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.


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



2 filets of sole [I used tilapia]




4 oysters [I used canned]

4 large shrimps [I used frozen]

Heavy cream


Dry sherry [I used the cheap kind]


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.


A Princess’s Salmon

Salmon Tatanoff, a specialty of Princess Andrew of Russia.

Princess Andrew of Russia sounds like quite a gal, at least as far as the thumbnail portrait of her goes in Marjorie Salter and Adrianne Allen Whitney’s Delightful Food (Sidgwick, 1957). Married to a nephew of Nicholas II and daughter of an Italian duke and his Russian wife, the former Elisabetta “Elsa” Ruffo (1887-1940) reportedly was a mystic, which certainly raises my eyebrows. What kind of mystic? Did she do card readings? Was she a nun in a secret sect? Did she walk amid clouds of incense? Whatever “mystic” means precisely, Princess Andrew was a fine hostess known for her good food, and included in Salter and Allen’s cookery book were two of her household specialties, Salmon Tatanoff and Caviare Sauce. (The princess herself had died 17 years earlier, in a Luftwaffe attack in England during World War II.)

The salmon is absolutely simple to prepare, it being wrapped in well-buttered parchment paper—en papillote, for the technically minded among you—and baked for about an hour. The sauce was easy too but a bit alarming when completed. Caviar of an unspecified hue was called for, so I cheaply opted for red lumpfish, thinking it sounded suitably Russian in color. Alas, the sauce it made was a brilliant shade of coral, though the gray alternative that would result from non-red fish eggs seemed about as appetizing. That being said, I would serve Salmon Tatanoff again—though I’ll give the darker sauce a try. Perhaps it looks very chic. Frankly the red one looked a bit aprés homicide. Our daughter, however, adored it, saying upon its presentation, “It’s pink, so you know I’ll love it.” And so she did.


SOURCE: Marjorie Salter and Adrianne Allen Whitney’s Delightful Food (Sidgwick, 1957)



2-pound piece of salmon, preferably middle cut



Parchment paper

Butter, at room temperature, or olive oil

Remove the fish’s skin, salt and pepper the salmon all over, and wrap in parchment paper, well oiled or buttered. [NOTE: I didn’t remove the salmon skin; it was just too difficult, and I am far too impatient.] Put this carefully folded like a neat parcel in a buttered fireproof dish, and bake in a very moderate oven [about 320 degrees Fahrenheit] for about an hour to 1-1/2 hours. Serve with caviar sauce (recipe below).



1 egg yolk

Cold water

Juice of 1/2 small lemon

1 ounce butter, cut into small pieces

Butter, at room temperature, to add as needed

1/3 cup whipping cream, whipped until relatively stiff

2 tablespoons of caviar or lumpfish roe

In the top of a double boiler put the egg yolk, a few drops of cold water, lemon juice, 1 ounce of butter, salt, and pepper. Cook over boiling water, stirring continuously. First the butter melts, then the yolk thickens, and you add more and more butter until you have the sauce the right consistency which should be rather stiff. If it curdles due to too much heat, add a few more drops of cold water and whip vigorously. Then add a small quantity of whipped cream and caviar. Stir well and serve.

Codfish Ahoy!

Cod fillets with grapefruit, plated on a late-19th-century Limoges china dish and with spinach on the side.

Cod is not at the top of my list of preferred fishes, though I happily devour it when it is turned into that British delicacy fish and chips. Yet Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec’s La Cuisine de France (Orion Press, 1961) has a curious recipe for it that marries this humble denizen of the sea with grapefuit juice and a silken cream sauce. I’m not entirely sure of the origins of this unlikely combination of ingredients but I can attest that the flavour is superb. The grapefruit cuts through the richness of the fish and the sauce and lends a flavourful piquancy. Plus the pink grapefruit wedges used to garnish the platter look so jolly, especially alongside the chopped-parsley garnish. It’s like a dish intended for readers of The Preppy Handbook.


SOURCE: La Cuisine de France by Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec (Orion, 1961)



6 large cod fillets


7 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup heavy cream

4 tablespoons oil

1 grapefruit

2 hard-boiled eggs

1-1/2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Salt and pepper


Cod fillets browning in butter.

Wipe the cod fillets well and dredge them lightly with flour. Heat half the butter and oil in a skillet and sauté the fillets over a moderately low heat for 12 to 15 minutes or until they are nicely browned on both sides.

Cod fillets browning and cream-and-egg sauce warming.

At the same time, heat the rest of the butter in a saucepan. Add the cream, the juice of 1/2 grapefruit, and the eggs crushed fine with a fork. Season with salt and pepper and keep warm, but do not allow the sauce to boil.

The fried cod fillets arranged on a white-ceramic platter and awaiting the sauce and parsley.

Put the fish on a heated platter and pour over the sauce. Sprinkle with chopped parsley. Garnish with half slices of grapefruit and serve.


Our eight-year-old daughter turns up her nose at only a handful of foods, notably spinach, ham, clams, and Brussels sprouts, which I adore and she dismisses as “round green things.” But last night my husband and I discovered the only food that actually brings our child to tears—eels.

Eels, ready to be cleaned and skinned.

I’m not especially fond of eels either. The flavour of this sinuous sea creature is too dark for me, rich and oily, with a hint of malevolence. It’s also the sort of food I associate with medieval banquets. Perhaps I’m imagining these drawbacks. Maybe my disdain is merely a primal abhorrence, related to my fear of snakes, which is only natural for Southerner. I am told Italians, however, love eels, especially at Christmas, which is why you can find them easily in the winter in any city with a significant Italian population. A Boston-bred college friend of my husband’s recalls his grandmother keeping a bin filled with live eels in her basement during the holidays. Frankly I don’t like the look of eels. But I will taste them, even just a bite, especially when I arrive home to find my husband pondering an eel recipe out of Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec’s La Cuisine de France (Orion Books, 1961).

He planned to serve bouilleture d’anguilles à l’angevin, or boiled eels in the Angevin style, which means, to the best of my knowledge, cooked with white white from the Loire Valley. The word Angevin relates to the Angevin empire, a Plantagenet swath that covered most of coastal France and England in the 12th and 13th centuries. (See, I told you eels had a medieval aspect.) The dish includes mushrooms too, presumably the button variety (Mme. de Toulouse-Lautrec doesn’t specify) but my husband brought back from the market the kind of attractive, broad-topped, earthy mushrooms I associate with woodlands and fairy tales.

The boiled eels made their way to the table with a side dish of green beans cooked in butter and sprinkled with sliced almonds. Our daughter, tears welling in her eyes, took one bite of the main course and asked to be excused from the table. I took two bites and then focused on eating the buttery mushrooms and green beans. My husband, however, cleared his plate, had seconds, and pronounced the eels good. There’s just no accounting for taste.


SOURCE: La Cuisine de France by Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec (Orion, 1961)

3 eels (14-18 ounces each)

7 ounces (14 tablespoons) butter

1/2 pound mushrooms

2 cups dry white wine (preferably Anjou)

4/5 tablespoon heavy cream

Salt and pepper

The eels and mushrooms cooking in their broth.

Skin and clean the eels and cut them into 1-1/2-inch pieces. Throw away the heads. Put the butter in a large pan and add the eels and the raw mushrooms, trimmed and washed, left whole or cut in pieces, depending on size. Cover the pan and heat slowly for 5 to 6 minutes. Add enough wine to cover the eel pieces and put the pan on high heat until the liquid boils. Reduce the heat and simmer 10 minutes.

Remove the eel pieces to a heated serving dish with a slotted spoon. Cover to keep warm. Boil down the liquid rapidly to half its original quantity. Add the cream and beat the sauce with a fork for a few moments without letting the mixture boil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour the sauce over the eels and serve immediately.

The completed dish, with its creamy sauce, ready for the table.