Each time I go to France I'm reminded of the importance of the seasons to good food.
Fall brings smoky wild mushrooms, game, chestnuts and pink-cheeked juicy Comice pears to the table. What a contrast when spring comes with the first small vegetables, lamb, small chickens, strawberries and a wealth of fruits.
In wistful anticipation, I've planned a menu to profit from the new season as soon as it arrives.
The first course is a delicate cold fish mousseline with the surprise of a quail egg tucked inside. If you use salmon, the molds will glow an appealing pink, but any white fish such as flounder or perch will do. When unmolded, the mousselines are topped with a spoonful of red salmon caviar and served with a green sauce flavored with watercress, shallot and white wine.
A Seasonal Main Course
The main course makes use of seasonal lamb with a shoulder boned and stuffed as a galimafree. Voltaire rudely called a galimafree a "mish-mash," but the word originally meant a festive dish of ground meat highly spiced in typical medieval style and served with a rich wine sauce. In this recipe, the ground meat becomes a stuffing with dried wild mushrooms and garlic, spiced with nutmeg, ginger and allspice. The type of mushroom used is not important.
The shoulder is first sewn up as a cushion, then strung into a melon shape, which is cut in wedges for serving. To make reheating easy, the meat is braised and the flavoring vegetables are strained out to leave a mellow sauce.
Such a grand cut of meat invites a matching display of vegetables like this seasonal selection of carrots, onions, potatoes and green beans or peas. The vegetables are arranged in bouquet style on the platter around the meat.
Dessert is one of the most popular recent culinary treats--a white chocolate cake. The surprise of chocolate flavor attached to a white cake never fails to startle the unwary. As a clue, in the recipe I've suggested decorating the cake with chocolate truffles. At Easter, you could add miniature white or dark chocolate eggs, or even a hen.
FRENCH DINNER IN SPRING FOR 8 Molds of Fish With Caviar, Watercress Sauce
(Mousseline de Poisson au Caviar en Surprise, Sauce Cresson) Braised Shoulder of Lamb Stuffed With Wild Mushrooms, Garlic and Herbs
(Galimafree a la Vauban) Bouquets of Spring Vegetables
(Bouquets de Legumes Printaniere) White Chocolate Cake With Strawberry Sauce
(Gateau au Chocolat Blanc, Sauce aux Fraises) Suggested wines: dry white Muscadet with fish, followed by classic red Bordeaux or California Cabernet Sauvignon
This is an excellent menu for entertaining, with two cold courses and a hot main dish that only needs last-minute reheating. However, the advance preparation will take time even with the aid of a food processor.
Up to one week ahead, bake the cake. Store in an airtight container.
Up to three days ahead, stuff and braise the lamb. Store with sauce in the refrigerator.
Up to one day ahead, bake the fish molds, make the sauce and refrigerate. Cook vegetables except for green beans, then refrigerate. Chill the white wine.
Up to two hours before serving, boil the green beans. Set the cake on plates, decorate and refrigerate. Set the table.
About one hour before serving, unmold the fish mousselines. Add the sauce, then refrigerate.
About 45 minutes before serving, reheat the sauce in the oven.
About 10 minutes before serving, reheat the vegetables on top of the stove.
Just before serving the mousselines, transfer the lamb to a larger platter. Add the vegetables. Cover loosely with foil and keep warm. Warm sauce on top of the stove until serving.
MOLDS OF FISH WITH CAVIAR, WATERCRESS SAUCE
(Mousseline de Poisson au Caviar en Surprise, Sauce Cresson)
8 quail eggs
1 1/2 pounds fish fillets, skinned
4 egg whites, lightly beaten
Freshly ground white pepper
4 cups whipping cream
1 large bunch watercress
1 tablespoon butter
3 shallots, minced
1/3 cup white wine
1 (4-ounce) jar red salmon caviar
Place quail eggs in small pan of cold water. Bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer 2 minutes. Cool, peel and reserve. Generously grease 8 (1-cup) ramekins or custard cups and set aside.
For mousseline mixture, puree fish fillets in food processor fitted with steel blade. Add egg whites, a little at a time, processing constantly. Work in 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon white pepper and dash nutmeg. With machine running, add 2 cups cream in slow, steady stream. Taste to adjust for seasonings, adding more salt, white pepper or nutmeg, if needed.
Spread layer of mixture in ramekins. Place quail egg on top of each. Cover with remaining mousseline mixture. Smooth top. Cover each ramekin with round piece of buttered wax paper.
Set ramekins in large pan. Fill with boiling water to come halfway up outside of ramekins. Bake at 350 degrees until mixture is just firm to touch, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove ramekins from water bath and cool.