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Invitation to chill

Special to The Times

CIVILIZATION has its strong points, but few are more convincing than a beautiful dinner party. Think of it: a sequence of courses strung together like lanterns, happy guests at table, an evening of camaraderie and shared gastronomic attention laid out in pressed linen and descending forks.

Abstractly, it seems like the perfect time for such an evening. Why not capture the slow languor of the last weeks of summer -- the season of white slacks and beach tans and invisible school buses -- while we still can? Practically, however, the idea of spending a day wilting in the Saharan wind farm of your hot kitchen is a bit demoralizing.

But imagine a cool dinner party, composed of perfectly articulated cold dishes that can be prepared ahead of time, with limited heat, at your leisure. Imagine the pleasure of anticipating your guests with five courses already accomplished and waiting inside your refrigerator or arrayed serenely on a counter -- your linens unfurled, candles flaring, the wine as cool as you’ve been for hours.

So come in, you bid your guests. Leave the purses, the bags, the weight of the outside world and the undulating heat.

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Accept the offered glass and a room unsubjected to ovens or anything more rigorous than the evening air through an open window. Certainly not the adrenaline of last-minute preparation or the retreating heat from an active stove: The host hasn’t cooked all day.

Then, soon, to the table.

First, cold spheres of avocado glace in a frosted glass -- almost like guacamole ice cream, with a fine dice of ripe tomato and a few cilantro leaves scattered over, and a drizzle of great olive oil. The glace seems somehow richer than it is, almost decadent. Mayonnaise? Maybe creme fraiche?

But no, it’s a pair of ripe Hass avocados and thick Greek yogurt, whipped with a little jalapeno and lemon juice, and then set in the freezer for a few coalescing hours, with just a stir now and then. Who needs an ice cream maker?

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The glasses filled with the glace have been in the freezer until service, when the garnishes complete the dish.

Gravlax, simplified

WINE ebbs and flows, the light wanes, the temperature drops by degrees.

The second course: cool, silky albacore gravlax layered with thin slices of potato and strategic dabs of creme fraiche. A cone of tapenade and a pair of caper berries sit nearby, adding landscaping to architecture.

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Albacore, which is wonderful this time of year, lends itself superbly to the salt cure of gravlax, needing only 24 hours in the refrigerator and none of the weighting and turning of traditional gravlax.

All you’ve done is throw the fish into a Ziploc bag, along with salt mixed with sugar and cracked black peppercorns, a small pour of Armagnac.

It’s a fantastically easy method, all the more so for its yield: rich yet almost translucent slices of briny tuna, redolent of pepper and the vague spike of brandy. Pairing it with cool slabs of potato brings out the subtle flavor of the gravlax; the textures play off each other too. A dab of tapenade pulls the whole thing together.

Next comes coffee-infused duck breast, fanned out around a French green lentil salad. The duck gets the spectacular treatment laid out by chef Marcus Samuelsson in his “Aquavit” cookbook, including a night marinating in strong coffee laced with shards of cinnamon sticks and green cardamom pods. The duck breast is then cold-pan-roasted with whole coffee beans and more spices.

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Start with the duck in a cold pan, and let the heat rise gradually -- you don’t want the shock of sudden full flame any more than your duck does. The fat renders off gently; the finish is a little Port.

This can be accomplished at leisure, perhaps the morning of the party -- before the sun gets hot and while a cup of espresso has you already measuring out coffee beans. (Cook slowly. Cook happy. Your food will reflect your state of mind as clearly as if you calligraphed your feelings onto the damask tablecloth.) Then stash the dish in the fridge, pulling it out an hour or so before serving and letting it come to room temperature. With nothing sweet involved, and the duck sliced thin, it actually seems light.

Act 4 is a cheese course: soft quenelles of Brie de Meaux whipped with Tellicherry pepper and sandwiched between thin planes of toasted baguette drizzled with balsamic vinegar; a luscious spoonful of fig compote goes on the side.

It’s an elaborate cheese plate gone minimalist, the flavors marrying one bite at a time.

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A sweet finish

FINALLY, dessert: blackberry soup with juniper-infused cream and a nest of candied lemon peel. The soup is frothed at the last minute with soda water, which lightens the flavor, the texture and the color -- the dark purple foaming briefly into crimson.

This little touch of showmanship is fun, really, at this point: It serves to remind you and your guests of how much work you could have been doing all evening. Instead, you serenely pour the soup, spoon out the cream, add a tangle of lemon peel and serve. The flavors of berry and heath are deep, coolly intense, layered like an Oregon forest.

Clink your glasses. Watch the sky absolve itself of the responsibility of so much heat. Feel the warmth of friendship and hospitality replace that of the sun, and realize it’s for this that we like to cook in the first place.

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A dreamy dinner

Avocado-jalapeno glace

Albacore gravlax “terrine” with tapenade

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Coffee-infused duck breast with French lentil salad

Whipped Brie de Meaux with Tellicherry pepper, fig compote

Blackberry soup with juniper cream and candied lemon peel

White and red Loire Valley wines

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Avocado- jalapeno glace

Total time: 15 minutes, plus 2 hours, 45 minutes freezing time

Servings: 6

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Note: The glace is best made a day ahead and refrigerated in a rectangular glass dish. Put the glace into the freezer about 3 hours before the party and stir three to four times during freezing, as for a granita.

2 large ripe Hass avocados

1/3 cup diced onion

Juice from 2 limes

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1 1/2 cups Greek yogurt

1 jalapeno, seeded and diced

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

1/2 cup tomatoes, cut into small dice

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3 teaspoons best-quality olive oil

Cilantro leaves for garnish

1. Scoop out the avocado flesh and place it in a food processor. Add the onion, lime juice, yogurt, jalapeno and salt and process until smooth.

2. Put the mixture into a shallow rectangular glass dish, cover and freeze, stirring the mixture with a fork every 30 minutes to maintain a creamy consistency, until the glace is scoopable, about 2 hours, 45 minutes.

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3. Serve two small scoops in each of six highball glasses. Add a sprinkle of diced tomato, a drizzle of olive oil (about one-half teaspoon in each glass) and three to four cilantro leaves.

Each serving: 173 calories; 4 grams protein; 11 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams fiber; 14 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 8 mg. cholesterol; 314 mg. sodium.

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Albacore gravlax ‘terrine’ with tapenade

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Total time: 1 hour, plus 24 hours standing time

Servings: 6

Gravlax

2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns

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1/2 cup kosher salt

1 cup sugar

1 1/2 pounds albacore tuna

2 tablespoons Armagnac

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1. Crush the peppercorns by placing them in a thick plastic bag and pounding it with a hammer, mallet or rolling pin.

2. Combine the crushed peppercorns, salt and sugar in a large resealable plastic bag.

3. Add the tuna and Armagnac to the bag, shaking to combine. Press out the remaining air, seal and let sit in the refrigerator for 24 hours, shaking the bag once or twice.

Tapenade

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1 clove garlic

1 (2-ounce) can anchovies, drained and bones removed

1/4 cup capers, drained

1 cup pitted black olives

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(Nicoise or Kalamata)

1 tablespoon olive oil

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

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1. In a mortar, crush the garlic and anchovies into a thick paste with a pestle.

2. In a food processor, place the crushed garlic and anchovies, the capers, olives, olive oil, lemon juice and parsley and process until very smooth. Reserve. Makes 1 cup.

Potatoes and assembly

2 large russet baking potatoes

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1 teaspoon salt

2 1/4 teaspoons creme fraiche

12 whole caper berries

1. Put the potatoes in a pot large enough to hold them comfortably. Add salt and cold water to cover. Cover the pot and bring the potatoes to a boil.

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2. Simmer the potatoes until almost cooked, 25 to 30 minutes, depending on their size, being careful not to overcook them. The potatoes should be tender enough to allow a fork to be inserted, but not mushy. Drain and rinse under cold water. Refrigerate until the potatoes are cold, preferably overnight.

3. Remove the peel and cut the potatoes lengthwise into thin slices, about one-eighth-inch thick, allowing for at least nine slices. Discard any scraps or broken slices. Cut each slice of potato in half crosswise so that you have 18 pieces.

4. Scrape the seasoning from the gravlax and slice it very thinly, being sure to cut through the grain.

5. Place a piece of potato on the center of each of six plates, spread a thin smear of creme fraiche over each piece, then layer a piece of gravlax; repeat two more times, ending with gravlax.

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6. Garnish each plate with two whole caper berries and a mound of tapenade. Any leftover tapenade can be refrigerated and used for another purpose.

Each serving: 277 calories; 31 grams protein; 26 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 5 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 56 mg. cholesterol; 1,010 mg. sodium.

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Coffee-infused duck breast with French lentil salad

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Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes, plus 24 hours standing time

Servings: 6

Note: The duck recipe is from “Aquavit” by Marcus Samuelsson. For the duck, you can buy duck breasts or a whole duck and cut it up yourself. The rest of the duck can be reserved for another use.

Coffee-infused duck breast

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3 cups hot coffee

6 cardamom pods, crushed

2 (2-inch) cinnamon sticks

6 (6-ounce) or 3 (14- to 16-ounce) duck breasts

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2 teaspoons cardamom pods

3 (2-inch) cinnamon sticks, broken into pieces

2 cups espresso coffee beans

3/4 cup Port

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1. Combine the coffee, crushed cardamom pods and whole cinnamon sticks in a bowl and allow the mixture to cool.

2. With a fork, prick the skin of the duck breasts all over. Then with a small, sharp knife, score the skin of each breast a few times. Place the breasts skin side up in a baking dish. Pour the coffee mixture over them, cover and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours or overnight.

3. Remove the duck from the marinade and pat dry with paper towels. Discard the marinade. Place the duck breasts, skin side down, in a large skillet. Add the cardamom pods and the broken cinnamon sticks and cook over medium-low heat for 3 minutes. (If you have six duck breasts, you may want to do this in two batches, dividing the cardamom pods and cinnamon sticks, but combine both batches of duck before adding the Port.)

4. Scatter the coffee beans (if working in batches, use half the coffee beans) around the duck breasts and cook, gradually increasing the heat as the duck breasts render their fat, about 9 minutes longer for 14- to 16-ounce breasts (5 minutes for smaller, 6-ounce breasts), or until the skin is crisp and brown. Transfer the duck breasts to a plate and discard the coffee beans and spices. (If working in batches, clean the pan and repeat with the remaining cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, coffee beans and duck.)

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5. Return the duck, skin side up, to the skillet, add the Port and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cook the duck breasts for 7 to 9 minutes (about 5 minutes for smaller breasts). Remove them from the heat and let stand for 5 minutes to finish cooking.

6. Refrigerate the duck; remove from the refrigerator about an hour before serving to bring to room temperature.

French lentil salad and assembly

1 cup French green lentils

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2 teaspoons salt, plus additional for vinaigrette

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons sherry vinegar

2cups chiffonade of fresh greens: mizuna, flat-leaf parsley, celery greens, arugula

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Freshly ground black pepper

Fleur de sel

1. Bring about 3 quarts of unsalted water to a boil in a saucepan. Add the lentils, remove from heat and let soak for an hour (they can soak overnight).

2. Drain and rinse the lentils. Bring another 3 quarts of water and 2 teaspoons salt to a boil. Add the lentils and boil until cooked but still firm. This can take only 2 minutes or longer, depending on the lentils; watch carefully so that they don’t overcook and become mushy. Drain and rinse under cold water.

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3. Make a vinaigrette from the olive oil and sherry vinegar, adding salt and ground pepper to taste.

4. Cut the greens into very thin strips (a chiffonade) and put them together in a large bowl. Add about half the vinaigrette and the green lentils. This can be done ahead of time; the flavors are better if they have time to stand and the greens have time to wilt.

5. Slice the duck breasts very thinly on a bias. Arrange on a plate and spoon the lentil salad beside the fanned-out duck. Spoon a tablespoon of the reserved dressing around the duck and sprinkle with fleur de sel and freshly ground black pepper. Serve immediately.

Each serving: 660 calories; 50 grams protein; 23 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams fiber; 37 grams fat; 7 grams saturated fat; 231 mg. cholesterol; 541 mg. sodium.

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Whipped Brie de Meaux with Tellicherry pepper and fig compote

Total time: 30 minutes

Servings: 6

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Note: The whipped Brie is adapted from a recipe in “The French Laundry Cookbook” by Thomas Keller. Brie de Meaux, which is creamier and nuttier than regular Brie, is available at Bristol Farms markets, the Beverly Hills Cheese Store, Say Cheese in Los Angeles, and the Cheesestore of Silverlake.

1 cup quartered fresh Black Mission figs (about 5 figs)

1/4 cup Port wine

12 ounces chilled Brie de Meaux

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1/4 teaspoon freshly ground Tellicherry pepper

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

18 thin slices baguette, cut on the bias

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Fleur de sel

1. Put the figs and wine in a small saucepan, bring to a boil and simmer, stirring constantly, until most of the Port has reduced, 5 to 6 minutes. Remove from the heat and reserve.

2. Remove the rind from the Brie; you should have about 8 ounces left. Put the cold cheese into a mixer with a paddle attachment and beat at medium speed, scraping down the sides from time to time, for about 10 minutes, until the cheese is very white and creamy. Beat in the pepper.

3. Add 1 tablespoon oil to a large skillet and heat over medium heat. Drizzle about one-eighth teaspoon of balsamic vinegar over each slice of baguette in a thin line, brush lightly with oil on both sides and cook each side until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Brown the bread in batches. Remove from the heat and reserve. (The bread can be stored in a plastic bag or container until needed.)

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4. For each serving put a crouton on the plate, then angle a quenelle of Brie over the crouton. Top with a second crouton and another quenelle of Brie, then another crouton. Place about a tablespoon of the fig compote and a sprinkle of fleur de sel next to the stack and serve immediately. Repeat for six plates total.

Each serving: 375 calories; 15 grams protein; 25 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 23 grams fat; 11 grams saturated fat; 57 mg. cholesterol; 532 mg. sodium.

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Blackberry soup with juniper cream and candied lemon peel

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Total time: 20 minutes, plus 1 hour steeping and overnight chilling

Servings: 6

Blackberry soup

4 cups fresh blackberries

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1/2 cup sugar

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1. In a large pot, combine the blackberries, 1 cup water, the sugar and lemon juice. Bring to a boil, remove from the heat and let steep, covered, for about an hour.

2. In a blender, puree the mixture in batches. Strain the mixture, mashing the berries against the strainer. Chill the strained soup until cold, preferably overnight.

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Juniper cream

1 tablespoon juniper berries

1 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons sugar

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1. The night before, crush the juniper berries with a spoon and add them with the cream to a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, remove from the heat, let cool until ready to refrigerate and then chill overnight.

2. Strain the cream, add the sugar and whip in a mixer until fluffy. Reserve, chilled, until ready for use.

Candied lemon peel and assembly

4 lemons

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1 cup sugar

1 1/2 cups club soda

1. Zest the 4 lemons with a zester (not a grater or microplane). The lemons should yield about one-half cup of zest, loosely packed.

2. Put the lemon zest, 2 cups of water and the sugar into a saucepan, bring to a boil and simmer on low heat for about 30 minutes. Remove the peel, cool on a rack or waxed paper and reserve. This can be done the day before; store the candied lemon peel in a plastic bag or container in the refrigerator.

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3. Ladle the soup into bowls, pour one-quarter cup of club soda into each bowl, and top with a large spoonful of the juniper cream and a generous pinch of the lemon peel. Serve immediately.

Each serving: 296 calories; 2 grams protein; 41 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams fiber; 15 grams fat; 9 grams saturated fat; 54 mg. cholesterol; 29 mg. sodium.


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