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CELEBRATING AMERICA'S MOM : For Marion Cunningham's birthday, 100 cooks, bakers, writers and restaurateurs threw a surprise party at the Robert Mondavi winery

March 05, 1992|RUTH REICHL | TIMES FOOD EDITOR

In fact, days later Cunningham will remember each cake in excruciating detail. "Did you notice how Carol Field's polenta cakes spelled out 70?" she will ask. "Wasn't Maggie Waldron's cake clever? Did you taste Bradley Ogden's Boston Cream Pie?" And almost the first thing Cunningham will do when she walks in the door to find herself faced with everybody she knows, is to look at pastry chef Jim Dodge and sigh, "Oh good. We'll get a good dessert."

Cunningham is not due until 12:30, but most of the guests roll in around 11. As they arrive, they come into the kitchen to see what they can do. "We decided not to have waiters for the party," says Waters, handing a platter of potted shrimp to Gerald Asher of Gourmet magazine to pass around. "We didn't want it to be a formal affair."

Guests stroll around drinking champagne and passing platters of fried oysters wrapped in potatoes to one another. They put the crab toasts and the potted shrimp on the table. And then, as it gets close to the time when Cunningham will be arriving, they start to gather around the door.

Was Cunningham surprised? Undoubtedly. When she walked in the door, she caught her breath and the color drained from her face. Was she pleased?

"If you want to know the truth," she says later, "it sort of ruined my life. I will never have such a perfect day again."

THE MENU

Fried Oysters in a Potato Crust

Crab Toasts

Iceberg Lettuce Wedges With Green Goddess Dressing

Potted Shrimp

Chicken Pot Pie

Birthday Cakes

"I've done a lot of recipes in potato crusts," says Paul Bertolli, chef at Chez Panisse, "but these oysters are my favorite. I love the way the crisp coat contrasts with the creamy richness of the oysters." These are a fair amount of trouble, but they're worth it. At the party, guests came into the kitchen and helped themselves to the oysters as they came out of the fryer, and then picked up platters to pass to the other guests. Nobody got more than a few feet from the kitchen door before the platter was empty.

OYSTERS IN A POTATO CRUST WITH HORSERADISH CREAM

3 russet potatoes

3 tablespoons olive oil

16 large fresh oysters in shell

About 1/2 cup flour

3 egg whites

Peanut oil for deep frying

Salt

Horseradish Cream

Peel russet potatoes and grate on large hole of grater. Stack 3 or 4 slices of potato together and cut into very fine short julienne. As you cut, transfer julienne to bowl filled with cold water. Rinse potatoes well in colander, return to bowl, soak again, then drain. Repeat process until water in bowl is clear. Drain well and pat-dry in paper towels. Or dry in salad spinner.

Heat olive oil in skillet or large saute pan. Add potatoes to pan and toss to coat with oil. Keep potatoes moving in pan, do not let brown. Continue to heat potatoes until they begin to release starch and are translucent and sticky to touch, about 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to baking sheet or platter and let cool.

Shell oysters and dust with flour. Dip oysters, 1 at a time, in egg whites, then place on top of potatoes. Using moistened cupped hands, pack julienned potatoes around oysters and set on platter.

Heat peanut oil to 350 degrees. Place oysters gently into hot oil and fry until golden-brown, 3 to 4 minutes, turning oysters over to brown other side. Drain on paper towels. Season to taste with salt.

Transfer oysters to individual warm plates and serve with approximately 2 tablespoons Horseradish Cream for each oyster. Serve while hot. Makes 16 oyster fritters, or 5 servings.

Each serving contains about:

603 calories; 288 mg sodium; 146 mg cholesterol; 35 grams fat; 50 grams carbohydrates; 22 grams protein; 0.8 grams fiber; 53% calories from fat.

Horseradish Cream

1 cup heavy whipping cream

2 tablespoons freshly grated horseradish

Whip cream until soft peaks form. Fold in freshly grated horseradish and serve. Makes about 1 3/4 cups.

"We just adapted a recipe from Elizabeth David," says Alice Waters of the potted shrimp that were served at the party. She began by buying the most amazing shrimp--huge fresh ones, laden with roe. The roe was scraped into the bowl with the peeled shrimp, which gave the finished dish a particularly rosy hue. The result is unbelievably rich--and extraordinarily delicious when scooped onto little pieces of toast.

POTTED SHRIMP

1 pound large whole shrimp

1 cup butter

Salt

1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Peel and devein shrimp. Add any roe to shrimp. Melt 1/2 cup butter in small saucepan over low heat. Skim off foam on surface. Let stand few minutes, then clarify by spooning clear butter off, leaving milky residue in pan. Set clarified butter aside.

Melt 3/4 cup butter in skillet. Add shrimp and roe and quickly saute just until shrimp turns pink. Chop finely and season to taste with salt and pepper. Divide shrimp mixture into 4 (4-ounce) individual ramekins or custard cups, pressing shrimp down. Chill until set. Spoon clarified butter over top to seal. Chill at least 1 hour. Serve with toasted bread and lemon wedges, if desired. Makes 4 to 8 servings.

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