Saturday, February 14, 2009

Dinner with Norpois (I): Boeuf Mode en Gelée

The cold beef with carrots now made its appearance, laid out by the Michelangelo of our kitchen on great crystals of aspic that looked like blocks of transparent quartz.

“Now, that is something you can’t get in any public eating establishment, not excluding the very best: a dish of braised beef, with aspic that doesn’t smell like glue, in which the meat has absorbed the flavor of the carrots—quite magnificent! Do allow me to have a little more,” he [Norpois] added, with a gesture that requested another helping of the aspic.

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower 30

In Julia Child’s recipe, it is suggested that the beef be larded before it is cooked. The purpose of larding is to add moisture and flavor to the cooking process and to create a beautiful presentation to the finished slices of meat. According to The Joy of Cooking, short larding needles are used to insert lardoons (uniformly cut, 1/8-1/2 inch lines of fat) on the surface portion of the meat by drawing the needle completely through the meat at a narrow angle. Then, a handled instrument, called a lardoire, with a blade shaped like a pen point, is used for internal larding at a deeper level within the meat (444-5).

Isn’t Proust’s act of writing much like larding? With his pen-lardoire, rich lines of memory and thought are dispersed throughout the text. Streaming ink imbues the page, much like the thin lines of lardoons that give the meat pleasant texture and taste, producing what becomes a decorative effect, apparent on each finished page. Memory and narrative are woven in the text, thus transcending the plain paper in a personal account of the past that runs back and forth between different points in space and time—enriching the text just as the back and forth of larding meat supplies the much needed fat to render the experience palatable, or even delicious.

Just as larding involves both a surface preparation as well as an internal penetration of the meat, Proust’s larding of his text is also demonstrated on more than one level. One’s sense of confusion in trying to accomplish the multi-directional larding is likely reflected in Proust’s writing about Norpois’s speech and his judgment about the vain utterances of other political figures. Indeed, a literary broadside, couched in the culinary terms and illustration of meat preparation could hardly be well-appreciated by the reader apart from attempting to cook the very dish the narrator recalls. Yes, the reader can have a surface appreciation of the figurative meaning of larding but, at least for this reader, it was not until considering the literal act of larding a chunk of beef penetrated by lardoires with heterogeneous ingredients such as lardoons, that I more deeply appreciated Proust’s Norpois as “a certain politician [are] known for his preposterous utterances larded with mixed metaphors” (30). For Norpois, that some politicians are in favor for their complex and winding rhetorical maneuvers that produce profound yet perplexing and confusing remarks is something he will dare try to emulate in his commentary on boeuf mode en gelée. Here again, though, vis-à-vis the text, (that is, the cook book as well as the hunk of beef), the reader’s position goes from surface to the inside of this grandiose and challenging dish with its multi-layered lardings and two contradictory and confusing cooking methods—from the long-time braising with heat to break down the firm texture of the meat and release the flavor of vegetables, herbs and wine to another long process of cool congealing the whole dish back to a firmness that recombines the ingredients and encases them all in gelatin.

To many a modern cook, this is quite a preposterous dish, just as is the politician’s speech full of mysterious and enigmatic references, just as is a political figure like Norpois. For, as the narrator points out, “I could not see what he saw as witty or what he thought was stupid, what was eloquence and what was bombast; and the lack of any apparent reason why one was good and the other bad meant that these literary standards struck me as most mysterious and obscure” (31). For all of his effusive personal feedback, Norpois’s appreciation of the dish seems to be hollow and insubstantial. If the narrator’s dismissive tone reflects Norpois’s dismissive ignorance of the cooking process of boeuf mode en gelée, the readers, who lack a working knowledge of the dish, might also dismiss another hidden context were it not for what Françoise, the Michelangelo of Proust kitchen, knows better than anyone. Indeed, Julia Child, in her cookbook, does forewarn her readers that such an elaborate dish is quite time-consuming and labor intensive. Perhaps, the dish doubles time and labor because it is a re-production of its primitive version, boeuf à la mode, in which the meat first needs to be marinated for hours before browning in a hot Dutch oven. To complete the cooking process, boeuf à la mode needs to be shredded and beautifully arranged at the bottom of the mold with pearl onions and carrots.

As Julia Child suggests, such a dish is oftentimes larded, but larding is not essential, given modern cuts of meat—thus, another reason why the larding metaphor could be a memory lost to the modern reader. After traveling back in time, into the texts and techniques of Escoffier and Child, I decided to skip the larding process better done by a butcher and better avoided by modern day dietary contexts: after all, the reader is an eater too and need not consume large amounts of fat that are inserted for the mere decoration it would add to the meat. That would be Norpoisian!

Larding dispensed with, the most challenging part of cooking was to make the jelly. It seems that even in the recent past of Julia Child’s time, the ratio of water and gelatin was different from what it is now. So a near disaster had to be averted by a preponderance of added gelatin. Following that recovery, the making of carrots and onions was quite simply trivial—as the decorative term à l’Anglaise means nothing other than boiled in water. Another decoration process was immense fun, however. As mentioned earlier, the thinly filleted beef was arranged attractively with carrot slices and pearl onions. When the dish was unmolded on a platter, the pattern looked like a beautiful tapestry stitched with various shapes and colors. From the surface, one could see into the inside. Were I to attempt a revision, next time I would use a deeper dish (e.g. a large bombe or a deep charlotte mold) to hold the ingredients so that the aspic might form into “blocks of transparent quartz” (30).

Unlike Norpois who is impressed by how “the meat has absorbed the flavor of the carrots,” I was struck by the texture and the flavor of the aspic. Jiggling as it was being cut into serving squares, the amber aspic at first fought against my mouth and tongue with its gummy resistance, but finally broke apart and melted. It was then that the flavor of beef with subtle hints from carrot and pearl onion lingered on my tongue. The “luxurious” texture carried a deep, complex and somewhat “aged” mixture of flavors from the gravy that was made of red wine, carrots, celeries, onions, spice and herbs—light but, indeed, preposterous.

Boeuf mode en gelée is definitely a showy dish that carries a multitude of “wow” factors. We served a square of jellied beef on a bed of undressed mixed greens. With such an elaborate cold appetizer, our guests didn’t know what to expect from the entrée. In fact, they were confused. They thought the appetizer was the entrée due to its complex ingredients and splendid appearance—a perceptual situation not seldom experienced by the reader of Proust, too!

Boeuf À La Mode [Beef Braised in Red Wine]
(Adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child et al.)

Braised beef is a wonderful party dish; it is not only delicious to smell, look at, and eat, but you have no worries about overdone meat, and you can cook it ahead of time if you need to. The following recipe calls for a 6- to 24-hour marination of the beef in red wine and aromatic vegetables before cooking. If you prefer to omit this step, pour the marinade ingredients into the casserole after browning the meat.

Red Wine Marinade:

An enameled, pyrex, or porcelain bowl just large enough to hold all the ingredients listed
1 cup each; thinly sliced carrots, onions, and celery stalks
2 halved cloves unpeeled garlic
1 tablespoon of thyme
2 bay leaves
¼ cup minced parsley
2 whole cloves or 4 allspice berries
A 5-lb. piece of braising beef (e.g. rump pot roast) trimmed and tied for cooking
1 tablespoon of salt
¼ teaspoon of pepper
5 cups young red wine with body—Burgundy, Côtes du Rhône, Mâcon, or Chianti
1/3 cup brandy
½ cup olive oil

Place half the vegetables, herbs, and spices in the bottom of the bowl. Rub the meat with salt and pepper and place it over the vegetables. Spread the rest of the vegetables and herbs over the meat. Pour on the wine, brandy, and olive oil. Cover and marinate for at least 6 hours (12 to 24 hours if the meat is refrigerated). Turn and baste the meat every hour or so

Half an hour before cooking, drain the meat on a rack. Just before browning, dry it thoroughly with paper towels. It will not brown if it is damp.

Browning and Braising the Beef:

A fireproof casserole or heavy roaster just large enough to hold the meat and braising ingredients

4 to 6 tablespoon rendered pork fat or cooking oil
One or all of these to give body to the sauce: (1 or 2 cracked veal knuckles; 1 or 2 split calf’s feet; 4 to 8 ounces fresh pork rind, bacon rind, or ham rind simmered 10 minutes in a quart of water, rinsed, and drained.)
4 to 6 cups beef stock, or canned beef bouillon
2 lbs quartered carrots braised in butter, page 477
24 to36 small white onions, browned-braised in stock, page 483

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Add the fat to the casserole ad place over moderately high heat. When fat is on the point of smoking, brown the meat on all sides. This takes about 15 minutes. Pour out the browning fat [recipe may be prepared in advance up to this point].

Pour in the wine marinade and boil it down rapidly until it has reduced by half. Then add the veal knuckles, calf’s feet, and rind, and pour in enough stock or bouillon to come two third s of the way up the beef. Bring to a simmer on top of the stove, skim, cover tightly, and set in lower third of preheated oven. Regulate heat so liquid remains at a gentle simmer for 2 ½ to 3 hours, and turn the meat several times during its braising. The beef is done when a sharp-pronged fork will pierce it easily.

While the beef is being braised, cook the carrots and onions. Set them aside until needed.

Carottes Étuvées au Beurre [Carrots Braised in Butter]:

A heavy-bottomed, 2-quart, enameled saucepan
1 ½ lbs. carrots, peeled, and sliced or quartered (about 5 ½ cups)
1 tablespoon granulated sugar (to develop their flavor)
1 ½ cups water
1 ½ tablespoon butter
½ teaspoon salt
Pinch of pepper

In the saucepan, bring the carrot to the boil with the sugar, water, butter, and salt. Cover and boil slowly for 30 to 40 minutes or until the carrots are tender and the liquid has evaporated. Correct seasoning. If they are not to be served at once, set aside uncovered and reheat when needed.

Oignons Glacés à Brun [Brown-braised Onions]:

18 to 24 peeled white onions about 1 inch in diameter
1 ½ tablespoon butter
1 ½ tablespoon oil
A 9- to 10-inch enameled skillet
½ cup of brown stock, canned beef bouillon, dry white wine, red wine or water
Salt and pepper to taste
A medium herb bouquet: 4 parsley sprigs, ½ bay leaf, and ¼ teaspoon thyme tied in cheesecloth

When the butter and oil are bubbling in the skillet, add the onions and sauté over moderate heat for about 10 minutes, rolling the onions about so they will brown as evenly as possible. Be careful not to break their skins. You cannot expect to brown them uniformly.

Pour in the liquid, season to taste, and add the herb bouquet. Cover and simmer slowly for 40 to 50 minutes until the onions are perfectly tender but retain their shape, and the liquid has evaporated. Remove herb bouquet.

Boeuf Mode en Gelée [Cold Braised Beef in Aspic]
(Adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child et al.)

The braised beef [boeuf à la mode] can be turned into a splendid cold dish with very little trouble. If you are going to make the traditional recipe, the proceedings must be started at least the day before you are to serve; the beef needs 24 hours of marination, 5 hours for browning and braising, and 4 to 6 hours for chilling in jelly. Once made, it may be covered and kept under refrigeration for 2 to 3 days. A light red wine and French bread would go very well with it.
For 10-12 people

2 Tablespoon (2 envelopes) gelatin
3 cups brown stock or canned consommé
Salt and pepper
A chilled saucer
A rectangular mold, terrine, or baking dish large enough to hold the sliced meat and vegetables
A Chilled serving platter
Water cress, parsley, or leaves of Boston lettuce

When the braising process of the meat ends, remove the meat to a carving board.

Degrease the braising liquid thoroughly, then boil it down until it has reduced to 3 ½ to 4 cups. Soften the gelatin in the cold stock or consommé, pour it into the braising liquid and stir over low heat until the gelatin has dissolved completely. Correct seasoning carefully. Pour in the port or brandy and strain. The liquid has now become a jelly; test a bit of it in a child saucer.

Testing Jellies: Always test out a jelly before using it; the few minutes you spend can save you from disaster. Pour ½ inch of jelly into a chilled saucer and refrigerate it for about 10 minutes until it has set. Then break it up with a fork and let it sit at room temperature for 10 minutes. For jellied soups it should hold its shape softly. For aspics its broken lumps should stand alone, but not be rubbery. A jelly that is to line a mold should be stiffer, so it can support the ingredients it is to enclose. If the jelly is too hard, add unjellied stock and test again. If the jelly is too soft, add more gelatin and test again.

Assemble ingredients: Slice the beef into serving pieces and arrange in the mold, interspersing the slices with the braised carrots and onions. Pour in the jelly, which need not be cold. Chill for 4 to 6 hours, or until well set.

When ready to serve, dip the mold in hot water for several seconds. Run a knife around the edge of the aspic. Turn platter over mold, reverse, and give a sharp jerk to unmold aspic on platter. Decorate platter with water cress, parsley or lettuce.

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