Cooking Lesson with Eric Prokesh

Globe-trotting interior designer Eric Prokesh reveals his favorite European recipes.

Eric Prokesh

The Galloping Gourmet

Globe-trotting interior decorator Eric Prokesh has ventured to Europe more than 40 times, each time bringing back recipes to try. We asked him to host a small party and cook them for us. In his own eloquent words, he describes the story behind each dish.

I had the ravioli in an Italian restaurant in Amsterdam. It was the invention of their new cook from Bologna, Italy. I liked it so much I returned the next night and ordered it again and, with some experimentation at home, was able to approximate it fairly well. The unconventional touch is the addition of red wine (mostly for color) to the cream sauce. About 10 years ago, I was eating in the Viennese woods in a restaurant that was famous for its fish. The fish, however, was completely upstaged by the delicious lentils. I couldn’t figure out what the “ghost” ingredient was. It turned out to be dill, which is often used with dried legumes in central Europe. The result is surprisingly light and could even be used in a salad or with cooked sausages for a meal. You should choose the tiny moss-green French lentils available in bulk at Whole Foods. These will hold their texture without getting mushy.

The table in Prokesh’s sun-filled dining room is set with Old Paris porcelains.

The roasted fennel is based on a recipe from Italian chef Giada De Laurentiis. It is the perfect treatment of this vegetable, as the roasting concentrates its sweet licorice flavor and gives a more dependably tender result than boiling or braising. Fennel is a perfect accompaniment to roast meat, roast chicken, or broiled rack of lamb. Those who like osso buco will love my braised veal. It’s made with a relatively inexpensive cut—a shoulder roast, and it’s also easier to prepare than osso buco and has a lighter presence, perfumed by the humble celery root. Ideal for company, it can be prepared ahead of time and gently reheated. Shoulder rolls of veal are often sold rolled, but for speedy cooking and manageable serving slices, you should remove the twine netting and cook the roast flat. You can halve this recipe if desired, but a 4-pound roast will handily serve six people with a leftover meal for two.

A Tarte Tatin dessert is a staple of French home cooking. My recipe uses pears and is an amalgam of Elizabeth David’s, Julia Child’s, Jacques Pépin’s, and trial and error. Ripe pears will leak juice, which spoils the result, so there are two added steps to remedy this. First, the pears are sliced and tossed with sugar, and the excess juice is poured off. Then the tart gets a preliminary cooking on the stove, which browns the pears and cooks off more juice. The pastry is fragile and shouldn’t be warmed by hand, so I roll it between two sheets of plastic wrap. I like espresso at the end of a meal, but after you’ve been cooking all day, it’s nice to sit back at the table and not have to work. A French press is perfect because you can grind the coffee ahead of time and fill the pot with hot water and let it steep at the table.

The Recipes

“Roasting fennel concentrates its sweet licorice flavor. It’s the perfect accompaniment to roast meat, roast chicken, or broiled rack of lamb.”

Finocchio al Forno (Oven-roasted Fennel)

4 or 5  large fennel bulbs
     Fresh ground pepper
     Olive oil 
     Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Cut off shoots, leaving only fennel bulbs. Pull off a few lacy fronds and chop fine to yield 2 tablespoons for garnish. Slice the fennel lengthwise into 1/4-inch slices and place in a baking dish. Add salt and fresh ground pepper, pour generous amounts of olive oil, and mix ingredients with your hands. Arrange fennel in the baking dish no more than three or four slices deep or about 1.5-inches high. Grate Parmesan on the top. Roast for approximately one hour. The fennel should be a lovely golden brown and pierce easily with a fork. Sprinkle chopped fennel on the dish for garnish.

Ravioli con Pera (Ravioli Stuffed with Pears)

 4  ripe Anjou pears
 1  cup ricotta cheese
 1/2  cup mascarpone cheese
 1  cup Parmesan cheese
 4  tablespoons parsley, finely chopped
 4  tablespoons walnuts, finely chopped
 1/2  tablespoon salt 
 3  tablespoons plain breadcrumbs (to soak up excess pear juice)
Peel pears. Use a standard apple slicer/corer to cut pears into 10 wedges. Slice wedges into triangles about 1/8-inch thick. Combine ricotta, mascarpone, Parmesan, parsley, and chopped walnuts in a mixing bowl. Add pears. Add salt and breadcrumbs. If pears are very wet, add additional breadcrumbs. The filling should have the consistency of ricotta.


Ravioli Con Pera

 4  eggs
 3  cups unbleached all-purpose flour

Mix eggs and 2 cups of the flour in a food processor. The result will be a large ball.
Add remaining flour, a little at a time until dough breaks up into tiny bits. Pour contents into a mixing bowl and knead into a large pliable ball. Divide ball into fourths and cover bowl to keep dough from drying. Run dough through a standard crank pasta machine such as an Atlas or Marcato (available at Elliott’s Hardware or any culinary shop) on the next to the last setting (usually No. 5). Lay sheet on a ravioli form and add a scant tablespoon of filling on each square. Cover with another sheet of dough and roll over the form vigorously with a rolling pin. Repeat until all dough is used. A standard ravioli form will yield 12 ravioli. The yield should be about six dozen ravioli. Scraps can be reprocessed through the pasta machine for additional sheets of dough. Sprinkle flour on ravioli to prevent them from sticking together.

 2  cups heavy cream
 4  ounces Gorgonzola cheese
 1/2  cup red wine

Heat cream in a heavy enamel saucepan. Add chunks of Gorgonzola until they melt into the cream. Do not allow cream to boil. Stir in red wine before serving. Bring water to boil in a large stockpot. When water is at a strong boil, add ravioli. Cover pot. When pot is about to boil over, ravioli are done (about 3 minutes). Pour into a colander to drain, then put them back into stockpot. Pour in sauce and toss. Garnish with chopped parsley if desired. Serve immediately on warmed plates.


 2  cups French lentils
     Olive oil
 1  cup onion, finely chopped
 1  cup carrot, finely chopped
 1  cup celery, finely chopped
 4  tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
 2  cups peeled Italian tomatoes, roughly chopped with their juice
 1  cup meat broth


Put lentils in a heavy pot, suitable for slow cooking and cover with 2 inches of water. Do not add salt to the water. Bring to a boil and take off the heat to cool for about an hour. They should be nearly done, still a little firm. Drain the lentils in a fine colander. Pour enough olive oil in the pot to coat generously. Sauté onions on medium-high heat until wilted and light gold. Do not allow to brown. Add carrots and celery, and sauté for five minutes on medium-high heat, stirring constantly. Add lentils to the pot and stir. Add dill and stir. Add tomatoes with their juice, broth, and about 2 tablespoons of salt. Turn heat down to low, cover, and simmer. Stir from time to time to prevent scorching. The lentils should be done in 30-45 minutes. Their flavor will improve if cooked a day in advance and reheated.

Brasato di Vitello (Braised Shoulder Roast of Veal)

 4  pounds veal shoulder roast
     Fresh ground pepper
     Olive oil
 2  tablespoons butter
 1 large yellow onion, halved and sliced in thin semi-circles
 1  cup carrot, peeled and cut into matchstick straws about 3-inches  long
 1  cup celery root, peeled and cut into matchstick straws about 3-inches long
 5  tablespoons chopped herbs: sage and rosemary (you may include basil and thyme)
 1  cup canned whole Italian tomatoes, coarsely chopped with their juice
 1 heaping tablespoon of seed mustard, such as Moutarde de Meaux
 1  cup dry white wine
     Parsley, chopped

Brasato di Vitello

Untruss the roast if it is rolled and lay flat. Trim excess fat, and put salt and pepper on both sides. The roast will be no thicker than about 2 inches. Choose a heavy bottomed, lidded, oval roasting pan, large enough to contain the whole roast. Pour enough olive oil to generously coat the whole pan. Brown the meat on all sides at medium-high heat. Remove the roast from the pan to a platter and pour off all but about a tablespoon of the oil from the roasting pan. Add 3 tablespoons olive oil to the pan and 2 tablespoons butter and keep heat at medium-high. Wilt the onions in the pan, stirring constantly. Add the carrots and celery root; stir until wilted.

Stir in chopped herbs. Sauté for a minute. Clear a space in the center of the roasting pan for the roast. Return the roast to the pan, adding any of the juices that may have been released onto the platter. (It’s fine if some vegetables are under the roast.) Add chopped tomatoes and distribute evenly. Dissolve the mustard in the wine and pour evenly over the contents of the pan. Bring to boil, then turn the heat down to low. Cover the pan and cook at a lazy simmer for about one hour. Remove the roast to a cutting board and slice cross grain. Serve with julienned vegetables on top and spoon pan juices over. Garnish with chopped parsley.

Tarte Tatin aux Poires (Pear Tart)

 8  ripe Anjou pears, peeled, sliced, and cored with an apple slicer/corer, yielding 2 to 3 cups
 2/3  cup sugar
 6  tablespoons butter

 1  cup sifted unbleached all-purpose flour
 1  tablespoon sugar
     Pinch of salt
 4  tablespoons chilled butter
 1 1/2  tablespoons chilled shortening
 3  tablespoons cold water
     Extra long roll plastic wrap

Tarte Tatin aux Poires

Peel, core, and slice pears. Place in a bowl and toss with half the sugar and set aside. Prepare pastry. Put dry ingredients (flour, sugar, and salt) into a food processor and mix with the metal blade. Add chilled butter and shortening and process. Add cold water and process. The result should be “small pea beads,” if not, add more cold water a tablespoon at a time and process. Empty the contents of the food processor onto a large sheet of plastic wrap and gather into a ball. Unwrap and cover with another large sheet of plastic wrap. Roll the ball into a 12- or 13-inch circle, flipping the encased dough from time to time. Set aside.

Pour off excess water from the pears. Spread the remaining 1/3 cup of sugar in a 12-inch ovenproof frying pan such as Le Creuset or a seasoned iron skillet or non-stick pan. Arrange a layer of pears in attractive concentric circles on top of the sugar in the pan, leaving a half-inch space for the pastry to enclose the pears. Pour in remaining pears, followed by the butter. Gently peel the top layer of plastic wrap from the pastry. Use the remaining sheet of plastic wrap to lift the pastry on top of the pears and gently peel away allowing the excess to fold around the pears. Poke several holes in the pastry and cook it at medium-high heat on the stove for 10 minutes. Then cook in a 375-degree oven for about one hour. Cool for 30 minutes. Place a serving plate on top of the pan and invert.


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