Can't Enjoy April in Paris? Try a Spring French Dinner of Your Own

Each time I go to France I'm reminded of the importance of the seasons to good food.

Fall brings smoky wild mushrooms, game, chestnuts and pink-cheeked juicy Comice pears to the table. What a contrast when spring comes with the first small vegetables, lamb, small chickens, strawberries and a wealth of fruits.

In wistful anticipation, I've planned a menu to profit from the new season as soon as it arrives.

The first course is a delicate cold fish mousseline with the surprise of a quail egg tucked inside. If you use salmon, the molds will glow an appealing pink, but any white fish such as flounder or perch will do. When unmolded, the mousselines are topped with a spoonful of red salmon caviar and served with a green sauce flavored with watercress, shallot and white wine.

A Seasonal Main Course

The main course makes use of seasonal lamb with a shoulder boned and stuffed as a galimafree. Voltaire rudely called a galimafree a "mish-mash," but the word originally meant a festive dish of ground meat highly spiced in typical medieval style and served with a rich wine sauce. In this recipe, the ground meat becomes a stuffing with dried wild mushrooms and garlic, spiced with nutmeg, ginger and allspice. The type of mushroom used is not important.

The shoulder is first sewn up as a cushion, then strung into a melon shape, which is cut in wedges for serving. To make reheating easy, the meat is braised and the flavoring vegetables are strained out to leave a mellow sauce.

Such a grand cut of meat invites a matching display of vegetables like this seasonal selection of carrots, onions, potatoes and green beans or peas. The vegetables are arranged in bouquet style on the platter around the meat.

Dessert is one of the most popular recent culinary treats--a white chocolate cake. The surprise of chocolate flavor attached to a white cake never fails to startle the unwary. As a clue, in the recipe I've suggested decorating the cake with chocolate truffles. At Easter, you could add miniature white or dark chocolate eggs, or even a hen.

FRENCH DINNER IN SPRING FOR 8 Molds of Fish With Caviar, Watercress Sauce

(Mousseline de Poisson au Caviar en Surprise, Sauce Cresson) Braised Shoulder of Lamb Stuffed With Wild Mushrooms, Garlic and Herbs

(Galimafree a la Vauban) Bouquets of Spring Vegetables

(Bouquets de Legumes Printaniere) White Chocolate Cake With Strawberry Sauce

(Gateau au Chocolat Blanc, Sauce aux Fraises) Suggested wines: dry white Muscadet with fish, followed by classic red Bordeaux or California Cabernet Sauvignon

This is an excellent menu for entertaining, with two cold courses and a hot main dish that only needs last-minute reheating. However, the advance preparation will take time even with the aid of a food processor.

Up to one week ahead, bake the cake. Store in an airtight container.

Up to three days ahead, stuff and braise the lamb. Store with sauce in the refrigerator.

Up to one day ahead, bake the fish molds, make the sauce and refrigerate. Cook vegetables except for green beans, then refrigerate. Chill the white wine.

Up to two hours before serving, boil the green beans. Set the cake on plates, decorate and refrigerate. Set the table.

About one hour before serving, unmold the fish mousselines. Add the sauce, then refrigerate.

About 45 minutes before serving, reheat the sauce in the oven.

About 10 minutes before serving, reheat the vegetables on top of the stove.

Just before serving the mousselines, transfer the lamb to a larger platter. Add the vegetables. Cover loosely with foil and keep warm. Warm sauce on top of the stove until serving.

MOLDS OF FISH WITH CAVIAR, WATERCRESS SAUCE

(Mousseline de Poisson au Caviar en Surprise, Sauce Cresson)

8 quail eggs

1 1/2 pounds fish fillets, skinned

4 egg whites, lightly beaten

Salt

Freshly ground white pepper

Grated nutmeg

4 cups whipping cream

1 large bunch watercress

1 tablespoon butter

3 shallots, minced

1/3 cup white wine

1 (4-ounce) jar red salmon caviar

Place quail eggs in small pan of cold water. Bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer 2 minutes. Cool, peel and reserve. Generously grease 8 (1-cup) ramekins or custard cups and set aside.

For mousseline mixture, puree fish fillets in food processor fitted with steel blade. Add egg whites, a little at a time, processing constantly. Work in 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon white pepper and dash nutmeg. With machine running, add 2 cups cream in slow, steady stream. Taste to adjust for seasonings, adding more salt, white pepper or nutmeg, if needed.

Spread layer of mixture in ramekins. Place quail egg on top of each. Cover with remaining mousseline mixture. Smooth top. Cover each ramekin with round piece of buttered wax paper.

Set ramekins in large pan. Fill with boiling water to come halfway up outside of ramekins. Bake at 350 degrees until mixture is just firm to touch, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove ramekins from water bath and cool.

To make sauce, remove watercress leaves, discarding stems. Blanch leaves in boiling water 1 minute. Drain and rinse in cold water. Drain thoroughly. Pat leaves dry with paper towels.

Melt butter in small saucepan. Saute shallots until tender, but not brown. Add white wine. Boil until reduced to about 1 tablespoon. Stir in watercress leaves.

Puree watercress mixture in blender or food processor. Gradually blend in remaining 2 cups cream. Taste to adjust for seasonings. Fish molds and sauce can be prepared up to 1 day ahead and refrigerated.

To complete, not more than 1 hour before serving, remove paper from top of ramekins. Run knife around edge of fish molds. Invert onto individual plates. Remove ramekins. Spoon a little salmon caviar on top of each mold. Pour watercress sauce around edge. Chill until serving time. Makes 8 servings.

Note: Food processor is essential for this recipe to avoid spending tedious time sieving or beating fish to smooth puree.

BRAISED SHOULDER OF LAMB STUFFED WITH WILD MUSHROOMS, GARLIC AND HERBS

(Galimafree a la Vauban)

2 (4- to 5-pound) lamb shoulders

2 ounces dried wild mushrooms

1 tablespoon butter

1 onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon ground allspice

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

Salt, pepper

1 cup bread crumbs

2 eggs, beaten

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

2 onions, quartered

2 carrots, quartered

2 tablespoons flour

1 bay leaf

1 sprig thyme

2 to 3 sprigs parsley

1 cup white wine

2 cups veal stock or water

1 teaspoon tomato paste

Trim shank meat from lamb shoulders, discarding any sinew. Weigh out 1 pound meat. Reserve remaining meat and bones. Process 1 pound meat in food processor until evenly ground.

Pour boiling water over mushrooms. Soak 15 minutes. Drain, rinse well and pat dry.

Melt butter in large skillet and saute chopped onion until tender. Add mushrooms and cook 1 minute longer. Stir in ground lamb, garlic, allspice, nutmeg and ginger and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring constantly, until meat is no longer pink, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat.

Stir in bread crumbs, then eggs and chopped parsley. Taste to adjust for seasonings. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Place reserved lamb bones in large casserole. Bake at 450 degrees, uncovered, until very brown, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, trim all sinew and most of fat from remaining lamb shoulder. Sew shoulders together into cushion shape with trussing needle and string (or use pins and string), leaving opening for stuffing. Fill opening with stuffing. Sew closed. Encircle meat with string at right angles like parcel, wrapping 3 to 4 times to resemble segments of melon.

Reduce oven heat to 350 degrees. Drain excess fat from casserole. Remove bones and set aside. Season meat to taste with salt and pepper. Brown on all sides in skillet. Remove meat from pan and brown onions and carrots in drippings. Add flour. Cook, stirring constantly, until begins to brown. Make bouquet garni by combining bay leaf, thyme and parsley sprigs in cheesecloth. Add wine, stock, bouquet garni, tomato paste, salt and pepper to taste and bones. Place meat on top of bones. Bring sauce to boil.

Cover and bake until meat is very tender when pierced with fork, 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Baste meat occasionally during baking, adding more stock to pan if it gets dry. Lift out meat. Strain sauce and taste to adjust for seasonings. Meat and sauce can be cooked up to 3 days ahead. Store together in casserole in refrigerator until ready for reheating.

To reheat, place casserole in 350-degree oven until skewer inserted in center is hot to touch when withdrawn, 30 to 40 minutes.

To serve, discard trussing strings and pins, if used. Place meat on platter. Surround with cooked vegetables, if desired. Carve lamb into wedges like melon. Serve sauce separately. Makes 8 servings.

Note: For less expensive dish, wild mushrooms can be omitted.

BOUQUETS OF SPRING VEGETABLES

(Bouquets de Legumes Printaniere)

1 pound baby carrots

2 teaspoons sugar

Salt

3 tablespoons butter

24 baby onions, peeled

Pepper

1 1/2 pounds small new potatoes

1 pound green beans, cut into 2-inch lengths

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Place carrots in pan with cold water to cover with 1 teaspoon sugar, dash salt and 1 1/2 teaspoons butter. Boil, uncovered, until nearly all liquid has evaporated and carrots are tender, 15 to 20 minutes.

Melt 1 tablespoon butter in pan. Add onions, remaining 1 teaspoon sugar and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook, uncovered, over low heat, shaking pan occasionally, until onions are tender and browned, 15 to 20 minutes.

Place potatoes in pan of cold salted water. Cover and simmer until just tender, 15 to 20 minutes, then drain.

Up to 2 hours ahead, cook green beans in large pan boiling salted water until just tender, 10 to 12 minutes. Drain, rinse with cold water and drain again, thoroughly.

Just before serving, heat carrots and onions over low heat. Divide remaining butter between 2 pans. Melt butter. Add potatoes to 1 pan, green beans to other pan. Cook over medium heat, tossing occasionally. When very hot, add parsley.

Arrange vegetables in mounds on serving platter with lamb. Be sure to place vegetables so colors alternate for best appearance. Makes 8 servings.

WHITE CHOCOLATE CAKE WITH STRAWBERRY SAUCE

(Gateau au Chocolat Blanc, Sauce aux Fraises)

6 ounces white chocolate, chopped

4 eggs, separated

Granulated sugar

3/4 cup flour

Dash salt

1 quart strawberries, hulled

1 tablespoon kirsch, optional

Powdered sugar

8 chocolate truffles or other decorations

Butter 9-inch cake pan. Line base with round sheet wax paper. Butter paper and set aside.

Melt chocolate in heat-proof bowl set in pan of very hot water, then turn heat off. Let stand 5 minutes, then stir. If not completely melted, reheat water until chocolate is melted.

Beat egg yolks in bowl with 1/3 cup granulated sugar until mixture is thick and light, about 5 minutes. Stiffly whip egg whites in another large bowl, adding 1/3 cup granulated sugar. Continue beating until mixture is glossy and forms long peaks when whisk is lifted, about 30 seconds.

Sift 1/4 cup flour with salt over egg yolk mixture and mix. Add 1/3 of egg whites. Fold together as lightly as possible. Repeat with remaining flour and egg whites, adding in 2 batches. Just after adding last batch, add melted chocolate and continue folding. (Batter will quickly lose volume after chocolate is added.)

Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake at 350 degrees until cake shrinks slightly from sides of pan and top springs back when lightly pressed with fingertip, 30 to 35 minutes. Turn cake out onto rack to cool. Cake can be made up to 1 week ahead and stored in airtight container.

For sauce, puree strawberries in food processor or blender, adding 2 to 3 teaspoons granulated sugar and kirsch. Work sauce through sieve to remove seeds. Chill. Sauce can be made up to 48 hours ahead and refrigerated.

Up to 2 hours before serving, sprinkle cake generously with powdered sugar. Cut into 8 wedges. Coat base of 8 individual plates with sauce. Place 1 cake slice on each plate. Place truffle near edge of each slice. Refrigerate. Makes 8 servings.

Note: White chocolate, which is essentially cocoa butter, separates more easily than regular chocolate if it gets too hot. However, method of melting described here is virtually failsafe.

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