|Antiques Digest||Browse Auctions||Appraisal||Home|
The Art of Good EatingBy Elsa Maxwell
( Originally Published 1957 )
Brillat-Savarin once remarked that a woman who couldn't make soup should not be allowed to marry - a sensible proposition, but one to which I would add that unless it is very good soup she shouldn't be allowed to entertain either. For a hostess, mere competence in regard to food is not enough - yet many women who do their own cooking and pride themselves on being good cooks are, in fact, no more than competent. Day in and day out they produce meals patterned to the dubious ideal of "plain home cooking" - a phrase too often descriptive in my opinion of plain dull cooking. It is not that these practicing cooks lack talent; rather that they are indifferent to experiment: taught to cook a certain dish in a certain way they go right on cooking it that way all their lives. With women who have cooks, ignorance of food is perhaps a shade more understandable but it is no more forgivable. Most cooks will match their standards to those of their employers. If a woman is indifferent to food, and unless she has an unusually dedicated and persevering chef in the kitchen, she - and her guests - will be served indifferent food. The really good hostess knows not only the basics of cookery, she adds an aesthetic dimension to the preparation and manner of serving her food that makes the simplest dish a delight.
As a matter of fact, a simple dish done to perfection is the true test of any cook's skill. The French have always had a special talent for this, though it was not until Escoffier made his influence felt, late in the nineteenth century, that simplicity at a Frenchman's table was considered a virtue anywhere outside the home. Before that time the criterion for cuisiniers in fashionable French restaurants was size. Banquet dishes were literally monumental: Antonin Careme, France's most famous chef in the early years of the century, even went to the length of studying architecture in order to improve his hand at mounting foods layer on layer. The result was, of course, that the food itself suffered. For one thing, it was almost impossible to keep dishes at proper serving temperatures. For another, the food was so done up diners could never be quite certain what they were biting into.
Escoffier, at the start of his career in Paris in the sixties, saw immediately the folly of this rococo and wasteful use of food. He was then not quite twenty, fresh from the family farm in a small village near Cannes where he had learned the art of traditional provincial French cookery in his grandmother's kitchen, and had acquired his lifelong professional creed: simplicity and honesty. He was also a thoroughgoing perfectionist, as was the man who was to make him famous. Some twenty years after Escoffier entered his trade, Cesar Ritz hired him to take over the management of the kitchens at the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo, with full leave to put his innovational theories to practice. This was the start of the new era in food. Escoffier and Ritz worked together for more than thirty years. Between them in that time they refined the tastes and eating habits of two continents, and sent the renown of classic French cooking around the world. Escoffier was at the Carlton in London, at the peak of his fame, when I first met him - a small, slender, erect figure, every inch the "King of Cooks and the Cook of Kings."
The French like to attribute the superiority of their cooking to unique conditions of soil and climate which, they believe, combine to make their produce superior to any in the world. I am inclined to think it more a matter of national character. The French are a thrifty people with a horror of waste and a consequent respect for even the humblest foods. Set a good French cook to preparing a simple omelet, for instance, and he will go about it as painstakingly as if he'd been appointed to immortalize the last egg on earth. The pan -always a special pan, used only for omelets - must be brought to the exact right temperature, the butter must be the sweetest and freshest available, the pepper freshly ground, the eggs mixed, poured, and timed just so; finally, the serving dish made piping hot.
It is this infinite capacity for taking pains, however modest the dish, that distinguishes the really good cook. I do not mean to write off Americans as totally bereft of this quality - many of them have it -but it stands to reason that the easier things are made for us, the lazier we are apt to become, and when foods arrive in the kitchen, as they do in ours, with half or all of the work of preparing them already done, the cook's pride in creativity is lessened, and with it some of the sense of responsibility for the condition in which the foods arrive at the table. After all, no one is going to worry too much about burning the toast when a new loaf can be had for pennies in a matter of minutes. On the other hand, a woman who has baked her own bread will be at pains to see that every last slice is toasted and served to perfection.
To serve good food you must be willing to go to the little extra trouble that marks the difference between one who cares about food and one who doesn't. Having dishes at the correct temperatures, for instance, is a small thing but one many cooks overlook. Serving cold foods on thoroughly chilled plates, hot foods on hot (not forgetting the coffee cups, which should always be pre-heated) makes all the difference in the appeal of the dish. Care in serving is, indeed, almost as important to the enjoyment of a meal as the food itself. Perhaps more so, since surveys have shown that the rich generally outlive the poor, one of the explanations offered being that the refinements of service common to the tables of the rich make for better digestion and consequently better health and longer life. This needn't be so. Rich or poor, anyone can afford the little extra trouble it takes to make food as appealing to the eye as to the taste.
The recipes on the following pages are a unique collection, gathered from some of the best and most famous hosts and hostesses in the world -all of them expert cooks who know food from the market place to the table. I can't claim to have sampled all these recipes; but I have sampled the hospitality of all the contributing cook hosts, and I can vouch for their dependability as guides to your increased knowledge of gourmet cooking; better, gourmet eating.
The best weeks of my summers are spent each year at Dickie Gordon's small, lovely old farm at Auribeau, not far from Cannes. Dickie is my oldest friend, and by all odds the best cook I know -an impartial claim, borne out by the eagerness with which our Riviera friends look forward to her dinners for days beforehand. "What are we going to have to eat on Thursday?" they will start asking hungrily on Monday. Dickie understands the value of surprise; her invariable answer is, "I won't tell." A special treat to me at Auribeau are the vegetables, all grown by Dickie on the farm. One in particular that I love is a kind of lettuce called salatina, the most delicate green I have ever tasted. Dickie discovered it in Venice - the only place in the world it could be grown, she was told. Nevertheless, she bought seed, planted it at Auribeau, and it throve.
Here, then, are some of Dickie's favorite recipes - and mine:
CHEESE CANAPES: Mix equal amounts of grated Parmesan and grated Swiss cheese, and add enough softened butter to make a good paste. Spread generously on Melba toast rounds. Put in hot oven until sizzling and brown on top.
OMELET A LA CREME (4 servings): Break 3 eggs into mixing bowl, and add an equal amount of heavy cream. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Mix, but don't beat. Refrigerate for 3 hours, or overnight. Add i cup of either shredded crab or lobster meat, or fines herbes (finely mixed herbs, such as parsley, chervil, tarragon, chives, etc.). Or omelet may be left plain. Heat i tablespoon butter in a skillet. When the butter sizzles without browning, the pan is at the correct temperature. Pour in egg mixture. Stir quickly with a fork, and cook for about 5 minutes, giving the pan an occasional shake. Fold, and serve at once. If you want to add to the richness, pour hot cream over the omelet before serving.
CREAMED SHELLFISH (4 servings): Drop i1A cups of uncooked rice into lots of boiling water. Cook until done-about 30 minutes. Drain, and put in a slow oven to dry. Make z cups of medium white sauce, have it hot, and drop into it z cups of raw, shelled shellfish -lobster, shrimp, or crab, or a mixture of the three. Cook for 5 minutes, or until the fish is just cooked through. Add i teaspoon of curry paste or powder, and a little onion juice. Serve on the rice.
ONION TART (4 to 6 servings): Saut6 iM cups of finely chopped onion in butter until golden and soft. Beat z eggs, and add to them i cup of cream, well seasoned with salt and pepper. Prepare z cups of prepared biscuit mix according to directions on the package, roll out dough to 1/2" thickness, and line a pie pan with it. Spread the onions on the dough, pour egg and cream mixture over onions, and bake in a 325° oven for 20 minutes.
SOUR CREAM BREAD: Sift together 3 cups of flour, 3 heaping teaspoons baking powder, and a pinch of salt. Mix in i cup sour cream. The dough should be the consistency of biscuit dough. Bake in loaf pan in 375° oven for 30 minutes.
CURRY (8 to 10 servings): Saut6 3 finely chopped onions in butter. Add 1 large apple, chopped; 1 eggplant, chopped; 1 green pepper, finely chopped. Into large saucepan or Dutch oven put 3 pounds of meat cut into 2" cubes - either leg of mutton, lamb, or chicken. Add i teaspoon salt, and about 3 tablespoons curry paste or powder preferably paste. Cover with water. Put the grated meat of 1 coconut into a pan, cover with milk, and cook slowly for 15 minutes. Squeeze out and add to meat. Add saut6ed vegetables to meat. Simmer for 2 hours, or until meat is tender, tasting occasionally to correct seasoning. Add more salt and curry as desired. Shortly before meat is done, add i large tomato, cut up; 1/4 cup dried raisins; and a little chopped, preserved ginger. Serve the curry with hot, dry rice, and any or all of the following side dishes: chopped cucumber, fresh chopped pineapple, roughly chopped peanuts, shredded coconut, chutney (several different kinds, if possible), crisply fried bacon broken into bits. (This curry is better, if anything, cooked the day before it is to be served.)
BULGARIAN CREAM (6 servings): Put z cups of meringues broken into smallish pieces into a serving dish. Make z cups of chocolate sauce by melting a rich, sweet chocolate together with a little milk; it should be a thick sauce. When sauce is cool pour it over the meringues. Top with i cup heavy cream, whipped and flavored with vanilla.
Mrs. George A. Garrett
One of the best hostesses in Washington is Ethel Garrett, whose husband was our Ambassador to Ireland. As all Washington hostesses in official circles suffer from perennial guestlist inflation, sixteen is usually the Garretts' minimum for dinner - a typical menu for which might be hot consomm6 first, served in soup plates with large tapioca and sherry added; filets of black English sole with white wine sauce; pheasant in casserole, and French-cut green beans; lime ice with strawberries, and small chocolate frosted cupcakes.
PHEASANT IN CASSEROLE (4 to 6 servings): Cut the breasts of a pheasants into serving pieces and saute. Line bottom of casserole with strips of bacon, on top of which put cabbage cut in slices. Place pheasant breasts on this, cover with another layer of cabbage, and top with more bacon. Cook in 350° oven for 1 1/2 hours. Pour in 1/2 bottle of red wine, and let simmer for 30 minutes more. Remove top layer of bacon and cabbage, and serve.
Perle Mesta: Perle's menus for small dinners are never more than four courses-often hot consomme first; then perhaps breast of duck with orange slices, string beans with ground almonds, wild rice, and banana fritters; endive salad with French dressing, and a ham mousse; pistachio souff1e, coffee. She never serves ice cream for dessert on the grounds that it isn't very exciting to serve people what can be had at any corner drugstore. Two of her favorite recipes are stuffed eggplant, and cream puffs with peppermint filling.
STUFFED EGGPLANT (2 large servings): Cut 1 large eggplant in half, put into cold water, bring to a boil, and simmer about 1/2 hour, or until tender. Take from water and cool. When quite cool, scoop out the soft meat, leaving skins unbroken. Set skins aside. Chop the soft eggplant fine and season well with salt and pepper. Wet and squeeze out 1/2 cups of bread. Finely chop, separately, 1 onion and 1 tomato, reserving tomato juice. Mince together i clove of garlic, i bay leaf, a sprig of parsley, and a little thyme. Heat 2 tablespoons of shortening in a skillet and brown the onion in it slightly. Add the chopped tomato, with its juices, and let cook 4 or 5 minutes. Then add the minced herbs and garlic, and the chopped eggplant. Add the bread and mix all well. Season again to taste, and cook for 5 minutes longer. Remove from stove and fill the shells with the mixture. Sprinkle tops lightly with bread crumbs, dot with butter, and bake in 375° oven 30 to 4o minutes, or until nicely browned on top.
CREAM PUFFS WITH PEPPERMINT FILLING: (12 servings) In top of double boiler put 1/2 cup heavy cream, and 1 pound of crushed peppermint stick candy. Cook over low heat until candy dissolves. Soften 1/2 tablespoon gelatin in 1 tablespoon cold water. Add to peppermint mixture. Cook a little longer. Remove from stove and chill until partially set. Whip 1 1/2 cups heavy cream and fold in. Use to fill 12 cream-puff shells. Hot chocolate sauce may be poured over just before serving, if desired.
Margaret Case: Margaret often likes to start off a luncheon menu with a fish and cheese souffle, this followed by curried chicken, field salad, then a macedoine of fresh fruits and chocolate cake. For a spring menu, cold Senegalese soup might be the first course, lamb chops the main course, hot asparagus with cold vinaigrette dressing, and, again, fruit-this time in a delicious brandy cream sauce.
FISH-CHEESE SOUFFLE (4 servings): Roll q filets of sole, fasten with toothpicks, and parboil. Put in bottom of greased, glass souffl6 dish. In top of double boiler melt 2 tablespoons butter. Blend in 1 tablespoon flour. When well blended add i cup cream. Season with salt and cayenne. When this has thickened, add 3/4 pound grated Swiss cheese. Stir until cheese has melted. Remove from fire and stir in beaten yolks of 3 eggs. Allow to cool slightly, then fold in the stiffly beaten whites of 3 eggs. Pour the souffl6 mixture over the fish. Bake in a 375° oven for 30 minutes. This souffl6 rises, though not as much as the usual souffle. The quantity of cheese is important, and the use of cream instead of milk.
CREAM SENEGALESE SOUP (6 servings): Make a curry sauce as follows: in butter, brown 2 peeled and cut-up apples, 2 cut-up stalks of celery, and 2 cut-up onions. Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of curry powder, and simmer for 5 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons of flour and simmer for 5 minutes more. Add about z quarts of chicken or beef stock. Cook for 30 minutes. Strain and chill. When cold, add the following: 2 cups of light cream, some finely chopped chicken (about i cup), and salt to taste. Top with whipped cream, if desired. The soup may also be served hot. When served cold, garnish with chopped chives.
FRUIT IN BRANDY CREAM (6 to 8 servings): This recipe is good with cooked peaches, brandied peaches, fresh strawberries, or raspberries. If peaches are used cut them in quarters or slices, put in bowl with 1/2 cup of creme de cacao and refrigerate until cold. For the sauce use 2 cups of heavy cream for 3 or 4 cups of fruit. (If ordinary cream is used it should be kept in the icebox for 48 hours before using.) Have the cream, the bowl, and the egg beater cold. Beat the cream i minute. Add 1 teaspoon of Whippo, and sugar to taste. Then beat until as thick as possible. At the very last moment before serving, add 1/2 cup of brandy and fold in the fruit. There are many variations on this idea. At the Colony in New York, for example, Cointreau, or port wine and orange juice, is used to soak the fruit, and powdered macaroons added to the cream just before serving.