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FOOD & WINE : Beef a la Birds : 'Larks Without Heads'--a Whimsical Name for an Elegant Provencal Dish

October 07, 1990|COLMAN ANDREWS | Colman Andrews is the author of "Catalan Cuisine" (Atheneum).

AMERICAN-BORN, French-trained chef Patrick Healy cooks six days a week at Champagne in West Los Angeles, the restaurant that he owns with his wife, Sophie. On the Healys' day off, though, it's Sophie who makes dinner--and that's fine with the chef. "Sophie is a really good cook," he says with genuine enthusiasm. "That's one of the first things I found out about her."

Sophie is herself French--born in Avignon and raised in Cannes. "Food was always very important in my family," she explains. "And in families like mine in Provence, the girls of my generation didn't have permission to go out at night, even on weekends. We were expected to stay home and help our mothers feed the family. That's how I learned to cook. Luckily, I liked it, so I didn't mind staying home all that much. And now I love to do it whenever I have the chance."

Patrick and Sophie Healy met in 1980, in the village of Plasscassier, where Patrick was learning the French way with meat and pate at a local butcher shop before apprenticing in the kitchens of several top French restaurants. When Sophie got to know Healy a bit, he recalls, she invited him to her family's house for dinner. And there, one of the first things she prepared for him was a dish that remains perhaps his favorite of her specialties to this day--an old Nicoise creation with the colorful, if vaguely off-putting, name of alouettes sans tetes-- larks without heads.

The dish is so named because these rolled, tied, well-browned little bundles of meat do indeed resemble the headless carcasses of small birds. Monikers of this sort apparently appeal to the Provencal sense of humor, because the region also has dishes with names such as fausses grives or "false thrushes," which are thin slices of pork liver stuffed with herbs, and caillettes de Nice or "little Nicoise quails," which aren't quails at all but quail-shaped croquettes of spinach, minced chicken liver and rice wrapped in crepinette or caul fat.

Patrick Healy doesn't consider alouettes sans tetes to be a substitute for anything, though. "This is real traditional Nicoise family cooking," Healy says. "It's what you're likely to be served if you go over to almost anybody's house for dinner in the region."

SOPHIE HEALY'S ALOUETTES SANS TETES

6 slices rump steak, 6-7 inches across and about 1/4 inch thickSalt and pepper2 slices bacon, chopped2 garlic cloves, minced1 bunch parsley, minced1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil2 onions, thinly sliced1 tablespoon flour2 cups dry white wine3 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and coarsely chopped1 branch fresh thyme1 bay leaf1 cup water25 Nicoise olives, pitted1 pound small white mushrooms, quartered Pound steak slices until about 1/8 inch thick; then season to taste with salt and pepper.

Mix bacon, garlic and parsley by hand, then divide equally among steak slices, smoothing out with back of spoon, leaving 1/2-inch rim around edges of each slice. Roll slices and tie at each end with kitchen twine.

Brown rolls in olive oil in large, heavy-bottomed saucepan or Dutch oven, over medium heat. Add onions and saute 2 to 3 minutes. Add flour, and stir until it begins to stick. Deglaze pan with white wine; add tomatoes, thyme and bay leaf. Cook over medium-high heat for about 1 minute.

Add water, cover and cook over lowest possible heat for 30 minutes. Remove lid and continue cooking for additional 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add olives and mushrooms and cook 15 minutes longer. Adjust seasoning, and serve with white rice or boiled potatoes. Makes 6 servings.

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