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Smooth sailing through dinner; Purees: Soft and savory, they turn whitish vegetables into light clouds of great taste, and go with just about any main dish


I once took a cooking course in France in which the teacher proclaimed that "you could tell how good the cook was by how white the celery root puree came to the table."

Believe me, this was some news.

Sure, there are little things in cooking that give away the competence of the chef.

For example, does your hard-cooked egg have a little black ring around it?

Then it was cooked a few minutes too long. Or, does your meringue sag into a gooey puddle instead of flying light and high? Not enough air was whipped into the egg whites.

But, in the United States, we eat so few savory purees that whether this particular dish came to the table absolutely white or rather more on the gray side would have made no difference to me.

The "news" for me was the extraordinary tastes that you can achieve with this relatively simple technique, and how amazingly well purees go with all sorts of main dishes -- meat, chicken, even fish.

With just a few attempts, you can easily learn to make a delicious puree, one that is neither too light and runny (too much like soup), nor too lumpy and dried out.

Here are two cold-weather purees to get you started. And, of course, they are all varying shades of white.

A La Ratte Potato Puree

Serves 6

2 pounds La Ratte Fingerling potatoes (see note)

coarse sea salt

3/4 to 1 1/4 cups whole milk

1/2 cup unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces

1 cup whipping cream

fresh herbs for garnish

Scrub potatoes but do not peel, and place in large pan. Fill with enough cold water to cover by at least 1 inch. For each quart of water, add 1 tablespoon salt. Simmer, uncovered, over medium heat 20 to 30 minutes until knife inserted into potato comes away easily. Drain potatoes as soon as they are cooked. (If allowed to cool in water, potatoes will taste reheated.)

Meanwhile, in large saucepan, bring milk just to boil over high heat. Set aside.

Once potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel and cut into manageable pieces. Pass potatoes through finest grind of food mill into large, heavy-bottomed sauce-pan. Place pan over low heat, and, with wooden spatula, stir potatoes vigorously to dry them, 4 to 5 minutes.

Now begin adding about 3/4 of the butter, little by little, stirring vigorously, until each batch of butter is thoroughly incorporated and mixture becomes fluffy and light. Slowly add about 3/4 of the hot milk in thin stream, stirring vigorously, until milk is thoroughly incorporated. (For extra-fine puree, pass mixture through drum sieve into another heavy-bottom saucepan.)

Place puree over low heat and stir vigorously. Stir in cream. If puree seems a bit heavy and stiff, add additional butter and milk, whisking all the while. Taste for seasoning. (Puree may be prepared up to 1 hour in advance. Place in top of doubler boiler over gently simmering water. Whisk occasionally to keep smooth.)

Serve in individual dishes and garnish with fresh herbs.

Note: Yukon Gold potatoes or any other premium potatoes can be substituted if fingerlings are not available.

-- Adapted from "L'Atelier of Joel Robuchon," by Patricia Wells (Van Nostrand Reinhold; 1997)

Celery Root Puree

Serves 4-6

1 small celery root (about 1 1/2 pounds)

juice of 1/2 lemon

2 medium potatoes, peeled, each cut into 2 or 3 chunks

2 tablespoons butter

salt, pepper

dash sugar

1/2 cup milk, or more to taste

1/4 teaspoon celery salt, or more to taste

Peel celery root, cut it into 1/2 -inch slices and drop immediately into pan of cold salted water along with lemon juice (it discolors quickly). Cover pan, bring to boil and simmer 20 to 25 minutes until celery is tender on outside.

Add potatoes and continue cooking 15 to 20 minutes until both celery and potatoes are very tender. Drain. Puree vegetables in processor and return puree to pan. Add butter, salt and pepper to taste, sugar and a little milk and cook over medium heat, beating constantly until puree is light and fluffy (heat expands starch grains in puree). Add more milk as necessary to make puree that just falls from spoon. Add salt and celery salt to taste.

To prepare up to 30 minutes ahead, flatten puree in bottom of pan, pour over layer of milk, cover and leave pan in warm place. Just before serving, heat puree to mix in any milk that has not been absorbed.

-- Adapted from the La Varenne School recipe

Pub Date: 02/17/99

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