Vincentennial

2011.May.30 Monday · 1 comment

in Casa SaltShaker, Food & Recipes

“Where’s the horror? Where’s the Vincent Price in this Vincent Price cookbook? Beyond a pressed duck worthy of the “The Pit and the Pendulum” – it involves, if you must know, pressing a duck – the Treasury gives off a luridly convivial glow.”

– Paul Collins, Slate

Joining our legion of centenarians this weekend was Vincent Price, master actor of the horror and mystery genre. What many, if not most, folk don’t know is that he and his wife Mary were also, well, foodies. Over the decades of their worldwide travels they collected recipes from the restaurants they visited, and often reproduced them back home for invited guests. They put together a series of books that brought both their own ideas for dinner parties and the dishes they discovered on the road, and even today those books are much sought after by cookbook collectors. Not surprisingly, the dishes reflect the era in which they sallied forth and there’s a certain preponderance of cheese, cream and butter based sauces, flour thickeners, lots of meat (and a particular and understandable fondness for bacon) – it is the cuisine of the 1950s and 1960s at its best.

There was also a family food connection – his grandfather invented the first “for home use” baking powder, which basically made the family’s fortune, and his father was the president of the National Candy Co., one of the country’s biggest producers of jelly beans and marshmallows, as well as a well known, at the time, candy bar, the Bobcat Bar.

Much as I like the whole retro thing, I wasn’t about to whip up a dinner of those sorts of dishes. I grew up on them and while there were flavors that I will always remember and many of which will creep into my cooking time and again, the thought of a five course dinner of that sort of food went over like a leaden dumpling. Besides, it’s always just about inspirations here at Casa S, not about reproduction. Now, I should say upfront that between the two planned nights (one of which I cancelled after an overnight deluge of cancellations and reschedulings of 6 out of 10 guests) there were four, yes, four requests for gluten free, one for a pescetarian meal, and one ex-vegetarian who doesn’t eat any seafood and only eats other meat if it’s cut up small enough to be unrecognizable. I decided on a gluten free fish-based meal with one vegetarian substitution as the best common denominator.

Caesar Salad

Food folk, amateur or professional, will argue for days about what a true Caesar salad is, or was. It’s really not that hard to find out – the original recipe is out there online these days, as well as plenty of evidence. It didn’t involve rubbing bowls with garlic cloves, nor mashed anchovies, nor raw eggs. Those were refinements that came later on. The original involved very little garlic, worcestershire sauce for that hint of anchovy, and coddled eggs (eggs placed in boiling water that just covers them for 1 minute then the heat turned off and left to cool in the water). It was a dressing. A caesar dressing. And it’s quick and easy to make – juice of a lemon, a couple tablespoons of good wine vinegar, a couple of coddled eggs and a teeny garlic clove into the blender, commence blending and drizzle in good olive oil until it thickens up to the desired consistency – salt and pepper to taste, done. As to the salad, classically it was no more than whole romaine leaves (meant to be picked up with the fingers and eaten as opposed to knife and fork) and croutons. For color I added in some julienned radishes and for flavor some salted, diced cucumber (inspired purely because one of Price’s first movies was called Cucumber Castle).

In place of croutons, remember that gluten free thing, I battered green tomato wedges in a cornmeal and parmesan crust and deep-fried them. You have no idea what it took to get green tomatoes here – when he found out I was going to serve them my vegetable stand guy refused to sell them to me because he didn’t want to be responsible for poisoning my guests, which according to him would be the result of serving green tomatoes. I ended up convincing someone in a supermarket to give me a few from their walk-in “for an experiment”. (Crust: 1 cup finely ground corn flour, ½ cup polenta/cornmeal, ¼ cup parmesan, 1 tablespoon each of oregano, thyme and parsley – coat the tomatoes in this, then dip in egg wash of beaten eggs and milk, then into this mixture again.)

Red Bean, Rocoto, Swiss Chard soup

Price was, it seemed, fond of spicy bean soups. While none of the recipes that I found online for soups presented in his books sounded like what I wanted, I stumbled across this one from “Kitchen Slag”. As a starting point, actually as a finished soup it sounded delicious – the biggest change to it I did was that I made a pressure cooked onion stock as the base in order to deepen that flavor, and, of course, added about 2-3 times the garlic and rocotos that the recipe calls for, it just wasn’t as intense as I liked. And, as noted in the recipe, I substituted carrots for turnips, the latter being really difficult to find here – plus I like that sweetness from the carrot. (Broth: 2 chopped onions, 8 stalks celery, 2 tablespoons green peppercorns, 2 bay leaves, 1 tablespoon each of coriander and cumin seeds, 4 liters of water – pressure cooked for 20 minutes.)

Smoked Herring Risotto

Our man Vincent was, apparently, quite fond of risotto, though his bent was more of a side dish and something quite simple like a grated cheese and butter version. I was ready to start putting some protein into the mix and striking out in another direction, and my personal favorite smoked herring risotto was an easy choice. For the broth, I used more of the onion stock made above. For our vegetarian guest the one eve I separated a portion of the risotto before adding in the herring at the end and added batons of smoked tofu.

Salmon, Prawn, Miso Sabayon

Mock Salmon, Cauliflower, Miso Sabayon

Salmon was a favored fish, hollandaise a favored sauce. My initial thought was to do some sort of grilled or baked salmon with a hollandaise, but the latter just sounded too heavy. Instead, a crispy skinned salmon (couldn’t decide whether to present it skin side up or down, in the end, down) – medium heat in a saute pan with a little olive oil and just cooked without moving it around until the skin crisped up and the outside of the fish cooked to the top. Served over a saute of brussels sprouts in oil and just a touch of butter for flavor. Atop, sauteed prawns tossed in shichimi powder and a sabayon made from egg yolks, white miso and mirin. The miso gives the sabayon a very thick texture and at the same time a very intense flavor. I’ve made a sabayon for fish before with soy and mirin that comes out much lighter and foamy, but I’ve found to be a touch saltier than I might want, depending on the fish. I think a future version combining some of each is in order.

For our non-fish eater, a “mock salmon” loaf – I suppose called that only because it has a vaguely orange-pink color – I sauteed a small red onion, half a red bell pepper, a stalk of celery and a small carrot in a little butter, then pureed that mix with a cup of blanched almonds that had been soaked in water until soft, 2 eggs, 1 cup toasted breadcrumbs, a couple of tablespoons each of dried, finely chopped nori and hijiki seaweeds, a few sprigs of parsley, juice of a lemon, 1 garlic clove, salt and pepper to taste, and a cup of tomato juice to let it all blend thoroughly. All poured into a small loaf pan and baked for about 45 minutes. It tastes nothing like salmon, but turns out delicious – particularly, as I found next day, sliced, griddled, and topped with sriracha sauce. For this dinner, however, served up with broiled cauliflower standing in for the prawns, and the same brussels sprouts and sabayon as the salmon dish.

Reworked Boccone Dolce

Sorting through the various ideas for a dessert became problematic – virtually everything that I could find from the Prices’ cookbooks involved flour in some form or another. But, the Boccone Dolce, an Italian meringue torte, sounded like fun – traditionally made with layers of dried meringue, chocolate, berries, and a ton of whipped cream inside and out, then sort of slightly pressed and left to refrigerate overnight. I “deconstructed” it I suppose – making meringue cookies that were flavored with a little strawberry liqueur, then placing them on a plate that was covered with a design of chocolate glaze, topped them with more glaze, then sliced strawberries that had macerated in sugar and more liqueur, blueberries, a good dollop of whipped cream and dark chocolate shavings. It may not have been a torte but it was pretty, and pretty darned good.

So, a Happy Vincentennial to Vincent Price (I didn’t make up the word, it’s the name of the celebration put together for the same date in his hometown of St. Louis, MO).

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