Sit by my side, come as close as the air
Share in a memory of gray
And wander in my words
And dream about the pictures that I play of changes
Phil Ochs (1940 -1976)
At the back or the front of many cookbooks, there are often pages of suggested menus using the recipes in the books. This is thoughtful.
Reading a menu is a pleasant exercise done at home without the slight panic I sometimes feel in a restaurant. What if, for example, you read through a menu and spot nine different things you’d love to eat but none of them appear together? The chicken salad calls out for the tarragon in the shrimp toast which itself could use some dill. Likewise, couldn’t the mushrooms slide out from their roost in the soup and sauce the steak?
There’s also the issue of cost. Reading a menu without the possibility of the food actually materializing is an exercise in frugality and maybe some frustration. But on the positive side, a menu that appeals is like a daydream: full of possibility. Maybe I’ll make this, you think, Yes, the entire thing. Or… I’ll change it.
Timing is important. Don’t read menus 30 minutes before you want to put dinner on the table. You won’t be relaxed; the menus will all look either impossible or unappealing; and instead of a delightful wander through a future meal, you’ll be gritting your teeth and wondering if the water will ever boil.
I get a huge charge out of planning menus. Whether or not it comes to pass, I picture myself and others swooning over each bowl and platter, shouting out for seconds, elbowing their neighbor for those last crumbs, and all the while, merry conversation dips and peaks and everyone is happy. Or perhaps, the meal is à deux: quiet, tender, sharing a plate. That is what daydreams are for.
Recently, I’ve been reading The Raw and the Cooked, Adventures of a Roving Gourmand, essays on food and nature by the recently departed Jim Harrison. His exuberance and sheer stamina when it comes to consumption (liquid/solid/gas) are mind-blowing and every page brings a chuckle. I particularly like his appreciation of cookbook writers. When he cooks or eats, he doesn’t hesitate to give credit. And he savors his memories of meals as if selecting the best parts of a grand menu.
As much as I’m enjoying Jim’s mad romps from the frying pan to the bear cave, my mind keeps straying to another and altogether different artist.
The late and beautiful Phil Ochs* wrote powerful songs that were stirring, distinctive, and witty. Also poignant. He knew at a young age, change – whether it’s what we eat, think about, act upon, react to, even love and hate – is a constant. Perhaps it’s that poignancy that made me think of him as I read Jim Harrison’s essays mostly written twenty-five years ago, and feel fresh and alive. Harrison’s writings might just stand the test of time even as the food world -or the discussion of it – continues to expand.
It’s not hard to examine change in one’s own life but some ways are more palatable than others. If you happen to write out menus, keep them, and then read them from a great distance (of time), the migrations of your life will be immediately apparent. Rotel? I bought that? Drank whole milk? Had crazy Cousin Hetty over every week?
And yet, there’s continuity. If a menu features Chicken Cordon Bleu and ice cream, I know children were present. If kale is on the menu, I know my husband was not – or wished he weren’t. Smoked salmon rillettes? It’s Christmas. Fried chicken and bread and butter sandwiches? Picnics. Addie’s Sandwich Loaf? Baby shower. Cheese course? Adults (husband definitely in attendance). Smorgasbord? I’m channeling my grandmother.
So quite apart from the struggle between food nostalgia and current fashion, reading and writing menus is a good exercise. What the hell do you serve with—- (fill in the blank). If you write it down, you can easily see where you’ve repeated something or loaded up on something else. For example, you don’t need to start with fish, continue with fish, and end with something salty. Composing a menu like any plan also helps with accomplishing the whole meal. It’s just another form of list. And if you’re sharing the effort with others, it’s easier to parcel out rather than simply saying, oh I don’t care, bring anything.
A Roster of Menus which I’m fond of…here goes:
Shall we start with a Cocktail Party? True, it’s mid-20th century but I swear it’s coming back – or maybe has never left. In France, the cocktail dinatoire (emphasis on heavy hors d’oeuvres) is à la mode as folks are discovering that parties of this nature are long on fun and short on hustling back and forth to the kitchen. And the party ends at a reasonable time. Theoretically. Another great thing about a cocktail party? You can invite everyone and not worry, ohmygod, will they get along for 5 hours clustered around a dinner table?
Crudités with Spicy Peanut sauce
Shrimp with Cocktail Sauce
Smoked Salmon Rillettes with Rye Bread
To be passed
Pecan biscuits with smoked turkey, mole mayonnaise, and tiny radish spikes
Oregonzola and Hazelnut Puffs
Asparagus, prosciutto, risotto, and truffle oil (nicely rolled up)
At the bar
Salted almonds, cherry tomatoes, potato chips, and olives
A Spring Dinner. Four people might enjoy this one. It’s on the hearty side but springtime can be chilly. You are still wearing a coat so some roasted lamb will be just right.
Roast Lamb with Pomegranate Molasses
Polenta with Thyme and Goat Cheese
A Moroccan picnic is a lot of fun. Especially is you are lying on a blanket (which could be in your living room). If you want to share the cooking, this is a good menu. An added bonus: everything can be served at room temperature. For 25 more or less.
Chicken with preserved lemon and olives + couscous
Carrot and rice salad
Cucumbers with mint and yoghurt
Merguez (Spicy lamb sausages)
Eggplant with cumin and coriander
Orange salad with rosewater
Here’s a mighty menu: an Italian Autumn Feast. Most of these dishes can be prepared ahead and arranged on platters. A good choice for a wedding. Modest or massive quantities possible.
Roasted eggplant with almonds
Sopressata, Prosciutto, and Mortadella
Mushrooms in red wine
Shrimps in lemon and olive oil
Artichokes filled with Tomatoes and Orange Mascarpone Sauce
Red peppers and capers
Striped bruscetta: pesto and white bean
Champagne Risotto with Radicchio
pasta al forno with porcini and gorgonzola
fennel with parmesan
kale salad with pine nuts and currants
focaccia, ciabatta, and grissini
Fruit Baskets with pears, apples, grapes and persimmons
The Wedding Cookie Table
Biscotti, amaretti, cannoli, chocolate truffle cookies, anise cookies,
creampuffs, marzipan shells
Castagnaccio (chestnut cake)
Vin Santo Grappa
Before indigestion sets in, I’ll skip to a slightly fussy Small Dinner, French in inspiration, for 4 – 8 people, depending on your energy.
Foie Gras with Figs
Napa Cabbage and Spinach Sauté
Plateau de Fromages
A Summer Birthday Party (in this case, it was for a 17 year old) This one is easy serve family style or at a buffet. Makes a very nice lunch.
Spicy Watermelon Salad with Feta and Basil
Grilled Albacore Salade Niçoise
Fromages and Baguettes
I suppose I should conclude with hot chocolate and cookies but instead, I return to a favorite. A Swedish Christmas Buffet.
Caviar on toast with Champagne
Gravlax (gravad lax) with lemon, capers and red onion served with crisp rye breads
Sillsalad: Swedish herring, apple, beet and potato salad.
(Herring can be served alongside if you have picky eaters)
Köttbuller (Swedish meat balls) with lingonberries
Jansson’s Temptation (potatoes, cream, anchovies- or more herring)
Cucumbers, pickled with dill
Rõdkål (Red cabbage)
Chevre with grapes and knäckebröd
Holiday Cookies (pepparkokar, Farmor’s pecan balls, and cutout cookies)
Acquavit Jul Glögg
(See below for Recipes)
* Phil Ochs. Forty years ago this month, Phil Ochs, singer and songwriter, died by his own hand after a short and often painful life. His songs meant so much to me in my late teenage years and early twenties. And still, when I hear his voice, I get choked up. I’m not alone: he is beloved and recently his daughter has given his entire archive to the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Wander in his words sometime.
Recipes: Just a few recipes as many of the dishes on the menu are pretty self-explanatory. But if you’d like a specific one, just write to me.
From the Cocktail Party menu:
Spicy Peanut Dip
¼ cup tea, cooled
¼ cup red wine vinegar
½ cup soy sauce
2 cups salted peanuts
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 cup mayonnaise
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon chili paste (or more, to taste)
In a food processor, grind nuts until fine. Add everything else. The dip will become quite thick and can be thinned with water or tea.
Serve this with a variety of raw vegetables.
From the Spring Dinner:
Rhubarb cooks very quickly. Using this method (which I would call baked but is often referred to as roasted), the pieces keep their shape and that’s nice. You can easily double the amounts.
1 pound rhubarb, cut into 1 inch chunks
1/2 cup sugar
Preheat oven to 375°
Cover a baking sheet with foil or parchment paper. Strew the rhubarb evenly in the pan and sprinkle with the sugar. Bake about 10 minutes – poke with a fork. If the rhubarb seems quite firm, give it a few more minutes. Cool.
For the napoleons:
1 package puff pastry
2 tablespoons sugar, approximately
Unroll the pastry and cut into squares or rectangles. Place on a baking sheet (covered with parchment paper) and sprinkle the tops with a little sugar. Bake according to package instructions. Do not underbake – or the interior will be soft.
To put it all together:
The rhubarb, the pastry square, a little confectioner’s sugar
Spiced crème fraiche (mix crème fraiche with a little cinnamon, nutmeg and sugar to taste. Don’t make too sweet)
Split each pastry piece in half and place a spoonful of spiced crème fraiche on the bottom. Add a large spoonful of rhubarb. Put the top on and dust with confectioner’s sugar.
From a Moroccan Picnic:
Chicken with Lemons and Olives (Djej Masquid Bil Beid)
For the real thing, go to Paula Wolfert’s Couscous And Other Good Food From Morocco. She would not recognize her recipe because I made so many changes. I sometimes omit the eggs when making this dish for a crowd but they add richness to the sauce. The pleasure of making this dish comes from removing the bones, etc. from the chicken; a little time consuming but well worth it. A fresh local chicken makes a difference.
For 6 – 8
2 chickens, cleaned and cut up as described below
1 cup chopped parsley
3/4 cup chopped onions
3 cloves garlic chopped
Salt to taste
1/8 teaspoon saffron (more if you have it and want to part with it)
1 T Ras El Hanout* (or ½ generous teaspoon ground ginger)
3/4 teaspoon black pepper
3 cinnamon sticks
2 preserved lemons**
½ Cup lemon juice
8 olives, pitted and chopped (such as Kalamata olives)
6 eggs – optional
Clean the chickens as follows: wash in salted water and drain. Pound 2 cloves garlic and 1T salt into a paste and rub flesh and cavities of chickens. Remove excess fat. Rinse well with water. Cut up chickens into pieces and place in a large covered casserole or Dutch oven.
Add 2/3 Cup of the parsley, the garlic, onion, salt, spices, half the butter and cinnamon sticks. Add 2 Cups water and bring to a boil. Simmer covered for one hour. Chickens should be very tender.
Remove chickens from broth and remove skin and bones but do not shred too finely. Remove cinnamon sticks from broth.
Reduce broth by boiling it to a thick rich sauce (about 2 Cups). Check seasonings.
Add remaining parsley, olives, lemons, lemon juice, remaining butter, and the chicken, cover and cook until just hot. Can be made a day in advance and reheated.
To use the egg enrichment: After reducing the broth, put the chicken back in and then in a separate bowl, beat the eggs until frothy and add the remaining parsley, olives, lemons, and lemon juice. Pour this mixture over the chicken and sauce. Cover the chicken and bake for 20 minutes. Remove cover and dot eggs with the remaining butter and bake 10 minutes more or until the eggs are completely set.
* Ras El Hanout means “top of the shop” – it is a spice mixture than can include up to 40 spices depending on who is doing the mixing. It’s not that difficult to find at fancier grocery stores or online.
**Preserved lemons (Hamad Mraquade) – You can find these in jars in specialty stores but if you have a source of perfumey lemons (Meyer lemons would be great), go ahead and make these yourself.
Wash 2 ripe lemons and dry well. Cut each into 8 wedges. Toss with 1/3 cup coarse salt and place lemons in a pint jar, pressing them down to bring out juice. Pour in more fresh lemon juice to cover, about 1/2 cup and seal with a non-metallic lid. Leave lemons at room temperature for 7 days, shaking jar daily to distribute salt and juice. Add olive oil to cover, and then refrigerate. Keeps well for ages.
To use: wash well in running water otherwise it will be too salty. Usually, the wedges are sliced in slivers or chopped.
Using chicken thighs, brown them first in oil (rub with garlic first). Sauté one onion. Put in a big casserole with all the other seasonings and simmer about 30 minutes. Add the olives and chopped preserved lemon at the end. Cook 10 more minutes.
From the Italian Autumn Feast:
Tomato Filled Artichokes With Orange Mascarpone Sauce
This dish is dream for artichoke lovers. It is also a labor of love. If you’re lucky, you can prepare the artichokes outside on a nice day (with a big trash bag for the leaves). The ingredients can all be prepared a few days in advance and at serving time, the platter can be quickly put together. This recipe was originally for 25 servings. I’ve cut down to 6, which is manageable- but I’m happy to provide the larger one if anyone is interested.
6 globe artichokes
1 lemon cut in half
1 bay leaf
1 large garlic clove
1 small sprig rosemary or thyme
1 pound tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped in a small dice
1-2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1 shallot, finely diced
Garnish: 2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
To prepare the artichoke bottoms: Cut through the leaves of the artichoke about midway from the top. Working with a small sharp paring knife, remove all the leaves and green fibrous parts from the artichokes, cutting and trimming until the base or artichoke bottom is exposed. Leave the fuzzy choke intact. Drop each artichoke bottom into a big bowl of water. Squeeze one of the lemon halves into the water.
Bring a big pot of water to a boil and add the remaining lemon half (squeeze it first into the water), the bay leaf, garlic, herbs and peppercorns. Simmer 10 minutes. Add the artichoke bottoms and cook gently until just done, about 15-20 minutes. Test with a sharp knife to determine doneness. Drain the artichokes, reserving the liquid. When cool, scoop out the chokes with a teaspoon. Store the artichokes in the liquid, once it has cooled. This step may be done one or two days in advance.
Toss the tomatoes with the tarragon, balsamic vinegar, and shallots. Season generously with salt and pepper and store tightly covered in the refrigerator.
ORANGE MASCARPONE SAUCE
This recipe makes enough for a generous dollop of sauce on each artichoke. Mascarpone is quite expensive and rich. If the cost and calories seem excessive, you may substitute a good quality Greek yogurt for the mascarpone.
6 ounces mascarpone
Grated rind and juice of 1/2 naval orange
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Salt and pepper
Beat the mascarpone with a whisk in a large bowl. Add the grated rind, orange juice, and thyme. Add the lemon juice slowly to avoid curdling the sauce. Season generously with salt and pepper. Store in the refrigerator in a covered container.
Arrange the artichokes on large platters and spoon some tomato filling over each bottom. The filling may spill over which is fine – this is not supposed to look too structured. Add a spoonful of the orange mascarpone on top of each artichoke and sprinkle with a few pine nuts. You may also pass the sauce in a small bowl separately.
From the Small Dinner:
3 things make this dish memorable: good quality veal, fresh sage and a tasty salami.
4 thin slices of veal
8 slices Italian salami
8 – 16 fresh sage leaves
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon oil
½ cup red wine
1/4 cup cream ( or crème fraîche)
Salt and pepper
Pound the veal escalopes to flatten and cut each in two cross-wise. Place a slice of salami on each piece of veal, followed by one or two sage leaves. Season with lightly salt and pepper and roll up. Tie with string or use toothpicks. These can be refrigerated until ready to cook.
Dust the veal birds with flour, shaking off the excess. Melt the butter and oil in a frying pan and sauté the paupiettes fairly slowly until browned on all sides.
Pour the wine over the veal and bring it just to the boil. Lower the heat and add the cream to the sauté pan and heat to reduce the sauce for a minute or two.
To serve: Remove the paupiettes, pour the sauce over, and sprinkle with parsley.
From a Summer Birthday Party:
Spicy Watermelon Salad with Feta and Basil
This is from the Oregonian newspaper with a few changes on my part.
4 cups cubed watermelon
1 jalapeno, cut very small
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
½ teaspoon sugar
4 ounces feta cheese
¼ cup fresh basil leaves, torn
¼ cup pecans, toasted and chopped
Toss the watermelon gently with the jalapeno. Divide among 4 serving plates.
Combine, the lime juice, sesame oil and sugar and drizzle over the salads. Top each with some of the feta, basil and some chopped pecans.
From the Swedish Christmas Buffet:
From Farmor (my grandmother). If you are crazy about meatballs, this recipe can be expanded to serve a huge throng. The meats can be bought already ground if you’d prefer.
1 ½ pounds beef chuck
2 cups water
2 to 3 eggs
½ cup breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons onion, minced
Butter for frying
Grind pork and beef together finely. Brown the onion lightly and mix with all the ingredients with the hands. Shape into balls. Fry in butter until browned and place in a large pot .
Make a gravy with the pan drippings adding 1 tablespoon butter, 2 tablespoons flour and 1 – 2 cups of water (or broth) to thicken to a proper consistency. Add ½ C cream.
Pour this over the meatballs and simmer ½ hour. Serve warm.
Meatballs can also be served dry and cold on a smorgasbord.
Until the next time! Mary Bartlett