A Rehearsal Menu to Tickle Your Nose

When Dom Perignon invented the creme de la creme of spirits in the 17th century, little did he know that the drink he discovered while trying to eradicate those “irksome bubbles” from his wine would be considered so romantic that wedding guests wouldn’t think of toasting generations of brides and grooms with anything less.

Since today’s weddings are rife with new traditions, why not serve your guests a rehearsal dinner menu infused with Champagne? It will be good practice for your first official dinner as a couple — which, hopefully, you will be cooking together. While it seems extravagant to heat a liquid so precious — it has sold for as much as $25,000 a bottle — chefs praise the celebratory results.

Josiah Citrin, chef-owner of Melisse in Santa Monica cooks with Champagne for the same reason he uses fresh truffles or searches out the best foie gras or caviar.

“A dish is only as elegant as its ingredients,” he said. “Champagne adds a touch of romance, a certain finesse. Its subtle acidity is the perfect foil for butter, which is why I use it in beurre blanc and other fish sauces.”

Citrin often cooks with a more moderately priced Champagne, then finishes the dish with a splash of a more expensive variety.

When deciding on which label of Champagne or sparkling wine to cook with, it’s important to really like the flavor, said Finbar Kinsella, chef at Lily’s in Louisville.

“It doesn’t have to be as expensive as the Champagne you’ll be drinking, but if you don’t like it in the glass you won’t like it on your plate,” he said. “The myth that the taste will be diffused in the cooking process is just that.”

For kosher consumers, wineries such as Baron Herzog, Hagafen, Abarbanel and Yarden make very good Champagnes.

Cooking with the world’s most celebratory drink is perfect for a wedding, New York chef Jerome Vidy said.

Originally from Apt, in the south of France, Vidy remembers, “It’s very French to always have a bottle of wine in the house, but if there’s a bottle of Champagne chilling in the fridge, you know something special is coming up. Carrying over the flavor from your flute to your plate is a wonderful way to toast your love.”

Vidy emphasizes the care aspect of cooking with Champagne since its sparkle rarely lasts more than a half hour.

“Assemble your ingredients, pop the cork and then use it immediately. In between additions, keep it in a cool place. Of course it’s fun to get a head start on celebrating by drinking and toasting as you cook,” he said.

Champagne Leek Soup With Caviar

From Josiah Citrin, chef-owner of Melisse Restaurant, Santa Monica.


1 cup white onion, sliced

2 garlic cloves, crushed

5 tablespoons butter, or more if needed, divided

2 quarts diced leeks, white part only

Salt to taste

1 cup Champagne

2 small Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters

1 sprig fresh thyme

1 quart vegetable stock

2 cups water

1/2 cup cream


1 cup diced leeks, white part only

1/2 cup cream

1 cup diced white potatoes

1 sprig thyme

1 bay leaf

1/4 cup Champagne

2 ounces kosher caviar

On a low flame sweat onions and garlic in 2 tablespoons butter until translucent, about two minutes, adding more butter if the mixture gets dry. Add leeks and a pinch of salt; continue cooking two minutes longer. Add 1 cup Champagne, raise heat, and reduce the mixture by half, making sure it doesn’t boil. Add Yukon potatoes, thyme, vegetable stock and water. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Add 1/2 cup cream. Bring to a boil again, immediately reduce heat to a simmer; cook for 10 minutes. Blend until smooth. Strain through a chinois sieve.

For garnish, sweat leeks in butter, about three to four minutes. Add 1/2 cup cream; cook until leeks are soft, about two minutes more. Boil potatoes with thyme and bay leaf until just cooked through. Drain and add white potatoes to leek-cream mixture. Mix well.

Heat soup; add 2 tablespoons butter and remaining 1/4 cup Champagne. Blend until light and frothy. Pour into a warmed soup tureen. Reheat leek mixture, adding a bit of butter, if needed.

To serve, place about 1 tablespoon of the leek mixture in the center of six soup bowls. Garnish with caviar. Carefully ladle the soup around the leeks so that the garnish is floating on top.

Makes six servings.

Spinach and Mesclun Salad With Champagne Tarragon Vinaigrette

Adapted from New York chef Jerome Vidy.

For Champagne tarragon vinegar

1 pint Champagne vinegar

1 cup Champagne

1/2 cup tarragon, thyme, and parsley sprigs

4 garlic cloves, peeled but left whole

1 teaspoon red, white and black peppercorns

For Champagne tarragon vinaigrette

2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon Champagne tarragon vinegar

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons chopped shallots

2 tablespoons fresh tarragon, chopped

1 tablespoon chopped chives

1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped

For salad

8 cups loosely packed greens

2 tablespoons pine nuts (optional)

2 tablespoons dried cranberries (optional)

For Champagne tarragon vinegar, pour vinegar and Champagne into a sterilized jar. Add herb sprigs along with garlic and peppercorns. Store in cool place for four weeks. When vinegar is finished strain out the herbs, garlic and peppercorns.

For Champagne tarragon vinaigrette, place olive oil, vinegar, Dijon, salt and shallots in a screw-top jar and shake vigorously for 30 seconds to blend thoroughly. Stir in herbs just before dressing salad.

Toss with spinach, mache, mesclun, and, if desired, pine nuts and cranberries.

Makes six servings.

Halibut a L’armoricaine

From Uwe Nettelbeck of Merigot, France. If halibut is unavailable, use another densely fleshed fish such as sea bass. Armagnac is an earthy tasting type of brandy, made in Armagnac, France. Or substitute with a liqueur of your choice.

2 large shallots, peeled and sliced

3 large garlic cloves, peeled and sliced

8 Roma tomatoes, peeled, seeded and halved

2 cups good fish stock

1 tablespoon butter

1 cup Champagne

2 tablespoons Armagnac

2 pounds boneless and skinless halibut fillets, cut into 2-inch chunks

Salt to taste

1/2 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons each parsley, chervil and tarragon, chopped

In a separate pan, sauté shallots and garlic in butter until translucent. Turn heat to low, add tomatoes; cook five minutes longer. Add fish stock, white wine, and Armagnac. Turn heat to medium, add salt and reduce by half. Lower heat, add halibut to liquid. Cook gently for about six to eight minutes, until fish is cooked through. Be careful not to overcook.

Remove fish to platter. Lower heat; add cream, half the parsley, chervil, and tarragon. Gently cook until you have a thick cream sauce. Add fish back into sauce; heat through and serve. Garnish with the remaining tablespoon of chopped parsley.

Makes four servings.

Champagne-Honey Granita

From Vincent Scotto, executive chef at Gonzo Restaurant, New York City.

This smoothing, refreshing granita is delicious served with berries or sliced fruit. You can substitute sparkling wine for the Champagne.

1 (750 milliliter) bottle dry Champagne

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

1 cup honey

In a bowl combine Champagne, lemon juice and honey. Stir until honey dissolves. Transfer to a shallow stainless steel pan that fits easily into the freezer.

Freeze for about an hour. Remove and, using a pastry scraper or metal spatula, scrape the sides and bottom of the granita, mixing the frozen particles into the less frozen center.

Freeze for about two hours longer and scrape again. Let the granita freeze for three to four hours longer, until completely frozen. Chop the granita into pieces and serve immediately or return to the freezer until ready to serve.

Makes about two quarts.

Gonzo Bellini

From executive chef Vincent Scotto of Gonzo Restaurant, New York City.

1 pint strawberries or peaches

1/4 cup sugar

2 bottles Champagne.

Puree strawberries or peaches; place in pan with the sugar; bring to boil, cool. Add ice and Champagne.

Champagne Apricot Truffles

From Kathy Cary, chef-owner of Lilly’s Restaurant, Louisville. The recipe was inspired by Camille Glenn, the dowager of Southern cookbook writers.

1 cup dried apricots, cut into sixths

1 cup Champagne, or more to cover the apricots

1 pound bitter chocolate

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

1/2 cup Champagne

1/4 pound shelled pistachios, toasted and finely chopped (optional)

Place apricots in a bowl. Add enough Champagne to cover. Soak apricots in Champagne overnight.

To make ganache, melt chocolate in a double boiler. In a separate saucepan warm cream to about the same temperature as the chocolate. Whip the cream into the chocolate mixture. Remove from stove. Add 1/2 cup Champagne to the ganache mixture. Cool.

With a small scoop, shape dollops of the chocolate mixture into walnut-sized balls. Press a few pieces of Champagne-soaked apricots into each of the balls. Roll completed balls in pistachios to coat the balls.

Makes about three dozen truffles.


L.A. Tour Staged With Heart, History

It is a somewhat surrealistic scene taking place in the kitchen of the Greenway Court Theater in the Fairfax District. One man is narrating a story of the Los Angeles eruv (Shabbat boundary), which in his narration is both a religious frontier and a metaphorical border in which to tell his story. Around him are two women and a man acting as malachim (angels or messengers) and, like an updated Greek chorus, they undulate their bodies in acknowledgement of what he is saying, miming his words in dreamy motions.

In the next room, four actors are going through a scene in which a Russian Jewish mother snubs her son’s wife by not eating her “fackacteh” chopped liver because it was not kosher enough. Tracy Young, the director, is blocking them, advising them to move about the stage to keep the action fresh. The woman playing the mother is questioning Tracy about her character’s resentment of her son.

That is how rehearsal time goes for the “Center of the Star, A Jewish Tour of Los Angeles,” a new play by Yehuda Hyman that is the latest project of the Cornerstone Theater Company (CTC) and Greenway Arts Alliance.

The CTC is an 18-year-old, multiethnic ensemble theater company that partners with community groups to produce original plays that explore different ethnic groupings in Los Angeles. This time they are working the Jewish community, partnering with the University of Judaism (UJ), the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, Workmen’s Ciricle, Temple Emanuel, Emanuel Arts Center, Adat Ari El, the Bureau of Jewish Education and the Skirball Cultural Center for “Center of the Star,” which will run for five weeks. In deference to the Jews involved in the production, Cornerstone is not rehearsing or performing the play on Friday nights.

“Ultimately, it’s about building bridges between diverse communities,” said Lee Lawlor, Cornerstone’s communications director. “We want to hear people’s stories. We want to hear what is special about being Jewish that makes it different to other communities, what are the traditions and what is the history of the community. Generally we spend close to a year identifying strategic partners within the community, we meet with them and based on those meetings the playwright will craft a play. We try to have either the playwright or the director be from within the community.”

“This is not about imposing a play on a group of people, but trying to have that play grow out of a group of people,” she continued.

To write “Center of The Star,” a sprawling history of the Jewish community in Los Angeles and a personal narrative of one family’s place in it, Hyman conducted 48 private interviews with all sorts of Jews — rabbis, secular Jews, Jews of different ethnicities. He also did 18 group interviews, or in Cornerstone theater parlance, “story circles,” with, among others, Jews at Beit T’Shuva (a Jewish treatment center), Iraqi Jews, Russian Jews, Persian Jews, Israelis in Los Angeles, rabbinic interns at the UJ, members of a Conservative synagogue in the Valley and a Reform temple in Beverly Hills.

“I love hearing people’s stories,” Hyman said. “[In the story circles] I would get into questions of faith, asking tough questions about the concept of the Chosen People, and what does that mean, and when they had experiences when they felt their faith was tested. I got a wide variety of responses — everything from heart-rending stories to people telling me that Judaism is not about faith but about doing a certain set of things we do everything, to people who had mystical experiences with the religion.”

From those interviews, and his own research into the history of the Jewish community in the city, Hyman wrote a multilayered, metaphysical play that uses 32 actors to follow the migratory trends of Jews in Los Angeles.

In the play, Jackie, a successful photographer, goes on a tour of Los Angeles, which sparks memories of her grandmother from Boyle Heights, her Fairfax childhood, her teenage yearnings in Brentwood and the tragedy that led to her exodus from the city.

“The play is very specifically Los Angeles in its geography and its essence and its energy and rhythm,” said Hyman. “The Pacific Ocean plays a huge role in the play — it’s the ocean as geography, and it is also the ocean as mikvah [Jewish ritual bath].”

Hyman said that he is sad that his play could not tell everyone’s stories, but he hopes that those who watch the play will have a sense of pride about the expansiveness of the Los Angeles Jewish community. He said that he received the inspiration for the play from the Star of David.

“If you look at the Star of David, you will see two interesting triangles: one pointing upward to heaven, and the other downward,” he said. “According to the mystic Gershom Sholem, we humans exist in that crossroads where the two stars intersect. ‘Center of the Star’ is a tour of that junction and the Jewish struggle to understand it, live in it and celebrate it.”

“Center of the Star: A Jewish Tour of Los Angeles” will
be playing at the Greenway Court Theater, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, Jan.
29-Feb. 29. For tickets call (323) 655-7679 ext. 100, or go to www.cornerstonetheater.org .