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Beans again? Gussy ‘em up!

Times Staff Writer

FROM what I’ve been hearing, it sounds like “Brokeback Mountain” is a pretty good bet to win a few Oscars on Sunday. I’ve got no quarrel with that. It’s a beautiful movie: poignantly told, splendidly acted and gorgeously photographed. It’s got something for everyone.

I, for one, am thinking about nominating it as one of the great food films -- maybe even of all time. That will probably take some of you aback. But then your mouths probably weren’t watering as those rivers of little white lambs defied gravity rolling happily uphill on their way to summer pasture. All of those chops, shanks, saddles and gigots, merrily on the move! Granted, maybe I’m an exception -- though it did seem to me that that image seemed to be repeated throughout the film with intoxicating regularity.

Still, there certainly aren’t a whole lot of what you’d normally think of as standard-issue food scenes in “Brokeback.” It’s no “Big Night” or “Babette’s Feast.” You’re not going to hurry home from a matinee anxious to repeat any of the dishes for dinner, not unless you have an inexplicable affection for canned beans.

But that does not mean that food is not an important part of the movie. Remember, it was directed by Ang Lee, who earlier did the cuisine-rich “The Wedding Banquet” and “Eat Drink Man Woman.” He is not a filmmaker blind to the charms of fine cooking.

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Rather, I think the lack of good grub was an artistic choice, meant to reflect the narrowed lives of the main characters and their deliberate turning away from comfort, perhaps even joy.

Let’s face it, these are guys who lived on canned beans for weeks before they noticed and even then it took another couple of weeks before they did anything about it. Plainly, Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar did not think a whole lot about food.

That’s pretty much true to life, judging from my experience with cowboys and cuisine. I have to say I’m pretty skeptical of the combination right from the get-go. I know that there have been books written about cowboy cooking, but I don’t know of any that were written by actual cowboys.

And I think I’m probably in a position to know. Well before I ever started to think about writing about cooking, I wrote about cowboys. Those are two remarkably different subjects and as far as I know I’m the only one who has done both. It’s a narrow niche, but it’s all mine.

I worked my way through college as a sportswriter on my local paper in New Mexico and for five years one of my beats was covering rodeos. I had the hat and I had the boots -- everything, as they say, but the horse.

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Cowboy days

BEST of all, I got to spend a lot of time hanging around bucking chutes, talking to anyone who looked interesting -- rodeo clowns who bounced from event to event in clapped-out pickups, a bubbly little barrel racer named Reba McIntire, and, most memorably, a charismatic bull rider named Larry Mahan, who had just won a record sixth-straight all-around cowboy title and let me pal around with him whenever he was in town.

I even took a summer off to tend bar at a place that catered almost strictly to cowboys. My jobs there were not so glamorous -- mainly popping the tops on bottles of beer, refereeing the pool table and trying to avoid getting caught in the middle of fistfights.

The purpose of this little canter down memory lane is merely to establish my bona fides when I say that cooking almost never crosses a cowboy’s mind. Eating does, from time to time, but only as a necessary prelude to other, more important activities: working, drinking or dancing, not necessarily in that order.

In all the time I spent hanging around with cowboys, I can remember occasional conversations about whether we should eat, but I never remember anyone once asking what we should eat.

As evidence, consider my cowboy friends’ favorite restaurant, a truck stop named, without a trace of irony, the Terminal Cafe. The specialty was cream gravy that was served on just about everything, especially biscuits and chicken-fried steak. It was a starchy paste that was certainly not creamy and was barely gravy but it was filling and that was good enough for a cowboy.

Years later, as a restaurant critic, I went back to the Terminal with the idea that it might make a funny story. I left halfway through the meal as the man who owned the place was sobbing into the pay phone. It closed soon thereafter -- truly terminal at last.

Seeing “Brokeback” got me thinking about my friends from back then. And inevitably, given my nature, that led to wondering about what I would fix them for dinner if I ever got the chance to see them again.

This is not as easy a decision as it might seem. After years of cooking, I’ve learned that feeding non-foodie friends is a delicate balance. On the one hand, you don’t want to go so basic that they think you’re patronizing them. On the other, it’s pretty easy to freak them out.

I remember once showing off for a good friend, making her a risotto with bitter greens. I loved it: the greens had turned creamy and sweet, perfectly matching the earthy, slightly chewy rice. She said, “I’m sure it was good and I know I would have loved it if I was more sophisticated.”

So let’s see, I managed not only to serve her something she didn’t like, but to make her feel stupid in the process. A Daily Double! That’s not a mistake I ever want to repeat.

So I’d start dinner with something recognizable but a little different, just to get them used to the idea. Broccoli chopped salad is a good example. The form is familiar and so are the ingredients: broccoli, mushrooms, blue cheese, bacon and vinaigrette. It’s just that the bacon is pancetta, which gives it a bit of a black pepper bite, and the vinaigrette is made with tarragon vinegar, which lends a subtle herbal tang to the mixture.

For the main course, as a homage to “Brokeback” it seems like we really would have to have lamb ... and beans. I doubt if many of my old cowboy buddies have ever heard of cassoulet, but I’m sure they’d recognize the idea of meat and beans cooked together until they’re both buttery.

To echo those textures and to add their own sweet flavor, slip in slivers of fennel bulbs so they braise gently and become creamy and melting. I also love Paula Wolfert’s trick of blanching whole garlic cloves to tame them a little before sticking them in among the white beans. You’ll barely taste the garlic, but a hint of it will suffuse the stew. Sage-perfumed bread crumbs sprinkled on top add a complementary fragrance and a contrasting crunch.

For you non-cowpokes, this makes a wonderful meal-in-a-bowl to tuck into on the couch in front of the television on, say, Oscar night.

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Sweeten the deal

AFTER a big pot of lamb and beans, dessert ought to be something simple and light. That doesn’t sound like your typical description of a gratin, but it certainly fits this fruit-based version. Granted, if you have a hard time picturing cowboys eating cassoulet, just imagine their reaction to a “light and creamy orange gratin.” But by this point in the meal, you’ve either converted them or lost them forever.

Slice oranges and layer them in a heat-proof dish. Make a sabayon by whisking egg yolks, sugar and juice over heat until they swell and make a pastry cream. Spoon this over the oranges, scatter sliced almonds over the top and run it under the broiler just until it is puffed and light brown -- no more than a few minutes.

There are a couple of tricks to this dish. First, cook the sabayon in a double boiler and whisk constantly to keep the egg from scorching. The water should be simmering, not boiling. Just as important, start with a cold broiler to brown the top. If you preheat it, the oranges will bake and express enough juice to make the dish a little sloppy.

That wouldn’t be a critical mistake, but just the same, this is one meal where you want dessert to be perfect. Remember, the only other thing “Brokeback Mountain” lacked besides good food was a happy ending.

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Broccoli chopped salad

Total time: 45 minutes

Servings: 6 to 8

1 3/4 pounds broccoli

4 slices pancetta (about 3 ounces)

1/2 pound white mushrooms

1/3 cup chopped green onions (about 3)

1/4 pound Maytag blue cheese, crumbled

3/4 cup chopped toasted walnuts (about 3 ounces)

Oil

2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon tarragon vinegar

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1. To prepare the broccoli, remove the florets and break any large ones into bite-size pieces. With a sharp paring knife, cut off the dried-out base of the stem, then peel the tough skin, leaving the stalk in a rough squared-off log. Cut the stalk into quarter-inch dice.

2. Bring the water in the bottom of a steamer to a boil. Place the diced stems in the steamer basket and cook, covered, about 1 minute. Add the florets, cover again, and cook until the broccoli is bright green but still crunchy, another minute or two. Set aside.

3. Place the pancetta slices in the bottom of a cold skillet and place the skillet over medium-low heat. Cook until well-browned on one side, about 10 minutes, then turn and cook until the other side is browned, another 4 or 5 minutes. Do not rush the cooking or the pancetta will not be crisp. When the pancetta is crisp and well-browned, remove to a paper towel to drain. Set the drippings aside to cool.

4. Trim the bottoms of the mushroom stems; cut the mushrooms in quarters lengthwise.

5. Place the broccoli in a large bowl and add the mushrooms, green onions, blue cheese and walnuts. Crumble the pancetta over top.

6. Pour the pancetta drippings into a half-cup measure. Add enough oil to make one-half cup and then pour the mixture into a small bowl. Add the vinegar and the salt and whisk to emulsify.

7. Pour the dressing over the salad and stir to combine well. Taste and correct for seasoning with salt and vinegar and finish with a good grinding of black pepper. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Each of 8 servings: 241 calories; 10 grams protein; 9 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 20 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 14 mg. cholesterol; 478 mg. sodium.

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Gratin of oranges

Total time: 40 minutes

Servings: 8

8 navel oranges, or combination of navel, blood and pink Cara Cara navels

3 egg yolks

3 tablespoons sugar

3 tablespoons orange juice

1 tablespoon rum

1/4 teaspoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon orange zest

2 tablespoons whipping cream

2 teaspoons powdered sugar

1/3 cup toasted, sliced almonds

1. Peel and slice the oranges: Using a sharp paring knife, slice off the bottom and the top of each orange, exposing the flesh underneath. Following the curve of the fruit, cut a one-half to 1-inch wide vertical strip of the peel. Repeat, working your way around the orange until you’ve cut away all the peel. Trim any white pith. Slice the orange into quarter-inch slices and place in a baking dish (a 12-inch round dish works well). Repeat, using all of the oranges.

2. In a small heat-proof bowl, combine the egg yolks, sugar, orange juice, rum, lemon juice and orange zest and stir to combine with a whisk. Place the bowl over a small pan of simmering water, like a double-boiler, and continue stirring with the whisk. The mixture will foam a little, then turn pale and finally thicken after about 3 to 5 minutes. When the mixture is thick enough that the whisk leaves tracks in it, remove the bowl from the heat, whisk rapidly to cool it down, and pour it through a fine strainer into a clean bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. (The dish can be prepared to this point up to 8 hours in advance and refrigerated separately.)

3. When almost ready to serve, beat the whipping cream with a balloon whisk until it forms stiff peaks. Stir the egg mixture to loosen it, adding any orange juice that has collected in the bottom of the baking dish. Gently fold the egg mixture into the whipping cream.

4. Sprinkle the oranges with the powdered sugar and stir to combine. Spoon the egg mixture over the oranges in a haphazard pattern. There won’t be enough to completely cover the fruit, so don’t worry.

5. Sprinkle with the slivered almonds and place the baking dish under a cold broiler as close to the flame as possible. Turn on the broiler and heat just until the gratin puffs and browns, about 4 to 5 minutes. Alternatively, you can brown the top with a creme brulee torch. Serve immediately.

Each serving: 152 calories; 3 grams protein; 25 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 5 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 82 mg. cholesterol; 6 mg. sodium

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Cowboy cassoulet

Total time: 4 1/2 hours

Servings: 6 to 8

Note: Dried navy beans vary in age. Depending on the beans, you may need to add more water during cooking.

3 pounds lamb shoulder blade chops

Salt

1 head garlic, separated into cloves but not peeled

2 pounds fennel (3 small or 2 medium)

3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling

1 carrot, peeled and diced

1 onion, diced

1 cup white wine

1 cup crushed tomatoes

1 pound Great Northern white beans or navy beans

Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 baguette (to get 1 3/4 cup bread crumbs)

8 fresh sage leaves

1. Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Remove the bones and any excess fat from the lamb chops and cut the meat into large pieces. Season with salt on both sides.

2. Place the unpeeled garlic cloves in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, simmer for 5 minutes, then drain. Cool, then carefully remove the peels.

3. Trim the fronds from the fennel bulbs and slice away the dried-out bottom of the bulb. Cut each bulb in lengthwise quarters, leaving the core intact to hold the fennel together.

4. Heat the olive oil in a large cast-iron or heavy-enameled pot over medium-high heat. Add the lamb and brown well on both sides. Be careful not to add so much lamb at one time that the pan is crowded. It’s best to do this in two batches. Remove the browned lamb to a plate.

5. Reduce the heat to medium low, add the carrot and cook without stirring long enough for it to caramelize lightly on one side, about 2 to 5 minutes. Stir and cook 3 to 5 minutes more. Add the onion and cook until soft, about 3 minutes.

6. Add the white wine, bring the mixture to a boil and cook until it reduces to a syrup, about 7 to 10 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes and cook until they thicken and darken, about 3 to 5 minutes.

7. Add 5 cups water and the beans. Slip the fennel quarters and the peeled garlic cloves into the pot, being careful not to break them up. Layer the lamb on top, pressing gently into the liquid. The tops of the lamb pieces will be sticking out of the liquid; this is OK.

8. Bring the mixture to a simmer and then press a sheet of aluminum foil close to the surface of the stew to form a loose cover. Cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid and place it in the oven. Bake undisturbed for 1 hour. After an hour, season the mixture with 1 1/2 teaspoons salt or to taste and a generous grinding of black pepper. Stir gently to avoid breaking up the fennel or crushing the garlic; return the pot to the oven.

9. Cook until the beans are soft and the lamb is tender, 2 to 2 1/2 hours. After 1 1/2 hours, check to see that the cassoulet is moist. If not, add up to 1 cup water, again stirring gently. Remove the pot from the oven and increase the heat to 400 degrees.

10. Cut away the crust from the baguette and cut the bread into cubes. Place the bread cubes and sage leaves in a blender; process to form crumbs. Start with 6 sage leaves and then smell to see if you want to add another two.

11. When the oven has reached 400 degrees, spoon the sage-flavored bread crumbs over the top of the lamb and beans in an even layer. Drizzle with a thin thread of olive oil and return the pot to the oven to brown the bread crumbs, about 20 minutes. Serve immediately.

Each of 8 servings: 569 calories; 37 grams protein; 50 grams carbohydrates; 12 grams fiber; 23 grams fat; 8 grams saturated fat; 84 mg. cholesterol; 197 mg. sodium.


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