Reichl declares Shire meal, “One of my best ever!”

At Wednesday night’s book party for Ruth Reichl’s memoir, Not Becoming My Mother, at Upstairs on the Square, owner Mary-Catherine Deibel held court like the lovely grand dame she is, while guests oohed and ahhed over chef Susan Regis’ stuffed dates and fried clam rolls (Susan—please put those clams on the menu this summer—they’re amazing!).
Reichl was, to her admitted disappointment, too full from lunch to eat much, having had a long meal at another book party, this one hosted by Lydia Shire at Locke-Ober.

“It was one of the BEST meals I have EVER had,” she intoned.

That’s very high praise, coming from the editor of Gourmet and a former restaurant critic for the New York Times. We called Shire for comment.

“I’m really proud of this lunch. Really, really proud of it,” she said. “I just have so much respect for Ruth. I had to restrain myself and come up with a menu that was clear, concise, and delicious. So I think I did it, and if Ruth said I did it…Wow, that’s the best compliment in the world!”

We pressed for more details, and Shire was happy to oblige, at length. As she spoke, we realized what a terrific insight she was offering—a behind-the-burners view of how a chef works through a high-stakes menu, with a few great cooking tips thrown in. So we’re sharing a very lightly edited transcript with you.

“When everyone sat down, the first course was porcini — to me, they’re the king of mushrooms, but they’re hard to find, and very expensive. I got twenty pounds from Specialty Foods and I sliced them kind of thick and seared them in a hot pan so they were brown on both sides. I seasoned them well with salt and with pepper, added some whole butter, and sprinkled some beautiful spring garlic, which is the best garlic smell in the world. I chopped that and added it to the pan, and I put a big handful of curly parsley. Did you know that curly parsley has a sweeter flavor? Too many people are uninformed about parsley. If you want to fry parsley, or want to julienne it, you want the flat leaf, but if you want pure delicious parsley flavor, curly is better.

As soon as the garlic started to turn just golden, I took some cream sherry and poured it around and then slid them out of the pan and let them sit for two hours so they could absorb the sherry and the garlic.

Then I made Dauphine potatoes: It’s a baked potato that’s scooped out and riced and and then you add choux paste, like what you use to make cream puffs or gougères. But in this case I took beautiful spring-dug parsnips and cooked and riced them. Then I added the choux paste to the potato and parsnip and green onions. I fried these to order.

So you had these beautiful mushrooms that were warm and garlicky, and this parsnip fritter with it.

The second course was a recipe was taken from Gourmet magazine. It was for sfogliatelle which are Italian pastries that are traditionally filled with sweet ricotta flavored with orange rind. The dough is pretty difficult to make, and it takes a while. So I made the dough, enough for 105 people, and we made a spring pea filling. We cooked spring peas and put them through a strainer and had a really fresh ricotta and some mascarpone and parmesan and butter, and filled the pastries with this fresh pea purée. We served that with halibut that we seared and brushed with a little white miso and then roasted in the oven. And we had a few pea tendrils that we quickly sautéed with a little garlic and ginger juice. That is the key to making a good stir fry, by the way. You need to know this. It makes the vegetables come alive. It’s a great, great trick. You must try it. You just take fresh ginger and grate it on a box grater and squeeze it through a piece of juice cloth and splash it in your stir fry.

Then for dessert, my pastry chef here at Scampo, whose name is Kilian Weigand, makes the best Pavlova. Even Ruth said, she has a Pavlova recipe in the July Gourmet and she said Lydia, I think yours is better than ours. It’s crusty on the outside and soft inside, and then I made a lemon cream that Rick Katz, who’s now the owner of Picco, used to make when he was my pastry chef at Biba. It’s like a lemon curd, but twenty times more delicious because he whips butter into it and there’s no corn starch. So I made his lemon cream and served that in the Pavolva with fresh strawberries and soft whipped cream. I took a blowtorch and ran it over little areas of the top, torched the top of it just to have those little dark spots.

Ruth kept taking bites of it, I loved it. I was just really happy. I think it’s one of the best lunches I ever cooked. It wasn’t a lot of complicated food, it was just pretty top-of-the-line. That’s what I know.”

The next most natural question is, of course, How can we taste this food for ourselves? Shire says both Locke-Ober and Scampo are going to add the Pavlova to their dessert menus, though they might change the filling as the season marches on. As for the main course, Scampo has offered halibut with pea tendrils as a special, but the fresh pea season doesn’t last much beyond spring, so its days are limited. And the porcini starter is, as she puts it “sad, because they’re just not always available and also they’re ridiculously expensive. Nobody’s going to pay $30 for a little dish of mushrooms.”

But if you are willing, give Shire a call at Scampo. She might be able to arrange a special porcini tasting.