Thursday, February 23, 2012

Beet Gnocchi

This fabulous print from 1907 is available from Studiobotanika

Beets are a member of the Amaranthaceae family that includes chard, spinach beet and sugar beet (and here I thought they were related to turnips). They have been cultivated since the 2nd millennium BC, beginning in the Mediterranean and moved through Babylonia, reaching China by 850AD.

I read that 4 charred beetroots were found in ruins in a Neolithic site in the Netherlands (they were smaller than our modern cultivated variety). The earliest mention of beets is in 8th century BC Mesopotamia.

I have one absolutely favorite beet dish: beet gnocchi.

Gnocchi have an ancient history as well. The theory is that gnocchi originated in the Middle East and were brought to Europe by the Romans where they were made with a “porridge-like” egg dough according to Wikipedia. The potato addition is fairly recent since it didn’t happen till potatoes were brought from the New World in the 16th century. Gnocchi exist in Italy, France, Sardinia and Croatia in various forms. The word may come from nocchio (knot) or nocca (knuckle).

Until a few years ago, I wouldn’t ever have made it. Why? My first attempt at gnocchi was so abysmal that I didn't try it again for 20-odd years. Yes, they were that bad. My great friend Pierre teased me about that gnocchi for years. Being a well-brought up Brit, when he said it he said the word “Gnocchi” it would often sound like Edith Evans pronouncing “A Haaaaandbaaaaag?” in Importance of Being Ernest”. I called them “gnucky”. They were horrid death-balls –so tough as to be inedible, tasting of glue. No sauce could have saved these dough-demons.

As years have gone by, I’ve had wonderful Italian cooks generously show me the ways of gnocchi. I realized the error of my ways had a lot to do with working the dough too much… gnocchi doesn’t like to be manhandled. No matter how many times great and kind teachers tried to push me back to the gnocchi table…. I would not go. I felt like a horse that shied at a jump and would not take it.

Then, one day I found this recipe (I think it was Food & Wine but I am not certain... it’s written in my black book). It seemed to address my biggest issue about making gnocchi. The recipe was mostly ricotta and not too much flour. There was no way they could be death-balls. When I made them, they were polar opposite of a death-ball… they were fluffy pink clouds of flavor. Since taking the plunge successfully, I have made many gnocchi from many different ingredients and they have been delicious, but this is still my favorite. Over time I have added things… the last being the hint of rose which makes them so sexy if a dough cloud can be sexy –– something about that pink just asked for rose. It is marvelous with beets. You can’t beat the color, can you –– so pink!

Beet Gnocchi serves 6

1 med-large beet or 3 small beets (around ¾ c grated) **
1 lb ricotta (drained for a day- this you MUST do)
1 egg
1 -2 drops Aftellier Rose Essence or 1-2 t rosewater (optional)* if you are worried people may not like it, add the rose to some of the butter sauce and leave the rest plain.
1 c Parmesan cheese
2/3 c flour (plus extra for dusting)
pinch of salt (the parmesan is salty)
grating of nutmeg
½ t ground pepper
8 T butter (you may want more if you like butter)
10 sage leaves
1t poppy seeds
extra Parmesan for grating while serving

Wrap the beets in foil. Bake beets at 425º 45 minutes to an hour until tender, peel and grate.

Beat the egg, add ricotta, rose, nutmeg and Parmesan and stir well, add the beets and mix thoroughly then sprinkle the flour (and salt and pepper) and mix gently… do not over-handle or the dough will be heavy… you want pink clouds. Ideally, refrigerate for 2 hours (I have made them immediately after –– although harder to work with, they turn out splendidly). You can boil up a sample at this point and check for seasonings.

Flour your work surface liberally. Roll out handfuls into cigar-width lengths, about 12” long

Cut the dough into 1” pieces. Take each one, flatten it slightly over the tip of your finger and roll a fork over it to give it grooves (this helps it hold butter sauce better ––the Italians have a cool grooved board that is used for this). Then gently roll it into a cylinder shape –– this will make it slightly hollow so it is lighter… no death-balls this way! Some people roll the dough around a tube, roll on the grooved board and then cut them and roll them, to give the hollow.  Others just cut them and use them as is.  Don't make them too big if you do it this way as they won't cook properly. You can refrigerate these placed on a well-floured sheet, covered, or use them immediately… or freeze them.

Boil in batches in water. After they rise to the surface, let boil a minute or 2 longer (best to try a sample and see what you like for texture) at a low boil and remove to a warm platter and cover. If you cook them too long they will dissolve.

Warm the butter and fry the sage leaves in it (I like my butter browned a bit). Add the gnocchi and warm them. Serve with additional Parmesan for sprinkling on the top with the poppy seeds.

** I am often asked if I want my beet tops cut off and tossed. This is a crime. They are delicious and nutritious and like getting two vegetables for one…. Sometimes even 3 vegetables since some people do the stems and leaves separately. You can serve the tops alongside the gnocchi if you wish or with a salad ( I like arugula with it).

Here's a quick treat for beet stems (you can add some of the leaves too).  Saute them in butter till softened, spoon a little harissa on them and wrap them in bacon, microwave wrapped in paper toweling (from 1 1/2 min. for 1 piece upwards... depends on how many you do at once) and you have a delicious treat.  This one was 3 small pieces wrapped in 1/2 piece of bacon. You can add a shmear of goat cheese or feta to the inside if you would like.

PS.  I am off to do a movie so will miss a few posts and won't be able to visit blogs as much as I would like. 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Dream Dinners, Pheasant Souvaroff and Pastry St. Honore

 A few weeks ago I wrote about rediscovering the old Time/Life series, Foods of the World (HERE).  Reading it sent memories flooding back about so many things… not the least of which were my own fond memories about Craig Claiborne, the author of Classic French Food in the series.  Ah, Craig –– you got me addicted to the NYTs food section at such an impressionable age!

In Classic French Food, there was a whole chapter in the book devoted to Claiborne’s dream about a perfect meal ­­–– if you could have anything you wanted, what would you order?  How many times have you asked yourself this question?  This chapter, entitled “A Favorite Gastronomic Game” was a preview of Craig’s best dinner ever –– sort of a rehearsal. You see, Claiborne got to actually have his dream dinner and shared it with his cooking partner at the New York Times, Pierre Franey (Claiborne wrote, and Franey did the hands-on cooking).

Like a great professor, Claiborne made you want to learn more. It was a natural progression to move from knowing more about food to being inspired to cook it for myself. Although I got off to a rocky start trying to make 500-year old dishes (this fascination isn’t new for me, I’ve been playing with old recipes from the first time I started cooking thanks to some books from the Metropolitan Museum), I soon leveled off and started making modern food more often than not.

I remembered learning about an outrageous dinner Claiborne had eaten a few years before I showed up on the scene … a $4000 dinner. By the time I heard about it, I was well on my way to becoming a food person. This meal inspired many an aspiring gourmet to dream of their own list of dishes (a "fork-list" if you will) and where to eat them.  My friends and I (many of whom were in the restaurant business) would toss the idea back and forth over many glasses of wine, deciding what our favorites would be (and who our dream date would be, of course… we were in our 20’s after all).

For his perfect dinner, Claiborne went to a small, exclusive place in Paris called Chez Denis that favored patrons like Jackie Kennedy and Orson Welles –– thing is, he won the once-in-a-lifetime meal.  His $300 bid at a PBS auction got him the prize, courtesy of American Express –– dinner for 2, whatever you wanted, anywhere in the world. The only hitch was that they had to take the American Express Card.  Claiborne made the bid and then forgot about it, so he was flabbergasted when he was announced the winner.  Although I am sure no one at AMEX anticipated such an expense  (1975’s $4000 would be more than $18,000 today), the press the dinner got paid for the prize 10 times over.

The 31 course, 4 ½ hour meal in 3 services began its first service with Beluga caviar in a Baccarat crystal dish.  Next came 3 soups: wild duck consommé with crepes, cold Germiny [sorrel] and veloute andalou [cream of tomato soup]. Then there was a parfait of sweetbreads, mousse of quail and a tiny truffled ham tart. Still in the first service were oysters with beurre blanc, lobster in a tomato cream sauce and red mullet in a Provinçale pie but there were also bits of Bresse chicken with a mushroom cream sauce,  a Chartreuse of partridge and Limosin beef with a truffle sauce.  They had a small break with sherbets (orange lemon and black currant) to "revive the palate" before the 2nd service.


The 2nd service began with the most rare of gourmet dishes, ortolans en brochette (now totally illegal), wild duck en salmis, loin of veal wrapped in pastry with whole, giant truffles, puree of artichoke hearts and pommes de terres Anna. Then some cold delicacies, wild duck,  foie gras, cold woodcock filets cooked in Chambertin and wild pheasant with fresh hazelnuts.

They finished the heroic feast with the third service that began with a cold glazed charlotte with strawberries, an Ile flottante (meringue on creme anglaise) and poires alma (pears poached in port) that was then followed by pastries, confections and fruits.

This was washed down with amazing wines.  When Denis agreed to do the dinner he wrote to Claiborne: "In accordance with your demand, I propose to organize for you a prestigious dinner. In the land of my birth, the region of Bordeaux, one speaks of a repas de vins, a meal during the course of which a number of wines of great prestige are served, generally 9 wines".  They were : Champagne Comtesse Marie de France 1966, Château Latour 1918 (Claiborne said it was the best Bordeaux he had ever known), Montrachet du Baron Cher 1969, Château Mouton Rothschild 1928, Château Lafite Rothschild 1947

Château Petrus 1961 (this wine is rated 100 and goes for upwards of $10,000 a bottle today), Romanée-Conti 1929, Chateâu D'Yquem 1928, and an 1835 Madeira. In addition, Denis offered an 1865 Calvados and a personal cognac classified as "ageless."

Claiborne wrote of the meal " We reminded ourselves of one thing during the course of that evening: If you were Henry VIII, Lucullus, Gargantua and Bacchus, all rolled into one, you cannot possibly sustain, start to finish, a state of ecstasy while dining on a series of 32 dishes."

Lists like this take a lifetime of gourmet experiences to form and develop. Claiborne joyfully embraced the spirit of the game when he wrote the “A Favorite Gastronomic Game” chapter in 1968.  The result was grand practice for the 1975 dinner of a lifetime.

The rules were loose.  “You are not bound by any limitations of time or place.  You may simply make your selections and assume that everything you order will magically appear of the table.  You may even cheat a bit; if you find it hard to fix on any one choice for a particular course, you are allowed an alternate, or even several if you prefer.  This is a once-in-a-lifetime feast. The object of the game is to pick anything and everything on the roster of supreme classic dishes that you would like to eat.”

Some of the dishes that he was to have at the Paris dinner were already on his list years before and that did not surprise me in the least. 

Linden Flower

One of the best things about doing this blog has been that I have been able to slowly but surely try things I’ve always wanted to try –– everything from grouse to Proust’s lime flower tea and Madeleines (when I was a kid I thought regular tea with a squeeze of lime would do the trick, not knowing the lime flowers were Linden flowers and the flavor delicate­­ and terribly beautiful).  Many things I had read about (pheasant under glass) or heard about (ambergris) or seen on screen (the cailles en sarcophage from Babette’s Feast) and wanted to try had gone out of fashion by the time I wanted to eat them.

In an odd way, I guess I’d been slowly assembling my list for decades.  Instead of a bucket list, it’s a "fork list"(buckets are for horse-chow after all).   It’s a list that is constantly evolving as my horizons widen.  I know sometimes these dishes I try leave my readers scratching their heads, but the other great thing about a blog is that it is so liberating  –– I do what I want, for better or for worse, and have a great time doing it. My hope is that you who visit Lostpast will find the stories interesting and will find that the recipes inspire you to try things outside your comfort zones ––  inspired, as I have been, by many cultures. and great cooks throughout the centuries.  I know my "fork list" has certainly changed since I started working on the blog... have you ever compiled your list?  Has it changed much over the years?

Guy Thivard and Mrs. Point with foie gras en brioche (Time/Life photo)

Claiborne’s 1968 list began with fresh foie gras, glazed in port with truffles and aspic in brioche by Chef Guy Thivard of Le Pyramide (the restaurant created by the legendary 6’4”, 300 pound chef Ferdinand Point).  Claiborne said trying to describe foie gras en brioche was like “trying to capture a dazzling ray of light”.  This would be served with a Sauternes, freezing cold.

Next came a Galantine of Duck filled with meats, truffles and pistachios.

He said the rest was harder to choose but it would begin with the creamed Germiny (sorrel) soup.  Alternatives were a variety of consommés (if the food to follow was rich); either Celestine (with shredded crepes), Royale (with bits of custard) or Petite Marmite (with tiny diced vegetables).  These all showed up in the 1975 dinner in slightly different forms.

Coulibiac (Time/Life photo –haven’t pictures changed? 
They wouldn’t make a food porn site today!)

For fish he raved over Coulibiac (a French/Russian classic of salmon enclosed in pastry served with melted butter) that his cooking partner Pierre Franey had done with great success at Pavillon restaurant in NYC.  He also could have chosen a lobster soufflé (a cloud of soufflé over a ‘piquant’ Lobster Americaine base ––a tomato/cognac preparation).

Next he mentioned Poulet Sauté Boivin (chicken with meat glaze, artichoke bottoms and new potatoes) or Fillet of Beef Richelieu (with braised lettuce, chateau potatoes, tomatoes and mushroom caps filled with duxelle).

Pheasant Souvaroff (Time/Life photo)

BUT, he would forgo them all if it were game season and he could have Faison Souvaroff (pheasant, madeira, foie gras and truffles sealed in a casserole that’s opened at table to enthrall the lucky diners with the scent of the creation).  Well, that stopped me in my tracks… that would be my dish. How can you go wrong with a sauce enriched by foie gras and truffles?? 

There was more to follow –– quail with grapes in pastry sounded lovely as did the desserts –– sorbets, ice cream bombes, crepes, Bavarian creams, savarins, and beignets.  Riz Imperatrice (creamy rice custard with a tower of glacéed fruits named for Empress Eugenie) a Bavarois Clermont (with Bavarian cream and chocolate chestnuts), Gateau St. Honoré (choux pastry dipped in caramel and filled with pastry cream on top of puff pastry with crème Chantilly named after the patron saint of bakers) and Poires Bourdaloue (pear tart with frangipane cream and chopped pistachios and macaroons on top were described with great affection.

Gateau St. Honore (Time/Life photo)

All of them sounded amazing but I made a version of Gateau St Honoré… leaving off the puff pastry since it was so rich already and making individual round éclairs because I used to love them when I was in my early years in NYC –– served at Patisserie Lanciani in the Village (I just read Madeline Lanciani now has Duane Park Patisserie in Tribeca).  The crunch of the caramel and the luxurious cream filling was a huge favorite of mine.  This was also the perfect dish since I was the lucky recipient of amazing eggs and cream from an Amish farm… the quality was insane…. The pastry cream was bright yellow and the cream was so thick it whipped in 2 seconds.  The recipe is a little Craig and a little Martha (with my trusty David Leibovitz recipe for  choux paste... easy and perfect every time)

Needless to say, my guests were terribly pleased with Craig’s suggestions and I got to cross another 2 classics off my to-do list.

Pheasant Souvaroff  (serves 2 to 4)

2 small pheasants or 1-3 ½ lb. chicken (D’Artagnan sells pheasants HERE) 
salt and pepper
3 T clarified butter
2 c stock
2 cups demi-glace (DArtagnan sells it HERE, or reduce 1 gallon UNSALTED stock till thickened )
1 T fresh marjoram and/or thyme
½ c madeira ( I used New York Malmsey from Rare Wine Company)
1 T of Barbeito Malvasia Madeira Favilla Vieira 1920 (optional)
1 c foie gras (D’Artagnan sells a package of foie gras cubes HERE that is perfect for this)
1 small truffle, sliced or 1 t truffle oil (D’Artagnan sells them HERE
Herbs for garnish

Preheat oven to 400º and rub the pheasants with salt and pepper inside and out. Brush with butter. Lay birds on their sides and roast 15 minutes.  Turn to the other side and roast 15 minutes.  Put the birds on their backs and roast 20 minutes to ½ an hour until browned but not done.  Remove and allow to cool a little. Remove and pour out the stock into a skillet.  When cooled somewhat, carve the birds into serving pieces, 4 each and reserve.   Cut out the backbones and toss the backbones into the stock with the giblets (not the liver).  Add the demiglace and herbs and heat gently for ½ an hour, taste for seasoning and strain out the solids.

Put the pieces of pheasant into a covered dish, pour the reduction over the pieces of pheasant and add the madeira, foie gras and truffle.  Place a piece of foil on top of the pot and cover.  Cook in a 350º oven for 30 minutes or till warmed through.  Remove the lid at table for the glorious whiff of the madeira and truffle. I added the tablespoon of the old madeira at the table to get the full effect.

If you want to do it old school, make a paste with flour and water to seal the dish closed, bake it and then break it open at table.


 Pastry St. Honore

10 puffs
recipe for caramel
recipe for pastry cream
Creme Chantilly

Take the puffs and dunk them in the warm caramel. Split them and fill with pastry cream (or you can put a small hole in the pastry and fill with a pastry bag and tip). Serve with Creme Chantilly if you would like.

Pate A Choux (Cream Puffs)

8 tablespoons unsalted butter + 1 c water
1 cup all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
4 large eggs
1 t salt
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside. Heat the oven to 400º.
Combine the butter and water in a small saucepan, and set over high heat. Bring to a boil, and immediately add the flour and salt. Beat continuously with a wooden spoon until the dough comes away from the sides of the pan.
Transfer the mixture to the bowl of an electric mixer. Using the paddle attachment if you have one, add the eggs, one at a time. If you don't have one, a good strong hand mixer will do.
Place  mixture in a pastry bag fitted with a large tip. Pipe 2-inch balls, spaced 1 1/2 inches apart, on the prepared baking sheet.Cook for 25 minutes or until golden brown.  Remove from the oven and gently puncture each puff along the cut line to release steam.

For The Creme Patissiere (Pastry Cream)

2 cups milk or milk and cream mixed
1 t vanilla
6 large egg yolks
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
¼ c grand marnier
pinch salt
Combine the milk and vanilla in a medium saucepan. Set pan over
medium heat, and scald the milk mixture. Remove the pan from heat,
In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and the sugar until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the flour, and continue whisking egg mixture until smooth.
Slowly pour the hot milk mixture into the egg mixture. Whisk this new mixture until it is smooth.
Return new mixture to pan, and place over medium heat. Bring mixture to a boil, whisking constantly; cook 2 minutes more.
Transfer the pastry cream to a bowl. Lay a piece of plastic wrap directly on top of the pastry cream to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until ready to use.
1 c granulated sugar
¼ c water
pinch of cream of tartar
Prepare an ice-water bath, and line a baking pan with a silpat or foil.
Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan with cream of tartar. Set over high heat, and bring to a boil. Swirl the pan occasionally until the sugar has dissolved. Continue cooking until the syrup is golden-amber. Remove pan from heat, and plunge bottom of pan in the ice bath to stop cooking (it can go from caramel to burnt sugar in seconds). Then put the pan in a bowl of hot water and use it for your puffs.

Also, if you want to make swirls with the caramel, double the recipe. Then drizzle caramel on the silpat and remove when it begins to harden, shape it as you will.
Crème Chantilly
2 cups heavy cream
½ cup confectioners' sugar
½  teaspoon vanilla extract

Whip the cream with the sugar and vanilla and set aside

.                      Thanks to Gollum for hosting Foodie Friday

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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Titanic –– Love, Courage and Apple Meringue

The Titanic sank 100 years ago on April 15th, 1912.  It is extraordinary that even after 100 years, the doomed Titanic continues to fascinate.

My friends at 12 Bottle Bar and I are in a Titanic mood as the anniversary approaches, and why not?  There is so much to share about the voyage, the ship and the people –– what they ate (my field of interest) –– what they drank (cocktails are the 12 Bottle Bar bailiwick) ­­–– so much that we decided to do another post together. Two blogs, two perspectives… if you’ve never been to 12 Bottle Bar you are in for a Titanic treat.  They are kicking off their celebration “The Year of The Doctor”  (Dr Who) by giving you an idea of what was going on in 1912 and with a history of the only drink mentioned on Titanic menus, Punch Romaine… brilliant, as Dr. Who might say.

One of the reasons for the enduring power of the Titanic myth is the impossibly successful 1997 film that has brought the story to new generations with the sweet frothy addition of a totally fictional love story between Jack and Rose (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) billowing about in a sea of mostly accurate facts and great production design.  Lest you forget how great, they are releasing it in 3D this year.

But honestly, why create a fictional plot?  The Titanic had so many remarkable true stories without making anything up.   The real stories of heroes and cowards, love stories and tragedies are so much more affecting.  Some of the tragedies were even visited upon those who survived, most notably Joseph Bruce Ismay, one of the owners of the Titanic and White Star Line.

J.Bruce Ismay 1862-1937

Although he survived the disaster, J. Bruce Ismay was absolutely destroyed by the American press, especially William Randolph Hearst (a reputed Anglophobe who disliked Ismay intensely after meeting him a few years earlier).  Hearst labeled him “J. Brute Ismay”, “Coward of the Titanic”.  Ismay was one of the few men who didn’t perish that night (only 19% of the men on the ship survived).  Admittedly, that looks pretty damning –– especially since he was supposed to have caused the disaster with his recklessness.

Contrary to many rumored reports, there is no proof that Ismay was responsible for the Titanic speeding through the iceberg-infested waters (some of the boilers had not even been turned on yet, and a coal strike in Britain inspired frugal use of power, not high-speed wastefulness).  White Star ships were known for comfort, not speed (as many letters written by Ismay over the years attest). Also, arriving early did no one any good since elaborate arrangements would have been made for a specific time by and for the crew and passengers… arriving early would have caused quite a tangle.

There is a recent report from an ancestor of an officer on the Titanic that Ismay did tell Captain Smith to keep the ship moving and that made her sink faster. As for not having enough lifeboats because they cluttered the deck –– that was true and Ismay’s decision –– but he had more than the amount that was required at the time. One of the great tragedies of the Titanic was that so many lifeboats were jettisoned half empty, hundreds more lives could have been saved if they had been full… that was not his doing.   The efforts were chaotic and too many passengers went to one place, too few to others and people didn’t know until too late that the ship was going to sink completely. The damage shouldn’t have been catastrophic but for a horrible confluence of circumstances.  There may have been very little loss of life had a nearby ship, the SS Californian,  heeded distress calls (radio operators weren’t on duty 24/7 then and the Titanic’s flares were misinterpreted as there were no protocols in place). The next nearest ship, the RMS Carpathia, took hours to get there.  By that time, the ship had disappeared into the black frigid waters.

All accounts of Ismay’s deeds that night were straightforward.  He was observed helping women and children board lifeboats for 2 hours.  Then, when the last rubber raft was let down and there were no other people in sight on his part of the ship (this was verified by many observers), Ismay boarded a rubber raft filled with 3rd–class passengers.  Ismay knew there weren't enough lifeboats –– however,  he may not have known that the ship was going to sink before help arrived when he got on his raft... they had seen the lights of the SS Californian.

Size of the Titanic compared with recognizable buildings of the day

Remember the ship was “Titanic” with many decks and blocked passages and the ship’s rear end was going down so it would have been an impassible mountain of metal –– it is possible his group did not know there were a thousand people on the other side of the ship who did not have life boat space… there was no one else waiting where Ismay was boarding, according to eyewitness reports (although those reports could have been self-serving). I am thinking he left before the panic set in (many didn’t want to leave the comfortable ship for the lifeboats… people wouldn’t believe the massive vessel would sink completely ­­–– it had been such a small bump, afterall, many didn’t notice it). It is possible that when he boarded the raft it seemed like leaving was a choice, not the only way to survive.  By the time he realized this was not the case, there was little that could be done save jumping into the water.

Ismay’s hair turned white overnight (possibly the result of seeing The Titanic go under, revealing all the people freezing to death in the water with the horrifying spectacle of the half empty boats refusing to come to their rescue for fear of overloading their crafts).

He lived the rest of his life branded a coward and a villain.  These positive reports could have been paid for, I imagine, but I can’t help but think he didn’t deserve the vile reputation he got.  We’ll never know if he had poor judgment or was a miserable coward saving his own life while letting innocents die.

On the other side, there were so many stories of the crew’s courage –– like the members of the band who played as the ship went down to keep spirits up, or of Captain Smith who went down with his ship (advising calm, he ordered “Be British boys, be British”) and the architect of the ship, Mr. Andrews who perished trying to keep things going as long as he could.

There were stories of enormous sacrifice and cruel selfishness.   As is often said, disaster brings out the best and the worst in man.

Since Valentine’s Day is nearly upon us, I thought I would share a beautiful Titanic story that was not at all fictional… it is a story that is true and fine. The lovers in the story were not young or beautiful, but they were in love and had been for over 40 years. It was said they died as they had lived –– with kindness and honor and great love and devotion.

Isidor and Ida Straus

Isidor Straus married German-born Rosalie Ida Blun in 1871.  He was 26 and she was 22.  He had been born in Germany but his family immigrated to America when he was a child and he grew up in Georgia, working in a dry goods store during the Civil War (he tried to enlist in the Confederate army but was too young).  Afterward he moved north with his family and had a concession selling pottery and glassware in Macys department store.  They did so well, that he and his brother bought RH Macys in 1895.

Isidor and Ida had 6 children. They were inseparable and deeply in love for their whole lives together. In fact, when Straus became a Congressman for 2 years and had to be away from his wife, they wrote to one another every single day.  Everyone remarked on their remarkable devotion.

Although they had always taken German steamship lines on their frequent trips to Europe, this time they decided to take the Titanic on her maiden voyage.

Memorial to the Straus’s on the Upper West Side of Manhattan

When the ship was sinking, the story that was witnessed and corroborated by many was that Mr. Straus had been offered a place in the lifeboat with his wife but would not take it when there were women and children that needed seats.

The other side of the Straus monument in Greenwood Cemetery quotes from The Song of Solomon, “Many waters cannot quench love” 

After making sure their maid got a seat, Mrs. Straus would not leave Mr. Straus and stayed behind saying “we have lived together for many years.  Where you go, I go.” They were last seen sitting on deck chairs holding hands as the final wave washed over the Titanic. That is a great and poignant love story, and in many ways, better than any fiction (the movie had them in a bed, holding one another).

Sinking was probably the last thing anyone on the ship would have expected when they boarded the Titanic.

Until late that night of April 14th, 1912… no one had a clue that anything would happen in a spanking new ship that still smelled of paint. This was going to be a fine trip.

First class was very ‘first class’ and that was where the Straus’s stayed.  There were gorgeous woods and fabrics in staterooms that had sitting rooms and bedrooms done up in different styles (Italian Renaissance, Louis XV, or Queen Anne).  It was around $4500 per person to book a 1st class deluxe Promenade suite on the B deck (over $100,000 today) that included 2 bedrooms, servant’s room, 2 walk-in closets, private bath and sitting room (Ismay stayed in one of them… the room that had been booked for JP Morgan who cancelled at the last minute).  First class passages began around $125 for a small stateroom –– still a lot of money for the time since a house could be bought for less than $1000 ($125 would be around $3000 today). 

1st class Stateroom, Single

1st class Stateroom, Suite

1st class dining room – the photo was taken on the doomed voyage.

The first class dining room was luxurious.  I discovered that that hadn’t always been the case on transatlantic ships.  When Dickens came over from England for the first time (an 18-day voyage), he complained that the dining room on the ship was like  “a gigantic hearse” and meals consisted of potatoes and more potatoes, lots of meat and a “rather mouldy”’ fruit dessert.

The Straus’s were right to prefer the Hamburg/American lines for transatlantic travel.  They were one of the first lines to begin to offer fine dining on their ships… the British lines followed.  Admittedly refrigeration had something to do with the changes –– on Dickens’ passage, produce was stored under lifeboats on deck!  By 1913, the Hamburg/America lines went so far as to hire Caesar Ritz of the Savoy and Ritz-Carlton to give them a topflight kitchen and dining room.  They even had the Ritz-Carlton Hotel’s designer, Charles Mewes, do the dining room for their grand ship SS Imperator.

As you can see, by 1914 The Cunard Line’s ill-fated Lusitania was posting elegant fare for their passengers.

The White Star Line was making an effort in the kitchen for Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic, as this rare 1913 menu shows (only $500 on Ebay!).

For breakfast and lunch, the food on the Titanic was good, simple fare with a lot of buffet-style dishes

I was amused to see the still popular Quaker Oats on the breakfast menu along with an assortment of fruits and many egg dishes –– fried, shirred, poached, boiled and prepared omelettes.  The vegetable-stew and sliced lamb and mutton are unusual for today’s breakfasts but not in 1912. 

The White Star Line’s meals for 1st 2nd and 3rd Class were announced by a trumpeted melody.  The bugler, PW Fletcher, played a classic tune, “The Roast Beef of Old England” (Listen HERE) instead of using a gong or bell… a charming idea.

Much has been made about the last dinner on the Titanic, but other menus were saved … God only knows why.  Who saves a menu when the ship is sinking (well, I might have…)?  I read that some of them came from a French ladies’ maid who spoke little English and carried menus around with her, checking off things that weren’t available by the time she got to eat… these ended up with her on the lifeboat.   Although very few originals remain, copies were made into thousands of postcards and sold to get money for the survivors.  Many of the clean copies you see of Titanic menus are just that, copies –– albeit 1912 copies.

One original menu comes from April 2, 1912.  Evidently this meal was served in port in Ireland and 5th Officer (Harold Lowe) sent off a menu to his sweetheart.  Good thing too, it recently sold at auction for nearly $40,000. The steward who passed it along survived the sinking ship as well (a lucky break since only 21% of the male crew survived –– and the only reason that many made it was because crew members were included on the lifeboats with the woman and children to row the boats… male passengers didn’t fare as well).

You can see that the legendary last dinner on the Titanic menu with 10 courses (that I wrote about HERE) is more complicated than the luncheon menu. 

I thought I would work with the luncheon menu that was served the last afternoon since it hasn’t been done to death.  Honestly, I had always thought the only menu that still existed was that of the last dinner… gratefully, it was not.  As far as I can see, there are fewer than 10 different original menus still in existence from all the classes (breakfast, lunch and dinner), although there may be more than one of each.

Although I liked the name of the dish “Eggs Omar Pasha”(baked eggs with a rich meat reduction and tomato sauce) that was on the April 12th Luncheon menu, the dish that had just the right feel for me was Apple Meringue on the April 14th menu. 

I loved the idea of the creamy baked apple custard and meringue… perfect because it’s old fashioned, romantic in a quiet way, and delicious.  Just the kind of thing I could imagine the Straus’s would have enjoyed.  They would have been happy together that afternoon, with no idea in the world that everything would come to an end for them that night.  They would have had no regrets for a life well lived full of love… not a bad thought for all of us on this Valentine’s Day.

I looked through many old cookbooks for the recipe.  They varied from a simple baked apple with meringue on top to a cake-bottomed number, spread with sautéed apples and then topped with meringue.  Most involved baked apple slices and custard that sounded perfect to me.  It is simple to make and real comfort food… the combination of baked apple and custard is the best of 2 great desserts.

Apple Meringue for 4

2 Lbs apples peeled, cored and sliced
2 T butter
¼ to 1/3c sugar (to taste, the custard and meringue are sweet)
Juice of 1 lemon

3 egg yolks, beaten
3 T sugar
pinch salt
1 3/4 c of scalded milk
1/2  t vanilla

5 egg whites
5 T sugar
pinch cream of tartar
zest of 1 lemon

Melt the butter, lemon and sugar and toss with the apple slices.  Bake the apples at 350º, covered,
till soft but not mushy, 30 - 40 minutes, tossing a few times. Drain the apples. You can reduce the liquid to a thick glaze and put in the bottom of your container but if you don't drain them the custard will be too liquid.  Fill oven proof dishes 1/3 to 1/2 full of apples, to your taste.

Combine the yolks and sugar and beat till lemon colored.  Add the salt and scalded milk.  Pour it over the apples and bake at 350º in a dish filled with water half up the sides of the containers until the custard is mostly firm about 50 minutes.   Chill- it doesn't have to be ice cold.

Beat the whites of 5 eggs with 5 T sugar and lemon zest

When apple custard is cooled, pipe or spoon the meringue on the top and put in a 350’ oven for 10 minutes or until browned

Thanks again to my friend Linda at Statewide Marble in Jersey City for the gorgeous piece of onyx!
Thanks to Gollum for hosting Foodie Friday!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Old Memories, Time/Life Books and Poularde a la Néva

Classic French Cuisine cover, Time/Life Books 1968

My mother loved books.  She read like a demon –– just about anything from history to romances to religious tracts to hard-bitten detective stories.  The words “voracious reader” would be an apt description of my mom. She had her own books stashed everywhere and there would always be a pile of 5 or 6 from the library next to her favorite reading chair. She belonged to a book club that met to discuss books (and gossip) once a month.  Pretty much everything interested her.  Although she was a tiny thing, she was a tireless fighter for what was right and in her 70’s to mid 80’s she worked like a dog to feed the homeless in her town.  I’ll never forget the day she called me up, ecstatic that she had snagged a 10-gallon pot for the shelter at a restaurant auction –– she was so proud of herself (I don’t think it ever occurred to her that a civilian could buy professional equipment).  All in all, she was a pretty great lady.

She did have one addiction –– Time/Life books.  We had a million of them in the house when I was growing up... rows and rows of Time/Life Books.  I swear, she just couldn’t say no with series like Wars, Nature, Science, The American Indian… you name it, she subscribed to it –– including 2 series on food.  I sometimes wondered if she didn't send them back once they started arriving so she wouldn't hurt their feelings –– she was that kind of person.

A few weeks ago, I found a Time/Life book on a shelf, looking for something else.  Memory is a funny thing.  At first I couldn’t remember where it came from.  The image on the front of the book was so familiar, but the lock to that door in my brain was rusty.  A few days ago my brain released the secret of the book (came to me jogging with Petunia, the St. Bernard). It was one of the cookbooks I brought from my mom’s house when she died.  I remember that image on the cover had piqued my curiosity as a child.  I couldn’t cook then and wouldn’t even want to try for many years when I looked at it in the 70’s… but that chicken was remarkable… it was like edible art.  I was on an Art Nouveau kick at the time and the idea and technique of the design appealed to me (even if it was strictly symmetrical, which my beloved Art Nouveau style rarely was).

The thing is, these books are loved by a lot of people today, I was really shocked to find 40 years out they are a cult favorite –– who knew! 

Time/Life did a few cooking series.  One was called The Good Cook, edited by the legendary Richard Olney, and the other series, that my copy of Classic French Cuisine came from –– Foods of the World. Although they were printed in the late 60’s and 70’s, they still circulate like wild on Ebay and Amazon.  The full set will set you back hundreds, but single books of Foods of the World are just a few bucks.

One word of advice, almost all the recipes are in a companion, ringed book ––very few recipes are in the hardcover book ––  that is full of history, stories and photos. The series came in a box that held the smaller softbound book and a larger hardbound book.  Very few of the boxed 2-parters are up for sale, most have lost their cases and have been split up… so you may have to buy one spiral and one hardbound from 2 different sellers to have the complete book set –– you can still pull it off for $10. 

There is a reason they are still so popular –– they are great and were real game changers.  Putting it into perspective, in the 60’s (with very few exceptions), most Americans that hadn’t traveled to foreign countries had a very diluted view of their cuisines.  Kind of like the difference between a little plaster statue of Michaelangelo’s David and the real deal (ok, that may be exaggerating a tad too much).  Chinese was Chop Suey, Italian was the stuff from Chef Boyardi and classic French was gloppy sauces and high prices with things set on fire.  These books sought to change that perception and give people an idea of the authentic food of each nation.   They are really an amazing series.  They enlisted James Beard, Julia Child, MFK Fisher, Jacques Pepin, Waverly Root Craig Claiborne, Pierre Franey and a whole host of contemporary culinary luminaries to contribute to the series and the result was spectacular.  For those of us who take food pictures, it is a real eye-opener to see how much food photography has changed!

The ad for the series says it all, “Wouldn’t it be exciting to surprise your family and friends with Tournedos Henri IV… the beefsteak and artichoke dish fit for a king?  Or dress up a simple dinner with Riz l’ Imperatrice, the Bavarian cream dessert with rice and glacéed fruit named after the Empress Eugenia?”

Look, I love new things too, but fashion for fashion’s sake is crazy. The older I get the more I believe it. Just running after each “Next Big Thing” misses so much. There is such a huge world out there to investigate. It spreads far and wide, present and past and it’s all ours to appreciate and experience.  Great is great, no matter where or when. These are great and great fun.

Putting the Time/Life series into perspective… it was a brave experiment to open the world to a provincial (and slightly xenophobic) American public.  Cooking clubs developed around the country to cook their way through the books. If you had already visited the country, they enhanced your memory. For travelers who were visiting the countries for the first time to taste the cuisine first hand –– they had an advantage thanks to the series.  Instead of ordering Le Big Mac and complaining the food didn’t taste American, they wanted to try new things and eat the real food of the country –– not tourist food.

The picture on the cover of the book, Classic French Cuisine  (edited by Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey) that has been locked away in my brain for so many years is of a classic dish called Poularde a la Néva.  I never thought in a million years that I would attempt it, but I did! The dish was named for the Neva river in St. Petersburg and comes from the sophisticated cuisine of that place and time… early 19th century.  The Russian style worked its way west and into the haute cuisine of France (bringing with it service a la Russe – taking individual plates to the table in courses instead of putting everything out on the table to get cold).

Damien Berthier photograph of Poularde a la Neva in a fabulous old-style –– check out this link  (I would buy them all if I could)

Although the original is a whole chicken stuffed with truffled chicken and foie gras mousse and covered in gelée, I thought I would simplify the dish a little.  I decided to take few liberties since the Time/Life crew had as well when they added the medallions of meat over the top of the bird and arranged in a flotilla before it.  I figured I would just make the medallions of chicken and treat them with the same techniques… glazing them with white chaude-froid sauce, resting them on a sparkling sea of gelatin jewels –– I love the way they look.

This isn’t terribly hard (even the cutouts aren’t that difficult to do) but it is time consuming.  However, once you have the gelatin made, the rest moves fairly quickly… it’s easiest done over 2 days.

This is great with a vegetable rice salad with mayonnaise dressing made with peas and mushrooms or with fried rice croustades––which is how it was originally done.  It would also be good with a green salad –– I would recommend arugula and radicchio to add a little bite to the mix.  The dish is quite light and a real showstopper for a fancy luncheon party.


Poularde a la Néva

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
5 cups of chicken stock
 1 carrot, chopped
1 stick celery, chopped
2 stems parsley
1 small bay leaf
1 small onion stuck with 2 cloves
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 t peppercorns

Bring the stock up to a boil.  Put the chicken in the stock and bring down to a bare simmer.  Cook the chicken until done, about 20 minutes.  Remove the chicken from the stock and cool.

Strain the stock.  Skim the fat and add enough water to make 5 cups and cool.

Take the chicken breasts and slice into 6 slices (3 each), around the same size or into 12 squares… whatever suits your fancy.

Reserve the rest of the breast meat and dark meat… chopping it up.


5 cups reserved stock
5 envelopes gelatin
3 egg whites and shells, crushed
1 small tomato, chopped
dark green top of 1 leek, chopped (reserve a few good leaves for garnish)
3 sprigs parsley
½ c chopped celery leaves
a few slices of carrot
salt and pepper to taste

Put 1 cup of stock in a pot.  Add 5 envelopes of gelatin to the stock and let sit for 2 to 3 minutes.

Stir in the rest of the solids and egg white and shells and add the stock.  Bring to a heavy boil then immediately turn down to a low simmer for 20 minutes.  Remove from heat and pour through double thickness of WET cheesecloth… DO NOT PRESS ON SOLIDS!!!!  Let it drip slowly and you will have perfectly clear, golden stock

Pour around 1/2 of the clarified stock (measure out 1 ½ c + 3 T + ½ c for the other uses) into a 9” square pan and refrigerate.  When solid, cut into cubes.  If you need more for your medallions, just warm a few cubes –– use the rest on the plate on which you serve the chicken. It’s really best and most beautiful when it’s silver… china doesn’t work as well because you lose the reflective quality.

Sauce Chaud-Froid

2 T butter
2 ½ T flour
½ c cream
1 ½ c of gelée
salt and pepper to taste

Melt butter, add flour and cook over very low heat for 2 minutes.  Add the stock.  Cook for 10 minutes over low heat.  Add the cream, boil gently for 2 minutes, stirring well, then pour through a sieve.

Mousse de voilaille au foie gras

3 T gelée
Leftover white and dark meat
3 oz foie gras, cooked (you can get this from D'Artagnan in a few forms)
1 t chopped truffle (or use ½ to 1 t of truffle oil to taste OR buy truffled foie gras pate and save this step)
2 t cognac
1/3 c cream

Put 3 T gelée in a processor (warmed to liquid state, but not hot). Add the leftover white meat and dark meat, foie gras, cognac and truffles.  Process for a few pulses.  Whip the cream and fold into the chopped meat mixture.  Taste for seasoning.

1 dark part of leek, sliced into very thin strands and blanched till softened in salted water
6 very thin slices of carrot, blanched and cut into floral shapes (an Exacto knife works well for this).

Take the chicken medallions and spread each with the mousse.  Place in the fridge, mousse side up to harden.

Remove the medallions and spoon the warm Chaud-froid sauce over the side of the chicken without the mousse.  The surface will become a smooth surface.  Place the leek leaves on the chicken with the carrot pieces, dunking them in warm gelée before placing them on the top… surround the shape with long pieces.  Allow to chill for ½ an hour, then spoon warm gelée over the surface and chill.  Serve on a bed of gelatin cubes.

I am now one of D'Artagnan's "chefs".... along with Mark Bittman, Dorie Greenspan, Marcella Hazan, Patricia Wells, Melissa Clark and, well,  the list is blinding... what an honor to have my recipes included!  See it HERE.