Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Gorgeous Greeks and their Honey Glazed Shrimp

530 BCE black figure Panathenaic amphora, MMA

The 5 Star Makeover group is convening once more and the topic is Greek Meze.

Since my game is history and food, I went to ancient Greece by way of a favorite cookbook,  The Classical Cookbookby Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger to find my contribution to the makeover. With so much to choose from, deciding on what to pick is not easy.  Mediterranean cuisine began in Greece after all, but so did Western Civilization ––hard to believe but there is more to Greek culture than just the food.  For example, when I think Greece I think pottery.

I have had a serious crush on Greek pottery for as long as I can remember (that and the Klismos, but that's another story). 


     
There is something strangely compelling about their red and black pottery, often populated by comely men and women  up to their Attic antics –– eating, drinking and frolicking. Mr Keats was certainly captivated by their frozen beauty in his Ode to a Grecian Urn. Greek pottery decorations of this period did seem to capture life of the times more often than not, sort of proto-life-style reporting and their revelries were embellished with magnificent Greek key and palmette patterns meandering elegantly around the clay surfaces (more heroic subjects seemed to end up in marble).


Terracotta Larnax from Pachyammos (or lustral basin)

One of my favorite jobs as a production designer was working on a PBS program that went from Archimedes' ancient Greece to Thomas Edison's 19th c New Jersey.  For the Greek section I got to make great furniture and pottery and it was an incredible thrill.  Since the Eureka moment happened in a bathtub, we got a metal horse trough and a great fabricator made it into a credible “terracotta” tub that looked like the real deal (it was based on the tub above) complete with carousing porpoises that my art director and I painted (as well as the oil lamps, a giant ewer for pouring bath water –– all made by a wonderful potter in Tribeca) and a gorgeous 3 legged wooden table (all of which went to the lucky director, drat).


Black figure Vase (510-500BCE), MMA

Originally, the pottery was made using a "black figure" technique that involved a black slip background from which the red color patterns were incised after a first firing (this is a little like the scratchboard technique I remember from art class as a kid). Then the clay was fired again to lock the design.


Kylix 350 BCE
Kylix 450-350 BCE

520-510 BCE, MMA

Around 530BCE, this evolved into the "red figure" technique that allowed the potters to paint the design on the pot instead of scratching the design into the black surface.  That gave the craftsmen the ability to create more intricate designs.  Interestingly enough, much of what we know about Greek lifestyle come from the designs on these magnificent pots –– the aforementioned proto-life-style reporting,–– fleshed out by great contemporary accounts that have been saved through all these thousands of years.  We can see the way they ate, what they sat on, ate from and what they were wearing (or in the case of the servants, NOT wearing).
 
Kylix 500 BCE, MMA


Footed Epiktetos, MMA


Kottabos-playing Greeks were a frequent subject for pottery designs. Kottabos was a game that involved accurately tossing the dregs of your wine cup (usually a low kylix form as seen above) at a target (really hard to wrap your head around Socrates playing this undignified game but it was a sure fire way to lighten up a party). 


In The History and Manners of Customs in Ancient Greece, James St. John described the device:

 “ The most usual form of the game was this, –a piece of wood like the upright of a balance having been fixed in the floor or upon a stable basis, a small cross-beam was placed on the top of it [a wooded base] with a shallow vessel like the basin of a pair of scales, at either end. Under each of these vessels stood a broad-mouthed vase, filled with water, with a gilt bronze statue called a Manes, fixed upright in its centre.” When done properly, one thing would hit another making a sound “by an onomatopoæ called latax” (the act of tossing was called ankula after the turn of the wrist involved in the toss).  The victor was the one who spilled the least wine and made the most noise. It was also thought that the greater the success at the toss, the higher the “place occupied by the player in his mistresses affection”.

Symposium Getty Museum

Kottabos shenanigans aside, I can just imagine the simple Greek room, with diners leaning on silk-cushioned couches set about the spare elegant space, discoursing brilliantly whilst eating from gorgeous low tables laden with lovely, clean-flavored food that is as good today as it was 2500 years ago.

The Classical Cookbook said the recipe for the sweet and sour glazed shrimp I made was suggested by a few words in a remarkable document called The Banquet of Philoxenus from around 400 BC,  "Honey-glazed shrimps besides, my love" is all there was to work withGrainger, with her encyclopedic knowledge of the cuisine of the period, put together the recipe using appropriate ingredients and techniques from those few words –– a well-educated guess. 

Grainger described The Banquet of Philoxenus as “a poetic celebration of obsessive culinary pleasures, a literary dinner-party” (available online HERE and a lot of fun to read). It is full of lush descriptions of topics discussed and food eaten but also does things like calculating the size of the party by the number of couches in the room. What a world it was.

There is talk of a man who:

“…out of his prodigious luxury used to syringe the lettuces which grew in his garden with mead in the evening, and then, when he picked them in the morning, he would say that he was eating green cheesecakes, which were sent up to him by the Earth.”

Kylix, 480-470, 


One banquet was described:

“There were rivers
With tender pulse and blackest soup o'erflowing,
Which ran clown brawling through the narrow dishes,
Bearing the crusts and spoons away in the flood.
Then there were dainty closely kneaded cakes;
So that the food, both luscious and abundant,
Descended to the gullets of the dead.
There were black-puddings and large boiling slices
Of well-mix' d sausages, which hiss'd within
The smoking streamlet in the stead of oysters.
There too were cutlets of broil'd fish well season'd
With sauce of every kind, and cook, and country.
There were huge legs of pork, most tender meat,
Loading enormous platters ; and boil'd pettitoes
Sending a savoury steam ; and paunch of ox ;
And well-cured chine of porker, red with salt,
A dainty dish, on fried meat balls upraised.
There too were cakes of groats well steep'd in milk,
In large flat dishes, and rich plates of beestings.”

What will you say then when you hear the rest?
For roasted thrushes nicely brown'd and hot
Flew to the mouths o' the guests, entreating them
To deign to swallow them, besprinkled o'er
With myrtle leaves and flowers of anemone,
And plates of loveliest apples hung around
Above our heads, hanging in air as it seem'd.
And maidens in the most transparent robes,
Just come to womanhood, and crowned with roses,
Did through a strainer pour red mantling cups
Of fragrant wine for all who wish'd to drink.
And whatsoe'er each guest did eat or drink
Straight reappear'd in twofold quantity."

Not bad, right?  Contrary to what you might infer after reading the above, the Greeks ate lots of fruits and vegetables at these wine soaked, flower scented bashes. 

Black figure amphora, 520 BCE, Gathering olives

I thought for my offering I would include a vegetable recipe from a different source, “Cabbage in the Athenian Way” that came from Mnesitheus, a Greek medical writer from the 4th c BC who said that this mixture cured headaches (also in The Classical Cookbook). It is a delicious refreshing salad and the honey vinegar (known as Oxymeli) is divine –– the cabbage is a great companion to the shrimp. The dishes are beautifully conceived; sweet and sour with a great deal of interesting but subtle flavors from the herbs and that dusky asafetida.  You will be shocked at how modern it tastes.  

I leave you with this lovely thought. Within the text of The Banquet comes the quote from the Sirens of Nicophon:

 “Let it now snow white cakes of pulse;
Let loaves arise like dew; let it rain soup;
Let gravy roll down lumps of meat i' the roads,
And cheese-cakes beg the wayfarer to eat them.”

So may it be for you.



Honey Glazed Shrimp

8 oz shrimp
1 T olive oil
2 T fish sauce
1 T honey
2 t chopped fresh oregano
black pepper

Cook the shrimp in the oil with the fish sauce and honey.  Remove the shrimp and reduce the sauce by 1/2. Add the oregano and pepper and pour over the shrimp.





Cabbage the Athenian Way

1 small white cabbage
2 heaping teaspoons chopped coriander
2 t chopped rue*
2 pinches asafetida
salt

4 oz (1/2 c) honey
2 T red wine vinegar.

Heat the honey and add the vinegar and reduce a little.  Chop up the cabbage and toss with the herbs, 
vinegar, salt and asafetida powder.

*Rue can be purchases at some well-stocked herb plant stores or you can buy it online HERE.  Although it is available dried at some spice stores,  I do recommend using fresh.  If you can't get it best to skip it... nothing else quite like it..



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Thursday, July 19, 2012

William Verrall and Mirrored Eggs




I found a recipe called “Mirrored Eggs” in the Alice B Toklas Cookbook and couldn’t get it out of my head. Mirrored eggs? I couldn’t quite apprehend the mirror reference when I read through the recipe so it kept niggling at me to dig into the subject.  Was it the surface of the eggs that was mirror-like or that it was a side-by-side mirror image of its ingredients? The diabolically eccentric Clarissa Dickson Wright (one of the 2 Fat Ladies on British telly) had the only recipe for Mirrored Eggs that I found online  ––a spinach and lemon-orange cream version. That was quite different from Toklas’ version of mirrored eggs with mushrooms and chicken croquettes.  Neither seemed remotely mirror related –– hmmm.

Egg Shirrer

Turns out it’s a translation of a French dish. Oeufs au miroir are much like shirred eggs in English (originally baked in a dish called a shirrer).  The phrase “mirrored eggs” fell out of fashion in England and America long ago.


Clarissa said her recipe came from William Verrall’s 1759 cookbook, A Complete System of Cookery .

I had to travel 200 years back in time but I was glad of the trip because William Verrall (1715-1761) was an interesting bloke during an interesting period in food history. Noodling around in the 18th century also gives me an excuse to share some 18th century style from the V&A  to give you an idea of the divine upper-crust tableware of the period.

1755 Chelsea Porcelain Factory Partridge Tureen used for desserts

Thing is, poor Mr. Verral’s star has waned considerably, why, I cannot fathom.  He has no Wikipedia entry. He is but a footnote in the long history of the White Hart Hotel in Lewes that was the steppingstone to his brief celebrity.  He ran the family business at the White Hart very successfully from 1737 till shortly before his death in 1761 when some mysterious financial disaster ruined him causing the sale of the business.  I don’t think I would have known any of this if it weren’t for author Colin Salter’s blog, Tall Tales from the Trees.

Paul de Lamerie, London, 1743 sterling centerpiece

Mr. Salter is related to Mr. Verrall and writes about his rich family history in a charming way.  It was here I discovered that the White Hart began as a dwelling of the Duke of Newcastle in the 16th century.  It became a hotel in 1720 run by William’s father Dick Verrall, who had some sort of relationship with the Duke’s family (the Duke may have even bankrolled the renovations).  This worked out well for little William and his historical timing was perfect for an ambitious chef.

Kathryn Hughes, writing about Gilly Lehmann’s book, The British Housewife, found that: “Fine dining was a competitive sport in Georgian England, at least among those who could afford it.  The Whigs – aristocratic, vaguely internationalist – were particularly keen on buying up the best French chefs.”  Verrall was apprenticed to the Duke’s chef, Pierre de St. Clouet.  Although de St. Clouet was paid a princely £105 salary, he left the duke to return to France to serve Marechal Richlieu, leaving the Duke devastated and as Hughes noted: “positively lovelorn, writing melancholy letters about the thick and sticky sauces that the new man insisted on sending to the table.”

Styles were changing in the mid-18th century and it was a good time to be making fine French food. Imported French chefs were celebrated and respected and treated as craftsmen and not servants (super-chef Carême was still 50 years in the future). Verrall, using St. Clouet's style,  did French fusion with an English twist.

18th century Chelsea Porcelain dish

William Verrall idolized his mentor Clouet. From the title page of his book, A Complete System of Cookery he acknowledges his debt to his master for "a variety of genuine RECEIPTS collected under the celebrated Mr. de St Clouet, sometime since Cook to his Grace the Duke of Newcastle". The book endeavored to teach techniques for cooking as well as share recipes but he tipped his hat to his master in the preface as well: “I promised at the beginning to fix one never-erring chart to steer by, so that the weakest capacity shall never do amiss, though he mayn’t arrive at once to that pitch of perfection equal to that of the celebrated Mons. Clouet.”

Not a bad guarantee to promise though you may not cook as well as the best chef around, you will not embarrass yourself in the kitchen if you read the book. The introduction addresses arranging tasks to make work flow smoothly and even writes about which equipment to have in the kitchen and how to organize it to make the job go more efficiently.  That’s pretty modern stuff for the middle of the 18th century.

Jean-Etienne Liotard, Still Life: Tea Set, 1781-3 Don’t you love the handle-less cups?

His instructions to the cook are spot-on as well:  “I have known the time more than once or twice, that a cook has loitered away his time in the morning, and began his work perhaps at ten o’clock, and then at the wrong end too; so that time has so elapsed upon his hands that it was impossible for him to be ready at the hour set for sending to table; so that instead of winning the praises of his master or lady, and the rest of the good company, he gets into disgrace, and loses his character. This is what is meant by saying the cook can never do well, for they must fail of it if they are regardless of time; so take it by the forelocks, my friends, and follow the instructions in the treatise before ye, and you’ll be sure to be right, and soon procure to yourself a vast deal of fame.”  Take it by the forelocks, indeed!!!

1759-69 Chelsea Porcelain Factory

His recipes are quite easy to make and his instructions thorough for the time.  Clarissa’s version of mirrored eggs differs slightly from the original in that she adds spinach (which Verrall does in a another similar recipe, “Spinage with cream and eggs” but not in the mirrored eggs recipe).  She also adds orange AND lemon juice instead of one OR the other as Verrall recommends. 

18th Century Sheffield silver-plate dishes with warming covers (perfect for the eggs)

In a recipe that’s 20 years younger than Verralls’, a B. Clermont in his  1776 book The Professed Cook had a mirrored eggs recipe that was slightly different.  There’s no cream involved, just eggs basted with a brown butter vinegar glaze… sounds delicious and he describes the dish as “clear as a Looking-glass...” 


Clermont, The Professed Cook, 1776

100 years later in America, Delmonico’s chef Charles Ranhoffer wrote:Cook six eggs au mirior on a large buttered dish, that is, baste the egg yolk with boiling butter several times while cooking in the oven; this will make them very glossy”.  So to re-cap, the glossy surface is created by basting the eggs –– that’s where the mirror comes from.

I do know Verral’s dish is as delicious today as it was in 1759.  Originally it would have been cooked in a ceramic dish (with the exhortation to use a “dish that will bear the fire) over the soft heat of a charcoal-heated chafing dish, not directly on a flame or in the oven. I think it is easier to do stovetop as it involves less opening of the oven to baste.  Just cook low and slow.  You can use a ceramic dish like a cazuela that can take a flame or a less hardy ceramic dish placed in a water-filled pan or you can use a small heavy skillet (individual size or larger). I think these would be great done individually as well in little souffle dishes.


From the Epicurean



Mirrored Eggs for 2

1 t butter
2 T chopped parsley (plus more for garnish)
2 T  minced green onion
pinch of salt, pepper and nutmeg
4 eggs
1/3 c heavy cream
2 T lemon Juice (or orange if you prefer)
1 t lemon zest for garnish (or orange if you prefer)

Butter a shallow ceramic dish.  Sprinkle with parsley and onion and crack 4 eggs in the dish.  Pour the cream over the eggs gently.  Set in a skillet and pour boiling water about halfway up the sides of the dish.  Set to a low boil (if it boils too strenuously it will slop over into the eggs).

Ladle the cream over the egg yolks gently a few times a minute, taking care you don't break the yolks and avoid going into the whites. Try to just work with the cream.  Pour the lemon juice over the top after 5 minutes and gently blend with the cream as you ladle over the yolks.   Put a lid on the pot and let it cook over a very low heat. Continue basting with the lemon cream every minute or so (lifting the lid of course). The eggs will be done in about 10 minutes. You can tell the yolks are done by pressing gently on the yolks.




PS  The new painting on my header is:

"The Banquet Given by the Corporation to the Prince Regent, the Emperor of Russia and the King of Prussia, 18 June 1814 (The Allied Sovereigns' Banquet)"  by Luke Clennell

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Alice B Toklas Cookbook Part II, Eggs Francis Picabia




Naomi Barry knew Alice B Toklas (1877-1967).   A stellar essayist at Gourmet Magazine (a publication that was thoughtful as well as delicious from its inception),  Barry wrote of Toklas :  “The most memorable table I have known in Paris was in an apartment over a printing plant at 5, rue Christine.  The entrance was little better than a slum, but in the old quarter of Paris the entrance tells little.  Once you were inside, the rooms were spacious and the furniture, the objets d’art, the bold individuality of taste, the reflection of strong personalities made you feel as though you had gone straight through the looking glass…. Alice B Toklas was the first true gourmet I ever met.  She knew how to grow, to buy, to prepare, to cook to savor, to serve –– and how to put food in its proper place.  She understood flavors so that you were deliciously tormented trying to grasp them. A lunch at the rue Christine lasted three hours if you broke away brusquely, but it was more likely to be a leisurely four hours, for the meal was meant to be a trampoline for conversation and pithy criticism.”

Stein and Toklas 5 rue Christine, Cecil Beaton 1928

After many meals of boeuf bourguignon, Singapore ice cream, perfect poached apple pies, eels in sauce verte and spaghetti au gratin, Barry felt  “in Miss Toklas’s apartment the food always fitted into the surroundings and the company.  In its preparation, she was always painstakingly finicky about every detail.” Perhaps it was because  she felt,  “If you want to be a good cook, you should go at it as a daily pleasure.  You should never economize in the kitchen.  Once the menu is established, the materials should be the very best.” (I found this essay in a great book called Remembrance of Things Paris: Sixty Years of Writing from Gourmet ).

Alice B Toklas, 1959, in one of her very expensive hats

A 1968 NYT article by James Mallow revealed more of Alice’s last years:  “In 1960, to avoid the rigors of a Parisian winter, Alice stayed for an extended period of time at a pension run by the Canadian Sisters of the Adoration of the Precious Blood in Rome (after Gertrude's death she had become a Roman Catholic convert). It was while she was in Rome that the landlord threatened to take possession of the apartment. The Stein heirs, finding the apartment unprotected and some of the pictures missing, had the collection sequestered in the Chase Manhattan vault.  With the collection impounded and little means of support, Alice was in straitened circumstances. She was in her mid-80's suffering from arthritis and barely able to see. Nevertheless, she maintained a healthy appetite. Her tastes could often run to the exotic –– a yearning for fresh peaches in mid-November –– and, with the true conviction of a gourmet, she insisted that the shopping be done at Fauchon, the most expensive green- grocer in Paris. When funds were at a particularly low ebb, friends would supply the maids with the distinctive black and white Fauchon bags and send them shopping around the corner.”

It is interesting to triangulate other's recollections of Alice and her own accounts of her life.  Her love of food and entertaining and the pleasures shared at her table come through all of them like a dinner plate  moon on an India ink night –– it was who she was.  And what of her glorious food?  In The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, inspiration for it came from unlikely sources –– like cars with names.

Photograph of Stein and Toklas by Cecil Beaton, 1939

In the chapter entitled “ Food to which Aunt Pauline and Lady Godiva led us” we discover Aunt Pauline was a Model T Ford that was driven by Stein during WWI for the American Fund for French Wounded.  It would only go 30 miles an hour so they were always late, even for rare well-provisioned lunches like the one in Saulieu with Panade Veloutée (a bread soup) and Peches Flambées (flaming peaches) or the one in Lyon at La Mére Fillioux where they had fish with a butter sauce, hearts of artichokes with truffled foie gras, steamed capon with quenelle (a kind of poached meat  dumpling) and Tarte Louise (an orange tart). It was remarkably fine dining considering what war was doing to the French table.  Even the hard work of stuffing a depot with war materials led to a great Catalan table for them to dine at after their labors.

Stein's favorite photo of herself  and Basket the poodle at Bilignin by Van Vechten, NYPL

After WWI, Stein retired Pauline and opted for a spare, stripped down vehicle christened Lady Godiva with which she  and Toklas could take field trips outside of Paris to country inns and restaurants all over France.  They toured Chartres, the Loire Valley, Cote d’ Azure and Rhone Valley and ate chicken and roast beef picnics with strawberry filled cream puffs, salmon with hollandaise, a Måcon cake with layers of  mocha, kirsch and pistachio, perch with fennel, hen à la Provençale. They returned a few times a month to Marseilles for bouillabaisse. Lady Godiva was finally retired after they found their favorite restaurant (belonging to a Madame Bourgeois in Priay), and finagled a lease on  their fairytale country house in Bilignin (this involved getting the current military-man tenant promoted and transferred but they were so in love with the place at first sight they pulled it off). 


But it is what Toklas prepared for Stein and their friends that resonates for us all these years later.

Atget,  Courtyard View, 1898

Jonathan Gold  (in Remembrance of Things Paris) said  “We all want to experience the Paris of Hemingway, of Picasso, of Baudelaire; we want to dine in Atget photographs, to sup on meals that Alice B. Toklas might have approved of, that Mére Poulard might have cooked.”  I can’t agree more.  The recipes are basted with greatness.  I could cook from this book for ages without getting bored. You can have a Midnight in Paris moment and imagine all her extraordinary friends around a table with each mouthful you take, enjoying Toklas's art,  and it was art, albeit an evanescent one.  Toklas art was the art of the table and entertaining.

Artist Francis Picabia

So why not share a favorite dish of hers ––  an artist's dish. Alice said “The only painter who ever gave me a recipe was Francis Picabia and though it is only a  dish of eggs it merits the name of its creator.”   Pay attention to the recipe. Yes, that much butter.  Yes, that long to make them.  Yes they are the most amazing eggs you will ever have, but I couldn't stop there.


Toklas and Stein had many cooks.  Many were not terribly good, others were great but extremely idiosyncratic and unspeakably unreliable.  One of these later types was named Jean who hailed from Martinique.  Her “cocotte” smile was endearing, as was her unorthodox way with eggs.  The dish that caught my eye was her Poached Eggs à la Sultane.   Placing poached eggs atop puff pastry shells is a fitting pedestal for beautiful eggs from pasture raised chickens. Knowing Alice, she would have insisted on the finest egg. The delicate pistachio sauce is something else. It is terribly elegant with a style that you don't taste very often –– subtle and delicate with the barest suspicion of pistachio.  May I say the sauce is great the following day and would be good on chicken or even a vegetable like cauliflower. It's a great sauce.


Eggs Francis Picabia serves 8 (they are VERY rich)

“Break 8 eggs into a bowl and mix them well with a fork, adding salt but no pepper. Pour them into a saucepan - yes a saucepan, not a frying pan. Put the saucepan over a very, very low flame, and keep turning them with a fork while very slowly adding in very small quantities ½ lb. butter - not a speck less, more if you can bring yourself to it. It should take ½ hour to prepare this dish. The eggs of course are not scrambled, but with the butter, no substitute admitted, produce a suave consistency that only gourmets will appreciate.”




*Just a tip, cooking the eggs over very very low heat is the key -- use the low heat burner set just above its lowest setting. I used a small heavy enamel pan for the mixture.  I buttered the pan and added the eggs, then added the butter in end-of-thumb size pieces and added more as each dissolved. The mix will not change until the last 8-10 minutes.  Then it will begin to look like scrambled eggs. You will see them come together.  Remove from the heat when they do and serve immediately.  They are worth the effort –– wicked rich, baying at the moon, bug-eyed loony great eggs.



Poached Eggs à la Sultane

“Bake puff paste in fluted pâté shells.  When baked and still hot place in each one a poached egg.  Cover with a sauce made this way:

For 6 pâté  shells, melt 1 ½  T  butter in a saucepan over low heat.  When butter is melted add 1 ¼ T flour.  Turn with a wooden spoon until thoroughly amalgamated, then add slowly ¾ c strong hot chicken bouillon.  Stir constantly over lowest heat for 5 minutes.  Add ½ c heavy cream.  Do not allow to boil.  Add ¼ c pistachio nuts that have had their skins removed by soaking for 3 minutes in hot water.  Dry and rub in cloth –– the skins will loosen and finally remain in the cloth.  Pound them in a mortar with a drop of water added from time to time to prevent the nuts from exuding oil.  When they can be strained through a sieve, add ¼ c and 1 T soft butter to them and mix together.  Add this mixture very slowly (called, naturally, pistachio butter) to the chicken bouillon cream sauce.  Heat thoroughly but do not boil.  Cover the eggs with this and serve at once.  As good as it looks”


Be sure to dry the eggs off (put them on paper towels for a moment before gently putting them on the puff pastry base).  When making the  pistachio, do add the drops of water as recommended.  Putting the pistachios in boiling water softens the nuts and makes it easier to butter them in the mortar.  I pushed them through a fine strainer to get a butter consistency that is necessary for the dish –– you don't want graininess in an elegant sauce. If you have pistachio butter, I would say use about 3 tablespoons for this dish instead of going through the steps to make it from scratch but make sure it is smooth–– you still may have to strain it. 


My favorite recipe for puff pastry is HERE




Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Alice B Toklas Cookbook Part I and 14th of July Salad with Nasturtiums




“One day when Picasso was to lunch with us…”

When former Gourmet Magazine editor Ruth Reichl was asked to list her 5 favorite food books a while back, she responded that they were AJ Liebling’s Between Meals, MFK Fisher’s The Art of Eating, Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet, Pelligrini’s An Unprejudiced Palate and The Alice B Toklas Cookbook –– yes, The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book

It’s a great book –– and not just because of those infamous brownies that have made it one of the best selling cookbooks ever.  Hers is one of those cookbooks that inhabit the rarified atmosphere of the highest plateau of the genre.  She is a great storyteller with great stories to tell –– plying us with her tempting recipes is frosting on an already great cake. Let’s face it, don’t you want to eat like Hemingway and Picasso?

About her brownies  –– in fact, they were not really hers but a recipe shared with her by the polymathic genius Brion Gysin and they were not brownies at all, rather they were canibus-spiked, spicy fruit-nut “ Haschich Fudge” candies.  They are even more scrumptious when imbibed with Toklas description: “This is the food of Paradise –– of Baudelaire’s Artificial Paradises: it might provide  an entertaining refreshment for  a Ladies Bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the D.A.R. .  In Morocco it is thought to be good for warding off the common cold in damp winter weather and is, indeed, more effective if  taken with large quantities of hot mint tea.  Euphoria and brilliant storms of laughter; ecstatic reveries and extensions of one’s personality on several simultaneous planes are to be completely expected."



"Almost anything Saint Theresa did, you can do better if you can bear to be ravished by ‘un évanouissement reveillé’[swooning dream?]


I bet that got you to sit up and smile.  The whole book is full of the charm of a mythic lost world of meals shared with practically every genius who every traipsed through Paris –– writers, artists and intellectuals all stopped at their salon at 27 rue de Fleurus.  They stopped to see Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas  and most of them stayed to dinner (and left masterpieces in gratitude).


This is extraordinary for so many reasons.  Stein was not rich, she was certainly not beautiful, their home was not magnificent (even if the art on the walls was).  She was in love with Toklas and they lived together happily as man and wife for 40–odd years. Still, everyone came to them and mostly loved them, sometimes fought with them, were nurtured by them and were often supported in small ways by Stein who bought and bought to keep artists alive and fed –– they were fed at rue de Fleurus, very well fed body and soul.

MFK Fisher said  “Miss Toklas has been an integral part of my life (sensate, thinking, sensuous, spiritual) since I was in adolescence.”  But more than that, her writing “would feed my soul abundantly if I could find no other nourishment, just as it would make me smile in the midst of sadness, and feel braver if I risked faltering.  It is a good book  “abundantly satisfying, imagination being as lively as it is….” ”

Alice’s cookbook isn’t just about recipes, Reichl notes  …”it’s one of these books that’s about appreciating life, eating everything and living with the seasons. As a kid, when I read it, I thought, “Why isn’t my life more like this?”

1954 1st Edition

The formula for the book is straight forward even if the content is deliciously eccentric.  There are chapters on homecooked French food, American Food (that was eaten on a 1934 literary tour of American cities and included Wild Rice and Oysters Rockefeller).  There are “Treasures”  like Omelette in an Overcoat and Mutton in a Dressing Gown and “Little-known French Dishes”  like Chicken in Half Mourning and Frog’s Legs á la Parisienne.  These are delightful to be sure,  but then there are the chapter titles like “Murder in the Kitchen”.

In “Murder in the Kitchen”  you find  actual dispatching of finned and feathered creatures and plotted (but not executed) murders of a succession of unpleasant kitchen personnel at rue de Fleurus. An exception to the usual vile cadre of chefly monsters would be the tenure of Frederich and his Viennese pastries that ended when he ran away with a devil woman (he explained his madness by saying he came from the same village as Hitler and everyone was crazy there).  A very curious assertion to be sure,  but his pastries were divine and so are the recipes for Sacher Torte and Linser Torte (he had worked at Hotel Sacher’s Restaurant in Vienna)!

David Douglas Duncan photograph of Picasso

 “Dishes for Artists” is where Toklas describes the mayonnaise enrobed wine-poached bass she made for a lunch with Picasso. It was decorated with red and regular mayonnaise (the red comes from tomato puree) and designs of grated egg, truffles and herbs.  Picasso was impressed –– even if he felt it was more to the style of Matisse than Picasso!

One of the last chapters is “Recipes from Friends” and you can imagine what friends there were. So many names are gone and untraceable that once had been familiar.  But others like Cecil Beaton   and Virgil Thomson , the notorious Mercedes  da Acosta, Pierre Balmain, Sir Francia Rose  and Carl van Vechten were among the dozens of friends represented.

The book is so much fun, that I am breaking up the post into 2 parts.  This week with a brilliant salad from Stein/Toklas pal Mary Oliver and next, Toklas’ famous eggs in a recipe given her by painter Francis Picabia –– the buttery eggs of the gods that have lured many to the brink of cholesterol shock. Ms Reichl swoons over them.  Still on an egg roll, I may do one more of her egg recipes for you, they are terribly good.

The recipe for the July 14th Salad appealed to me because of the use of the nasturtiums in the salad –– I love the taste of them.  After having gone gardenless for a few years, I now have a small potted garden of herbs and edible flowers and have been rejoicing in a culinary way by using them as often as I can without critically denuding my stock. You might have noticed that I have been using a lot of flowers lately in my dishes –– now you know why! This time I was thwarted by Mother Nature. As I was all ready to go with the recipe, there was a bizarre rainstorm that shredded my nasturtium flowers.  Were that not the case, there would have been more in the photos of the dish and that’s how I would recommend you make it.  The pepperiness of the flowers (especially the spent flower buds) are fabulous in the salad.  I used the not very pretty but delicious flowers on mine after the photos and loved it.




14th of July Salad from Mary Oliver for 4

1-2 c mayonnaise (store-bought or homemade*)
2 T capers chopped (or more to taste)
¼ c dill pickles chopped (sweet or sour – to your taste)
1 lb boneless cooked white fish cut in chunks (I used monk fish, you can use cod or sole or your favorite mild white-fleshed fish)

1 large cucumber, sliced thinly
1 cup well packed nasturtium leaves plus more for garnish
¼ c olive oil
1/3 c tarragon vinegar
1 large garlic clove, minced or pressed in a garlic press
salt and pepper to taste

1 cup or more nasturtium flowers
 a few chives chopped and some left whole for garnish.

Combine the mayonnaise and the capers and pickles.  Toss the fish into the mayonnaise and coat the fish well.  Refrigerate
Put the oil, vinegar, garlic and salt and pepper in a jar with a lid and shake for a few moments (or whisk like mad).  Pour this over the cucumbers and nasturtium leaves and let sit for a few moments.

To serve, place the cucumbers/nasturtium mix on a plate, top with the fish and garnish with extra nasturtium leaves and lots of flowers.


Mayonnaise ( you can double this if you want the full amount)

1 egg yolk
2 t lemon juice to start
1 t water

½ - 1 c olive oil
pinch of dry mustard (optional)
pinch of paprika (optional)
more lemon juice to taste

Whisk the lemon and water with the egg yolk.  Begin adding the oil a drip or 2 at a time (I used an old Cuisinart pusher with the drip hole… worked like a charm). Keep whisking madly until it begins to look like stiff store-bought mayo and they you can add the rest of the oil a little more quickly.  I used less oil since I wanted a stiff mayonnaise.  The mustard and paprika are added as per Toklas… this is how she made mayonnaise.


Toklas original recipe:

"To a pint of mayonnaise add capers and chopped dill pickles.  Mix well with 1 lb boned white fish.  Serve with a salad of nasturtium leaves and cucumbers with a dressing of olive oil and garlic mixed with tarragon vinegar.  Garnish dish with nasturtium leaves and orange and red nasturtiums.

With this should be served chilled chives, or a cider cup with raspberries and cucumber rinds."