Sole Food

Sole de la Maison, a recipe from "The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book" (Anchor, 1960).

In 1919, after a jaunt to Normandy to visit friends, Alice B. Toklas and her lover, American writer Gertrude Stein, stopped at the village of Duclair on their way back to their apartment in Paris. There they took room at an unnamed hotel overlooking a stretch of the Seine and proceeded to feast on the town’s high-calorie fare. “At Duclair everything was cooked in cream: chicken, cabbages, indeed all vegetables and most meats,” Toklas observed. “We stayed there several days before this bored us.”

Though the hotel escaped mention in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (Anchor, 1960), its food-conscious author was admiring of the hotel’s widely admired menu, especially Sole de la Maison, or sole, house style. The dish Toklas remembered is a curious but memorable one celebrating the glories of the sea—a milk-white filet of sole decorated with oysters and shrimp and enrobed in a cream sauce spiked with sherry. I made it, and it looked as elegant as it tasted—even if I was forced to use tilapia, because the grocer was all out of sole. Once I can figure out whom to invite and impress, we’ll be serving it again.

SOLE DE LA MAISON

SOURCE: The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (Anchor, 1960)

SERVES 2

INGREDIENTS

2 filets of sole [I used tilapia]

Milk

Salt

Pepper

4 oysters [I used canned]

4 large shrimps [I used frozen]

Heavy cream

Flour

Dry sherry [I used the cheap kind]

DIRECTIONS

Place the filets in a large skillet with enough milk to cover them; add salt and pepper. Cover and simmer gently over a low flame for 15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the filets. Drain thoroughly. Place on a preheated carving dish and keep hot. Poach in the leftover milk, only long enough to heat, the oysters and the shrimps. Place them alternately on the filets, so that each filet has two oysters and two shrimps. Cover with several spoonsful of heavy cream sauce made with heavy cream, [a sprinkling or two of flour], and flavoured with 2 tablespoons dry sherry.

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A Great Soup from the Great War

Alice B. Toklas (rear) and her lover, Gertrude Stein, in Venice, Italy, in 1908.

Back during the First World War Alice B. Toklas—a lightly mustachioed California lady best known for being writer Gertrude Stein’s lover and helpmeet for decades—delivered medical supplies to various parts of France. She and Stein, under the aegis of the American Fund for French Wounded, drove hither and yon, navigating the devastation of war while introducing themselves to parts of the country they had not visited before. This enthusiastic journey surely surprised the couple’s friends, especially one gentleman who remembered Toklas (1877-1967) at the time as being “a little stooped, somewhat retiring, and self-effacing. She doesn’t sit in a chair, she hides in it; she doesn’t look at you, but up at you; she is always standing just half a step outside the circle. She gives the appearance, in short, not of a drudge, but of a poor relation, some one invited to the wedding but not to the wedding feast.”

Toklas’s dowdy appearance belied her personality, however. That same gentleman friend noted with pleasure “her wit, her tonic acidity, and her amazing vitality.” And feasts, whether simple or lavish, were actually high on Toklas’s list of interests, while her skill in the kitchen was admired by many, notably James Beard. “Alice was one of the really great cooks of all time,” the American culinary expert told The New York Times on the occasion of Toklas’s death in Paris at age 89. “She went all over Paris to find the right ingredients for her meals. She had endless specialities, but her chicken dishes were especially magnificent. The secret of her talent was great pains and a remarkable palate.”

As an elderly lady, after Stein’s death left her in relative penury, Toklas put together her recollections of life and food in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (Harper & Bros., 1954), the first of her two cookery books. If you don’t have this slender volume, do get one. It is a delightful read and full of delicious suggestions, as well as oddities such as a famous fudge made with hashish, which, she blithely observed, “anyone could whip up on a rainy day.” One recent recipe I tried out was a soup Toklas remembered eating in a small inn near Strasbourg on one of her wartime ambulance missions. Soup of Shallots and Cheese is spectacularly good: easy to prepare, bursting with flavour, and refreshingly economical. I’ll definitely be happy to make this one every week, especially since my husband called it “one of the best soups I’ve ever had.” Even our daughter agreed. The tureen, as you might imagine, was completely emptied by the end of our meal.

Soup with Shallots and Cheese, an Alsatian recipe praised in the pages of "The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book" (Harper & Bros., 1954). And for very good reason. The tureen is 19th-century Haviland porcelain.

SOUP OF SHALLOTS AND CHEESE

SOURCE: The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (Harper & Bros., 1954)

BLOGGER’S NOTE: The recipe is written for one serving. Merely double, triple, quadruple, et cetera, the amounts specified to increase the portions. Also I used homemade chicken stock, which we already had in the freezer, rather than the bouillon cited in the recipe. Toklas’s recipe doesn’t specify the bread to be used either; we used wheat. And since I was afraid to keep the antique tureen warm in the oven, also as directed, I just put the bread on a cookie sheet in the oven until it was required. Better safe than sorry.

For each person lightly brown in butter on each side 1 slice of bread. Put in soup tureen, sprinkle with 1 tablespoon grated cheese and keep hot. Cook over low flame 4 sliced shallots in 1 tablespoon butter and add 1 teaspoon flour. Stir with wooden spoon, add 1-1/2 cups bouillon plus salt and pepper to taste and cook covered over lowest flame for 1/2 hour. Strain broth and add to it 2 tablespoons cream. Pour carefully over bread and cheese in tureen and serve hot.

Chicken à la Lord Berners

British composer Lord Berners in the drawing room of Faringdon, painting a portrait of his favourite horse, which had been brought into the room for the occasion.

Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners, led an exceptionally interesting life. A composer whose works included several ballets as well as the music for the 1947 movie “Nicholas Nickleby”, this bald British bachelor (1883-1950) also painted more than 100 landscapes, wrote six novels, two memoirs, and was a leading light of Britain’s aesthetic world between the wars. As his friend Osbert Sitwell observed, “Berners did more to civilise the wealthy than anyone in England. Through London’s darkest drawing rooms … he moved … a sort of missionary of the arts.” As for the musical compositions he wrote for so many years, a modern critic took a  jaundiced view not long ago, calling Berners’ oeuvre “exquisite musical chintz”.

The famous fantail pigeons of Faringdon House, which Lord Merlin began dyeing brilliant colours in the 1920s; they continue to be brightened thusly to this day with vegetable dyes. Nancy Mitford called the fluttering birds "a cloud of confetti in the sky."

His Lordship also was a poker-faced practical joker, fond of pranks and silly signs. “Mangling Done Here” was written on the sign which hung on his front door. He also famously coloured the fantail pigeons at his country seat, Faringdon House, brilliant shades of pink, blue, and lavender, using vegetable dyes. It is no wonder that with such eccentric behaviour as a guide that Nancy Mitford fictionalized Berners as Lord Merlin in her comic novel The Pursuit of Love.

When it came to food, however, Lord Berners was a masterful host, and his meals, whether at Faringdon or his London residence, were considered superb, even overwhelmingly luxurious. There was no Monty Python-style trickery when it came to Berners’s table, though at least remembrance recalls mayonnaise dyed blue. One of Lord Berners’ best known dishes, Roast Chicken in Cream, was reprinted in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (Harper & Bros, 1954), that immensely entertaining memoir cum recipe compilation. After adapting the somewhat vaguely written original recipe into more accurate terms, I made it two nights ago and was mightily impressed by its rich flavour and handsome presentation. My husband called it “moist, with a lovely onion-flavoured sauce.”

NOTE: Owned by writer Sofka Zinovieff, the Athens-based granddaughter of Lord Berners’ lover, Robert Heber-Percy, Faringdon House is available to rent on a monthly basis. Contact the Faringdon Estate Office, Faringdon, Oxfordshire, England (01367 240240) for details. To read more about Berners’s life, pick up a copy of “Lord Berners: The Last Eccentric” by Mark Amory (Chatto & Windus, 1998).

ROAST CHICKEN IN CREAM

SOURCE: The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (Harper & Bros., 1954)

INGREDIENTS

2 large yellow onions

3 tablespoons unsalted butter or olive oil

1 whole chicken, about 3 pounds

Heavy cream

Juice of 1 small lemon

1/2 cup sherry or Madeira

Parsley

Salt

Pepper

DIRECTIONS

Rub the chicken with salt and pepper, inside and out, and set aside.

Cut the onions in half and then slice into half rounds. Brown the sliced onions with butter or olive oil in a Dutch oven or large heavy pot. When done place the chicken in the pot, breast side up. Cover the pot tightly, and cook over a low heat until done.

When the chicken is cooked, remove it from the pot and place it on a platter or cookie sheet in low oven (250 degrees Fahrenheit) until needed.

Add heavy cream, salt, pepper, lemon juice, and sherry or Madeira to the pot of onions and chicken juices. Let the sauce reduce over a medium heat until it begins to thicken, stirring frequently.

Remove the chicken from the oven. Carve it into pieces and arrange on a serving platter. Pour the thickened sauce through a fine strainer over the chicken, covering the meat thoroughly (you may need to gently press the onions with the back of a spoon to force the sauce through). Garnish with finely chopped parsley and serve immediately.