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It takes a lot of water to fix dishes by these chefs


WHEN pretending to be a great chef, you gotta heat a lot of water and follow a rigid timetable.

That is what I learned recently when I tried to imitate Daniel Boulud and whip up the celebrated chef's version of beef short ribs braised in red-wine sauce with celery-root puree and celery pieces.

Boulud, whose New York restaurant, Daniel, has been called one of the 10 best in the world, is one of a handful of noted French and American chefs who have allowed their culinary creations to be placed in tightly sealed pouches, frozen and shipped out to wannabe cooks and hungry home-front eaters.

Beginning last week, folks seeking the frozen food of famous chefs could call up a Web site (www.fiveleaf. com) or call a toll-free number (866-348-3532) and choose from 19 dishes - some appetizers, some entrees - ranging from $7 to $30, plus $13 shipping. A line of soups and desserts is slated to be added to the menu later this year.

FiveLeaf, the new company pushing this boiled-water approach to culinary delights, has kitchens in Alexandria, Va., and is affiliated with Cuisine Solutions, a corporation that prepares food for hotels, cruise ships and the first-class compartments of some airlines. While many of the FiveLeaf offerings have a French flair, they are being shipped by Omaha Steaks, an outfit that has been delivering frozen meat to American homes for years.

To indulge my fantasy life and to break the winter doldrums, I had samples of the great chefs' work sent to me. In addition to Boulud's braised beef ribs, I received some baby squid with shiitake mushrooms in a soy coconut- ginger sauce created by Gerard Bertholon, the executive chef of FiveLeaf. I also got bouillabaisse printaniere, a vegetable dish from Reine Sammut, a French chef who presides over Auberge La Feniere, a one-star Michelin restaurant in Provence.

Another offering was a spicy crab cake with pineapple sauce created by Mark Miller, whose fiery Southwestern cuisine is served at Coyote Cafe; in Santa Fe, N.M., and the Red Sage restaurant in Washington, D.C.

As soon as the box carrying the fare arrived, I felt the need to raise my standards in frozen food. This was not, I reminded myself, a rigid burrito destined to be zapped in a microwave. This was cuisine. It must be treated properly. I quickly gave it a prominent place in the freezer.

Next, I felt compelled to consider the harmony of my dinner menu, which is not something I customarily do on weeknights. Would the Boulud beef be happy with Sammut's bouillabaisse? Would Miller's spicy crab cake crab get along with Bertholon's squid?

Then there was the issue of feeding the child, a teen-age male, for supper. There was a chance he would not like this exotic fare. Then again, there was the more worrisome probability that the kid would like it, and would polish off all these artful, but not gigantic, servings in a couple of bites. My wife and I voted to save the cuisine for us, and to feed the kid conventional supper fare, half a roast chicken.

For our first attempt at bringing highbrow frozen food to our home, we chose the crab-cake appetizer followed by the squid entree. Shortly after opening the boxes we got a lecture from the chefs, delivered by means of the printed set of instructions, reminding us who was in charge.

"Please read the complete instructions," it said, "before you proceed with preparation of your meal. It is very important to respect the quantity of water required to avoid overcooking." After reading the instructions, we felt as if we should click our heels, bow our heads and respond, "Yes, chef."

We followed instructions to a T, most of them spelling out, in bold type, precisely how long each component of these dishes had to be cooked.

The crab-cake sauce, for instance, was heated in "exactly 2 cups" of water that had reached a simmer, then sat in hot water for precisely 10 minutes. The crab cake was cooked twice, first in a skillet for precisely three minutes per side, then in a 375-degree oven for 10 minutes. Before meeting the sauce, the crab cake rested for two minutes.

Meanwhile, the pouch of frozen squid was cooking for 24 minutes in what seemed to us to be an ocean of water. The chef called for 16 cups. That is a lot. It required using a big soup pot. I briefly considered using a smaller pot and less water. But I thought I heard a chef's voice, from way over in Alexandria, bark, "Do as I say!" and followed the rules.

Besides submitting to the chefs' explicit rules of conduct, I found that getting these dishes to the table also called for several kitchen timers. With several clocks ticking and a couple of buzzers buzzing, I resembled a timer at the Winter Olympics.

It might have felt like something of a forced march, but the overall results of this regimen were very pleasing. Those chefs may be demanding, but they put out good food.

The braised beef ribs, which we had the following night, were outstanding, our favorite dish of the four FiveLeaf dishes we tasted. The meat had remarkable texture, something rarely found in frozen fare, and the braised celery stalks were perfect partners. It cost $30 for one serving.

The squid in coconut-ginger sauce, $15 a serving, finished a close second in our picks. This surprised us, because my wife and I do not, as a rule, eat many squid. The sauce was exceptional. The spicy crab cake with pineapple sauce, $18, was an interesting mix of flavors, and would probably be a hit in most any American city other than Baltimore, where most folks tend to like their crab cakes pure and from a joint just around the corner.

The only disappointment was the vegetable bouillabaisse, $10 a serving. The vegetables looked great but had none of the "playful combination of flavors" that, according to the instruction brochure, its chef is known for.

As for the massive amounts of water, FiveLeaf's marketing director, Francoise Perrier-Madani told me that the volume of water was a way of ensuring that multiple components (many small squid, or in the case of beef ribs, four pouches of ingredients) will be thoroughly heated but not overcooked.

She added that when the frozen fare is allowed to thaw, the cooking process is shortened, and the amount of heated water needed is cut almost in half. She added, however, that it is not permitted to double up and, for example, to simultaneously heat two portions of frozen squid in one 16-cup pot. If you are cooking two portions, you usually have to use two pots.

I don't know if there is a market out there for this flavorful, upscale frozen fare. But I do know that, if called upon to cook like Boulud, I can heat water with the best of them.

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