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MARKETS : A Foie Gras Store for the Rest of Us

Van Rex Gourmet Foods, 5850 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (213) 965-1320. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday. Also: 77570 Springfield Lane, Palm Desert, (619) 360-5190.

Until a few weeks ago, Van Rex Gourmet Foods (whose clients include Drago, Bikini, Pazzia, Champagne and the La Brea Bakery) was the secret resource of a handful of savvy home cooks and caterers. But at the beginning of December this luxury restaurant purveyor opened retail outlets in Culver City and Palm Desert, and word of its extraordinary inventory is spreading fast.

The Van Rex product list reads like a menu from “Living Well Is the Best Revenge”: silken-textured Scotch smoked salmon, a selection of foie gras that includes imported French mi-cuit goose liver studded with truffles and fresh domestic foie gras ; fresh and frozen truffles and dozens of fresh caviars, from the classic Russian beluga malossol to a less expensive but tasty malossol from China. Van Rex also sells the superior-quality baking chocolates preferred by the world’s top pastry chefs.

When Sue and David Darwish bought Van Rex in 1977, it was a small mail-order company selling hard-to-find gourmet ingredients to home cooks. A few years later the couple acquired a tiny salmon-smoking business owned by a French chef whose impressive product attracted a clientele of the city’s best chefs. New items were added to the line as chefs began to request unusual ingredients. Soon the Darwishes found themselves rounding up such things as Swiss bundnerfleisch and English double Gloucester cheese, which were nearly unheard of in Los Angeles back then.

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Already equipped to handle retail sales via its mail-order operation, Van Rex could accommodate customers of the restaurants it served (or their cooks and caterers). As word got around, the walk-in luxury food business began to boom, even though customers had to “shop” at a warehouse--making selections sight unseen from a list and then wait for a forklift to deliver the goods to their cars.

It became clear that this fast-growing but unexpected end of the business needed to operate more efficiently. A portion of the Culver City warehouse was sectioned off to create a functional but pleasant retail area. The room is fairly stark, but all that wonderful food displayed on plain wire shelves is decorative enough. Gourmands can now peruse the stock before making their selection.

Looking over this bounty, a cook is instantly inspired. I found scores of things I suddenly couldn’t do without. My box-load of purchases included sculpted chocolate sea shells to use as edible dessert dishes, a quart of sun-dried tomato sauce and some of Jody Maroni’s Yucatan chicken and duck sausage. I took home fried trompettes de la mort mushrooms, a bag of baby lentils and a package of hickory-smoked Virginia bacon to fry with onions as filling for tiny hors d’oeuvre butter pastry shells that Van Rex imports from Holland.

SHOPPING LIST

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CHOCOLATES AND OTHER DESSERT INGREDIENTS

Finicky bakers have long expressed dissatisfaction with the limitations of supermarket baking chocolate. Although excellent semisweet and bittersweet chocolates have been available for quite some time, high-quality unsweetened chocolate was difficult to find in retail outlets. The following chocolate companies, whose products are distributed by Van Rex, make excellent unsweetened chocolate.

Valrhona Chocolates: Considered by some to be the best in the world, this chocolate manufactured in France’s Rhone Valley (thus the name Valrhona) comes semisweet or bittersweet in a broad range of intensities and styles, most of which have a lower sugar content than other brands. Guanaja (with 70% cocoa solids) or Extra-Amer (67%) will give truffle fillings and butter creams a deep chocolate flavor, even though cream and/or butter is blended with the chocolate to create them. Valrhona costs nearly twice as much as other good brands, but clearly, many feel it is worth it. Van Rex sells 6.6-pound bars of the bittersweet and semisweet, as well as several varieties of chocolate packaged for eating. One--Equinox--is hazelnuts enrobed in the most intense dark chocolate imaginable.

Cacao Barry: Though only about half as costly as Valrhona, Cacao Barry is also a highly respected brand in France. It too offers a wide range of chocolate styles. The Ultime contains 70% cocoa solids--as compared to the 50% to 58% in supermarket chocolate--and the Grand Caraque is unsweetened chocolate liquor (pure cocoa solids with cocoa butter). Cacao Barry’s line also includes light and dark Kosher chocolates, chocolate “vermicelli” for decorations, chocolate chips, several styles of dark and white chocolate coating and two styles of Dutch process cocoa powder. For chocoholics, the Extra Brute cocoa is particularly noteworthy.

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Callebaut: This Belgian company makes a bittersweet chocolate that I love to eat plain, though many pastry chefs cook with it. The Callebaut line includes pure cocoa butter, unsweetened couverture (designed for enrobing, dipping and decorations), white chocolate and chocolate glaze in tubs.

Plugra Butter: Every serious pastry maker and cook knows that European butters are different from American butters. They usually contain less water, and as a result, foods fried in European butter have a crisper finish and a cleaner, less soggy exterior. The low water content also makes for silkier butter sauces; reductions finished with it have greater sheen. Low-water-content butter makes lighter, flakier Danish pastry, croissants, puff pastry and pie crust. The butter also blends more easily with chocolate for icings and butter creams.

European-style butter is now being manufactured in Ohio under the Plugra brand, and European-trained chefs are thrilled to have this sort of butter to work with once again (unfortunately, at the moment it is rarely found at retail). The manufacturers recommend using 25% less Plugra in most dishes; you can obtain free advice and recipes on request (the address is on the package). Plugra also makes a fine, sweet-tasting eating butter.

Puff Pastry and Croissant Dough: All-butter puff-pastry sheets, whole-wheat puff-pastry sheets, chocolate butter puff-pastry sheets and a variety of other doughs sold frozen are ready to be shaped into tart shells or pastry cases.

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Gold Dust: This edible product is great for fairytale touches on cakes, truffles and iced pastries. Van Rex also stocks edible gold leaves.

Frozen-Fruit Purees: Usually, to make fresh-tasting sorbets you need to peel fruit or seed berries and make them into a puree. But Ravifruit frozen-fruit purees retain the flavor of fresh fruit and eliminate the messiest preparation steps in making frozen desserts. A sampling of these puree flavors includes strawberry, coconut, red currant, guava, mango, blueberry, French melon and white peach.

PORK PRODUCTS

Virginia Ham: Van Rex stocks S. Wallace Edwards country-style hams and bacon from Virginia, marvelous to eat or cook with. The hams come in two varieties: the Wigwam, aged up to a year, and the Traditional, aged 4 to 6 months. Rather than being injected with a water cure, as are most “city-style” hams, they are rubbed with a dry cure and hung in a temperature-controlled “springtime” room for the cure to penetrate. Then they are smoked over hickory before aging. The result is a lean, dark-colored ham with a rich, slightly salty flavor.

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Country hams may be eaten cut paper-thin, like prosciutto, or immersed in water for 24 hours then simmered slowly or baked in an oven cooking bag with about 4 cups water. At 325 degrees the whole ham should cook for about 3 1/2 hours to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. The ham is then drained, covered with brown sugar or prepared ham glaze, and baked about 15 minutes until the glaze is crusty.

Cooked Ham: If all this seems like too much work, Edwards also sells a precooked country-style ham in whole or half sizes. The rich, dry quality of country hams is not for everyone. For city tastes, Edwards also makes un-aged wet-cured table-ready hams--but unlike most supermarket hams, they are smoked over hickory. In addition to flavoring the ham, smoking removes the water used in their curing; you’ll notice there’s no “water added” notice on the label. The hams come in a variety of sizes and styles that include half or full bone-in spiral-sliced with honey glaze.

Hickory-Smoked Bacon: Edwards also makes fine bacon slowly smoked over hickory. It’s available sliced and in slabs.

FOIE GRAS AND OTHER DUCK PRODUCTS

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The velvety rich liver from specially fed ducks or geese is French cuisine’s most highly regarded meat, usually enjoyed at Christmastime. It’s eaten sauteed or poached or made into terrines, pates and spreadable mousses.

Mi-cuit: Van Rex imports the expensive mi-cuit goose liver from Sarlat, a French region well known for foie - gras production. Mi-cuit means “half cooked,” but in foie gras it simply means rare. Though packaged in tins, mi-cuit hasn’t been brought to the high temperature that allows canned foie gras to keep without refrigeration. Consequently its taste and texture are far superior to regular canned foie gras. Mi-cuit needs no further cooking. The grade carried here--bloc foie gras-- is a mixture of whole liver pieces and liver puree cooked together to form a sliceable log.

To slice the foie gras, use a knife dipped in hot water, wiping the knife after each slice. Serve it with thin melba toast and a sweet Sauterne wine.

Domestic Foie Gras: D’Artagnan, an American company, is now producing excellent duck foie gras and other products from ducks that have been raised to the company’s specifications. The foie gras may be purchased as whole raw livers, which gives cooks the opportunity to prepare them in many ways.

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Before cooking fresh duck livers, separate them into two lobes and, with the point of a sharp knife, remove the outer membrane, the veins and any traces of green. Some chefs advise soaking the liver in 1 1/2 quarts ice water mixed with 1 tablespoon salt for 6 hours. The serving size recommended for raw foie gras is 1 3/4 to 2 ounces.

D’Artagnan recommends poaching the livers in hot chicken stock (plain or flavored with Port or Madeira), which gives them a silky texture. They should be poached firm but still pink inside. You can make a sauce by degreasing the stock (use a fat separator) and boiling it down to about a quarter of its original volume. A few tablespoons of D’Artagnan’s demi-glace (see below) stirred into the reduced broth will enrich the sauce; you can also swirl in a little butter if you like. Serve a few slices of the foie gras lightly napped with this reduction as a first course. Reserve the fat to use for frying vegetables--especially potatoes or cabbage.

D’Artagnan, which sells whole foie gras baked in a terrine, also recommends this easy method for preparing your own terrine, which should be cut and served the same way as the mi-cuit described above:

After skinning and deveining the livers, splash the lobes with a little Port or Madeira, sprinkle with salt and pepper and press the livers evenly into a long, thin terrine (about 3 inches wide) lined with microwavable plastic wrap. Bake the livers covered with the terrine placed in a pan of hot, but not boiling, water in a preheated 250 degree oven for about 45 minutes to an hour or until they are about 125 to 140 degrees in the center. The inside should be cooked but pink.

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Let stand for about 15 minutes and press out the fat with the back of a large spoon. Pour off the fat, cover with plastic wrap, weight the terrine (soup cans work well) and chill it overnight. The next day, remove the foie gras from the terrine and smooth the outer surface. Then return it to the terrine, cover the top and sides of the foie gras with melted duck fat and allow it to age in the refrigerator at least four or five days to develop its flavor.

Other Duck Products: Foie gras ducks weigh 10 pounds, as opposed to the five- or six-pound ducks used in roasting. From the large breast, known as magret, D’Artagnan makes both a smoked duck breast and a dry-cured prosciutto-style duck breast which, sliced thin, makes a wonderful accompaniment to melon or fresh figs. There is also a dry-cured duck sausage that resembles salami. The D’Artagnan line also includes a variety of pates, terrines and pate dishes prepared with game.

DELICATESSEN

Demi-glace: This concentrate of meat or fish stock, made by cooking large quantities of bones, meat and seasonings for hours then boiling the broth down to a sticky glaze, has an intense flavor. It has many uses: You can make an elegant quick sauce for sauteed meats by simply deglazing the saute pan, adding a little demi-glace and boiling it to the desired consistency. Use it to add intensity to broth or as the base for a poaching liquid by diluting it with water and wine. Van Rex sells duck and veal demi-glace frozen in pint containers.

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Cheeses: Van Rex offers one of L.A.'s largest selections of French goat cheese, including pyramides (with and without an ash covering) and a goat cheese log with white truffles--the latter available only at Christmas, New Year’s and Bastille Day. You’ll also find such wonders as real Buffalo-milk mozzarella (instead of the more common cow’s-milk mozzarella, more properly called fior de latte) , small round tombe de Savoie and such hard-to find British cheeses as double Gloucester, Cotswold, Cheshire and farmhouse Leicester.

Fresh Pastas: The fresh pastas made for Van Rex by Romagnola are the rolled out and cut variety--the method produces pasta with a firm “tooth,” unlike pasta extruded from a machine. In addition to the traditional noodle shapes and pasta sheets, look for crab-meat ravioli, smoked chicken ravioli, smoked salmon ravioli, as well as saffron and Cajun varieties of fettuccine.

Sausages: The word sausage takes on a new meaning when you browse the exotic possibilities here. They come from Jody Maroni, La Maison, D’Artagnan and Bruce Aidells (author of the “Hot Links and Country Flavors” sausage cookbook); they range from smoked chicken and apple sausage or duck with port to sausage made with sun-dried tomatoes and prosciutto. There’s also La Maison’s Mexican chorizo, D’Artagnan’s wild boar with sage, venison with juniper and Aidells’s Cajun andouille sausage.

Vinegars: The selection here boggles the mind. Look for La Posada sherry wine vinegar, verjus (“vinegar” made from unfermented grapes), Champagne vinegar, Chablis vinegar, Burgundy vinegar, aged balsamic and a host of fruit vinegars.

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Oils: Equally varied are the oils, which include a dozen or so cold-pressed extra-virgins, truffle oil, porcini oil and almond, hazelnut and walnut oils.

Duval cooking spirits: These wines and spirits, which contain no salt, are preserved with an essence of pepper, which burns off as the spirits cook. They’re preferred in fine European restaurants because their lack of saltiness doesn’t interfere with the flavors of other foods, as many cooking wines will.


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