|Paul and Julia Child from Julie and Julia|
Yesterday I got one of those email blasts from The Kitchn website. Nestled above a piece about 1-dish suppers was a link to Cambria Bold's petite homage to the joyful noise that was Norah Ephron. You know Norah Ephron, she wrote classics like When Harry Met Sally and of course wrote and directed Sleepless in Seattle and Julie and Julia in addition to writing a few fairly hysterical books that reflected on the good, the bad and the ugly about her life and aging. The referenced work was I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman. I looked at the Amazon preview for it and laughed myself silly.
The chapter Bold brought to the Kitchn table was about entertaining and how Ephron went from being a good entertainer to a great one thanks to her friend Lee Bailey’s tips – most especially the “Rule of Four”.
Ephron bought a round dinner table (“part of the secret of why Lee’s dinner parties were more fun that anyone elses”) and said, “I became Lee’s love slave, culinarily speaking. Long before he began to write the series of cookbooks that made him well known, he had replaced all my previous imaginary friends in the kitchen, and whenever I cooked dinner and anything threatened to go wrong, I could hear him telling me to calm down, it didn’t matter, pour another drink, no one will care. I stopped serving hors d’oeuvres, just like Lee, and as a result, my guests were chewing the wood off the walls before dinner, just like Lee’s.”
Lee Bailey was a tastemaker in the 80’s and 90’s. He wrote a bazillion books with tips on decorating, entertaining and eating. I particularly remember his Lee Bailey's Country Weekends and Lee Bailey's City Food: Recipes for Good Food and Easy Living(you can get them for a song on Amazon, click the links). He had an enormous infectious smile and an easy Southern way about him. I heard his dinners were always great, but never complicated. His books were the same. Norah had a whole list of do’s from him but the most important one was the magical 4th element on a plate –– the rule of four.
“Pork chops, grits collard greens and a dish of tiny baked crab apples. It was delicious. It was so straightforward and plain and honest and at the same time so playful. Those crab apples! They were adorable! The entire evening was mortifying, a revelation, a rebuke in its way to every single thing I had ever bought and every dinner I had ever served”
“Most people serve 3 things for dinner –– some sort of meat, some sort of starch, and some sort of vegetable –– but Lee always served four. And the fourth thing was always unexpected like those crabapples. A casserole of lima beans and pears cooked for hours with brown sugar and molasses. Peaches with cayenne pepper. Sliced tomatoes with honey. Biscuits. Savory bread pudding. Spoon bread. Whatever it was, that fourth thing seemed to have an almost magical effect on the eating process. You never got tired of the food because there was always another taste on the plate that seemed simultaneously to match it and contradict it. You could go from taste to taste; you could mix a little of this with a little of that. And when you finished eating, you always wanted more, so that you could go from taste to taste all over again.”
Sam Ward (1814-1884)
I thought that sounded so right and authentic. Some people have a magic touch with entertaining. I had just been reading about Sam Ward in a book called King of the Lobby: The Life and Times of Sam Ward, Man-About-Washington in the Gilded Age–– he was one of the great entertainers of the mid-19th century. He knew how to throw a party with great food and great conversation. Kings to Presidents, Sarah Bernhardt to his great friend the poet Longfellow –– all dined at his table and agreed it was solid gold magic to dine with Sam.
He also used his art at the table to benefit his friends and associates –– a win win on all fronts. You could say he was one of the first networkers.
The dinners were amazing because of the quality of the food and wine of course, but any gathering was immeasurably improved by Sam's gifts and the way he pulled all the elements together. Men who were barely speaking left his table best of friends. Fifty years after his death his dinners were still talked about with love and warm respect –– he was truly loved by all who knew him. He was one of the earliest lobbyists in Washington and his technique was simple –– great food and the right people in the room together got things done.
Although more than 100 years separate the master entertainers, their advice is timeless –– always keep them wanting more. Choose your food to delight, not to impress. Sam “managed that his guests should never be satiated. The oyster patties, like a little woman, would be so perfect, though small, that the next course would be anxiously awaited.”
Sam said "the host must feel that for the nonce he is Aladdin served by the genie of the lamp, in his own palace." He held his chef in great esteem and believed his particular magic should be brought to a "fever heat by working on his ambition and his vanity. Impress upon him that this particular dinner will bring him fame and lead to fortune." Great advice to get anyone to do their best.
“Sam took great care in composing his lobby dinners. After all, he said the menu was “the plan of campaign, dependent upon the numbers of the enemy who will be reduced to capitulation by the projected banquet....The whole should be suitable to the prevailing season, and last, but not least, to the temperaments of the guests.”
His 1884 NYTimes obit called him a “gastronomical pacificator. His theory was that the way to win men’s support and good will was through their throats, and that the best, because the most available, part of men’s souls rests in their stomachs. He acted on this belief throughout his career as a lobyist, nearly 18 years and his experience went far to justify his belief. No person living had a more accurate understanding of what constituted a perfect meal than Sam Ward”
When I looked at one of Sam’s dinner menus, I could see what all the fuss was about –– it is everything you would imagine it to be. Thoughtful and yet full of piquant touches like the Sorbet au Marasquin –– a touch of prussic acid from the cherry pits in maraschino liqueur in the sorbet to aid in digestion and cleanse the palate for the last of the dinner. His nephew, another renowned tastemaker named Ward McAllister, said Sam made sure he would never allow that "the fatal mistake should occur of letting two white or brown sauces follow each other in succession; or truffles appear twice in that dinner." It was always a perfectly choreographed dance of flavors –– and conversation. Without both, the event will never be as great a success.
What would I chose for the 4th dish from Sam’s dinner table? What would amuse and delight? I think that Crêpes a la bordelaise are the perfect choice, think being the operative word.
You see, I looked far and wide and could find the dish listed in a few early menus but no recipe could I find, NONE. I also found another copy of the menu which listed the dish as Cèpes à la bordelaise –– mushrooms soaked in oil and then sautéed or broiled with a touch of lemon. Good, but I already had a wine-sauced crêpe in my head so these Crêpes a la bordelaise are my invention albeit one based on an educated guess as to what they might have been. It's also a great use of one of the classic sauces and another addition to my Sauce Series and uses both Espagnole and demi-glace. I have included recipes for both but it's a breeze to order your demi-glace from D'Artagnan and store it in the freezer. I just slice off what I need and put the rest back in the freezer. Bordelaise is great for any steak. You can make it ahead and freeze it easily as well so you can make your meal in a snap.
I think that the crêpes would be a great addition to a beef dinner with steak or roast, potatoes and a vegetable –– as the "rule of four" dish. My crêpes are light and airy with a winey, mushroomy bordelaise sauce. They could be served flat or as a beggar’s purse. I know they will delight at your dinner. I have made a white wine bordelaise before for you HERE, but this calls for the red wine version.
Delmonico's Chef Filippini Recipe from Sam Ward's Era
Delmonico's Chef Ranhoffer's Recipe from Sam Ward's era
I hope that Norah and Lee and Sam Ward have met in the afterlife and are throwing great parties up yonder. That would be an invitation to look forward to –– in a while!
To get you in the mood, try a Sam Ward cocktail as an opening salvo to your perfect dinner (recipe follows).
The Sam Ward Cocktail:
Crêpes Bordelaise for 4
1 recipe for crêpes
1 recipe for bordelaise
2 cups sliced mushrooms
1 T butter
Sauté the mushrooms in the butter. Add the mushrooms to the bordelaise. Fold your crépes into quarters on your plate and ladle the sauce over them or serve the sauce on the side. They can be plated separately or served on a platter.
Crêpes (makes 12)
3/4 c milk
1/2 c flour
1/4 t salt
butter for pan
Throw the milk, eggs, flour and salt into the blender and let it rip for a minute or 2. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve.
Use a stick of butter like a marker and run it all over your pan (or you can use a spoon of clarified butter if you have it). Be especially generous for the first few and use butter before each pour of batter. Swirl 2 T of batter around the pan and flip once it has set –– do not allow to brown too much. Keep warm or reheat gently when you are ready to serve.
2 shallots, chopped fine
2 t oil or butter
1 c red wine
1 clove garlic, chopped
6 T demi-glace from D'Artagnan
3 T espagnole sauce* (or add a t. of flour to the sauteed shallots with a t. of tomato sauce or ketchup)
stems from 4 mushrooms
1/2 bay leaf
pinch of cloves
1 1/2 c mushrooms, sliced
1 T butter or oil
Sauté the shallots in the oil till softened somewhat.
If you are skipping the addition of Espagnole, you can add a teaspoon of flour to the shallots to give the sauce the extra body and add a t. of tomato sauce or ketchup for the right flavor.
Put the wine, garlic, shallots, demi-glace, Espagnole (if you are using it) and stems from mushrooms into a pan and reduce at medium heat until thickened.
Strain the sauce –– you should have about 1/3 cup of sauce about the texture of chocolate syrup –– a bit less if you don't use the espagnole. This sauce keeps well for a few days.
*Super-quick version of Espagnole Sauce
1 T butter
1 T flour
1 T bacon
1 T onion
1 T white wine
1 t ketchup
1 cup stock
2 T demi-glace from D'Artagnan
Sauté the flour in the butter till medium brown. Add the rest and cook on low for 20 minutes to 1/2 an hour -- till thickened. Keep watch lest it go too far. Strain and use.
•Quick Version of Espagnole Sauce
4 T butter
4 T Flour
3 T diced carrot
3 T diced onion
3 T bacon
2 c stock
1 t thyme
piece of bay leaf
2 T white wine1/4 c demi-glace from D'Artagnan
2 T tomato sauce
salt and pepper to taste
Sauté the flour and butter till it is a medium brown on a medium flame –– stirring all the time.
Add the vegetables, ham and bacon and stir. Slowly add the stock, wine and demi-glace. Cook over
a low flame for 45 minutes and add the tomato sauce. Cook for another 10 minutes and strain, pressing hard on the solids. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Save the rest for other uses. It is an invaluable addition to sauces. Freeze it in small portions. Quickest and easiest is to put it in ice-cube trays in 1 T portions and store them in a baggy in the freezer. Then it's a breeze to use.
1 quart stock
Reduce 1 quart stock over a medium heat to a little less than a cup. It should be slightly thickened but not syrupy (that would be a meat glaze). Be sure to keep watch toward the end lest you lose it as I have done. It is a devil to clean up when it burns. This takes 30 to 45 minutes. One good trick is to mark a skewer at one cup in your pan. Then you can stick it in and check your progress accurately.
Use what you need and store the rest in the freezer. Use the ice-cube trick on this 2 so you can pop the extra flavor into your favorite dishes.
The Sam Ward Cocktail: