Crayfish Gloucester (1934)

A tasty luncheon dish of crayfish and lobster, courtesy of "Elsie de Wolfe's Recipes for Successful Dining".

The most wonderful thing about reading old cookery books is the social-history aspect. One learns so much about other times: how people lived, how they dined, how they entertained. And very often one comes across a name that is half-forgotten now, at least in some circles, especially so in books peppered with recipes submitted by the author’s friends. Elsie de Wolfe’s Recipes for Successful Dining, published in 1934, is rich with names, from titled European aristocrats to obscure American socialites, names that will send you straight to Google to learn more. Such as Henry Davis Sleeper.

The Golden Step Room at Beauport, in Gloucester Massachusetts, the summer home of Henry Davis Sleeper.

Not long ago my husband and I decided to delve once again into de Wolfe’s famous compendium, and we chose to try Crayfish Gloucester, a recipe given her by Sleeper, who lived in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The name of this influential bachelor aesthete is little know today outside of design-groupie circles but Sleeper (1878—1934) was an antiquarian extraordinaire and an adventuresome decorator to boot, a man whose passion for historic design and architecture informed Beauport, the eccentric and inspiring 56-room house he built on Boston’s North Shore in increasingly elaborate stages between 1907 and 1929. After serving as director of the Paris office of American Field Service during World War One, the energetic Sleeper returned to the United States and became an integral part of the burgeoning historic-preservation movement, advising on landmark sites as well as decorating for clients passionate about America’s past, including museum founder Henry Francis du Pont, millionaire F. Frazier Jelke, and chemicals magnate R. T. Vanderbilt. Sleeper’s incredible story has not been told at book length, however, and further complicating matters is the discreet veil that has been drawn over his personal life. Only last fall, for example, has his homosexuality become part of the public-tour narrative at Beauport. Luckily Philip A. Hayden, an architectural historian and independent scholar, has been labouring away on the first-ever Sleeper biography, a book whose publication I await with bated breath. Until then, click here to read more about Sleeper, his life, and his extraordinary residence.

An oil portrait of Henry Davis Sleeper.

In addition to creating inventive rooms out of recycled materials saved from historic houses slated for demolition, Sleeper was a terrific host, and Crayfish Gloucester was a dish he served frequently at Beauport, where the guest list included Elsie de Wolfe, artist Cecilia Beaux, inventor John Hays Hammond, King Gustav of Sweden, and the redoubtable art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner. It’s easy to see why that particular recipe was popular in Sleeper’s household—it’s creamy, spicy, and refreshingly cool. Unfortunately the recipe is frustratingly vague when it comes to proportions, so you’ll just have to do a bit of guesswork like we did to determine the per-person proportions. The effort will be worth it. FYI: You can also use frozen or otherwise prepared lobster meat to make the preparation easier.

CRAYFISH GLOUCESTER

SOURCE: Elsie de Wolfe’s Recipes for Successful Dining (1934)

DIRECTIONS

Cook crayfish in boiling salted water for 5 minutes. Cook small lobsters in a court bouillon for 12 to 15 minutes or a large one for 25 minutes. When cold cut the lobster meat into pieces and mix with the meat of the crayfish and a mayonnaise dressing to which have been added a teaspoonful of chili sauce and a dash of paprika. Serve in crystal cups garnishing with a circle of lettuce leaves. Decorate the top with the red portions of the crayfish. Serve very cold.

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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.


FILETS DE CABILLAUD AUX PAMPLEMOUSSE (COD FILLETS WITH GRAPEFRUIT)

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

SERVES 6 PERSONS

INGREDIENTS

6 large cod fillets

Flour

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

DIRECTIONS

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.

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.