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In the late 1970s we took a gastronomic "Tour de France" to explore the country's regional cuisines and sample the food of Michelin-starred restaurants. We balanced the prodigality of our meals by sleeping in our camping car. One memorable incident at a famous Riviera restaurant was meeting a Dutch couple who invited us to their luxurious "sleeping place" - their yacht in Monaco's marina. Needless to say, we couldn't invite them to ours.
Before the trip we did our pleasant homework reading guidebooks like Les 50 Meilleurs Restaurants de France by Nicolas de Rabaudy, on the country's best restaurants, and planning our menus according to their specialties.
Obviously, this did not result in health-conscious menus, but here was our opportunity to delight in the best cuisine France had to offer. To our surprise, in several of these grand temples of gastronomy our waiter cautioned Faye: "Madame, you shouldn't order fish in butter sauce after an appetizer of mushrooms with creme fraiche in puff pastry, followed by a chocolate terrine with creme anglaise. Your meal will lack balance." Now we rarely order or cook this way. With super-rich sauces out of fashion in the West, such butter-loaded meals are an oddity.
Or so we thought. But recently we were invited to dinner at a fine American restaurant in Los Angeles. Our set menu was as rich as our extravagances of decades ago - salad with creamy blue cheese dressing, salmon with beurre blanc (white wine butter sauce) and an accompaniment of asparagus with hollandaise sauce. Alternative entrees were steak with buttery bearnaise sauce or chicken with garlic beurre blanc. Last came dessert plates of sabayon mousse (made with Marsala wine, egg yolks and cream), chocolate mousse and cheesecake.
The food was tasty but now our favorite dinners have balance as well as flavor. It's not just because of nutrition. We feel that each of these creations is better served as the star of a special meal so it gets the attention it deserves. To us they detract from each other when served together.
Instead, we feel the best way to use such a sumptuous recipe is for a birthday or other occasion that calls for pampering those you love. Use it as the highlight of a meal of wholesome foods like baked fresh fish, colorful cooked vegetables, a refreshing salad with flavorful vinaigrette, satisfying whole-grain bread, ripe seasonal fruit and a modest portion of your favorite chocolate.
BROCCOLI WITH BEURRE BLANC
Beurre blanc or "white butter" is a classic partner for fish and fine vegetables.
Makes 6 servings
2 large shallots or white part of 4 green onions, minced
2 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
3 Tbsp. dry white wine
2 Tbsp. heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
225 gr. cold unsalted butter, cut into 16 pieces
1.4 kg. broccoli, divided into medium florets
In a small, heavy non-aluminum saucepan, simmer shallots in vinegar and wine over medium heat until liquid is reduced to about 2 tablespoons. Over low heat stir in cream and simmer, whisking occasionally, until mixture is reduced to about 3 tablespoons.
Season lightly with salt and pepper. Reserve, covered, at room temperature up to 1 hour. Keep butter refrigerated.
Boil broccoli in a large saucepan of boiling salted water uncovered over high heat for 5 minutes or until crisp-tender. Drain florets gently in a colander. Transfer carefully to a plate.
Bring shallot mixture to a simmer in its saucepan. Over low heat, add one piece of butter, whisking liquid constantly. When butter piece is nearly blended in, add another piece, whisking. Continue adding butter one or two pieces at a time, whisking. Sauce should be pleasantly warm. If it becomes too hot and drops of melted butter appear, remove pan immediately from heat and whisk well; add next butter pieces off heat, whisking.
When sauce's temperature drops to warm, return to low heat; continue adding remaining butter. Remove from heat as soon as last piece is added. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve as soon as possible. (Sauce can be kept warm for 15 minutes in its saucepan set on a rack above warm water; whisk frequently to prevent separation.) Serve broccoli on rimmed plates; serve sauce separately.
MUSHROOMS AND VEGETABLE JULIENNE IN PUFF PASTRY CASES
Puff pastry cases make glamorous containers but you can also serve the vegetables and butter sauce without the pastry. Other exotic mushrooms or large white mushrooms can be substituted for the portobello mushrooms.
You can prepare all the components in advance; only the sauce needs to be made at the last minute. The unbaked pastry cases can be refrigerated for 1 day; the baked cases can be stored overnight in an airtight container.
Makes 6 servings
450 gr. good-quality puff pastry, well chilled
1 egg, beaten with a pinch of salt (for glaze)
White and light green of 4 large leeks, rinsed well
4 large carrots
6 medium-size celery stalks, peeled
Salt and freshly ground pepper
5 or 6 Tbsp. unsalted butter
450 gr. fresh portobello or other mushrooms
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 large shallot or 2 green onions, finely chopped
Beurre Blanc (see recipe above)
Sprinkle a large baking sheet lightly with water. On a cold, lightly floured surface roll puff pastry 6 mm. thick, working quickly and keeping dough's edges straight.
Cut it in six 10-cm. squares. Turn each one over and transfer to prepared baking sheet. Refrigerate 30 minutes or freeze 15 minutes, or until firm. Position rack in oven's center and preheat to 230ÂºC.
Brush pastries with egg glaze. With point of sharp knife, mark crisscross design on top, cutting only through top few pastry layers.
Bake pastries 5 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 200ÂºC and bake about 15 minutes or until pastries are puffed and browned. Transfer to racks. Leave oven at 200ÂºC.
Cut leeks, carrots and celery in thin strips 4 cm. long. Put leek strips in a bowl of cold water. Lift them from bowl; any sand will sink to bottom.
Toss vegetable strips, sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss again.
Spread 2 tablespoons butter on sides and base of a casserole in which vegetables fit snugly. Add vegetables and dot with 2 tablespoons butter. Cover with buttered parchment paper, pressing buttered side of paper onto vegetables. Cover tightly with lid. Bake for 30 minutes, stirring frequently with a fork, until tender (caution: mixture burns easily). Taste and adjust seasoning.
Gently rinse mushrooms; pat dry. Cut in bite-size pieces. Heat oil and remaining butter in large heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Stir in shallot, then mushrooms, salt and pepper. Saute mushrooms, stirring, for 6 minutes or until done to taste and any liquid they render has evaporated.
Reheat pastries in a 150ÂºC oven. Reheat mushrooms uncovered. Reheat vegetables in covered saucepan over very low heat.
Prepare Beurre Blanc.
Carefully cut pastry cases in half horizontally, using serrated knife. Put bottom half of each case on a plate. Spoon vegetables onto cases and top with mushrooms, then with pastry "lids" at an angle so filling shows. Serve immediately, with sauce spooned around pastry or served separately.
Faye Levy is the author of the three-volume Fresh from France cookbook series and the fish cookbook La Cuisine du Poisson, co-authored with Fernand Chambrette.