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A Special Dinner for You, My Pigeon

Mandel's latest book is "Celebrating the Midwestern Table" (Doubleday & Co., 1996)

An intimate dinner for two doesn’t require intense preparation or fancy cooking skills.

Consider squab, a small (usually about 1-pound) domesticated pigeon with delicately flavored dark meat. A game bird may sound like an intimidating choice, but it’s incredibly easy to make, especially for two. A saute of wild mushrooms, shallots and walnuts provides the perfect balance to the squab.

The biggest challenge is finding squab. They are available frozen or fresh, the latter being preferable. Once the birds are in hand, the rest is a snap.

Start the meal with a split of Champagne with caviar, sour cream and toast points. End with a warm (nearly) flourless chocolate cake, served with sweetened whipped cream or a small scoop of coffee java chip ice cream, and finally a bracing espresso.

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ROASTED ORANGE-GLAZED SQUAB ON FENNEL AND LEEKS

If you’re not game for squab, try Cornish hens served in the same manner as the squab. Season them well and roast for about 45 minutes at 400 degrees and brush on the glaze during the last 15 minutes to avoid burning. Simmer the fennel mixture on the stove top until tender and serve the hens on the fennel and leeks. If you use hens instead of squab, double the glaze recipe.

Orange juice

1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice

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1 1/2 tablespoons orange marmalade

2 teaspoons grated orange peel

2 (about 1-pound) squabs

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

2 small leeks, white part only, washed, thinly sliced (about 1 1/2 cups)

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2 small fennel bulbs, trimmed, cut crosswise into thin slices (about 2 1/4 cups)

1/4 orange, halved

Combine 3 tablespoons orange juice, lemon juice, marmalade and orange peel in small dish and mix well.

Generously season surface and cavity of squab with salt and pepper. Heat olive oil and butter in 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. When very hot, add squab. Sear on all sides, about 6 minutes total, turning with tongs. Set aside on plate.

Add leeks and fennel to pan. Stir until heated through, about 3 minutes. Add 1 cup orange juice mixture. Simmer, uncovered, 1 minute. Transfer to gratin or shallow baking dish just large enough to hold squab and fennel mixture so dish can go from oven to table. (Can be prepared to this point several hours ahead; refrigerate squabs and keep fennel mixture and glaze at room temperature until ready to proceed.)

Add any squab juices from plate to fennel mixture. Stir well. Arrange squab, breast side up, on mixture; place 1 piece of orange in cavity of each squab. Brush with 2 tablespoons glaze.

Roast, uncovered, in lower third of 400-degree oven until squab is just cooked and juices run light pink when thigh joint is pierced, about 15 minutes. Brush 2 more tablespoons glaze on squab midway through cooking.

Briefly set squab aside on warm plate. Add remaining glaze to fennel mixture. Adjust seasoning. Replace squab in dish. Serve hot.

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2 servings. Each serving:

602 calories; 327 mg sodium; 112 mg cholesterol; 37 grams fat; 48 grams carbohydrates; 22 grams protein; 1.40 grams fiber.

SAUTE OF SHIITAKE MUSHROOMS, SHALLOTS AND WALNUTS

This can be made a few hours ahead and kept at room temperature. Gently reheat at serving time. Save the mushroom stems for sauce, stuffing or soup.

3/4 tablespoon olive oil

3/4 tablespoon butter

1/4 cup walnut pieces

1/2 pound fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems trimmed

2 tablespoons minced shallots

2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

1/4 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper

2 teaspoons snipped chives

Heat oil and butter in 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat. When hot, add walnuts. Cook until lightly colored, 1 to 2 minutes, stirring often. Do not brown because they will taste bitter. Use slotted spoon to remove from skillet; set aside.

Add mushroom caps and shallots to hot pan. Cook, uncovered, over medium-high heat until very hot and mushrooms become a little soft but not mushy, about 3 minutes, stirring often.

Add vinegar. Stir well. Return walnuts to pan. Mix well. Add salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with chives. Serve hot.

2 servings. Each serving:

211 calories; 345 mg sodium; 12 mg cholesterol; 20 grams fat; 9 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 1.39 grams fiber.

WARM FUDGEY DREAM CAKES

These cakes are especially good served warm.

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) plus 1 tablespoon butter

All-purpose flour

2 ounces semi-sweet chocolate

1 1/2 tablespoons cocoa

1/2 cup sugar

2 eggs, separated

2 tablespoons cake flour

Dash salt

1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 teaspoons Scotch whiskey

1/2 teaspoon powdered sugar

Hot fudge sauce, optional

Sweetened whipped cream, optional

Coffee java chip ice cream, optional

Butter 2 (1-cup) souffle or other individual baking dishes with 1 tablespoon butter. Lightly coat with flour, tapping out excess. Set aside.

Heat chocolate, cocoa, 1/4 cup sugar and 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter in double boiler over barely simmering water until mixture is melted. Put in refrigerator briefly to cool; mixture should be just tepid.

Beat egg yolks with remaining 1/4 cup sugar until light yellow, about 2 minutes. Add tepid chocolate mixture and mix gently but thoroughly. Fold in flour.

Beat egg whites in clean bowl until frothy. Add salt, cream of tartar, vanilla extract and whiskey. Continue beating until egg whites hold their shape but are still soft, moist and shiny. Stir 1/4 whites into chocolate mixture to lighten. Fold in remaining whites. Divide mixture evenly between prepared dishes.

Bake at 300 degrees on center rack until puffy and toothpick inserted in center comes out with moist (not wet) crumbs, about 35 minutes.

Cool on wire racks at least 2 hours before serving. Cakes will fall a bit; surface will be slightly cracked. (Can be baked a day ahead and kept at room temperature, covered. When ready to serve, reheat, uncovered, in 300-degree oven until warm, about 8 minutes)

Sprinkle with powdered sugar pressed through fine sieve. Serve warm and top with fudge sauce, whipped cream or ice cream if desired.

2 cakes. Each cake, without topping:

657 calories; 228 mg sodium; 274 mg cholesterol; 37 grams fat; 76 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams protein; 0.23 gram fiber.

* Candleholder, heart plates and paperweights from New Stone Age, Los Angeles.


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