In the brisk breezes of mid-autumn, with the holidays coming on, one's thoughts turn inexorably to entertaining and then, these days, to the potentially alarming cost of having your friends in. Despite spiraling costs of food and drink, however, it is possible to entertain gracefully with palatable food, some of it unusually toothsome, and remain solvent. The viands might not be haute cuisine, but they can be foods for which you have shopped carefully and devoted time and attention to the preparation so your guests will leave the table with fond memories. As Brillat-Savarin wrote, "To invite someone for dinner is to take care of his happiness during the time he remains in your home."
Recently some friends of long standing announced that they were going to France on an extended vacation. We decided to wish them bon voyage with a dinner, one I would cook myself with no outside help, except the usual hand my wife and our children provide.
We thought that the main course should be out of the ordinary, one that I knew well and that was economically feasible. That spelled boned and skinned chicken breasts veronique, for which some preparation could be done in advance. Then relatively fast last-minute cooking would make it possible to be without guests almost uninterruptedly after they arrived.
The recipe for the main course grew out of a diet formula dish I used in an article for this magazine some time ago. It was good fare considering the fact that it employed diet margarine and skimmed milk. For the festive dinner, I changed all that and used plenty of butter and thick cream in addition to more wine than the diet version call for.
A cardinal necessity for success at a dinner of this kind is to buy the best ingredients you can afford.
For a chicken dish, the best in Washington is Perdue brand, the poulet de Bresse of the area. (Perdue chickens are available at Glover Park Market, Magruder's, some Giant supermarkets and other locations.) Perdue says its quality inspectors are tougher than those of the U.S. government.
Despite all these intricate and demanding pains of production, however, the cost to the consumer is only somewhat more than other brands.
But of course the selection of the main course at you lunch or dinner will depend in part on the kind of event you plan -- a buffet or a sit-down meal. In general the event will come off with more eclat and sound cooking if guests are seated. The most workable numbers are six or eight. Those totals make it possible to do with little, or maybe no, outside help, especially if you have children who can be a part of the event and help you serve and clear. A reasonable number of guests at the table, moreover, makes for leisurely but stimulating conversation in which everyone can participate.
A seated dinner for eight should cost less than half that of a buffet for 16 because you can calculate what you need to serve adequate portions without a lot of food left on the plates of your guests. With that kind of planning, you can adjust your menu to include some things that otherwise because of expense you might not include -- a better grade of pate, perhaps, or oysters.
I'm for serving oysters on the deep sheel so the diner can enjoy sipping the oyster liquor after eating the oyster. It is extremely flavorsome. I cannot endorse assaulting the oyster and its juice with the tomato-based sauce that almost universally serves for a dip for the bivalves and overpowers their natural taste. Better, a squeeze of lemon, a twist of fresh pepper and perhaps a dot of horseradish and a drop of Tabasco. Better still is sauce magnonette, which is freshly and coarsely ground pepper mixed with finely minced shallots and wine vinegar. Only about a half teaspoonful is needed per oyster.
In france, pain bis, a brown bread, is served with oysters; quality pumpernickel, thinly sliced and spread lightly with unsalted butter, is a good American equivalent.
If you should want to substitute an oyster soup, follow the recipe on page 16, reducing the amount of liquid by about a third, and the number of oysters per serving to three select size.
As an after-theater supper, the main attraction could be an oyster stew, made according to the same recipe, multiplying the amounts by the number of guests, with six select size oysters per serving. Triangles of toast with crusts removed and sweet button on the side go well with the dish.
Advance planning and preparation will substantially ease your entertainment.
For instance, I thought a simple but good homemade pate would be a delightful opening to our meal. Moreover, it would be far less costly then one bought outside. I made it with chicken livers that cost only $1. It also had the virtue of advance preparation, in contrast to an alternative practice of mine that is particularly suited to small birds. That is to finely mince heart, gizzard and liver of the fowl, saute briefly in butter with a taste-generating portion
While our small bar was well-supplied, white wine filled the glasses of the six drinks ordered. The wine was a sound companion for the pate, which we served with the potable. We had a few bottles of Alsatian Sylvaner, the last of a Christmas gift, that went well with all the dishes we served.
In advance, my wife trimmed and cubed the fresh pineapple, then sprinkled it with Falernum. (This works for most fruits and berries, especially strawberries.)
She had also fixed a salad of mixed greens (but no iceberg). I had made the dressing, which is about six-to-one vinegar and oil and heaping teaspoon of Dijon mustard for a total of about a cup.
She measured the right amount of homemade chicken stock and rice.
I cut the white seedless grapes in two. (It's worth the trouble of seeding others. Canned seedless are too sweet, but drained and washed may suit some palate.)
There was little to do with the chicken in advance, other than to finish the trimming of fat from the meat.
But I made the sauce the day before. I had my own chicken broth which had been fabricated several days earlier. (College Inn, Swanson's and Campbell's are acceptable canned ones.) I reduced a cup and a half of white wine to half a cup, thus burning off the alcohol and concentrating the wine flavor. I made a light sauce with the instant blending flour and wine with the chicken broth, and when it had cooked enough to eliminate the flour taste, I added the cream and seasonings, then let it bubble until it was thick enough to coat a spoon. It gave off an enticing aroma. (Similar recipe below.)
Meanwhile I fixed the mushrooms, wiping them with paper toweling, slicing them, then sauteing them in a bit of butter until they were barely cooked.
Total cooking time for the chicken breasts would be about a half hour, a bit less for the rice: just right for the white wine and pate.
I had clarified butter on hand (see recipes) in which I sauteed the lightly floured breasts until lightly golden. I then added the sauce and let the breasts simmer about 15 minutes on each side. During the last 10 minutes I added the mushrooms and the grapes, which had been heated, then drained -- I didn't want to dilute the sauce with the juice of the grapes. At the last minute I swirled a lump of unsalted butter in the sauce and checked the taste. One of our sons served the portions that had been put on warm plates in the kitchen.
He arranged them so some edges of the golden chicken showed, which was set off by the snowy rice and the sauce, which was an appetizing amber. The grapes lent an inviting green, and the mushrooms blended nicely in color as well as taste.
Since everyone in the group was widely traveled and had spent extended periods in France (one guest was French), food was a prime topic of conversation. Our guests wanted to know the details of how everything had been made, especially the sauce for the chicken. Not being a secretive cook, I readily consented to supply recipes.
The good food and wine stimulated the conversation, which almost inevitably returned to food. No one was trying to emulate Careme, but everyone was trying at home to improve the cuisine and also stay within a family budget. In our talking a number of money-saving tips emerged. A selection of them accompany this article.
As we talked, everyone finished his portion of chicken, mopping up my sauce with bits of Bread Oven French bread, the best this side of Paris.
For a penultimate course the boucheron goat cheese got cheers, as did the Scandia, sharp, tasty -- and low in fat, an added virtue.
The fresh pineapple was a fitting ending to the meal, and of course everyone wanted to know what the flavoring was -- the Falernum. We drank the Alsatian Sylvaner throughout the meal, and it went well with all the foods, including cheese.
Espresso, was welcomed, but interestingly, no one accepted a liqueur. Recipes Oyster Stew One serving 2 tablespoons butter 6 to 8 select- or count-sized oysters 2 ounces fish stock or bottled clam juice 1 teaspoon finely miniced fresh dill or 1/2 teaspoon dried Dash of Worcestershire and Tabasco 1/4 teaspoon celery salt 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper 1 cup milk or half-and-half 1 tablespoon chili sauce (optional)
Melt butter in top of a double boiler, keeping heat low. Add all other ingredients except milk. Cook gently, stirring, until oysters plump and edges curl. Add milk or half-and-half. Continue cooking until liquid is hot, but not boiling. Serve immediately in bowl, with chili sauce stirred in if used.
If used as an appetizer preceding dinner, cut the number of oysters to about three per portion, and the amount of liquid. Fruit with Falernum
It would be diffcult to imagine any fruit what would not marry happily with Falernum. Because it blends so pleasantly with freshly squeezed lime juice, it is a delightful sweetener for daiquiris.
Try Falernum with whatever fruit is in season as an ending to any meal. Figure about a teaspoon of Falernum to each serving of fruit, which sould be sectioned or cut or both, then turned with the Falernum and chilled before serving. Chicken Liver Pate 1 pound chicken livers 4 sprigs fresh dill or 1/2 teaspoon dried 4 scallions finely minced 1/2 teaspoon white pepper 1/2 teaspoon each of ground cloves, giner and nutmeg 1/2 teaspoon dried sage 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard 4 tablespoons unsalted butter 4 cloves garlic finely minced 1/2 jigger brandy
Simmer livers for about 10 minutes or until barely pink. Drain livers, remove fat and veins. Grind livers with fine blade of grinder. Add all other ingredients in the order listed, stirring, or use an electric mixer: this produces a moderately rough pate, but it is not meant to be smooth. It will be moderately spicy. You may wish to tone it down by using less spice the next time you make it.
This recipe has evolved over a long time and borrows from French and American sources. Fresh dill is a pleasing touch, and the amount of sage gives it authority. It's inexpensive, easy to make and delicious. French Fried Parsley
This garnish not only is rarey seen in this country, but is unusally light and tasty. It goes well with just about any dish, but especially those that need contrasting color and texture. It would be fine with the chicken breasts veronique.
Wash the parsley and dry it thoroughly. Cut off the stems, then drop a kitchen spoonful of the leaves at a time into 275 degrees oil. They will crisp and become almost black in a second or two. Chicken Breats Veronique 2 tablespoons butter or margarine 4 whole boned and skinned chicken breasts, halved Salt, pepper and thyme 3/4 cup chicken broth 3/4 cup white wine 1 cup cream 2 tablespoons each minced scallions and parsley 1 clove garlic minced 1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms, steemed Instant blending flour or arrowroot 1 tablespoon medium sweet sherry 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce Nutmeg 3/4 cups seedless grapes sliced longitudinally
Sprinkle chicken pieces with salt, pepper and thyme and saute in butter until golden. Add chicken broth, wine, onion, parsley and garlic and simmer gently for about 25 minutes depending on size of breats. Remove breasts from pan and keep warm. If a tiny amount of fat has surfaced, remove with paper towel. If necessary add enough chicken broth to make about 3 cups of sauce which should be fairly thick -- if not, thicken with instant blending flour or arrowroot. Add mushrooms, sherry and grapes, then chicken and heat gently. Celery Bouillon 2 cups strong beef broth, homemade if possible 3/4 cup water 1/2 cup finely minced celery 4 whole cloves 2 tablespoons dry sherry 2 tablespoons minced parsley
Simmer all ingredients except sherry and parsley for five minutes. Strain.
Add sherry and return to a simmer. Add parsley. Correct seasoning.