You had to be there, in the kitchen, watching. Otherwise, you wouldn't believe that Annie Boutin could turn out a multi-course elegant French dinner from scratch on a weeknight after work. As friends wandered in and out, Boutin steamed a salmon, boiled vegetables for a puree, sauteed beets, whipped together a beurre blanc sauce for the fish, mixed salad dressing and prepared and chilled a melon first course.
"Cutting corners is my lifestyle," says Boutin, but she certainly doesn't cut them the way most of us would. She steamed the fish in a fumet prepared on the spot with wine, water, herbs just plucked from the garden of her Silver Lake home and onion halves studded with cloves. Twenty minutes and, voila , the salmon was done.
It would have been easy to use canned beets for the saute that Boutin planned, but she boiled them fresh. And she cooked turnips and a potato for the puree while guests watched, \o7 Kirs \f7 in hand. Boutin did find a shortcut for this dish, though. She assigned the puree job to a friend, handing him an antique food mill that had belonged to her mother.
Boutin made the \o7 Kirs \f7 with cassis liqueur and Muscadet, a wine produced near her birthplace in Vendee on the west coast of France. More Muscadet went into the salmon \o7 fumet\f7 , and French red wine vinegar flavored the \o7 beurre blanc \f7 and the vinaigrette for the salad. Coarse sea salt from Vendee seasoned the dishes. Boutin keeps it close to the stove in a white pottery salt container printed with the Vendee crest in blue.
Boutin was even able to cope smoothly with disaster. The fruit she had bought for a crustless apple tart was unusable. So she thawed out a box of frozen French raspberries and served them in dessert glasses with creme fraiche. Only instead of genuine creme fraiche, it was a local substitute--Guatemalan \o7 crema. \f7 "The consistency is good, but the taste is not as rich," she says.
Boutin also set out a big chunk of crusty bread and three French cheeses--Fourme d'Ambert, which is a blue cheese from Auvergne; a strong-tasting Livarot from Normandie and a chevre. Even the butter was French. It came from Charentes in Cognac country.
A Muscadet went with the first part of the dinner, and a Medoc with the cheeses. Cantaloupes, served while the salmon cooked, were halved with a sawtooth cut. Inside were melon balls marinated in Port wine that Boutin had bought on a recent trip to France. That's a typical fast first course in France because it takes so little preparation. "You have an impromptu dinner, and you look good," Boutin says.
Soon it was time to eat, but the table hadn't been set. With the help of friends, Boutin pulled out and arranged her grandmother's white tablecloth and napkins, fine silver and Dresden flowered place cards. Now which plates should she use? Boutin had lots of choices because she and her husband, Terry King, collect California dinnerware. Would it be the colorful Bauer, the Franciscan Desert Rose? \o7 No\f7 . Boutin chose plain white dishes because, she decides, that would be "more Frenchy."
Boutin's skill in making arrangements quickly is not unusual, considering her job. She is catering manager of the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel, in charge of planning parties, meetings and banquets.
The salmon fed six generously, and more remained for another quick meal the next day, served cold with mayonnaise or in a salad. "You should never throw away food," says Boutin, with French practicality.
MELON WITH PORT
2 small cantaloupes Port wine
Cut cantaloupes in 1/2 with zigzag cut to make decorative design. Scoop out seeds. Cut center of melon with melon ball cutter and let melon balls fall back into cavity.
Pour Port wine into center of melon, to almost cover melon balls. Chill. Makes 4 servings.
\o7 For an elegant presentation, Boutin serves the salmon, beets and puree together. A row of beets goes next to the fish; a row of turnip-potato puree goes beside the beets.
\f7 STEAMED SALMON WITH BEURRE BLANC AND BASIL
2 small carrots, scraped 1 small onion, cut in half 6 whole cloves 3/4 cup dry white wine 3/4 cup water 1 large sprig parsley 1 branch rosemary 1 to 2 sprigs thyme Dash salt 1 (6- to 8-pound) whole salmon Fresh basil leaves Beurre Blanc
Place carrots in fish poacher. Stud surface of each onion half with 3 cloves. Place in poacher. Add wine, water, parsley, rosemary, thyme and salt to poacher. Bring mixture to boil, then cover and simmer 10 minutes. Let cool.
Remove head from fish and reserve for another use. Place fish on tray in poacher. Cook, covered, over simmering wine mixture 20 minutes, or until done. Allow more time for larger fish.
Remove to heat-proof platter. Carefully remove skin. Set in warm oven until ready to serve. Reserve liquid for Beurre Blanc. Top fish with basil leaves. Accompany with Beurre Blanc in sauceboat. Makes 8 to 10 servings.
Each of 8 serving contains about: