Poulet Sauté Chasseur (1932)

The front door of Villa Sebastian in Hammamet, Tunisia, where chef François Rysavy once ruled the range.

Last month I immersed myself in one of my intense, periodic obsessions about style and design. This time around my focus was Villa Sebastian, a vast, early 1930s house of some modernist importance, located beside a snow-white beach in Hammamet, Tunisia. You can read more about its history on my other blog, An Aesthete’s Lament (click here).

The owners of that extraordinary house, Romanian-born George Sebastian and his American wife, the former Flora Stifel, not only commissioned a much admired winter retreat, they maintained a high standard as North Africa’s leading hosts during their relatively brief marriage. Part of this success was due to the couple’s canny hiring of François Rysavy, a chef they met in Paris on their honeymoon and made the star of their Tunisian kitchen. There, for several years, he produced all manner of delectable dishes for the Sebastians and their glamorous guests, from Greta Garbo to W. Somerset Maugham to the future Duchess of Windsor. As Wallis Simpson, the last-named visitor spent a holiday with the Sebastians in 1932, joined by her second husband, Ernest. One of the dishes made for the Simpsons by Rysavy—who went on to serve as White House chef during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations—was a French favorite, Poulet Sauté Chasseur, or chicken with mushrooms. It happened to be one of the Sebastians’ preferred plats.

My interest piqued by the chef’s association with the Sebastians, I swiftly hied myself to Amazon.com and acquired a copy of Rysavy’s culinary memoir, A Treasury of White House Cooking (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1972). My husband and I have been greatly entertained by its recipes, as well as Rysavy’s tittle-tattle about his presidential employers, though it came as little surprise to learn that Mamie Eisenhower had a delicate stomach, leading her to ban garlic and goulash. (The First Lady did, however, love mint and caramel.) Pat Nixon, on the other hand, was a fiend for chicken in any form, especially enchiladas, while Jacqueline Kennedy, Rysavy explains, “would have been almost incapacitated in her social life if she could not serve veal in its many succulent forms or lamb.” President Nixon loved tacos, even ordering them for his 30th wedding anniversary celebration, though he did have an amatory reason: tacos reminded him of his honeymoon, which had been spent south of the border.

But I digress. A few weeks ago my husband took on Rysavy’s Poulet Sauté Chasseur and made it the centerpiece of a triumphant family dinner. Moistened with an unctuous sauce composed of brandy, wine, mushrooms, and chicken stock—which gave a far richer flavor than the recipe’s called-for consommé—this chicken creation turned out to be one of the finest dishes ever to come out of our kitchen. No wonder the Sebastians craved it, and, yes, found it fit for a future royal duchess. As Rysavy points out, Jacqueline Kennedy loved it too, serving it at Mount Vernon during a state dinner for the president of Pakistan in 1961.

François Rysavy's Poulet Sauté Chasseur, with a side of asparagus.

POULET SAUTE CHASSEUR
SOURCE: A Treasury of White House Cooking by François Rysavy, as told to Frances Spatz Leighton (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1972)
SERVES: Four (4) persons

INGREDIENTS
Salt and pepper to taste
1 3-pound fryer, cut into 8 pieces
¼ pound [unsalted] butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ pound raw mushrooms, sliced [NOTE: We used presliced baby portabellas.]
3 shallots, finely chopped
1 cup chicken consommé [NOTE: We used boxed chicken stock.]
1 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons brandy
¼ cup tomato paste
½ teaspoon chopped tarragon
Parsley (chopped, for garnish)

DIRECTIONS

1. Salt and pepper the pieces of fowl, and sauté them in a large skillet with the butter and olive oil until brown.

2. Take the pieces of chicken out of the skillet and set aside on a platter or dish. Sauté the mushrooms and shallots in the skillet, using the now-chicken-intensified butter/olive oil mixture. When they begin to turn a golden color, pour in the consommé, white wine, and brandy. Let simmer, uncovered, until the liquid is reduced by about one-third. Then add the tomato paste and tarragon, and immediately return the chicken to the pan.

3. Simmer the chicken, covered, until tender—about 30 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

4. Place the chicken on plate or platter, cover with the sauce, sprinkle with chopped parsley, and serve.

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Wine Jelly (1942)

An American expatriate hostess extraordinaire, the Duchess of Windsor, in the late 1930s.

 

Whatever else they may have thought of her life’s eye-popping trajectory, the family, friends, and guests of Wallis Warfield (1896—1986), the Baltimore belle best known as the Duchess of Windsor, hailed her skills as a hostess. As a friend of the duchess’s wrote in a letter in 1931, when the royal spouse was still Mrs Ernest Simpson, “Wallis’s parties have so much pep no one ever wants to leave. Cocktails with sausages, not on skewers, caviar with vodka, soup with sherry, fish with white wine, hock, champagne, from then on to the brandy. Needless to say, I do not attempt this lavish mixture. But her food is as elaborate as her wine list.”

More than 100 of the duchess’s dishes, from appetizers to desserts, were published in Some Favorite Southern Recipes of the Duchess of Windsor (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1942), a slender but stylish cookery book whose royalties were earmarked for the British war-relief effort. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt penned the painfully earnest foreword, while the duchess, then cooling her high-society heels in the Bahamas, wrote the introduction, observing, “I have been very happy to help carry some of the well-known dishes of my native land to other countries, and especially to have served on my table Southern dishes which appeal to the Duke … [It] is the simple dishes of my homeland which are most popular with me, and which are the ones most frequently served at my table.” Whether Wallis Windsor actually wrote those words is arguable, since the book was copyrighted by food journalist Marie M. Meloney, a friend of Mrs Roosevelt’s. It was Mrs Meloney who doubtless encouraged the duchess to provide only easy, accessible recipes, which most of them, perhaps surprisingly, are.

My husband had first crack at the book when it arrived in the post, and last weekend, for a large dinner party, he made the duchess’s recipe for Wine Jelly. Think of a cool, quivering dessert the color of French-vanilla ice cream and infused with the delicate taste of white wine. Odd, perhaps, but strangely elegant, especially when prepared in a ceramic mold that gave it a decorative appearance, rather like carved Carrara marble. My husband has begun to amass a collection of such molds, so expect some extraordinary desserts to result as time goes by.

The verdict? A slightly bland but refreshing dessert that might have been improved with a bright drizzle of raspberry sauce. We’ll be serving it again—the looks are impressive, which is half the battle, don’t you think?—though I will be experimenting with other types of wines. Wine Jelly might look beautiful prepared with jewel-tone layers of rosé and white wine or even Champagne. And instead of white granulated sugar, which the recipes calls for, perhaps light brown sugar would add a deeper flavor note.

 

 

WINE JELLY (1942)
SOURCE: Some Favorite Southern Recipes of the Duchess of Windsor (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1942)
SERVES: Six (6) portions, according to the cookery book, we managed to get nine (9) good slices out of the recipe.

INGREDIENTS

1-1/2 tablespoons [powdered] gelatin
2/3 cup white wine
3 eggs slightly beaten
1/2 cup [granulated white] sugar
3 cups milk, scalded

DIRECTIONS

1. In a bowl, soften the gelatin in the wine and set aside.

2. In another bowl, combine the eggs and sugar. Add milk slowly, stirring constantly.

3. Transfer to a medium sauce pan over hot water, or to a double boiler, until the mixture coats a spoon.

 

 

4. Remove sauce pan from the heat. Add gelatin to the milk-and-egg mixture. Stir until dissolved.

 

 

5. Carefully pour the mixture into a mold. Chill until firm.

6. When ready to serve, dip the mold, for just a moment, into a bowl of warm water to loosen. Place a serving plate, upside down, on top of the mold, and turn the mold over, waiting for the jelly to loosen.

7. Serve immediately, slicing the mold as one would a loaf of bread, with one slice per person.