For Maarit Astraldi, dinners can pave the road to consensus, to understanding, or, at the very least, conviviality. As the Finnish wife of the political counselor for the Italian embassy, Valerio Astraldi, Maarit cooks for the international world of diplomacy. The stakes are high. Luckily, in Astraldi's Georgetown kitchen, so too are the results.
A recent Friday evening found Astraldi preparing dinner for five. She turns on her oven, which is snuggled into an old fireplace, and flicks on one of the many transformers that link her European 220-volt appliances to our 110-volt outlets.
Her menu reflects the elegance and timelessness of a Michelangelo: Tomato risotto with shrimp and cheese sauce to begin; chicken stuffed with mushroom pure'e and wrapped with Parma ham en croute to follow; and to finish, a spun-sugar basket filled with liqueur-soaked sponge cake, pastry cream, chopped chocolate, whipped cream and strawberries.
"Before I got married," says Astraldi, who met her husband in Germany where they were both studying German (they began by conversing in German, then in English and now in Italian), "I couldn't cook, couldn't make an omelet." Her husband, she says, became her recipe taster. "For him, it was tough. He never knew what was waiting for him when he came home."
Unfortunately, her mother-in-law, she says, was not much help. "She is a doctor. She likes to eat and is wonderful but she never taught me how to cook. You always read about Italian mothers-in-law teaching wives how to make pasta; not me."
To date, the Astraldis have moved five times, settling into posts in Rome, New York, Brussels and Moscow, where Maarit fondly remembers skating on the flooded walkways of Gorky Park in the evenings. After skating, sledding or cross-country skiing, she, her husband and friends would tramp in from the cold, starved. And so she began to cook. "There was so little for us to do. Food was very important. People put canned food in the library instead of books."
She began by making cakes and cookies until the day she met the Italian cook of the American ambassador. "I ate at a dinner party a wonderful cake he had made with puff pastry -- a thousand-layer cake. I had tried to do it so many times and it never came out right. I asked him maybe he can teach me to cook. I would bring him my results and he would try not to laugh."
It was also in Moscow that she learned to become very organized. When shopping she bought in bulk whatever she was lucky enough to find. One day in June found her frying enough eggplant for the whole winter. "You had to have a big freezer. You had to be able to plan three months ahead."
This year, she decided to take classes at L'Academie de Cuisine, and has begun to notice many differences between how she cooks, which is very definitely Italian, and the French tradition of L'Academie. "For one thing, I don't use clarified butter as much as my teacher does. I think it's a fine point more than anything. Maybe Italians aren't as particular, and maybe," she grins, "Italian butter is better."
During the social season, (after Labor Day until the end of May) she gives dinner parties, on average, twice a month, keeping a journal of everything she serves so that she won't serve the same dinner to the same guests twice. The menu for this particular evening is tried and true, as are all menus for her guests. "Usually I've tested a recipe many times before serving it to guests. My poor husband has to try it four to five times. Then I have to time it and make a schedule. It has to go like clockwork."
She derives many of her ideas from dining out at restaurants, and analyzing everything she eats. "I had something similar to this," she says, tapping her chicken breast en croute, "but it was fried. With the kitchen so close to the dining room, I couldn't have that smell, so I wrapped it in puff pastry and baked it instead."
As a representative of Italy, she usually serves only Italian meals, but never spaghetti. "It's so hard at a formal dinner, everyone gets very nervous." And though she's never had what she would term a disaster, she's had a few eye-openers. She once served brochettes that had the guests taking inadvertent potshots at each other as they tried to slide the pieces of meat off their skewers. There was also the chocolate sauce that hardened over the ice cream and broke into flying pieces when cut. Most recently, she remembers making her spun-sugar baskets, putting them in a new freezer only to open it up seven hours later to find that all but two had melted into golden puddles. "It was awful," Astraldi remembers.
For just the two of them, during the week, dinners are light and very simple: grilled fish or meat and a salad. On weekends, however, she likes to get more complicated and cook rich Italian meals, making everything from scratch, including the pasta, which she hand-rolls, for the lasagna. "It takes me four hours to make so I don't make it that often," she says.
For her dinner parties, too, Astraldi takes no short cuts, making everything by hand, from the gravlax and red caviar cream for snacks, to the dinner rolls -- poppy seed and dill -- to the puff pastry that wraps the chicken breasts to the pastry cream and sponge cake that fills her baskets.
To show how she makes her special spun-sugar baskets, she oils a small round saucepan with olive oil ("I use olive oil for everything. I'm not used to other oils"). To another sauce pan, she adds water and sugar and cooks it to a caramel, for about six or seven minutes, until the mixture begins to bubble and hints of turning brown. Taking it off the burner (the mixture continues to cook), she begins to stir hard with a spoon, waiting for it to cool so that the consistency will thicken and run from the spoon, not in separate drops, but in a thread.
You have to be very careful, she warns. Not only can the caramel cause a bad burn, but it can cause cuts, as it becomes like glass.
She begins to drop the hot caramel onto the bottom and sides of the saucepan, zig-zagging quickly, making sure that the lines are joined. She then puts the back of the pot under cold water and out slides a basket of golden strands.
Astraldi takes eight spun-sugar baskets (made that morning) from the freezer and places each on a brilliant blue plate where it sits like a crown. She notes that, normally, she prefers to serve courses from a platter, rather than placing separate portions on separate plates. "It's too restauranty. But in this case, it is necessary."
She moistens the Finnish sponge cake with Grand Marnier, lets it sit for a moment, then runs to take out the dinner rolls from the oven, stir the tomato sauce, check the carrots and slide the chicken breasts into the oven before returning to break the cake into pieces to fit into the baskets.
Meanwhile, her maid, Felie Cadacio, who has arrived in gray dress and white apron to help her, begins to whip the cream so that Astraldi can pipe it around the inside edge after adding home-made pastry cream and sprinkling with chopped Lindt bittersweet chocolate. She then tucks in the strawberries that have been marinating in Grand Marnier and sugar. The effect is stunning -- a red, white, gold and blue sculpture. "But crunchy," says Astraldi, smiling. "When people bite in, all you hear is chomp, chomp."
The countdown begins as Cadacio begins to make toast, cutting off the crusts, buttering and cutting the slices into four with scissors and spreading with three different toppings: gravlax, Parma ham and red caviar cream. She then lays a folded white linen towel on a large blue plate and fills the plate with the topped squares.
Finally, everything is ready. There are no fewer than nine bouquets of flowers, fresh and dried, placed around the living room and dining room. The square dining room table ("It's more intimate, everyone can talk to each other") is set with the first-course fork placed on the right, next to the knife ("We have found this way, people are not confused about which fork to use first"), hand-written place cards, and silver service plates at each place.
In the kitchen, with its abundance of gadgets -- coffee grinder, coffee maker, espresso maker, chopper, mixer, strainers, juicers, scales, meat grinder and a Parmesan grinder ("very important in this house") -- Cadacio waits. Plates of snacks are filled to be passed around. A bottle of white wine, red wine -- Italian, of course -- and champagne are either chilling or breathing. A silver tray is ready to be hoisted by Cadacio and presented to the left of each guest.
Astraldi wipes her hands, excuses herself, and disappears upstairs. She has exactly 15 minutes to get ready before her guests arrive.
GRAVLAX (6 appetizer servings)
The gravlax, cured with coarse salt, white pepper, dill and a bit of sugar, is delicious. It's moister than most, Astraldi says, because she only cures it for 48 hours instead of the longer three to five days that is done by Swedes or Danes.
2 pounds salmon fillet
1/2 cup coarse salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup fresh dill, stems removed
1 tablespoon crushed white pepper
Cover the salmon on both sides with salt. Add the sugar and cover with dill on both sides. Add the white pepper.
Wrap up in parchment paper and then aluminum foil. Refrigerate for 48 to 72 hours. Slice and serve with buttered toast.
Per serving: 313 calories, 43 gm protein, 7 gm carbohydrates, 12 gm fat, 2 gm saturated fat, 75 mg cholesterol, 6485 mg sodium.
TOMATO RISOTTO WITH SHRIMP AND CHEESE SAUCE (8 servings)
The tomato risotto is perfect for company because the rice is done separately and the tomato sauce, shrimp and cheese sauce are added at the last minute.
2 stalks celery, coarsely chopped
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon white peppercorns
2 whole cloves
Salt to taste
1 1/4 pounds shrimp
2 cups arborio rice (12 ounces or 3/4 pound)
FOR TOMATO SAUCE:
2 stalks celery, chopped
1/2 large onion, chopped
4 to 5 tablespoons butter
2-pound can tomatoes, drained and chopped
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup fresh basil, chopped
FOR THE CHEESE SAUCE:
1 cup milk
4 to 5 tablespoons butter
6 1/2 ounces of Swiss gruye`re, grated
2 teaspoons kirsch wasser
Put the carrot, celery, onion, white peppercorns, cloves and salt in 4 cups of water and heat. When the water begins to boil, add the shrimp, and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, or until cooked through. Remove from the water. Strain liquid, to use in the water for the rice.
For the tomato sauce, saute' chopped celery and onion in 3 tablespoons butter until wilted. Add tomatoes and simmer for 45 minutes on very low heat. Add sugar and basil when halfway through cooking, and swirl in remaining butter at the end.
For the cheese sauce, heat milk until almost boiling, add butter and stir until smooth. Whisk in grated cheese so it melts nicely. (If it's too thin, add cornstarch and, optionally, Parmesan.) Add kirsch wasser.
To cook rice, use water that shrimp was cooked in (adding more water, if necessary, to bring it to four cups.) Bring water to boil. Reduce heat and add rice. Cook for 13 minutes, stirring frequently, until it is slightly al dente.
To assemble, add shrimp to warm tomato sauce. Stir rice into tomato mixture and add 1/3 of the cheese sauce. Check seasoning, adding kirsch wasser if desired. Put in 6-cup mold, to shape the rice. Unmold and pour remaining cheese sauce on top.
Per serving: 457 calories, 27 gm protein, 47 gm carbohydrates, 17 gm fat, 10 gm saturated fat, 157 mg cholesterol, 466 mg sodium.
CHICKEN ASTRALDI (8 servings)
2 pounds puff pastry
FOR THE MUSHROOM PUREE:
3 ounces mild Italian sausage
3 tablespoons onion, chopped
3/4 pound mushrooms, sliced
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/4 cup white wine
3 tablespoons cream mixed with 2 teaspoons of flour
Nutmeg and oregano, to taste
FOR THE CHICKEN:
4 boneless and skinless chicken breasts, halved
2 tablespoons butter
8 slices Parma ham or prosciutto
Thaw puff pastry. Crumble sausage in a skillet over medium heat and saute' for 1 minute. Add onion and saute' until wilted, about 5 minutes. Add mushrooms and continue to saute' for about 15 minutes. Season with parsley, salt and pepper. Add white wine. Turn up heat and cook until wine has evaporated, about 10 minutes. Reduce heat. Add cream and flour mixture, nutmeg and oregano, and blend thoroughly. With a sharp knife, cut whole chicken breasts into two fillets. Then carefully split the fillets in half, lengthwise, about 3/4 of the way through, so you have eight butterfly-shaped breasts.
Saute' butterflied fillets in butter on one side, and then fold one side over the other, cooked side in, so it closes like a pocket and only one uncooked side is being saute'ed. Flip again and finish saute'ing on the other side. Fill the chicken pocket with about 2 teaspoons of mushroom pure'e and wrap with Parma ham or prosciutto.
Wrap the chicken breasts in plastic wrap and place in refrigerator to cool for about 20 minutes. Remove plastic wrap from chicken bundles, then wrap the chicken breasts in puff pastry, trimming excess pastry. (Excess pastry can be used to make designs on the tops of pastry wraps. Crimp pastry edges to seal. Put the breasts back into refrigerator for at least half an hour before cooking. Bake at 350 degrees on a cookie sheet for 45 minutes to one hour until they turn golden brown.
Per serving: 906 calories, 39 gm protein, 46 gm carbohydrates, 63 gm fat, 35 gm saturated fat, 231 mg cholesterol, 943 mg sodium.
Nina Killham is a Washington freelance writer.