Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Great Food Writer, Joseph Wechsberg and Paprika Potatoes with Sausage

Place Pigalle, 1925

When I think about great American food writers, A.J. Liebling  and  MFK Fisher are the first names that come to mind. Sadly, so many renowned writers that were once household names among food and  finer-things-in-life lovers have just disappeared into the murky, ever-darkening waters of history –– their beautiful words collecting dust on real or virtual shelves. What a waste! I love to share them with you as I find them or remember them so they can live on in new memories.  The blog is called Lost Past Remembered, after all.

Joseph Wechsberg (1907-82)

I came upon Joseph Wechsberg’s name when I wrote about the brilliant but forgotten Naomi Berry (HERE) from Gourmet Magazine’s golden age awhile back –– Wechsberg’s story was so compelling and his writing so fine (writing that I discovered in the Gourmet and New Yorker archives) that I rushed to order his book of collected articles,  Blue Trout and Black Truffles: The Peregrinations of an Epicure.

I love this book.

In it are truly captivating pre-WWII chapters based in Paris and Vienna and post-WWII visits to France and Hungary with a pretty hilarious recounting of life as a budding gourmet in between –– doing a writer’s internship of living life to the fullest and paying attention.

Joining Wechsberg at his table is a complete experience that teases all your senses. The thing is, the book is not just about food. It’s about a lost world that existed after WWI till after WWII. The way he spins the fabric of his life –– you feel in touch all the small things that make the past real and alive (there is a wonderful website full of photos that his family has put together, including some smashing shots of Wechsberg with Gary Cooper and Clark Gable!). Between the masterful portrayal of the characters in his stories and the passion for the experience of eating, the book will put you in the right mind for better appreciating the period when you are reading fiction or fact. You’ll feel like you’ve felt the same breeze on you face and been warmed by the same sun. Meeting food legends as well as quiet, unsung masters is icing on the cake. That he ended up writing about food at all is a miracle.

Joseph with his parents

The budding gourmet got off to a slow start –– he wouldn’t eat.

Yet (and here's the miracle), after a childhood of hating everything to do with the table or stuffing his face, the worm turned.  The inspiration for the change seemed to be the delicious sounding feasts in a favorite book, the naughty Memoirs of Casanova  where he admitted, he'd "... skipped  the bedroom scenes, which bored me, and dwelt upon the author's mouth-watering descriptions of the magnificent meals with which he'd regaled his ladies, prior to their seduction." Suddenly, he dove into the world of fine dining (asking for pain de faisan aux truffes which sounded great even if he had no clue what it was).

Next came a wild time in 20's Paris, living in a Montmartre by-the-hour hotel, playing the violin in nightclubs instead of attending the Sorbonne as he was sent to do.  After some rough trials and errors, he found a great cheap prix fixe restaurant that served beautiful food (at 7.50 francs for things like  cassoulet toulousain, haricot de mouton, blanquette de beau à l'ancienne and raie au beurre noir PLUS bread and wine, can you imagine?).  He was dragged away from his bohemian lifestyle and returned home to study law but a stint in the army interrupted his plans and most certainly his gourmet training.

As you might imagine, Czech army food like beton was a punishment (beton was Czech for cement, “… an amorphous dirty-gray mass with the consistency of Portland cement…. Rumors said that it contained flour, stale bread, potatoes, glue, and the skins of cows that had died of old age.") Luckily, the army service was a temporary interruption on his gourmet trajectory.

On board SS Azay-le-Rideau 

He had the gift of a job playing violin on an ocean liner, where American passengers were notorious for appalling food tastes that pushed the French chef to distraction (a passenger from Ohio ordered “braised pork loin with tomatoes, spread with tuna fish, served with macaroni”), but food for the appreciative crew was superb.

The best bouillabaisse ever was had from a crew-member who caught the fish and made it for the crew the same day in a makeshift engine room kitchen – the secret? “… blend the different parfums propres of all kinds of fish while they still have the wonderful aroma of salt water, algæ, and seaweed.”

Although many of Vienna's famous restaurants had been lost after WWI, there were a few giants still left standing and Wechsberg tells the story of a forgotten treasure there, Meissl & Schadn's Restaurant. We think of Vienna and pastries but it was also the home of a million kinds of boiled beef, a dish that has lost its lofty position in Viennese cuisine even though it is still enjoyed by the locals. In the early part of the century Wechsberg said, “In Vienna, a person who couldn’t talk learnedly about at least a dozen different cuts of boiled beef, didn’t belong, no matter how much money he’d made, or whether the Kaiser had awarded him the title of Hofrat (court counselor) or Kommerzialrat.” “The guests of Meissl & Schadn, were thoroughly familiar with the physical build of a steer and knew anatomical location of Kügerls, Scherzle, and Schwanzels…. You didn’t merely order “boiled beef” -- you wouldn’t step into Tiffany’s and ask for “a stone….”

Hotel Meissl & Shadn, Vienna

‘In Vienna, in those days, boiled beef was not a dish: it was a way of life.” There were more than 24 different kinds of boiled beef at Meissl & Schadn, like “tafelspitz, tafeldeckel, rieddeckel, beinfleish, rippenfleisch, kavalierspitz, kruspelspitz, hieferschwanzl, schulterschwanzl, schulterscherzl, mageres meisel (or Mäuserl), fettes meisel, zwerchried, mittleres kügerl, dünnes kügerl, dickes kügerl, bröselfleisch, ausgelöstes, brustkern, brustfliesch, weisses, scherzo, schwarzes scherzo, zapfen, ortschwanzl”

But Wechsberg felt the secret of Meissl & Schadn’s insanely good beef was the beef itself,

“The restaurant owned herds of cattle that were kept inside a large sugar refinery in a village north of Vienna. There the steers were fed on molasses and sugar-beet mash, which gave their meat its extraordinary marble texture, taste, tenderness, and juice. The animals were slaughtered just at the right time, and the meat was kept in the refrigerators from one to two weeks.”

Although it's not in the book, before WWII, Wechsberg came to the United States.  He couldn't speak English when he arrived (he joined the expat community in Hollywood for a time), but within a few years was writing for the New Yorker.  Quite a feat.  He was prolific, writing for many magazines, joining the US Army and going back to Europe during the war (his mother had been taken and died in Aushwitz).  When it ended, he began traveling and writing of his experiences with an emphasis on, but not exclusively about, food. He quickly discovered he was a natural.

Gundel’s Restaurant, Budapest Hungary

Károly Gundel

Wechsberg does very well with large personalities. He captures the legendary Charles (Károly) Gundel brilliantly. Wechsburg described him as “ a massive, towering, oak-like man of great dignity, with a deeply lined face, a bald head and an enormous double chin that half covered his black butterfly tie.” As Escoffier and Fernand Point are legends for their influence on French cuisine, so is Gundal for his influence on Hungarian Cuisine. Although Wechsburg met him after WWII -- in the declining years of the restaurant before the Soviets took it over and when raw materials were harder to come by (and the restaurant’s legendary cellars destroyed and pillaged by troops), the meal was still astonishing as was the company and the real gypsies who played the heart of their people with melodies of melancholy, passion, loss, love, and joy. The soul of Hungary filled the senses that night at Gundels.

The most important instruction he had received before dining at Gundels was, don’t order off the menu. He didn’t. After a short consultation during which Gundel asked about Wechsberg’s taste preferences and digestion issues, the meal began with a dish called Balatoni fogas a la Rothermere. “Just the filet of the fish, boiled in a court bouillon made with white wine, then covered with sauce hollandaise and topped off with a crayfish pörkölt, a ragout in a thick paprika sauce.” After that came a veal cutlet in the Pittsburgh style” after the mayor who had enjoyed it. 'It' being a veal cutlet with foie gras sauce and sauce Périgueux, a lovely endive salad and finished with his famous pancakes “filled with ground walnuts, sugar, and raisins and covered with chocolate cream”. Wechsberg thought it was the best meal he had had after 6 months touring great restaurants in Europe. The famous Hungarian/American restaurateur, George Lang, took over Gundels after the fall of communism because he remembered that greatness so fondly and wanted to honor it by restarting the classic (it’s now doing very well and developing its own reputation).

Fernand Point

The book ends with Fernand Point. His Pyramid restaurant was the ne plus ultra of cuisine in the 40s and 50’s – even after his death, the Pyramid held its reputation under the watchful eye of the late Mr. Point’s wife. One of his best-known quotes was “Success is the sum of a lot of small things done correctly”, (another was “du beurre, du beurre, du buerre”). One of the small touches was a simple napkin, but one that was, “the size of a small bedspread and exhaled the fragrance of fresh air ad of the grass on which it had been dried in the sun.” Talk about an amazing detail to set the meal off brilliantly!

He asks that people at a large table start eating when food is placed in front of them and not to wait until everyone is served because their food will cool, he hates too much perfume or smoking during a meal (he denies reservations to offenders). They remember what you ate when last you visited even if it was years ago!

The 5 star-restaurant wasn’t in Paris, it was south of Lyon in a little town called Vienne hidden behind an unprepossessing stone wall. Even inside, the place was clean and simple. Everything was about the food. Wechsberg sat with Point, drinking champagne, and let the master deal him a royal flush of a menu, but not before a long, rich conversation about ingredients, suppliers and life with a private showing of a book full of expressions of gratitude from Colette to Cocteau, Aga Khan and food critic, Curnonsky who said, “Since cooking is without a doubt the greatest art, I salute my dear Fernand Point as one of the greatest artists of our time!”

The meal began with a pâté champagne en croute (with a croute so light it dissolved in his mouth), then a slice of foie gras in a ring of crème de foie gras. Next was a sausage with a sauce piquante, a pâté of pheasant, hot cheese croissants, fresh asparagus with hollandaise – and that was only the overture to the meal! The overture, according to Point, “… merely indicates the themes that will turn up later. A good meal must be as well constructed as a good play. As it progresses, it should gain in intensity with the wines getting older and more full bodied.” He also said, “Each meal must be composed and orchestrated like a symphony.”  A selection of great dishes that don't perform well together diminishes them and the experience.  If you don't know the food, best to ask for ideas for what to have with what -- an excellent lesson.

Next came truite au porto (brook trout boiled in vinegared water then stuffed with a ragout of truffles, mushrooms and vegetables with a cream port wine sauce). Next was breast of guinea hen with morels in an egg sauce, Pont-l Evêque, and strawberry ice cream made with just picked fraises de bois. He then had a '24 Lafite-Rothchild to wash it down and a 1904 Grande Fine Champagne to end the meal.

Point and his wife

As Point sat down with Wechsberg after his meal he told him, “we always strive for near-perfection…I always try to make every meal “une petite merveille.”

Fernand Point and Joseph Wechsberg (Wechsberg family archive)

Wechsberg pays Point the extreme compliment of saying, “Each meal has been a memorable event – one of those rare moments when you know that it couldn’t be any better….” Can you have a better compliment?

That’s kind of how I feel when I read this book – I was transported to another time and place to taste the life there and it was heaven –– look what you have in store for you ( I just gave a few highlights, there are many more adventures to enjoy).

To decide what to make was very difficult. I wanted to make the Sole Dugléré that he had used tantalize a gluttonous officer to get out of lousy assignments (that was also a famous specialty of Fernand Point), but I decided to make something earthier as well –– a little ying and yang.

Wechsberg had contributed to the divine Time-Life series on food from the 1960’s (that I wrote about HERE  and HERE), writing the book, The cooking of Vienna's empire (Foods of the world). In it was a recipe for Paprikás Burgony, or potato paprika with peppers, tomatoes and sausage. Perfect for a curling up in a comfy chair for a good read.

The recipe for Sole Dugléré came from the Time-Life series as well, Craig Claiborne's Classic French Food.  This is an old fashioned recipe that's close to the 19th century version, made famous by the chef at Paris's Cafe Anglais, Adolphe Duglere (1805-84), student of the mighty Carême.  Mark Bittman and Thomas Keller just did a newer version of the dish but it is essentially, shallots, fish fumet, tomatoes, and cream with sole. I include the Escoffier classic sauce tomate recipe that I've used before (HERE).  It is a great thing to keep in the freezer to enrich sauces.  I freeze it flat and break pieces off as I need it -- it stores well.  It adds a depth of flavor to the sauce that I like.  Since the sauce is so rich, the fresh tomato is a great addition, it adds brightness.

Sole Dugléré (serves 4)

4 large firm ripe tomatoes
4 T cold butter + 4 T soft butter
1/4 c chopped shallots
1/4 chopped onions
1 sprig parsley
salt and pepper (white is best if you have it)
6 - 6 oz filets of sole cut lengthwise into halves (depends on the size, many of mine from WFoods were small and could be rolled as they were.
3 T chopped parsley
1/2 c white wine
1/2 c fumet de poisson (fish stock)
2/3 c fish velouté
1/4 c heavy cream

1 tomato, peeled and the flesh cut into slices
1 T  chopped parsley

Drop the tomatoes into boiling water and  remove after 10 seconds.  Peel after running under cold water.  slice in half and remove the seeds. Melt 2 T butter in a pan and drop in the tomatoes.  Stir until the tomatoes become a purée and are thickened somewhat (about 1 1/2c). *or use 1 c sauce tomate.

Preheat oven 350º.  With a pastry brush, spread 4 T of softened butter in an enamel pan.
Scatter shallots and onions and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  spoon about 1/2 of the purée over the shallots and add the parsley sprig.

Roll the sole up and pin with a toothpick.  Place on the tomato/shallot mixture -- try to stand them up, the toothpicks can help steady them.  Put the remaining tomato purée on top of the sole rolls and cover with foil or buttered wax paper.  Warm gently for a two minutes on top of the stove then put in the oven for 10 minutes.

Check for to see they are done, then remove the rolls and put the fish on a warm platter and cover.

Reduce the liquid in the pan to 1 cup. Whisk in the velouté and cream and cook for 5 minutes, stirring.  Remove the parsley sprig and add the butter, pulling the pan off the heat.  Pour any liquid that has gathered on the fish into the sauce and stir it in.

Pour the sauce over the fish.  Add the slices of tomato (make sure they are just warm, not cold) and sprinkle with parsley and serve (I used 3 pieces each plate).

Fish Velouté

4 T butter
6 T flour
2 c fish stock, warmed

Heat the butter and then add the flour.  Stir till cooked then slowly add the warm stock. Cook about15 minutes on low then strain.

*Sauce Tomate (classic French tomato sauce)

1 large can tomato puree (I used Muir Glen fire-roasted crushed tomatoes)
1 strip bacon, chopped   
small piece ham knuckle or trotter with bone or piece of ham with bone - about the size of a child's fist
3 T carrot, chopped small 
3 T onion, chopped small
bouquet garni 
small clove of garlic  
1 T butter (the bacon will give up about 1 T of fat, add more butter to make 2 T fat
2 T flour 
1  t salt 
1 t sugar
pinch pepper
1 c stock 

Cook bacon in butter, sprinkle with flour, add tomatoes and veg and ham and stock.  Boil and cook over low heat for 2 - 3 hours, stirring frequently (it will scorch a little). Take out bouquet and ham and strain, pressing on the solids. Whisk till smooth.

Paprikás Burgonya (Paprika Potatoes - serves 4)

2 pounds boiling potatoes
3 T lard
2/3 cup finely chopped onions
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 T sweet Hungarian paprika
2 c chicken or beef stock or 2 c water
1/4 t caraway seeds
1 M tomato, peeled ,seeded and chopped
1 large green pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1 t salt
pepper to taste
1 lb Hungarian sausage, optional (I used Kielbasa - if you skip the meat, add a splash of liquid smoke)
1/2 c sour cream
chopped herbs ( I like marjoram and parsley)

Boil the potatoes for 8-10 minutes and peel.

Slice into 1/4" slices.  Heat the lard in a 4 Qt casserole and add onions and garlic.  Cook until lightly colored.  Add the paprika and stir to blend and the rest of the ingredients.  Bring to a boil and simmer lightly for 30 minutes.

Top with sour cream and fresh herbs.

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Thursday, January 8, 2015

A Little More Little Moreton Hall and Ye Olde Pea Soup

A few years ago I wrote about Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire and how much I loved it (HERE). Last summer, I finally got to see it in person and it was so much more than the sum of the many photos I had seen

When you know a house only through photographs you are missing so much. Everyone focuses on different elements when they see a place –– photographs are only the photographer’s synopsis. Haven’t you had the experience where you say to someone, “didn’t you love that yellow wall and they say “What yellow wall, I was looking at the incredible overmantel” and you say, “What overmantle?” I like to read the whole book.

When I went to Little Moreton I got to poke around and take my time combing the nooks and crannies with help from the wonderful Kirsten Warren who looks over the place for the National Trust with her cheerful staff. Walking the tilting floors, inhaling the scent of great age that the wood and stone and plaster exude -- none of these things can be absorbed through photographs. I would give my eye-teeth to live in a house like this.

Wood worn by sun, wind and water for centuries is a work of art. Even the lovely quatrefoils strewn over the darkened surfaces with such profusion have that quality of wabi sabi –– in an old English way to be sure. The beauty is in the imperfection and time is the artist.

A special treat when I visited in person was the painted room at Little Moreton -- the photos I had seen of it were terribly blurry and didn’t do it justice at all. I love Elizabethan painted rooms. For the most part, the style of painting in the rooms is often primitive – I am mad for the robust color palette and effervescent style. It had a terribly short span in fashion, only from about 1570 to 1610 and most of them were lost forever.

Ledbury painted room, photo from English Buildings

Yet some were only covered over with wood paneling as they fell out of fashion. For the most part, this is the reason that painted rooms are discovered from time to time – usually by tradesmen making repairs or renovations. The famous Ledbury painted room was discovered under thick layers of wallpaper. A very perspicacious restoration worker noticed the painting when he was scraping the last of the paper away and stopped work immediately. English Heritage was called in and their conservators finished removing the paper after the discovery, an effort that took 4 months instead of the few days it would have taken to strip the old paper away. Thank heavens for that. The room is justifiably famous, but Little Moreton’s room is magnificent. The ochre paint is brilliantly rich -- the room glows like it has an eternal sun behind it.

The painted room at Little Moreton Hall was found when an electrician was doing some work and pulled up some of the paneling in the room in 1976. The pictures were painted on paper and glued to the wall and the paneling and frieze sections were painted directly on the plaster. The NT said “The paintings represent elaborate paneling and an ornamental frieze. There are also twelve panels showing alternate biblical scenes and black letter text. They are believed to date from around 1580 and are associated with John Moreton who owned the hall at that time.”

I spent a good deal of time in the room peering at the details. It looked like a Renaissance coffered ceiling had been transferred to the walls -- odd and delightful at the same time.

The exuberance wasn’t limited to wall painting. Little Moreton is also a wonder of windows. Light plays everywhere in the house thanks to the refractive quality of all that old glass set in ancient lead. – light shimmers here.

The play between the melting old glass and the half-timbered geometrics of the exterior walls on the other side of the courtyard is a delight – I’m afraid that photos can’t do the effect justice. The designs dance in the quarries (small, square or diamond shipped panes that are clear, colored or painted) as you move in the room.

Leadlights abound with great expanses of clear quarries all around the house (the term leadlight is different from, although is often confused with stained glass). Although it must have been arctic in the winter, the light dances on the floors throughout.

A tour is not complete without a few shots of the long gallery. It is a miracle that it still stands. Honestly, you feel a bit like a drunken sailor walking on it. Made all the worse by looking up at the sprouted wooden circles on the ceiling. For some reason it makes you feel like the wood is still alive and growing in ever so slow motion.

The destiny plasterwork on the end of the great hall.

As you move to the downstairs hall, there is a gorgeous cabinet of old brass tableware.

It is thought this room once had a medieval center firepit and a hole in the ceiling to let out the smoke. Now it is just a simple beautiful room with a polished stone floor to die for.

There are small bits of interest like a tiny sleeping area and a very rustic privy.

Country Life, 1929

All these lovely things but there was no kitchen to be viewed. When Country Life Magazine did a spread on the house in 1929 they took a shot of the corner of the kitchen with an ancient looking tile floor and the Moreton quatrefoils on the columns. The area is no longer open to the public.

What might appeal to the household at Little Moreton when the house was young? I am imagining something simple and good as befitting the personality of the house –– a dish with history and integrity and just the tiniest bit of cheek. I paid a visit to The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened by Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-65). The book was published by a servant after Kenhelm ‘s death but many of the recipes would have been enjoyed by Little Moreton residents. Pease-Porage is a great simple dish and perfect for a warming your insides.  The addition of the butter and mint is really inspired if I may say -- just like Little Moreton Hall.

MY LORD LUMLEY'S PEASE-PORAGE (from The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie)

Take two quarts of Pease, and put them into an Ordinary quantity of Water, and when they are almost boiled, take out a pint of the Pease whole, and strain all the rest. A little before you take out the pint of Pease, when they are all boiling together, put in almost an Ounce of Coriander-seed beaten very small, one Onion, some Mint, Parsley, Winter-savoury, Sweet-Marjoram, all minced very small; when you have strained the Pease, put in the whole Pease and the strained again into the pot, and let them boil again, and a little before you take them up, put in half a pound of Sweet-butter. You must season them in due time, and in the ordinary proportion with Pepper and Salt.

This is a proportion to make about a Gallon of Pease-porage. The quantities are set down by guess. The Coriander-seeds are as much as you can conveniently take in the hollow of your hand. You may put in a great good Onion or two. A pretty deal of Parsley, and if you will, and the season afford them, you may add what you like of other Porage herbs, such as they use for their Porages in France. But if you take the savoury herbs dry, you must crumble or beat them to small Powder (as you do the Coriander-seed) and if any part of them be too big to pass through the strainer, after they have given their taste to the quantity, in boiling a sufficient while therein, you put them away with the husks of the Pease. The Pint of Pease that you reserve whole, is only to show that it is Pease-porage. They must be of the thickness of ordinary Pease-porage. For which these proportions will make about a Gallon.

Pease Porage (makes 4 good servings)

1 1/2 c split peas
5-6 cups water
1/2 onion, sliced or diced
2 t ground coriander
salt and pepper to taste
1 stalk celery and 1 carrot sliced (optional)
a handful of chopped parsley and 2 stalks of parsley
a handful of fresh marjoram, mint, savory celery leaves, etc.
2T butter

Put the peas and water together with the onion, coriander salt and pepper and vegetables as well as the parsley stalks.  Cook for about an hour at low heat, semi-covered until reduced to a puree. Remove the parsley and celery stalks and add the chopped herbs and butter.

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