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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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.

A Barbecue-Chicken Alternative

Poulet au Vinaigre, placed on an old Limoges platter.

Chicken is a staple at our house. It is rustic, easy to cook, and our daughter loves it. So we typically have chicken at least twice a week—fried, roasted or sautéed. But this basic fowl can be boring, frankly. Often I crave barbecued chicken but it’s impossibly messy, staining napkins and rendering fingers sticky.

There is a chicken recipe in Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec’s La Cuisine de France (Orion 1961) that has a barbecue appearance and flavour but without the mess I associate with it. Poulet au vinaigre, or vinegar chicken, is cooked in a heavy covered pot instead of on a grill. The sumptuous sauce incorporates several ingredients that one finds in traditional barbecue sauce, such as tomato purée. But instead of being slightly sweet, as so much barbecued chicken often is, the dish is infused with a subtle but sprightly tang of vinegar. (A reader recently commented that the balance between acid and sweet reminds him of Indonesian cookery.)

Our daughter agreed and proceeded to speedily devour both drumsticks, saying it was “the best barbecued chicken I have ever had.” As for my husband, he is sold on the splash of vinegar, which, he observed, brought “an intense dimension I didn’t expect.” He is also increasingly sold on preparing chicken in a pot on top of the stove, which cooks the meat quickly and in this instance richly caramelized the skin.

POULET AU VINAIGRE

SERVES 4 PEOPLE

INGREDIENTS

2-1/2 or 3-pound chicken

6 tablespoons butter

5 teaspoons white wine

4 tablespoons white wine vinegar

2 cloves garlic

3 teaspoons French mustard

4 teaspoons tomato purée

4 teaspoons heavy cream

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Salt and pepper

DIRECTIONS

Choose a chicken that is not too fat. Have it cut in pieces and cook it in a covered heavy pan with the butter and unpeeled garlic, salt, and pepper for 25 to 30 minutes, until the chicken is cooked.

Meanwhile mix in a bowl the mustard, tomato purée, and white wine.

When the chicken is cooked, add the vinegar. Cover the dish and cook until the chicken is almost dry. Remove the chicken and keep hot on a serving platter. Pour the mustard mixture into the pan and cook down a little without a cover. Add the cream and the Worcestershire sauce. Stir well and pour over the chicken. Serve immediately.

One Terrific Tart

Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec's onion-and-anchovy tart, piping hot from the oven.

When I think tart or quiche, creamy egg- or cream-based fillings held within a framework of flaky pastry come to mind. So when my husband announced a couple of nights ago he was going to make an onion tart from the pages of La Cuisine de France by Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec (Orion, 1961), I had some inkling of what we would be dining on last night.

Boy was I wrong.

Tarte aux oignons brestoise, or onion tart in the style of Brest—an unromantic industrial port and naval base in Brittany, in northwestern France—is like no tart I’ve ever had. (Note: A reader of this blog has pointed out that there is no such thing as a tarte in the style of Brest, however, and this recipe is a pie-size variation on the classic pissaladière of Nice, a sort of flat anchovy-and-onion pizza.) The pastry shell was in evidence,  of course, and it was perfectly flaky, even though, as my husband reported, he didn’t let it chill in the refrigerator before rolling it out. “I just let it sit covered on the counter for 30 minutes,” he said. “But it worked out fine.” (He is prone to blithely ignoring recipe directions that I believe to be carved in stone.) The filling lacked any traditional binding agent such as eggs or cream. Instead it held nothing more complicated than a thick layer of chopped onions that had been cooked in a bit of olive oil until they were meltingly soft. That’s it. The surprising fillip was the topping: a couple of dozen anchovy fillets carefully and decoratively arranged into a latticework.

Onion tart in the Brestoise style is earthy and rudely direct, without an ounce of artifice or gentility. It is unsentimental, unsophisticated, and far from pretty. It is the sort of thing you would eat with a tart frisée salad and a heavy tumbler of undistinguished but tasty white table wine. Could it have been concocted by a cook with few ingredients at hand but who was under pressure to serve something warmly filling in record time? Perhaps the dockworkers of Brest and their families have better things to do than fuss around a kitchen for very long. I’m just speculating, of course. But I am certain of two things—tarte aux oignons brestoise is a bracing, soulful dish that tastily combines two harvests, one of the sea and one of the garden. Eating it makes one feel like a sea captain come home to roost. And it tastes even better warmed up for breakfast, after the salty anchovies and buttery onions have married overnight.

Our young daughter’s reaction? “I don’t like onions or anchovies,” she said politely. “But the pastry was delicious.” At least Catherine gave it a shot. As she observed upon learning of the ingredients, with a sigh of resignation, “You get what you get and you don’t complain.”

TARTE AUX OIGNONS BRESTOISE

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

INGREDIENTS

Tart pastry

2 pounds onions

4 tablespoons olive oil

3/12 ounces anchovy fillets

Salt and pepper

DIRECTIONS

Make the pastry of your choice, and when it is rested, roll it out to a thickness of 1/8 inch. Line a tart or pie pan but do not bake.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

Peel the onions and chop them very fine. Cook them gently in a covered skillet in 3 tablespoons of hot oil until tender. Do not let the onions brown.

Pour the onions into the unbaked tart shell.

Rinse the anchovy fillets to remove excess salt and with them make a lattice pattern over the surface of the onion-filled tart shell. Bake 15 to 20 minutes.

The First Breakfast of the New Year

Quiche is an extremely comforting dish. Especially on a cold winter morning following a night spent making merry with Champagne or a reasonable facsimile (Segura Viudas cava in this case). So while fat feathery snowflakes gently wafted down from a grey-white sky on this first day of the new year my husband, a bit bleary eyed, cracked open our prized copy of Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec’s La Cuisine de France: The Modern French Cookbook, which was published in 1961 in the wake of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Based on the countess’s recipes for the French fashion magazine ELLE, where she served as food editor and became a national icon, the 763-page volume wrapped in a patriotic red, white, and blue cover doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression in the United States. Even though, as the jacket flap proclaims, it was “probably the finest and most practical modern French cookbook written for Americans.” Mrs. Child presumably had that particular audience all sewn up, though certainly Mme. de Toulouse-Lautrec and other French-food experts were eager to find a foothold in the kitchens of the New World, some more successfully than others.

Cup of coffee in hand, I watched a DVD of “Little Women” with my daughter and mother-in-law as my husband set to work producing Toulouse-Lautrec’s recipe for quiche Lorraine. It is splendidly easy to make, and the pastry has won my spouse’s enthusiastic praise. “It’s foolproof,” he explained to me while he was cooking. “With other pastry recipes, I get different results every time I make them. This one, on the other hand, is consistent. And it cooks thoroughly instead of becoming soggy from the filling.”

The Toulouse-Lautrec version of quiche Lorraine is the traditional version of this classic dish, which, as Julia Child explained, “‘contains heavy cream, eggs, and bacon, no cheese.'” I’ve conferred with a few French friends, and they tell me precisely the same thing: non fromage, s’il-vous-plait. Cheese became part of the recipe most people know much later in its history; ditto nutmeg.

Mme. de Toulouse-Lautrec’s classic cheese-free quiche Lorraine comes out of the oven a savoury delight—fluffy, delectably rich, and wonderfully creamy, with just a hint of earthy saltiness. One slice made a lovely breakfast, washed down with a glass of perfectly chilled cava. Frankly this morning we adults needed the hair of the dog.

QUICHE LORRAINE

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

SERVINGS: 6

INGREDIENTS

7 tablespoons softened butter

1-3/4 cups pastry flour

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 pound lean pork belly, trimmed of excess fat

2 cups water

4 large eggs

1-1/2 cups heavy cream

Salt and pepper

Tart pan

DIRECTIONS

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Make a tart pastry by mixing the butter and 1/2 teaspoon of salt into the flour, adding enough water to make a stiff dough that does not stick to your fingers. If it is too soft, add more flour. Wrap in a damp cloth and let the dough rest for several hours. (It can be made a day in advance and allowed to rest for 24 hours.) Roll it out into a circle and line the tart pan, gently pressing it into place with your fingers; trim off the excess. Prick the pastry well with a fork (see above).

Cut the trimmed pork belly into small dice, as shown. (If necessary, substitute lean salt pork or bacon.) Put in a saucepan with two cups of water and parboil for 5 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Beat the eggs until well blended. Stir in the cream and season with salt and pepper.

Sprinkle the diced pork belly into the empty tart shell (see above).

Pour the egg mixture into the tart (see above) and bake 20 to 30 minutes. Serve immediately.

The completed quiche Lorraine, ready to be devoured.