Thursday, December 27, 2012

Happy New Year, The Algonquin Round Table and Lobster Fra Diavolo

Hirschfeld Drawing of Algonquin Round Table, 1962
Why is it that one often reflects backward as one looks onto the horizon of a New Year?  For some reason, thinking of New Years, parties and celebrations this week, I was drawn back to a solitary celebration from many, many years ago.

The first time I came to New York City by myself was on a visit to what I thought would be my next college.  Things didn’t work out the way I had planned.  I hated the college and the neighborhood.  Crestfallen, I hailed a cab and went back down to my midtown hotel telling the cab driver my story as we travelled (cab drivers are great listeners).  He advised me to try NYU in the Village, said he thought it would be more to my liking –– wise man that driver, he was so right.  I went, I liked NYU, I loved the Village –– it felt like home. 

Euphoric (although my parents were not –– they had never heard of the school) I decided to celebrate by treating myself to an evening of NY history.  I was a little bit in love with the 20's and the literary scene of the Jazz Age and had always wanted to see if magic still remained at the Algonquin Hotel 50-odd years after the storied Algonquin Round Table had disbanded. I had often daydreamed about sitting at that table, trading barbs and laughing my cloche off.

I wasn’t alone in wanting a seat at the table.  No less than John F. Kennedy felt the same way when he confessed, “When I was growing up I had three wishes. I wanted to be a Lindbergh-type hero, learn Chinese and become a member of The Algonquin Round Table.”

Although disappointed that the table was long gone (a replica now stands-in for the original), it was a pretty magical night what with wine (I was a little young so this was a big deal) and a real food splurge, lobster fra diavolo  –– it felt like a dish for a celebration the minute I saw it on the menu.  In all these years I have never ordered it or made it since it was a sort of “sacred first”. Would today’s me love it as much? It’s not that it was the greatest thing I had ever eaten but it was special, flavored with the rarified air of the place and the subtle elevation of my little spirit with a night eating alone at the Algonquin.  I was suddenly a little more grown up and a little more sophisticated for my dinner in a legendary place. It was that kind of night.

Natalie Ascencios 2002 painting of  “The Vicious Circle”

The Algonquin Round Table started after the war –– the First World War. A June 1919 lunch for Alexander Wolcott (who was returning from his service as a war correspondent) was such a success that it became a 10-year party.  From their humble beginnings as a group of always-broke 20-somethings that Algonquin owner Frank Chase sported to free celery and popovers (there was no drinking at the table, Chase honored prohibition), they soon became a group of powerful tastemakers.  Chase’s belief in their talent was well founded and paid off.  People would come to the Algonquin to gawk at the group (much to the horror of the participants).

Brilliant caricaturist, Will Cotton’s (1880-1958)
view of The Young Men’s Upper West Side Thanatopsis Literary and Inside Straight Club 1929 (commissioned by Paul Hyde Bonner)

They began as “The Board” and their daily get-togethers were called “Board Meetings”.  That soon morphed to the  “Luigi Board” (in honor of their waiter, Luigi).  Their evening poker club was named “The Young Men’s Upper West Side Thanatopsis, Literary and Inside Straight Club” –– to the outside world the gathering came to be known as the “Algonquin Round Table”. 

The members finely settled on calling themselves “The Vicious Circle” and they could be, by all accounts, a nasty bunch. Member Edna Ferber called them “The Poison Squad” and said, “They were actually merciless if they disapproved. I have never encountered a more hard-bitten crew. But if they liked what you had done, they did say so publicly and whole-heartedly.”

An Algonquin group of Art Samuels, Charles MacArthur, Harpo Marx, Dorothy Parker and Alexander Wolcott

 The original group included Dorothy Parker,  Robert Benchley,  Robert E. Sherwood  (Sherwood was 6’8” –– 5’4” Dorothy Parker once commented that when she, Sherwood, and 6’ Robert Benchley would walk down the street together, they looked like "a walking pipe organ"), Alexander Wolcott , then George S Kaufman, Heywood Broun , Edna Ferber, Marc Connelly, Franklin P Adams, Charles MacArthur and Harold Ross (who was the founder of The New Yorker Magazine that made its debut on February 21, 1925 thanks to financing obtained through Algonquin contacts and still given out to guests of the hotel) but the circle expanded and contracted with time (the Lunts, Noel Coward, Tallulah Bankhead and Harpo Marx were frequent visitors).

While they reigned, it was a veritable fountain of bon mots.  Here are a few favorites:

Dorothy Parker:

"I like to have a martini,
Two at the very most.
After three I’m under the table,
After four I’m under my host."

"If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to."

When asked to use the word horticulture during a game of Can-You-Give-Me-A-Sentence, Parker replied: You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.

Speaking of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force

"Brevity is the soul of lingerie."

Robert Benchley:

"I know I'm drinking myself to a slow death, but then I'm in no hurry."

“Let’s get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini.”

George S Kaufman :

Once when asked by a press agent, “How do I get my leading lady’s name into your newspaper?” Kaufman replied, “Shoot her.”

For a time in the late 80’s, a group of us gathered every Wednesday at 24 5th Avenue in the West Village for Wednesday Club –– an homage to the Algonquin gathering to be sure.  We would drink a lot and discuss just about everything.  On reflection it was an amazing gathering of artists, writers, designers, directors, producers, bankers, lawyers and assorted others all gathered together by the grandmaster, my friend Pierre.  It was a great time.

The roundtables of the past may just be memories but the pasta is something I can have again.  I fiddled with the recipe a little since I didn’t want a thick sauce for my lobster. I read a great piece in the NYT about the foggy if extended history of the dish that is a little bit of Italy and a lot of old NYC HERE to get inspired.  The result was wonderful and really quite simple to make.   It’s a pretty spectacular dish to have for New Years with a little bubbly.  Give a toast to the Algonquin with one of the Roundtable cocktails as you enjoy –– it's still that good.

Lobster Fra Diavolo (my own take on a Saveur Recipe) for 4

¼ c olive oil
2 1 ¼-lb. cooked lobsters, tails cut into pieces, claws separated from arms. Arms and bodies reserved  *You can use live lobsters but I’d rather not –– if you do, put a knife down their back between their eyes after freezing for 30 minutes then chop them up –– cook a little longer than you would pre-cooked lobster.

2 small uncooked lobster tails, sliced in half lengthwise
2 tsp. crushed red chili flakes or 1 or 2 crushed chilies of your choice)
1 tsp. dried oregano
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
½ cup brandy
1½ cup fish stock (I make it with lobster and shrimp leftovers –– you can use these lobster shells to make a new batch for next time, a revolving door)
1 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes (I love Muir Glen roasted tomatoes for this)
2 bay leaves
Pinch of mace and saffron
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
¾  lb. your favorite pasta, cooked
¼ c good quality olive oil
chopped parsley, fresh oregano or marjoram and thyme

Heat oil over medium-high heat.

Add  lobster body and arms to pot and cook for a few minutes. Add chile flakes, oregano, and garlic to pot; cook until lightly toasted, about 3 minutes. Add cognac; cook until almost evaporated, about 2 minutes.

Add stock, tomatoes, oregano and bay leaf. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook about 30 minutes. Remove the lobster pieces and add the tail pieces to the pot; cook until cooked through, about 5 minutes. Add the cooked lobster tail and claws to warm.

Leave the shells on if you would like or remove the meat from the shells.

Add pasta; toss with sauce and add the olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with herbs and serve

Algonquin Roundtable Cocktail (Based on one the group made up)

1/3 c rum
3 T Benedictine
8 blackberries
3 t Honey or fruit or floral syrup (lilac, violet)
3 T blackberry juice

Muddle the blackberries in the rum for 1/2 an hour.  Strain, pressing on the solids.  Combine the rest and stir.  Chill and serve.

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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Lincoln, Inaugural Dinners and Chicken Croquettes

 One of the most ironic things about working on a movie is that it is nearly impossible to see one when you are working.  Having endless sixteen-hour days leaves you no time to see what you want or do anything but work for that matter.  Although I had wished for a few hours to write my blog and cook in the last few months, what with a hurricane, a nor’easter, bridge and tunnel closings, gas shortages and actor schedules, it was a miracle we made a movie.  There was no time for anything else –– this movie was 24/7. As a final kicker, I got a dastardly flu 12 hours after I finished the movie.  It was as if I had hit a wall –– full stop.

The big news is, after all these weeks, Lost Past Remembered is back –– with Abraham Lincoln no less!

The hat Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theater.

One of the films I was dying to see during the life siege-that-was-my-movie was Spielberg’s Lincoln with the incandescent Daniel Day-Lewis playing the title role. It was my first post-film movie.  I wasn’t disappointed.

David Strathairn as Lincoln’s friend and Secretary of State, William Seward

Everything about the film was pretty remarkable, not the least of which the performances of the actors which included my personal favorite acting genius, David Strathairn   –– I love this actor.  I would eat gravel to work with him ––– seriously.  I came close a few years ago but the death of an actor stopped the production.  I was devastated.  He’s that good.


Tommy Lee Jones is perfect as the irascible anti-slavery congressman Thaddeus Stevens

Jared Harris  (who I’ve worked with and who keeps getting better and better) was excellent as Grant

James Spader had far too much fun portraying an unscrupulous if devilishly effective early lobbyist, W.N. Bilbo.  

Production Designer  Rick Carter and his team of decorators did a fine job with the Virginia locations.  The script by Tony Kushner was first-rate and based on historian Doris Kerns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.  The story dealt with the last months of Lincoln's life and the wheeling and dealing that led to the signing of the 13th amendment and the end of the Civil War.

I recommend the film, I cried like a baby.  Harry Reid asked that it be screened it for the US Senate 12/19/12 (with Day-Lewis and Spielberg in attendance) with the hope it would inspire the legislators to work together –– yeah, it’s that good (the film had been screened for the house in November). I'm not holding my breath on this congress getting inspired by anything, but if anything could it would be this movie.

 Harper’s Weekly 1864

You might think Lincoln would hardly be a poster-boy for gastronomy in mid-19th century America and you’d be right.  It looks like Abe was not much for eating. Mary chided him about it in the film.   Mary raised money for Christmas dinners for the soldiers (the Lincolns visited wounded soldiers constantly during the war), but food and dining scenes were nearly absent from the film unlike Martin Scorsese  films that draw characters with their appetites and dining habits.  Lincoln lived on rarified air and caffeine as far as I could see.   He was sustained by his unshakable belief that all men should be  free in America. It doesn’t get better than that, does it?

When I think about the domestic life of Lincoln not much comes to mind. There's the Lincoln bedroom (that was never his bedroom, by the way, but rather his office –– although the giant 8 x 6’ bed was purchased by Mary) that became slightly infamous during the Clinton years (but that now anyone with $400 can reserve for a night) and the Lincoln china that set the fashion for White House china. 

Thing is, in researching this piece I made a discovery.  After all these years of thinking the Lincoln china had a burgundy border, I was shocked to discover the china was actually an orchid-magenta color called Soverino, from the discovery of a dye of this color in the same year that a battle was fought in 1859 in the village of Soverino in northern Italy. 

The American Heritage blog said “This State Dinner Service was French; imported and decorated by The E. V. Haughwout Company, New York.  Mr. Haughwout and Talented Staff hand-painted the Eagle and Clouds, the Gilt decoration as well as the color of Solverino (Royal Purple).  The initial order of which this Stunning Lincoln Plate is one, was for 190 Official pieces.  Mrs. Lincoln's Elegant Choice of White House China has been much appreciated by all First Families; as well as being coveted by advanced collectors for 150 years.”

Mary Todd Lincoln wearing the Tiffany seed-pearl necklace given to her by her husband
Sally Field wearing a copy of the necklace in the film

Evidently, Mary Lincoln loved the color and had the dishes made using it as well as painting a room that color and had a dress made up in the color as well.

But the Lincolns did entertain and were entertained during their time in Washington.

 I started thinking about food and the Lincoln presidency when I read my blog-pal Henry Voight  of The American Menu was having an exhibition of menus at The Mount Vernon Hotel Museum on E 61st Street in NYC (a little 18th century gem of a place nestled between great hulking modern monster buildings) that included a rare example of Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural ball’s menu, one of 3 known copies (Henry will be giving a lecture there on menus on January 9th).  I remember when Obama was first elected, Lincoln’s first inaugural dinner was mentioned for its simplicity and inspired Obama’s menu. Lincoln’s 17 guests had mock-turtle soup, corned beef and cabbage and blackberry pie, quite a departure from the melee that ensued after his planned midnight buffet after the inaugural ball, the LATimes revealed:

“Lincoln's inaugural committee had planned a lavish midnight buffet for the inaugural ball: terrapin stew, leg of veal, beef à l'anglais, foie gras, pâté, cream candies, fruit ices, tarts, cakes and more. The venue was the Patent Office, which had two spacious halls for dancing and dining. The buffet was set out in a corridor where patent models were displayed.

 When the grand supper was announced after several hours of dancing, the crowd rushed the table and people began grabbing, pushing and stuffing themselves shamelessly. In a matter of minutes, the sumptuous buffet was a shambles -- as were several of the patent exhibits.”

That was nothing compared to Andy Jackson’s 1829 affair where 20,000 fans descended on the White House, nearly destroying it till they were lured outside with gallons of whiskey punch.

Lincoln had many dinners held for him after he was elected in 1861.  Although I looked at Henry’s 1865 inaugural ball menu, the food didn’t capture my imagination the way the dishes on a frayed and faded cloth menu did.

“Lincoln traveled by rail through 83 cities and towns, including Albany, on his way from his home in Springfield, Ill., to Washington, where his inauguration took place on March 4, 1861.

Silk menus were printed for Lincoln's Feb. 18 dinner at the Delavan House, a hotel at the corner of Broadway and Steuben Street that burned in 1894.”

There were many dishes on the menu that interested me.  They weren’t fussy, but somehow seemed the kind of thing Lincoln might have enjoyed having, moving as he was from his provincial world to the national stage.  I imagined, had he lived, he would have taken his “Molly” to Europe as he had promised –– to see the old world first-hand and taste these dishes where they were created.  Sadly, these American recreations were as close as he would ever come to the old world’s cuisine.

When you watch the movie, you can have a sense of the way they ate, and that, at least for me, always brings the past a little closer.

I chose Salmon a la Hollandaise to start, because, well, I found some gorgeous wild salmon that was asking to be purchased.  Looking at my favorite 19th century cookbook, I found a recipe that involved broiling slices of fish and that’s what I did, using a brilliant technique from Mark Bittman that cooks the fish perfectly in 3 minutes with crispy skin –– it's become one of my favorite techniques (for thicker slices just a bit longer).  The salmon is juicy and fragrant under the golden Hollandaise blanket.  We snarfed the fish up right after the photos.

Next I thought I would try those chicken croquettes.  When I was growing up my grandmother made them for me (she was a 19th century girl at heart).  They were crisp and hot and usually served with a  chicken-y cream sauce.  In Lincoln’s time they were served by themselves on folded napkins.  The “Royale” part of the recipe involved using sweetbreads and truffles in the mix.  I will give you the original recipe should you want to be authentic.  But I chose to use a selection of mushrooms and D’Artagnan truffle butter to add the truffle component (for cost) and skipped the sweetbreads since my purveyor didn’t have them this week.  The result was spectacular and quite easy to make.

Salmon a la Hollandaise for 2

3 T butter, softened
small handful of herbs (parsley, basil, thyme … what you have onhand)
zest of 1 lemon
1 t salt
black pepper

¾ to 1 lb wild salmon filet
Fresh parsley for garnish

Put a seasoned, cast iron skillet in the broiler and heat for 15 minutes.

Blend the butter with the herbs and zest.

Season the fish with salt and pepper. Smear with 2 T of the butter

Remove the skillet from the broiler and put the rest of the butter in the pan and lay the fish on top.  Put back under the broiler for 3 minutes.  Remove from the broiler and baste with butter.

Let it sit for a minute and serve.

* the recipe was originally for bluefish.  for that, add 2 cloves of garlic to the butter and cook the fish for 2-4 minutes longer after basting in butter.  If your salmon is thicker, put it back in for the longer period.

Hollandaise for 2

1 T white wine
1 egg yolk
4 T butter, cut into chunks
juice of ½ a lemon
salt and pepper to taste

Swirl the wine in a pan till almost evaporated.  Remove from the heat.  Whisk the egg yolk into the wine.  Add the butter and whisk, putting the pan on and off the heat to just melt the butter.
When the butter has melted, add the lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste and spoon over your fish


Chicken Croquettes a la Royal, makes 8- 2 1/2 oz timbales

6 ½  oz white meat chicken
6 ½ oz assorted mushrooms (chanterelles, morels, shitakes etc)
salt and pepper and nutmeg

1 T black truffle butter from D'Artagnan, softened (it's amazing stuff and very affordable)

2 egg yolks
4 oz heavy cream
1 t white truffle oil (optional)

2 eggs, beaten

1 ¼ c bread crumbs
½ t salt and pepper
½ t thyme

Enough oil for deep frying

Heat the oven to 325º.   Have a square dish with 1” of hot water in it in the oven.  

Chop the mushrooms roughly.  Put in the food processor and pulse till small.  Put in a bowl.  Chop the chicken roughly and put in the processor and pulse till chopped small.  Add the salt and pepper and nutmeg to the mixture.

Process the egg yolks and cream with the truffle oil until well blended.

Brush the softened truffle butter into the timbales.  Gently spoon the chicken mixture into the timbales and level at about 2/3 up the mold.   Pour the egg cream into the timbales till about ½” from the top.  With a skewer, poke into the chicken mixture a few times to spread the cream into the meat mixture.

Place in the water in the dish and cover the top with a piece of parchment paper.  Cook for about 25 minutes or until the timbales are firm.  Leave the oven on to warm.

Remove from the oven.  Turn the timbales upside down on a plate.  They will release in a few minutes and you can remove the metal containers.

Heat your frying oil.  I used 4 cups of duck fat for a special treat but any oil will do.

Turn the timbales over in the egg and then turn in the seasoned breadcrumbs.  Put into the hot fat 2 at a time and remove when browned. Drain on paper towels.  Put them in the warming oven as you do the rest.

Serve hot with chopped parsley.   You can also serve them with lemon wedges or lemon mayonnaise

*I made some and refrigerated them and egged and breaded and fried them the next day and it worked out well.   I also microwaved one later to see how it fared and it was good.  Waiting till the next day the truffle dissipated a bit... if you're doing it the next day you might want to drip the truffle oil on just before you are ready to serve. 

DELEVAN HOUSE DINNER MENU, given by the Legislature of the State of New York to Honor Abraham Lincoln, February 18, 1861

Terrapin   Brunoise

English Salmon a la Hollandaise
Smelts fried a la Anglaise

Tenderloin of Beef, sauce Perigord
Turkey a la Richlieu
Saddle of Venison with Currant Jelly


French mustard, Spanish olives, horseradish, assorted pickles, sardines, applesauce, celery


Sweet bread larded, with green peas
Venison Chops, Sauce Chevreuil
Croquets of Chicken a la Royal
Vol au Vent Financiere
Salmi of Partridges a la chausseur

English Capons
Canvasback Duck
Grouse larded
Quails larded

Chicken Salade   Fried Oysters

English Plum Pudding
Charlotte Russes au Pannier
Gelee au Vin du Champagne, garne l’Orange
Blanc Mange a la Rose
Fancy kisses
Biscuit Anglais au Gelee
Gateau au Chocolate
Cassette d’Amande
Sugared Almonds
Vanilla Ice Cream


Almonds, figs, apples, walnuts, raisins, dates, filberts, prunes ,oranges, coffee.

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Here’s hoping for a great holiday season for you and yours.