Dinners And Diners - Eating Without Fear
( Originally Published 1923 )
I am sure that more than half the battle in the pleasures of eating, is refined and dainty service. I do not mean frills and furbelows. There is nothing I hate more than one of those tables, photographs of which are so popular in monthly journals devoted to women. To have a dinner table littered with ribbons and gewgaws which are apt to catch in one's coatsleeve, must be most annoying and irritating. Besides which, a dinner table should never be crowded. There should be room for everything, and unless the table be sufficiently large, a center bowl of flowers —not tall enough to block out the view of one's vis-à-vis-is all that is necessary. But the table should be neatly laid, the silver and glass brightly polished, and above all the steel knives should be sharp. Blunt knives will quickly ruin the most sweet-tempered disposition.
I have also noted in small families where only one servant is kept, that service is remarkably slow. The hostess, wishing to "put on side," has the vegetables, for instance, handed round one by one, so that by the time the last is served the meat is cold. If proper waiting cannot be arranged, the vegetables should be placed on the table and the guests helped as rapidly as possible, so that every one can get his hot meal hot. Cold, or half cold food that is intended to be hot, is very unpleasant.
Another thing that goes a long way toward a successful dinner is punctuality. No cook can guarantee a first-class dinner if it has to be "kept hot." There is no excuse for a guest being late, unless he happens to be killed on the way to the house. I have never asked a guest a second time to my house, who has once been guilty of this unpardonable breach of etiquette. On the other hand, it is always possible to arrange a dinner that will "keep hot," if for some reason the hostess has reason to suppose that an unavoidable delay may be occasioned.
I think a great many employers are very unreasonable regarding their help, in the matter of regularity of meals. The hours should be unalterable as the laws of the Medes and Persians, and if, for some reason, it is absolutely necessary to depart from the hours, good notice should be given to the cook so that she can make her arrangements accordingly.
That reminds me of how soufflée potatoes were invented. The President of the French Republic was to journey from Paris to Boulogne, stopping for lunch at 1 o'clock at Amiens. The chefs were working their hardest to prepare a sumptuous lunch, and one of the vegetables was to be what we call chip potatoes. As a matter of fact, they were on the fire, sizzling in the deep fat, when a telegram came saying that the President's train was delayed and he would not reach Amiens till 2 o'clock. With a "Sacré!" the chef suspended operations, and amongst other things removed the pan of potatoes from the fire, half cooked, and put them to one side, but leaving them in the hot fat. At last, word came that the President was due in fifteen minutes. On went the pan again, and soon the fat was boiling. In due course the potatoes were cooked, when to the amazement of the chef, each piece of potato, instead of being a chip, was a little balloon. Great was the success of the dish. and had the chef lived in the palmier days of yore, he would doubtless have received the Cordon Bleu.
In planning a dinner it is well to arrange the courses so that boileds and roasts (or bakes) should alternate, not only for the convenience of cooking, but for gastronomical reasons. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it is one well to bear in mind. For instance, if the meat is a roast, it is just as well to have a boiled pudding, whereas if the meat is boiled or stewed, or shall we say cooked over the fire, a baked pie or pudding goes best.
I think very often in small families, the cook is a little too ambitious with regard to quantities and variety. A few dishes, perfectly cooked, are much better than a large number imperfectly cooked. Consuming large quantities of food is only a habit. What is often called a "healthy appetite" is nothing of the sort. The only people who should eat really large quantities of food, are those whose regular daily life involves a vast amount of physical exercise—like the road mender. And yet you'll find that the Italians, who, in this part of the country, do that class of work, generally lunch on bread, cheese and garlic, with perhaps a tot of light red wine-now-a-days made in the family stock pot. The man who goes out on Saturday to play golf "to keep himself in condition," should eat very sparingly after his game, notwithstanding he may feel hungry. Any good he may have got out of his game will be counteracted by his prodigious feats at the dinner table.
As a matter of fact, we all live too well here. Money and food are plentiful, and there is no necessity to economize. The reason the French are such good cooks is because they have to economize. It has never been a rich nation since the Revolution, and just as it was recovering from that, came the Franco-Prussian war which again threw it back. But the housewives of France economized, and largely due to their efforts, the indemnity which the Germans imposed, was paid off in two years—a feat for which the Germans never forgave them. Stewed oxtail and oxtail soup were invented by the French prisoners, in the war of the Peninsula. All the poor devils got to eat, were the tails of the cattle killed for the British soldiers. But the Frenchmen stewed them down and lived better than their captors. I believe a French cook would make a tasty ragout out of sole leather. There is one thing a French cook fails in, and that is the simple boiled potato. What is nicer than a large floury boiled potato, white and fluffy, steaming hot? A potato that is damp and soapy is not worth eating. A cook who can boil either, or both, potatoes and rice can learn to cook anything. Now here is how the potato should be treated:
Peel it thinly and at once drop it into cold water. If you do not, it will turn black. When all the potatoes are peeled, transfer them to a saucepan and' cover with cold water. Add a tablespoonful of salt, and after they have come to a boil, continue boiling for about fifteen minutes. Then test them with a steel fork. As soon as the fork goes through—when the "bone" in the center has disappeared, the potatoes are done. Strain the water off, but leave the potatoes in the saucepan, removing the lid and allowing them to stand at the side of the stove for five minutes, to steam. Then give them a little shake, and you will have so many balls of flour.
New potatoes should be scrubbed but not skinned. They should be put into boiling water and tested in the same way as above. When done they should be skinned and served with oiled butter and parsley. And of course they must not be shaken.
A very delicious way of cooking potatoes when you have a roast joint is to cook them with the meat. Peel them and cut them in half, and when you have prepared your joint, wipe the halves of potato dry, place them all around the meat, salt and pepper them, and on each piece place a little piece of dripping. When you baste the meat, baste the potatoes also, and serve with the meat.
Potato Snow: Having boiled; the potatoes—and by the way, when boiling potatoes never forget the spoonful of salt—shake them well in the saucepan till they are broken. Let them steam, and then press them through a wire sieve with a wooden spoon.
Mashed Potatoes are not what servants are apt to call smashed potatoes. The boiled potatoes are mashed with a wooden spoon in the saucepan in which they are cooked. They are already salted, so you add a little white pepper and a gill of milk and a piece of butter the size of a walnut. These are all stirred together till the potatoes are perfectly smooth. They can then be arranged in a mountain form in a vegetable dish, pressed all over with the back of a fork so as to make ridges and then browned, either in the oven or with a salamander or a red hot poker.
French-Fried Potatoes: Use a stew-pan at least four inches deep, to fit which you have a fry-basket. Fill the stew-pan with fat or oil and get it absolutely boiling so that the surface is quite still and blue smoke curls up from it. Cut your potatoes, for preference, the long way of the potato, so that each one is wedge shaped, and having washed them, dry them in a cloth and tip them into the fry-basket. Then plunge the fry-basket into the boiling fat so that the potatoes are completely covered. They take about ten minutes and should be a bright golden brown when cooked. Remove the basket from the fat and place on paper to drain until they are quite dry, and before serving sprinkle with salt.
Chip Potatoes are cooked in exactly the same way as French fried potatoes, but instead of being cut longways the potato is sliced thin the round way, so that each piece is like a thin poker chip. They should be quite crisp and brittle. Serve with a sprinkle of salt and paprica or cayenne pepper.
Sauté Potatoes: Cold boiled potatoes that are not too floury can be cut in pieces and cooked up in the frying pan, but these, too, are much better if boiled in fat in the fry basket. Fried in a little fat in the frying pan they are apt to be greasy. They should be served with chopped parsley.
Creamed Potatoes are to me so very unpleasant that I have never taken the trouble to find out how they are concocted.
"Potatoes baked in their jackets" are seldom cooked well at home, generally because they are hurried. In days gone by, in London, the baked-potato man was quite an institution. Often in the sma' wee hours of the morning, I have seen three or four "bloods" in dress clothes, walking home from a merry party at the club or elsewhere, standing round the baked-potato stall, eating the "balls of flour." The truck would be piled high with large, smooth skinned potatoes, and out of the small, brightly polished copper oven at the end of the truck would come the delicacies. The potato man would take one out, squeeze it gently, break it in two, and sift some salt over it. And then you would wolf it, burning your fingers and possibly your nose. But oh, how good it was. You could even eat the skin.
Now here is the way to cook potatoes in their jackets, par excellence: Get some fine large potatoes with clean thin skins. You cannot bake "seconds." Scrub them well and let them dry. Then place them in a slow oven and bake for at least an hour. If they are very large they will take longer, but the oven should never be hot enough to brown the skins. When they are cooked, cut or break them in two and put on a lump of butter, a little salt and pepper, and eat while hot. Any left over are quite delicious the next day, if all the potato is scooped out and mashed with butter, pepper, salt, and parsley. The skins are then filled with this mixture and they are put under the gas grill or into the oven to heat them through.
I know of but one man who could resist the potato in its jacket, and that was Charles Couder, the fan painter, who couldn't look a baked potato in the face. He told me that when he lived in the Latin quarter, his meager allowance from home came monthly and it was not nearly enough; to keep him. Therefore, so as to make it last as long as possible and go as far as possible, as soon as it arrived, he bought a sack of potatoes—a month's supply. These he used to bake on his studio stove, and for weeks at a time he had nothing to eat but baked potatoes. He found that while they were very `filling," they were not sustaining, and to satisfy the pangs of hunger, it was necessary for him to eat a great many at short intervals. Consequently he kept at least half a dozen on his stove at a time, and as he took a cooked one off, replaced it with a raw one. One day his model asked him: "Monsieur Conder, why do you always have potatoes baking on your stove?" "Because," replied Conder, "I am so fond of them," adding with truth, "I seldom eat anything else." She seemed satisfied with the reply, and on the following Saturday, at the close of her sitting, she said: "Monsieur Conder, I want to ask you a great favor." Conder thought a request for an advance payment was coming, and was greatly relieved when she continued: "Will you confer on my mother and me the honor of your dining with us to-morrow?" Conder accepted the invitation graciously after a little pressing,, but the intervening hours were torture. Never was he so hungry, and in anticipation of the good dinner to come, for he knew that even the poor in Paris cook divinely, he swept all his half-baked potatoes into the ash pan. The appointed time came, and as he sat in the model's sitting room his nostrils were regaled with the most savory odours from the kitchen, as they percolated through the étage. At last they were seated at the dinner table. Madame la Mere was served first with a plate of delicious looking casserole chicken, then Monsieur le Pere, and then Mam'selle, who acted as waitress, came in with a plate on which was the largest of large baked potatoes. "For Monsieur Couder, because he is so fond of them."