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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

BOOK/A TABLE - Vichyssoise


Somewhere during that wicked half-world I’m choosing to call high school, I discovered Tallulah Bankhead. 

I happened to catch All About Eve on The Great Entertainment, a classic film series hosted by the genial Frank Avruch back in the 80’s, when ferns covered the earth. Mr. Avruch informed us in his opening commentary that Hollywood lore suggests Bette Davis may have patterned her role as the glamorous Margo Channing in All About Eve after the magnificent, legendary Tallulah Bankhead. Who? 

Mr. Avruch sang the praises of this beautiful, throaty-voiced actress who starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. Loved Hitch, but had never seen that. And as much as I followed legendary actresses around, I had never heard of Tallulah Bankhead—and keep in mind any research I did from thereon out preceded googling by about thirty years.

Of course, I was intrigued by Tallulah. I loved Bette Davis “playing her” in All About Eve so why wouldn’t I love the original model? I then scoured the TV Guide every week to find when Lifeboat was going to appear on television so I could record it on my parents’—you ready—VCR. I didn’t have to wait for too long, as I recall, and finally got to see Miss Bankhead in action. She swiftly became my heroine, a woman after my own heart. See her for yourself: stranded in a lifeboat, clad in a devastating fur (and soon stripped of it), fighting off the Germans, and at least one crudely tattooed love interest. With a screenplay by John Steinbeck, plus Hitchcock, plus Tallulah to infinity, the math is easy. 

Fate stepped in further when I found a hard-bound first edition copy of Tallulah, My Autobiography, handsomely displayed on a sales rack in an antique store and still in its pristine dust jacket from 1952. I bought it and devoured it in one sitting, having never read such a testament to life (and living!) before.

There’s a chapter in Tallulah about her house (“Windows”) in Pound Ridge, NY. Tending to a simple garden like the one she had has always been a dreamy secret of mine. She wrote: “My vegetable garden? Nothing to brag about. Just enough ground to raise chives for the vichyssoise, mint for the juleps.” 

Now, since I posted here about mint juleps recently, I figured I’d finish the thought with a recipe for a cool vichyssoise to ease you into summer.

P.S. I still have my copy of Tallulah and I cling to it like a bible: I’m still fascinated.

Vichyssoise
From Saveur magazine
Serves 8

Ingredients  
4 Tbsp. (2 oz.) unsalted butter
4 leeks, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
5 medium potatoes (about 2¼ lbs.), peeled and thinly sliced
Kosher salt
2 cups whole milk
2 cups light cream 
1 cup heavy cream
2 Tbsp. finely chopped chives

Method
STEP 1
In a large pot over medium-low heat, melt the butter. Add the leeks and onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft but not browned, about 20 minutes. Add the potatoes, 4 cups water, and salt to taste, and turn up the heat to high to bring it to a boil. Turn down the heat to medium-low, and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are soft, 50–60 minutes.
STEP 2
Set a fine sieve over a medium bowl and strain the soup, pressing and scraping the solids with a spoon. Wipe the pot clean and return the strained soup to it. Whisk in the milk and light cream, bring the soup to a boil over high heat, then remove from heat and let cool.
STEP 3
Set the sieve over a medium bowl and strain the soup again, pressing and scraping with the spoon. Discard any solids that remain in the sieve. Stir the heavy cream into soup, then cover and refrigerate until chilled, for at least 2 and up to 24 hours. Season soup with salt to taste just before serving.
STEP 4
To serve, divide the vichyssoise among soup bowls and garnish with chives.


Below: I had the opportunity to visit the Bankhead manse in Pound Ridge for an article I wrote. The garden’s over my left shoulder.






Tuesday, May 14, 2024

BOOK/A TABLE - Seed Cake

                                                 

I know what you’re probably thinking: what on earth is seed cake? I had wondered that myself, having only ever read about it in Agatha Christie novels, usually as a gateway to afternoon tea, shared by a few British ladies of a certain age. 

For example, Karen Pierce, author of the delightful Recipes for Murder (66 Dishes that Celebrate the Mysteries of Agatha Christie), which I have written about here, features a wonderful bundt version of Old Fashioned Seed Cake, pulled from the pages of At Bertram's Hotel.

But then I came across another mention of seed cake while reading about Lucy Snowe, the heroine in Charlotte Brontë’s Gothic romance Villette, who, speaking of her former place of employ, recalls her fondness for the British staple: “I knew the very seed-cake of peculiar form, baked in a peculiar mould, which always had a place on the tea-table at Bretton.”

So, what is seed cake? Well, it’s much like a pound cake made with caraway seeds. Yes, like the caraway seeds in rye bread. So, how does that work in terms of a cake? Quite deliciously, I found! The bitterness of the caraway is softened in the baking, making it a tasty flavored treat.

Sure, seed cake is great with tea, but why not kick the kettle around? Serve it at lunch, eat it for breakfast! Bring it to a pot-luck! Your guests may find it unexpected—and you might find it all gone, rather quickly.

Here’s a traditional recipe from The English Kitchen:

Seed Cake
Makes one 2 pound loaf

INGREDIENTS
175g butter, softened (3/4 cup)
175g caster sugar (very scant cup (less about 2 TBS)
3 large free range eggs, beaten
3 tsp caraway seeds
225g of plain flour, sifted (1 1/2 cups plus 1 TBS)
1 tsp baking powder
pinch salt
1 TBS ground almonds
1 TBS milk

METHOD
Preheat the oven to 180*C/350*F/ gas mark 4. Butter and line a 2 pound loaf tin with baking paper. Set aside.
Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Sift together the flour and baking powder. Stir this in along with the salt, almonds, seeds and milk. Mix well to combine evenly. Scrape into the prepared baking tin.
Bake for 45 to 55 minutes, or until well risen, golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean.
Allow to cool completely in the tin. Store in an airtight container. Cut into slices to serve.


Lucy Snowe is seen below probably scoping out seed cake, as depicted by Edmund Dulac from his illustrations in Villette.


                                                            




Tuesday, May 7, 2024

BOOK/A TABLE - Fresh Strawberry Pie


If only the wicked Alec DUrberville hadnt tempted Tess with the strawberries that led her down the path to ruin! But alas, he did. 

“He stood up and held it by the stem to her mouth...in a slight distress she parted her lips and took it in...”

Tess of the D’Urbervilles by the marvelous Thomas Hardy is my favorite book. I’ve read it several times and always hope that things will turn out differently for her in the end. Tess’s cries to Angel Clare (the man who nearly saved her from Alec, had cruel fate not stepped in) still fiddle with my nerve endings to this day: “Too late! Too late!”

The story is never too far from my mind, and I was reminded of it again when I pulled up this New York Times recipe for Strawberry Pie. Its not too late for you, gentle readerto partake of the luscious splendor. Soon, in June (just a month away) youll have your pick of the best, freshest strawberries of the year. Can I tempt you...?

Fresh Strawberry Pie
Adapted from a recipe by Samantha Seneviratne 

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

INGREDIENTS
FOR THE CRUST
10 ⅔ ounces shortbread cookies (two 5⅓-ounce packages)
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ cup unsalted butter, melted

FOR THE FILLING
2½ pounds strawberries (about 8 to 10 cups), hulled
⅓ cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons strawberry preserves
¼ cup cornstarch
Pinch of kosher salt
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

FOR THE TOPPING
1 cup cold heavy cream
1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract (optional)

METHOD

Step 1
Prepare crust: Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a food processor, combine shortbread cookies, sugar, flour and salt and blend until you have fine crumbs. Transfer crumbs to a medium mixing bowl. Add butter and mix with a fork until crumbs are evenly moistened. Tip crumbs into a standard 9-inch pie plate and press them in an even layer on the bottom and up the sides of the plate. Bake until golden brown and set, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool completely.

Step 2
Prepare filling: Cut each of the strawberries in quarters or eighths, if they are large. Transfer 2 cups berries to a small saucepan and crush completely with a potato masher. Set aside the remaining berries in a large bowl. Add the sugar, preserves, cornstarch, 1 tablespoon water and salt to the saucepan.

Step 3
Bring strawberry mixture to a boil over medium heat and then cook it an additional 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add strawberry mixture and lemon juice to the strawberries in the bowl and stir to combine. Transfer to the prepared crust and gently tap it down into an even layer. Transfer to the fridge to set for at least 4 hours.

Step 4
Just before serving, whip cream, confectioners’ sugar and vanilla, if using, to soft peaks. Top pie with whipped cream.

 



Tuesday, April 30, 2024

BOOK/A TABLE - Mint Juleps for Derby Day



How I love May! When jackets go unbuttoned, lilacs are in bloom and the Kentucky Derby is at hand. And what Derby party would be complete without a Mint Julep in hand? Oooh yes, the Mint Julep—that wicked mistress of the South. She’ll coddle you through an afternoon and then beat you into submission by nightfall.

In New Hampshire, my neighbor Trudy’s annual Kentucky Derby parties were legendary and her juleps were the best I’ve ever tasted. Word is, she was given the somewhat unorthodox recipe from a Kentucky gentleman back in her salad days as a waitress. Somehow, my juleps are never as good as when Trudy made them (the rum, although surprising, is key), but it’s sure fun trying. Apart from any legerdemain, this is what she used to do:

Make simple syrup by boiling one part sugar to two parts water; let cool. Fill a tall Collins glass with crushed ice. Alternate Maker’s Mark (or your favorite Kentucky bourbon) and simple syrup in 1 oz portions, totaling 2 oz bourbon and 3 oz simple syrup. Top with a 1/2 oz floater of Myer's dark rum. Add a mint sprig and insert a straw to sip up the boozy goodness.

Now, you don’t have to wait for Derby Day to enjoy a julep. Just take a cue from F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby. I think this is fabulous: “The notion originated with Daisy’s suggestion that we hire five bathrooms and take cold baths, and then assumed more tangible form as ‘a place to have a mint julep’.”

The Kentucky Derby is always the first Saturday in May—and it falls on the 4th this year. Do enjoy and please ride responsibly!

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

BOOK/A TABLE - Shepherd's Pie



From page to plate...

My love of Barbara Pym is no secret. Mention of the British authoress has appeared here before, when I extolled her literary virtues and included a recipe for Venetian Pancakes from her cookbook.

I’ve made many other wonderful dishes as well from said cookbook, but I think the Shepherd’s Pie is my favorite. I’d always thought of Shepherd’s Pie as a heavy, wintry meal, but this wonderfully fragrant crowd-pleaser is so scrumptious, I would easily slip it into my picnic basket and take to any barbecue. Although the recipe calls for minced lamb, try ground beef instead!

Surely you will have better luck with your Shepherd’s Pie than Edwin does (or his wife!) in Pym’s touching novel, Quartet in Autumn: “Edwin had come home one evening some years ago to find his wife Phyllis unconscious in the kitchen, about to put a shepherd’s pie in the oven.”

Shepherd’s Pie
Adapted from the recipe by Ms. Pym
(My comments in italics)

Ingredients:
2 onions, chopped
Oil or drippings
1 LB minced lamb (or beef!)
1 carrot, finely chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Mixed herbs to taste (1 tsp Herbs de Provence is good)
Pinch of cinnamon
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup lamb stock
1 TB tomato puree (or paste)
Mashed potato (4 servings, if using instant)

Method:
Fry onions in drippings until soft. Add minced lamb and carrot and cook about 10 minutes. Add seasonings, herbs, and cinnamon, then stir in flour and cook 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in stock and tomato puree and simmer gently for about 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 400°F. Transfer mixture to a shallow ovenproof dish, spread the mashed potato on top, roughing with a fork, and bake 25 minutes, or until heated through and lightly browned.


Tuesday, April 16, 2024

BOOK/A TABLE - The Classic Negroni


I happened to be reading Patricia Highsmith's nail-biter The Talented Mr. Ripley when I saw Netflix had adapted it into an eight-part series entitled Ripley. Starring the extraordinary Andrew Scott, this new version is a glorious, moody vision of Italy shot in stark black and white. 

There's a lot of mystery surrounding our psychopathic, murderous protagonist Tom Ripley, but the real mystery to me is why, as the characters traipse across Italy drinking gin martinis, there is nary a mention of the classic Italian Negroni! Lord knows I drank little else when I was running around Italy myself.

Originally served to Count Camillo Negroni in 1919, the bitter cocktail composed of pure liquor is a ripping refresher that some prefer in the cooler months, but I remember escaping the heat of June with a number of Negronis while lingering in the various osterie of Florence, Venice, Rome... 

Classic Negroni
Adapted from Saveur magazine
Ingredients
1 oz. Campari
1 oz. gin
1 oz. sweet vermouth
Orange slice, for garnish

Method
In a tumbler filled with ice, stir together the Campari, gin, and vermouth. Garnish with the orange slice.


The White Negroni has making an appearance in restaurant bars around town recently too, should you wish to try at home! 

White Negroni
Adapted from liquor.com

Ingredients
1 1/2 ounces gin
1 ounce Lillet blanc
1/2 ounce Suze gentian liqueur
Garnish: lemon twist

Method
Add the gin, Lillet blanc and Suze into a mixing glass with ice and stir for 15 to 20 seconds until well-chilled. Strain into a rocks glass over fresh ice.


Ritual Non-Alcoholic Spirits (a leader in the N/A market) has also come up with what I feel is a highly commendable version of the Negroni, as well as other fantastic booze-free concoctions found here

Ritual Non-Alcoholic Negroni
Ingredients
1 1/2 oz. Ritual Gin Alternative
1 1/2 oz. Ritual Aperitif Alternative
Garnish: orange

Method
Fill a mixing glass with ice. Add 1.5oz of Ritual Gin and Aperitif Alternative. Stir the ingredients in the mixing glass for 20-30 seconds until well combined. Strain the mixture into a rocks glass filled with ice. Garnish with an orange peel.


"Tom showered and then Dickie showered, and came out and poured himself a drink, just like the first time, but the atmosphere now was totally changed."
The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith
 


Tuesday, April 9, 2024

BOOK/A TABLE - Ravigote Sauce



The original plan was that I would make a summery dinner for my cousin at her house in New Hampshire. She fired up the backyard grill for vegetable and mozzarella “Napoleon” stacks, we tossed a pasta salad together and I don’t remember what else...but then some friends called, a few more showed up at the door, and then they invited their friends. Soon we had a houseful of guests and I just kept cooking. More Napoleons were served, I improvised a few pasta dishes, found greens for salad, whisked together a dressing, and quick-thawed some chicken breasts, which also went on the grill, slathered in barbecue sauce.

In my writer’s imagination, as we made a game of muscial chairs around the dining table, I thought of the epic scene from Nana by Emile Zola, where the reckless, scheming courtesan threw a sprawling, gorgeous dinner party with makeshift tables filling all the rooms of her apartment in order to cram in everybody who rang the doorbell, both invited guests and crashers alike.

The menu at at this fictional bacchanal included an asparagus puree and consommé for starters, truffled rabbit and parmesan gnocchi mid-course, and mains such as chicken à la maréchale, foie gras, and filet of sole with—ravigote sauce!

Ultimately, the party that Zola so delicious detailed didn’t go entirely well (the guests were suffocating because of the heat rising from the all the candelabra and each other; the wine uninspiring, you know), but it still lasted until dawn. I’ve never forgotten it.

Someday I might like to have a huge party and recreate the entire menu from Nana, but in the meantime I’ve taken great satisfaction in just making the ravigote sauce and serving it over steak.

Recipes for ravigote vary, but usually revolve around Dijon mustard, shallots, tarragon, and red or white wine vinegar and I’ll wager Daniel Boulud’s version is the best. Try the sauce hot or cold, with sole or steak, as I mentioned—or how about on top of a burger!

Ravigote Sauce
Adapted from Daniel Boulud

Ingredients:

1⁄4 cup aged red wine vinegar
1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
1⁄2 cup cooking stock from Tête de Veau or beef stock
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of cayenne
1 cup sunflower oil
1 cup minced chives
3⁄4 cup finely chopped parsley
1⁄2 cup minced chervil
1⁄2 cup minced tarragon
1⁄4 cup capers, rinsed and minced
2 small shallots, minced
1 hard boiled egg, finely chopped
1 garlic clove

Method:

In a small saucepan, reduce the cooking liquid or stock by half over high heat, about 5 minutes. Cool, then transfer to a blender along with the vinegar, mustard, salt, pepper, and cayenne. With the motor running, slowly drizzle in the oil until emulsified. Transfer to a bowl along with the chives, parsley, chervil, tarragon, capers, shallots, and egg. Using a microplane, grate the garlic into the bowl, then stir everything to combine.


“Nana could not have produced a dozen napkins out of all her cupboards...and scorning to go to a restaurant, she had decided to make a restaurant come to her. This struck her as being more chic.”
Nana, Emile Zola

Thanks to Saveur magazine for the photo!