~ Asparagus Flans Floating on a Sea of Pea Puree ~
I consider the latter 1980's and '90's to be the Golden Age of Cooking and Entertaining. The style of everything was elegant and the taste of everything was exquisite -- nowadays, pundits say it was excessive or extravagant, but, I disagree. I say it was a sophisticated awakening of American cooking. Everyone who loved to cook was finally thinking out-of-the-box. We left the Jell-O-esque Spam-y Cream-of-Soup foods of the '50's-generation behind us, and, we weren't afraid to shed our ethnic skins, or, wear them as a badge of honor. We had come of age -- we were hard-working, prosperous and open-minded. We enjoyed cooking great food and serving it with style and grace to our family and friends. AND -- we made it look oh-so-damned-easy.
By the latter 1980's and '90's, I was a smart, confidant, young woman with a passion for cooking and entertaining. Thanks to Joe's career, we traveled a lot, so I was exposed to fine food all over the world. Magazines like Bon Appétit, Gourmet and Food & Wine, became my sources for recipes that honed my culinary skills, increased my foodie vocabulary, and, kept my pulse on unique, new-to-me ingredients. As for cookbooks, my library began to increase at an alarming rate of speed. Super-chefs, I mean the real-deal masters, were finally starting to publish.
Meet Roger Verge (VAIR-zhay): My Favorite French Chef!
Roger Verge was one such super-chef. By 1974 his restaurant Moulin de Mougins had three Michelin stars. In 1987 he was made Maitre Cuisinier de France. His students included Daniel Boulud, Alaine Ducasse and Hubert Keller (to name a few). His books, published between 1978 and 1999, changed my life: Roger Verge's Cuisine of the Sun, Entertaining in the French Style, Vegetables in the French Style, Cooking with Fruit, and, Cuisine of the South of France. Masterpieces written by the master himself.
French cooking is all about taking simple, fresh ingredients and making them taste extraordinary. The process can be easy and quick, or, slow and complicated. French chefs are patient, efficient and machinelike, with the utmost regard for cleanliness and organization, technique, timing and presentation. For them, the end always justifies the means, and in between, they do not mince words, they mince ingredients -- with the skill of surgeons. In their kitchens, they don't say things twice or necessarily nice, so, if you can't stand the heat, leave. Their kitchen is their ship -- they are the commander, task-master and professor. They are not your mother, father or therapist. It's their reputation, they own it, their words and their recipes. Past that, they are really nice people!
Meet my favorite cookbook written by my favorite French chef:
Roger Verge's Entertaining in the French Style is the one I have used the most. It is from this book that I learned how to make sweet and savory crepes, flans, omelettes, souffles, soups and tarts. His wild mushroom quiche became my base recipe for all of my quiche recipes. I learned how to make puff pastry, poach pears and shave chocolate. He taught me to keep creme fraiche in my refrigerator at all times, and, that American sour cream is NEVER a substitution for it. Herbes de Provence was added to my spice rack and Pernod was added to my liqueur cabinet. Some of the recipes in this book span four pages. No detail was too small to mention and no shortcuts were taken. The photographs are superb too. Good luck finding all of that in anyone's cookbook nowadays!
Les Petit Flans d'Asperges, Sauce Creme aux Petit Pois
"It's not easy being green", but in the case of this elegant starter-course, it sure is delicious. This fancy-schmancy dish has been impressing my guests at formal luncheons and dinners in my dining room for a number of years now. I particularly like it served prior to my main-course of Easter lamb or ham, and, I always have one ready and waiting at each person's place-setting before I even announce that the meal is being served. What a beautiful welcome to a Spring table set with china, crystal and fresh flowers, and, they indeed set the tone for the celebratory feast that will follow. On a difficulty scale of 1-10 (with 10 being very difficult), I would rate them a moderate 3-4, even if you've never made a savory flan before. Before starting, let's chat:
This photo of the photo which I shot from Chef Verge's book, looks a bit different than mine because I made a few changes to suit my taste. His flan is not green, but quite white. If it is a white flan you prefer, you need to use a vegetable peeler to remove the green skin from the asparagus. I choose not to, because I do not mind the slight bit of extra texture and pretty color the skin from tender, young asparagus lends to the flans. That said, if you peel your asparagus, you'll need a few more spears to insure you have the full 10 ounces. Chef's pea puree is also a bit more refined than mine. He runs it through a fine mesh sieve prior to serving it. If is is a finer texture you are looking for feel free to do that too. The choice is yours!
2 tablespoons butter, melted
10 ounces fresh, medium-thickness asparagus spears, trimmed of woody ends (10 ounces after trimming)
1 cup crème fraîche
3 large eggs
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
10 ounces frozen baby peas
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup finely-diced yellow onion
1/4 teaspoon curry powder
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
3/4 cup crème fraîche
~ Step 1. To prepare the asparagus flans: Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In microwave, melt butter. Using a pastry brush, generously paint the bottom and sides of 6, 6-ounce (1/2 cup) ramekins with butter (you'll probably have some leftover butter). Place the ramekins in a 13" x 9" x 2" baking pan and fill the pan with tepid water to half the height of the ramekins. Set aside.
Place the asparagus on a kitchen scale and weigh out 10 ounces. Reserve the rest for use in another recipe. Choose 12 stalks with the prettiest tops and cut the pretty tops off , 2" from the top.
~ Step 3. Place 1 quart of water in a 2-quart saucepan and add 1 teaspoon of salt. Bring to a simmer. Add the 12 reserved asparagus tops and blanch until they are tender but just short of being cooked through, about 3-3 1/2 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the tops to a colander and rinse under cold running water to halt the cooking process. Remove from colander and set aside.
~ Step 4. Add all of the remaining asparagus to the simmering water and cook until very tender, about 8-10 minutes (this timing will vary depending upon the thickness of the asparagus). Drain into colander, rinse under cold water to halt the cooking process. Allow to drain really well for 1-2 minutes. Transfer the room temperature asparagus to the work bowl of a food processor fitted w/steel blade.
~ Step 5. Add the crème fraîche, eggs, salt and pepper to the work bowl. With motor running, process to a puree, for 1 full minute, stopping to scrape down the sides of the work bowl with a rubber spatula 2-3 times throughout this process. You will have 2 1/2 cups of asparagus mixture.
Note: For ease of pouring puree into the ramekins, transfer to a 1-quart measuring container.
How to know when they're done. Flans will not be browned and will appear dry on the top with small cracks starting to appear on the surface. Remove from oven and set aside to cool, in the pan of water, for 1-2 hours. Note: Flans are best served the same day they are made and are delicious served warm or at room temperature. That said, I have covered them with plastic wrap and refrigerated them overnight. Once returned to room temperature, a few seconds in the microwave revealed little compromise.
~ Step 7. To prepare the pea puree: In the 2-quart saucepan, cook the peas according to the package directions. Drain into colander and rinse under cold water to halt the cooking process. Allow to drain well for another 1-2 minutes.
Transfer the room temperature peas to the work bowl of food processor fitted with steel blade and set aside.
~ Step 10. Add the creme fraiche mixture to the peas in the food processor. With motor running, process for a full 1 minute, stopping to scrape down the sides of the work bowl with rubber spatula 2-3 times during this process. You will have 2 cups of pea puree.
Both the flans and the puree are ready to serve as is, slightly warm, or at room temperature.
~ Step 11. To serve, divide a puddle of puree amongst six small salad-type plates. One-at-a-time, invert flans onto a wide spatula and slide/gently place each flan carefully into the center of each plate. Garnish each portion with two of the reserved asparagus tips. Serve immediately.
Don't forget to include a few brioche toast points...
Special Equipment List: 6, 6-ounce ramekins; pastry brush; 13" x 9" x 2" baking pan; cutting board; chef's knife; kitchen scale; 2-quart saucepan; slotted spoon; colander; food processor; large rubber spatula; 1-quart measuring container; wide metal spatula
Cook's Note: As mentioned, these savory flans are perfect served as a starter to lamb or ham (and I always serve one or the other for our Easter holiday). To get my recipe for ~ Succulent Boneless Leg of Lamb w/Creamy au Jus ~, just click into Categories 3, 8, 11, 19 or 20.
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)