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France: Traditions Survive

After a 12-year absence I have finally gone back to France. I had forgotten how wonderful those old bourgeois dishes served in the brasseries of Paris can be.

I found that bouillabaisse is still on many menus, full of passionate Provencal flavors (saffron, wild herbs, tomatoes . . .) and served with fiery rouille made of hot peppers and garlic. Pot-au-feu is still on menus too; occasionally it is even cooked in the old earthenware pots. Wintery-rich with beef brisket, sausage, chicken, root vegetables and herbs, this is a dish that has pleased French working families forever.

It seems these days that we all--Americans and Europeans--have an emotional hunger for traditional dishes, for family food. In Europe, this movement is called “Cuisine of Nostalgia,” and I think it has been created by the growing gap between man and technology. As the world becomes more complicated, we have an increasing appreciation of comforting food, a need to go back to our roots, to familiar communal ties.

Since I was visiting Paris in the summer season of warm days and balmy evenings, my favorite nostalgic dishes were boeuf en gelee and oeufs en gelee. They were perfectly attuned to casual suppers eaten outdoors--light but satisfying. I call this menu “Oeufs and Boeufs.

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“Gelee” means jelly, or aspic. Many people are anti-aspic; they feel that jellied dishes are prissy. Actually, they can be very nourishing foods. And economical too: Boeuf en gelee is an ideal way of using leftover beef, and it looks attractive whether you make it plain, garnished only with parsley, or fancily surrounded by an array of blanched vegetables.

I have added a French country dessert that was served to me in Paris by Claudia Roden, the eminent food historian and author (her latest book is “The Good Food of Italy Region by Region”). This dessert is made of poached plums and apricots perched on a layer of ground almonds and sugar. Put this in the oven when you sit down to supper, and it will be ready to come to the table bubbling hot when it is time for dessert. Serve it with a pitcher of heavy cream or scoops of vanilla ice cream.

In the following recipe, be sure to use well-done roast beef because the juices from rare roast beef dissolve in the aspic and prevent proper jelling. This dish can be made two days in advance.

BOEUF EN GELEE (Beef in Aspic)

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1 1/2 cups well-done roast beef, about 1/2 pound, cut into bite-size pieces

Salt, pepper

5 cups chicken broth

3 envelopes unflavored gelatin

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1/4 cup Sherry

3/4 cup finely chopped parsley

Butter lettuce

1/2 cup mayonnaise

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2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

Season roast beef pieces to taste with salt and pepper. Line large strainer with 2 paper towels, place over large bowl and strain chicken broth.

Combine 1/2 cup strained broth and unflavored gelatin in small saucepan. Stir to mix and let stand until mixture is thick and almost stiff, about 2 minutes. Cook over low heat until completely dissolved. Remove from heat and add to remaining 4 1/2 cups of broth. Stir in Sherry and parsley.

Pour 2 1/2 cups broth mixture into 8-inch-square dish at least 2 inches deep. Cover and chill until firm, about 1 hour. Spread beef evenly over aspic and pour remaining gelatin mixture on top. Cover with plastic wrap and chill until firm.

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To serve, cut into squares and place on butter lettuce. Mix mayonnaise and mustard together and spoon alongside. Makes 4 servings.

For this recipe, I use a round glass Pyrex bowl, seven inches wide and three inches deep. The container has to be deep enough to allow the liquid to cover the whole hard - cooked eggs.

OEUFS EN GELEE (Eggs in Aspic)

3 cups chicken broth

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1 envelope plus 1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin

1/2 cup finely chopped parsley

3/4 cup finely chopped cooked ham

5 hard-cooked eggs, shelled

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Line large strainer with 2 paper towels, place over large bowl and strain chicken broth. Combine 1/2 cup broth and unflavored gelatin in small saucepan. Stir to mix and let stand until mixture is thick and almost stiff, about 2 minutes. Cook over low heat until completely dissolved. Remove from heat and add to remaining broth. Add parsley.

Place ham in 7-inch round dish at least 3 inches deep. Top with whole hard-cooked eggs, then pour gelatin mixture over all. Cover dish and chill until ready to serve. Makes 4 servings.

After baking, you may want to taste the fruit for sweetness. If necessary, sprinkle more sugar on top while the dessert is still hot.

BAKED PLUMS AND APRICOTS WITH ALMONDS

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8 large apricots, halved and pitted, about 2 pounds

6 large plums, halved and pitted, about 1 pound

2/3 cup sugar

2/3 cup water

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1 1/4 cups whole unblanched almonds

6 tablespoons sugar

Place apricots and plums in large saute pan. Add sugar to water, stir and pour into pan. Cover and simmer over low heat 5 to 7 minutes or just until fruits are tender when pierced with fork. Set aside.

Process almonds and sugar in food processor until mixture is very fine but not pastelike. Spread mixture evenly in 10-inch round baking dish. Arrange fruit, cut side down, over almond mixture. Pour 2/3 cup of remaining fruit juices over fruit and bake at 325 degrees 1 hour. Makes 6 servings.

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