH ONION CONFIT (8 servings)
Medallions are boneless steaks of venison but from the loin.
FOR THE ONION CONFIT:
3 tablespoons butter
30 baby onions, peeled
2 tablespoons sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup red wine
FOR THE MARINADE:
8 venison steaks (about 3 pounds)
2 cups fruity red wine
2 teaspoons crushed juniper berries
1 teaspoon crushed black peppercorns
2 tablespoons oil
3 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon oil
1 tablespoon butter
4 tablespoons brandy
1 cup whipping cream
1 1/2 tablespoons red currant jelly
Bunch watercress (for garnish)
For the onion confit: melt butter in a frying pan and add onions. Sprinkle them with sugar, salt and pepper and fry 5 to 7 minutes until well-browned, shaking pan so onions color evenly. Add wine, cover pan tightly, and cook over very low heat, 25 to 30 minutes until onions are glossy and meltingly soft. If they start to stick before they are tender, add a few tablespoons water. They can be refrigerated up to 3 days.
To marinate the venison: set steaks in a shallow tray. Mix wine, juniper berries and peppercorns and pour over the venison. Spoon over oil and set thyme on top. Cover and refrigerate 24 hours, turning the meat occasionally.
Not more than 30 minutes before serving: drain steaks, reserving marinade, and pat them dry with paper towels. Heat oil and butter in a frying pan until foaming. Sprinkle steaks with salt and pepper and saute' 4 to 5 minutes on each side until browned but leave meat still pink in the center. Add brandy and flame. Remove steaks and wrap in foil for reheating.
Add marinade to pan and boil until reduced by half, stirring to dissolve pan juices. Whisk in cream and red currant jelly and bring sauce to a boil. Strain it into a saucepan, bring just back to a boil and taste for seasoning. The sauce should be quite peppery.
To finish: Bring sauce to a boil and reheat onions on top of stove. Reheat steaks 3 to 5 minutes in a 425-degree oven. Set steaks on individual plates, spoon over sauce and set onions on one side. Add chestnut and celery root pure'e to plates and garnish with watercress.
CELERY ROOT AND CHESTNUT PUREE (8 servings)
If celery root is hard to find, omit it and double the quantity of chestnuts.
4 pounds celery root
Juice of 1 lemon
2 pounds fresh chestnuts or 1-pound can chestnuts in water
Salt and pepper to taste
1 1/2 cups whipping cream, more if needed
1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) butter
1/2 teaspoon ground mace or nutmeg
Peel celery root, cut it in large chunks and put it at once in a pan of water with lemon juice. Cover and simmer until tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Drain thoroughly. Pure'e in a food processor or work through a food mill or sieve. Note: The food processor gives a coarser texture.
Meanwhile, peel fresh chestnuts: pierce skin of each chestnut with a small knife. Put chestnuts in a pan of cold water and bring to a boil. With a slotted spoon remove a few at a time and while still hot, peel them with a knife. If they get cold and are difficult to peel, reheat them.
To cook fresh chestnuts: put peeled chestnuts in a pan of salted water, cover, and simmer until very tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Drain them and let cool slightly. If using canned chestnuts, drain them. Pure'e fresh or canned chestnuts in a food processor or work them through a food mill or sieve.
In a saucepan combine chestnut and celery pure'es. Beat in cream and butter with salt, pepper and mace or nutmeg to taste. Pure'e can be prepared up to 4 hours ahead; spoon a layer of cream on top to prevent it from drying out.
Just before serving, reheat the pure'e, beating constantly until it is very hot and slightly thickened. It should just fall easily from the spoon; if too thick, add more cream.
HOT CHOCOLATE SOUFFLE (8 servings)
The darker the chocolate, the better the souffle'.
8 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
1 cup whipping cream
6 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons brandy
10 egg whites
1/3 cup sugar
Confectioners' sugar (for sprinkling)
In a heavy saucepan, melt chocolate in cream over low heat, stirring constantly. Cook, stirring, until the mixture is thick and just falls from the spoon. Take from the heat and beat egg yolks into the hot mixture so they cook and thicken it slightly. Stir in vanilla and brandy. Souffle' mixture can be kept covered 3 to 4 hours at room temperature.
To add egg whites: thickly butter two 1-quart souffle' dishes. Stiffly whip egg whites, add sugar, and continue whisking until egg whites are glossy and form a light meringue, about 30 seconds. Reheat chocolate mixture until hot to the touch. Add about a quarter of the meringue and stir until thoroughly combined. Add this mixture to remaining egg whites and fold together as lightly as possible. Spoon souffle' mixture into prepared dishes -- it should fill to within 3/4 inches of the rim. The souffle' can be refrigerated up to 2 hours.
To finish: Bake souffle's in lower third of a 425-degree oven until puffed, 15 to 18 minutes. When gently shaken, they should wobble slightly, showing center is still soft. Sprinkle with confectioners' sugar and serve at once.