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.

Stuffed Eggplant (1932)

A vintage photograph of the single-door version of the late, lamented 1932 double-door General Electric Monitor Top refrigerator that stood in the kitchen of my country house. Image from Worthpoint.com.

For several years, about a decade ago, my husband and I owned a 1930s General Electric Monitor-Top refrigerator. You know the kind: an imposing white slab of enameled metal, straight out of a Hollywood movie, with a basket-like contraption on top that hummed like a hive of bees and cabriole legs. As far as kitchen appliances go, it was my pride and joy, an eBay purchase so heavy that the kitchen floor had to be stabilized before the  refrigerator could be brought into the house—through the combined efforts of four able-bodied men, as I recall. It also took up an amazing amount of square footage, as I recall. Still, the side-by-side doors opened and closed with a satisfying ka-chunk, followed by a metallic click, so you knew everything inside was going to stay perfectly cool. Unfortunately this hunk of American ingenuity died one excessively hot and humid summer and could not be revived, at least not on our budget, so we replaced it with an extremely boring but efficient modern model. I still mourn the GE’s absence, though presciently, for the purposes of this blog, I had the presence of mind to keep its original handy-hints cookery brochure.

"The Silent Hostess Treasure Book," a curious cookery brochure that once accompanied a 1932 General Electric refrigerator.

Entitled The Silent Hostess Treasure Book, the paper-back publication is a promotional giveaway intended to make the General Electric Monitor Top seem even more radiantly modern and efficient to beleaguered American housewives. As the introduction states, it is “arranged to assist you in making the greatest use of your General Electric Refrigerator.” Consequently the recipes in its pages—from the cannon ball cocktail to beets cut into heart shapes for a Valentine’s Day luncheon salad—are devised to spend some time in the refrigerator, either waiting to be cooked or congealing in its chilly depths, which seems rather nonsensical today, at least as a galvanizing selling point. Still, the assortment of hors d’oeuvre, main dishes, desserts, and the like must have caught my fancy, at least enough to retain the brochure as the old refrigerator went out the door to its landfill demise.

Over the week-end, as our daughter was preparing her pencils, notebooks, and other paraphernalia in anticipation of her first day back in elementary school, she asked to choose the cookery book for at least one blog post. And the book she selected was The Silent Hostess Treasure Book. She flipped through its pages, studying the garish, even lurid photographs with great intensity, considering which looked the most appetizing. Finally she pointed at one picture and said, “Make this one.”

Stuffed Eggplant, as pictured in "The Silent Hostess Treasure Book" (1932).

“This one” was Stuffed Eggplant. Frankly, I’ve never been fond of stuffed vegetables, having been plied with far too many stuffed bell peppers as a child, but the illustration was fancy enough to catch my eye: a baked eggplant shell mounded high with sautéed chopped eggplant flesh and mushrooms and picturesquely crisscrossed with pimiento trelliswork. We had numerous eggplants growing in the vegetable garden’s raised beds, my husband reminded me, and there’s nothing I like better than decorative garnishes. So off we went to the grocer to pick up a few missing ingredients, and upon our return, I set to work. Some flavor adjustments were made (and are noted below), given the bland promise of the recipe’s contents, and what was wrought was unexpectedly good. Not great but warm, filling, and delicious, far more flavorful than I expected it to be. And as you can see in the photograph below, I got all details right. Just don’t eat the eggplant vessel, only the filling.

Stuffed Eggplant, as prepared by The Aesthete Cooks; the platter is 1830s Old Paris Porcelain.

STUFFED EGGPLANT

SOURCE: The Silent Hostess Treasure Book (General Electric Corporation, 1932)

SERVES: Two (2), as a main course, with other side dishes; using two small eggplants for this recipe would certainly look better.

INGREDIENTS

1 medium size eggplant

1 cup raw mushrooms (I used Baby Portobellas)

½ cup chopped onion (I used red Bermuda)

¼ teaspoon pepper (I used hand-ground black pepper, rather generously)

¼ teaspoon salt (I used a healthy pinch of French grey sea salt by McCormick)

1 cup minced ham (I used Virginia ham, Boar’s Head)

4 tablespoons butter (unsalted)

Pimientos (sliced thinly and lengthwise for garnish)

Dried thyme (not in original recipe)

Dried basil (not in original recipe)

Buttered breadcrumbs (about 1/4 cup, warmed in a skillet with a bit of unsalted butter until it is fully absorbed; I used panko crumbs)

DIRECTIONS

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Cut slice from top of eggplant or cut in halves lengthwise; scoop out meat to within half an inch of outer skin.

2. Chop mushrooms and eggplant coarsely and sauté in butter, with onions, for ten minutes.

3. Add ham and seasonings and continue to sauté for another minute.

4. Fill eggplant shell with the ham-mushroom-eggplant mixture (it will be heaping) and sprinkle top with buttered bread crumbs.

5. Bake until thoroughly heated and the breadcrumbs have turned golden brown.

6. Arrange thin strips of pimento crosswise on top and serve.

Drunken Scallops

I grew up in a seafood-loving household. You name it, if it came out of the water, we loved it—trout, shrimp, catfish, tuna, skatefish, and more. Scallops, however, are arguably my mother’s favourite water-sourced ingredient, so she served it as often as the family finances allowed. The best scallops I ever consumed, however, were fresh from the sea in the Moroccan coastal town of Essaouira, at a small plastic-tented dockside booth. We chose each scallop by hand from a basket, watched them be shelled, and then prepared to eat, some “cooked” in citrus juice, others smokily grilled; my pleasure in that moment remains strong. So when my husband announced he was going to make a special scallop recipe out of Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec’s 1961 cookery book, La Cuisine de France (Orion), I practically rushed to set the table.

Called coquilles saint-jacques au vermouth (scallops with vermouth), it was a mouthwatering delight. Once again our daughter found something to dislike about the dish—loved the mushrooms, loathed the scallops—which surprised me. She is a child who can devour a platter of sushi and sashimi without blinking even one of her twinkling brown eyes and grins like a Cheshire cat when she spots pâté de fois gras. Oh, well, we’ll be testing her tastebuds again and again as this blog progresses, hopefully educating her palate even more. But trust me: Mme. de Toulouse-Lautrec’s vermouth-soused scallops are swell, especially with some sea-salted spinach on the side.

Coquilles saint-jacques au vermouth, hot and ready for its sauce.

Coquilles saint-jacques au vermouth, sauced and ready to serve.

COQUILLES SAINT-JACQUES AU VERMOUTH

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

SERVES 5 PEOPLE

INGREDIENTS

1-1/2 pints scallops

1 cup vermouth

3/4 pound mushrooms

7 tablespoons butter

3/4 cup white wine

1 onion, chopped fine

1 tablespoon flour

3 eggs yolks

3/4 cup heavy cream

Salt and pepper

DIRECTIONS

STEP ONE

Cook the scallops with the vermouth in a small saucepan for 10 minutes.

STEP TWO

Wash, trim, and slice the mushrooms and sauté them in half the butter for 5 minutes.

STEP THREE

In another saucepan cook the wine and onion together for 15 minutes.

STEP FOUR

Heat the rest of the butter in a larger saucepan and stir in the flour. Add the wine with the onions and stir until smooth. Strain the broth from the scallops into the pan and continue stirring. Season with salt and pepper.

STEP FIVE

Beat the egg yolks and cream until blended and add that to the sauce. Reheat but do not let the sauce boil.

STEP SIX

Put the scallops in the center of a heated serving dish. Surround with the mushrooms and pour the sauce over everything. Serve very hot.

Eel-de-France

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.

BOILED EELS À L’ANGEVIN

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.