Once upon a time, when I had extra money in my pocket and the desire to spend it, a photo-stylist friend and I made reservations at Danube, David Bouley’s culinary salute to the delicacies of the Austro-Hungarian empire. (It closed in 2008.) The high-ceilinged restaurant, which had just opened, was darkly glamorous, its scarlet, gold, and black decorations recalling an Art Nouveau setting for The Merry Widow or what someone wittily called Zsa Zsa Décor. The service was subtle, the wines were terrific, and the comforting yet unusual fare, updated Mitteleuropean food in downtown Manhattan, was as delicious as it was adventuresome. All in all, it was a splendid evening, though the fussy plates—I remember them being large squares or long, lean rectangles—crowded the silverware and glasses, which made dining a bit awkward.
Memories of that long-ago evening led me to flick through the yellowing pages of Good Food from Vienna by Susan Strong (Frederick Muller Ltd, 1956), one of many vintage cookery books in our kitchen library. The ice and snow in my family’s neck of the woods will be hanging around for a few more months, along with chilling winter winds that whistle across our hilltop from the Great Lakes, so we are in regular need of meals that warm body and soul. And what could do that more effective at doing that than a hearty Austro-Hungarian dish?
I settled on Strong’s recipe for Rostbraten Stephanie, or roast beef Stephanie. Presumably this main course is named for the charmless Belgian princess who would have been Empress Consort of Austria if her husband, Crown Prince Rudolf, hadn’t died in the company of a teenage mistress. His violent demise inspired a couple of swooningly romantic movies, and it remains suspicious to this day. Was it a murder-suicide pact between star-crossed lovers? Or was it a double murder driven by politics? Her husband’s death left Stephanie a widow at 25; eventually she married again and shuffled off history’s stage. The beef-and-vegetable dish apparently bearing the blonde princess’s lilting name, however, is still on menus in the former imperial city. And for that my family is grateful.
Strong’s recipe calls for a “piece of rib of beef,” which, the butcher at my local Price Chopper informed me, is a cut that costs about $10 a pound. He didn’t have it anyway. So I substituted a 4-pound pot roast. The recipe directs one to use 1/4 cup of Madeira wine, but I poured a nearly empty bottle into the pot, which amounted to about 1 cup. To deepen the flavour of the bouillon I also added one teaspoon of fennel seeds; it sounded good at the time and vaguely Hungarian, though caraway seeds might have been even better.
Strong’s original recipe is printed below, with my alterations in brackets.
SOURCE: Good Food from Vienna by Susan Strong (Frederick Muller Ltd, 1956)
SERVES 6 TO 8 PERSONS
Piece of rib of roast [I substituted a 4-pound pot roast]
2 chopped mushrooms [I used two very large white mushrooms]
1 teaspoon finely chopped parsley
2 chopped carrots [I used 5 rather narrow ones that were about to go bad]
1/2 head chopped celery
2 chopped raw potatoes [I used 2 large ones, once again about to cross the Rubicon]
1 cup green peas [Ours were frozen]
[1 teaspoon fennel seeds]
1/4 cup Madeira wine [I used 1 cup]
2 tablespoons butter or dripping
3 cups water
Salt and pepper
In a large sauce pan, prepare a bouillon with the carrots, potatoes, celery, parsley, peas, [fennel seeds], some salt and pepper, and the water. Bring to a boil, lower the flame to medium, and cook for 20 minutes.
Dust the beef with flour, salt, and pepper and cook, with the chopped mushrooms and the butter, in a heavy pan over low heat. Turn the beef from time to time to lightly brown all sides.
Pour the bouillon, including the vegetables, over the browned beef. Add the Madeira wine and let simmer until the meat is tender [approximately 1 hour per pound].
To serve remove the pot roast, allow it to drain a bit, and set it on a platter. Surround it with cooked vegetables, which you will remove from the broth with a slotted spoon. [You will have a considerable amount of broth left, so save it to flavour a risotto the next day or as the basis for a soup.]