Wednesday, May 25, 2011

En Plein aire: Art, Picnics and Game Pie

Dejeuner sur l'herbe, 1866,  Monet 1840-1926

 Hard to believe I’ve been away from blogging for a month.  Time does fly.

 I think a gourmet picnic is a great way to get my toes back in the water after my sabbatical. 

The first thing that came into my head when I wanted inspiration for a gourmet picnic was En plein air (which means “in the open air”) and the gorgeous outdoor paintings of Monet, Manet and Sargent.  Having to bring food into the equation made the choice a simple one.  Monet’s 1866 Dejeuner sur l’herbe was the perfect fit.

Claude Monet Painting by the edge of a Wood, John Singer Sargent, 1885

One of the reocurring themes in my writing lately has been the impact of new products, inventions and fashions on the way we live,  past and present. En plein air is a perfect example of the way that works.  Taking your paints on the road, so to speak, could only have happened because paint tubes were invented in 1841.  Before then pig bladders or glass syringes were the mode of transport: a nasty mess waiting to happen. 

Artists Sketching in the White Mountains

With the freedom of easily transportable paints came the new French box easel.  Both innovations made it possible to explore the countryside on foot without a cart or an entourage for your supplies. Suddenly everyone was doing it:  artists and amateurs alike could paint whatever landscape struck their fancy or roused their adventurous spirit: the world was theirs to capture in oil or watercolor.

Monet embraced en plein air in an exquisite way after his friend Eugene Boudin  introduced him to the style in 1856.  The painting came just a few years before his flight to England during the Franco Prussian war  in 1870.  That visit resulted in an epiphany when he discovered JMW Turner and his mind-altering canvases that escaped the reality of form and seemed to capture air and light (volcanic activity may have inspired some of his colors… the skies were repainted in startling ways by volcanic ash in the atmosphere that altered sky colors and increased optical phenomena) . 

Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844, JMW Turner

Turner was like a conjuring wizard … he seemed to capture a moment before it fully coalesced into focus or came into being.  Even the composer Claude Debussy said he owed a debt of gratitude to Turner, “the finest creator of mysterious effects in all the world of art.”

Houses of Parliament- Sun breaking through Fog, 1904, Monet

Much of my favorite Monet happened after his introduction to Turner as he grew to perform his own impressionist magic. Viewing those paintings while listening to Debussy is just sublime.

Dejeuner sur l'herbe comes before that transformation…otherwise I might never have been able to recognize the subject of my dish –– a game pie!  It appears on the snowy white cloth in the company of a lovely bronze fowl and a joyous tumble of fruit.

Piquenique durante a caçada (hunt picnic), François Lemoyne 172

When I checked on the history of the word picnic… it seems to go back at least to 1723 when it was used in the title of a François Lemoyne painting, Piquenique durante a caçada, that depicted a hunting party settling in to a snack on the muddy ground of the stable yard (odd when they could have dined in the magnificent setting directly behind them!).  I read that picnics became more fashionable when public parks came into being.  By Monet’s time it was quite popular to pack a basket and go into the woods… and to paint the event (thanks to that portable paint kit) –– a proto-snapshot.

Game pies were common for outdoor dining.  They were eaten cold and were a neat way of having a good hefty serving of meat nicely enclosed in a pastry.  They are really a chunkier version of pate, when you think about it and often served with a sweet sauce.

Although my initial thought was to do a good English game pie, I felt I should give a nod to French cuisine given the nationality of the painter and the subject.  No matter how hard I tried, I kept returning to la tourte au canard from the fabled kitchen of Bernard Pacaud’s L’Abroisie.  Housed in a 17th century townhouse on the Place des Vosges that was originally a royal residence and later the Hotel des Tournelles, the 3 Michelin starred restaurant is notoriously expensive… dinner these days will set you back a $1000.  A little above my pay grade… still, the great thing about a recipe is you can make it yourself for considerably less and that’s what I decided to do.  Although the original recipe was enclosed in puff pastry… I wanted mine to be less fragile so opted for a strong pastry container… suitable for toting around en plein air!  The published recipe didn’t jive with the delirious descriptions of the dish… no juniper which I could see in a photo and was mentioned in a review and no truffles or cepes sauce… soooo.  I added those

It is a very very elegant dish given the ingredients, but would make quite a splash at an outdoor party.   I made a trip to D’Artagnan to collect the goodies, they have everything you need online or in many fine stores in NYC and over the country.  Check online for a retailer near you,  you will want to try this!  Click on the links on the ingredients to order.

I also want to thank Dolly Rosen of Dolly’s Delectable Comestibles in New Jersey.  She is the President of the Northern New Jersey Chapter of the New Jersey Historical Society and a master baker who has studied with my hero, Ivan Day at Historic Food in England.  She has an incredible library of antique cookbooks and generously lent me the form for my pie since mine was MIA. 

I include a recipe for a quick sweet sauce to accompany the pate.  It's made with hascap jam from the wonderful Sarah at All our Fingers in the Pie,  thanks Sarah!! You  can also serve it with cornichons or any pickled vegetables you may have and mustard.

I almost had a complete disaster when I tried to fix a small piece that had fallen off the top crust.  Moving the mold badly made the bottom disconnect and the pie started oozing out the bottom.  I got it back in but it lost it's crisp look.  SOOOO -- be forewarned... use a sheet pan under the pie so it doesn't happen to you!!!

Game Pie serves 6-8 inspired by La tourte au Canard at L’Ambrosie

300 grams(10.5 oz) duck breast
300 grams(10.5 oz) veal tenderloin
300 grams (10.5 oz) pork tenderloin
300 grams (10.5 oz) foie gras
100 grams (3.5 oz) chicken liver
150 grams (5.25 oz) ground pork belly or ground pork
1 egg
¼ t mace
8 juniper berries
1 T truffle butter (optional)
1-2 T rich meat juices from roasting a bird or demi-glace.


2 carrots, 2 shallots
1 head garlic
1 sprig thyme
1 bay leaf
100 ml (3.4 oz) port
100ml cognac

pastry recipe

1 pound (4 1/2 - 5 c) flour
6 oz butter
2 oz lard
3 egg yolks
½ c water

1 egg yolk combined with 1 T water for glazing

THE DAY BEFORE:  Cut the duck, pork and veal into 3/4” pieces.  Add the vegetables herbs and liquor and marinate 24 hours in the fridge.

NEXT DAY:  chop the sausage or pork belly with the chicken livers till quite fine.  Add salt and pepper to taste (fry a tiny portion and taste).  Combine with the drained marinated meats, removing the vegetables and 1 egg.  Season the foie gras with salt and pepper.

Line the greased dish with ¾ of the rolled out pastry dough… make sure not to tear it. put ½ the filling in the dish. Lay in the foie gras and then put in the rest of the filling. I had left-over filling that I made into smaller ramekins (that I’ll top with puff pastry and bake later for 30 minutes at 400º).

Cover with dough and use any scraps to make decorations.  Crimp the edges well. Glaze with the egg yolk mixture. Place on a cookie sheet if using a clip mold (or the bottom can come off if you move it!!!!!). Bake at 400º for 20 minutes and 350º for 1 hour to 1 ½ hours or until the interior registers 140 º to 150º.  Check to see if the top is getting too brown… put aluminum foil over the top if it is.  Let rest at least 10 minutes before serving.  Good hot, warm or room temp.  Serve with hascap berry sauce

Haskap Berry Sauce  

1 c hascap berry jam (or blueberry)  
reserved marinade 
2 T mustard.
shallots from marinade

put in a saucepan and cook over low heat for 15 minutes.