Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A mid-autumn dinner for good friends and good wine

There have been a host of unreported, good dinners. A few times there was the lamb tagine with preserved lemons and olives, as told by Paula Wolfert, reintrepreted by me for (organic) veal. A couple of other times, for fish-eating vegetarians, I served the Goan fish curry, or "Meel molee", from Camellia Panjabi's fabulous "50 great curries of India". I've also grown confident enough with spices to have made a couple of improvised vegetable curries, with onion, curcuma, ground cumin and ground coriander seeds, sometimes mustard seeds, a mix in which the vegetables are sautéed - courgettes, carrots, flat beans, anything - with a little tomato or a little lime, and possibly coconut milk, or yoghurt. For everyday cooking, there have been various versions of the pasta "alla Noga", with shallots or with garlic, always with ginger, and tomatoes, curcuma, saffron, rosemary or thyme, chili pepper and a little Espelette, a knob of butter and Marsala wine - for pasta and sometimes with fish added, fresh red snapper or canned tuna, sometimes then with olives, sometimes with carrots, sometimes with both. Throughout the prolonged late summer, I often served as a starter the wonderful, elegant salad of fennel, feta cheese, dry-cured black olives, sliced orange, pomegranate seeds, and a little arugula, with a dressing of pomegranate molasses, balsamic vinegar, mustard and olive oil - a combination of recipes. Now that season is over.

In fact the first serious, cold days of a late New York autumn are finally here, and tonight something large, generous, unself-conscious and classic was needed. There were four of us, one Neapolitan friend, Rosanna, visiting and partly staying here, who's been eating with us almost every day; and another dear friend, David, who arrived expecting the good meals he's usually served, needing the treat - and deserving it. Last time he'd brought a bottle of Margaux, Prieuré-Lichine 1996, and tonight the meal would be conceived around it. It was duly decanted early on.

And so I decided to cook Patricia Wells's beef daube, the one with white wine and mustard. A simple, basic, reliable recipe sure to produce a warm, rich, spicy, tender meat that would honour the claret. But we started with another Wells recipe described elsewhere in this diary, from the same Wells provençal cookbook - fennel, sliced, sautéed then slow-cooked in chicken broth, to which one then adds some ground black pepper and sliced or grated parmesan before putting it under the grill for a few minutes. The result tonight, perhaps because the fennel is rather watery these days, was a bit mushy, and pale, so I served it on a bed of fresh rucola, whose spiciness and crunch counterbalanced the sweet softness of the fennel.

The daube had been cooking for over two hours by the time we got to it: the (organic) meat browned in a little oil, then set to a side, with salt and pepper, in a bowl; a whole bottle of white wine (I mixed half of one left-over and half of the Falanghina we had for aperitivo - feared it was a mistake but it wasn't, as it turned out), simmered until reduced by about two thirds. (I added curcuma to it...) Then, one stirs in two tablespoons of Dijon mustard, and whisks, as she suggests, until creamy. The beef is then returned to the pan, along with three thinly sliced onions, three sliced garlic cloves, a can of tomatoes with the juice, and a bouquet garni (I only had our fresh thyme, some rosemary, fresh parsley - had to use dried tarragon, not much, and a couple of dried bay leaves; fresh is better though). I added a couple of strands of saffron. I thought of adding grated orange peel but then decided to keep it all very simple and classic tonight. The pan was covered, and so the daube simmered, releasing lovely aromas throughout the flat.

Meanwhile, I made the fennel; quartered potatoes and roasted them in olive oil with garlic, our rosemary, salt and pepper; and made a dish from the River Café Cookbook, reported once before in this diary: mashed celeriac, simply sautéed in olive oil in which one has browned some garlic, with chili pepper and thyme, then cooked with chicken stock and grossly mashed with a fork once soft. Once we were ready for the main course, I presented the potatoes at the center of a bowl, surrounded by the mash. The daube was presented on its own, of course. The result was lovely, and certainly did do justice to the elegant, sober, subtly delineated, slightly melancholy, wholly satisfying wine, which responded as gracefully as could be to its accompaniment.

For dessert, we had some blueberries and blackberries, and a "fond" of vanilla ice cream: I spooned the ice-cream into four small bowls, topped it with the berries, threw on them a little of our fresh mint (still alive, on December 4th), some ground pepper; and inserted on the side a slab of 85% Lindt chocolate, also a left-over. Worked well. Tisane to finish - a mix of verveine, tilleul, and the "grand restaurant" mix from the Herboristerie du Palais Royal. Homes away from homes.

Noga

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