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Our own Escoffier

TIMES FOOD EDITOR

To chefs, Escoffier’s “Le Guide Culinaire,” published in 1903, is a combination of bible and lawbook. It sets out both philosophical guidelines and dogmatic details of classical cooking.

It is the ultimate authority. What is the correct method for making sauce Espagnole? What are the only permitted garnishes for poularde albufera? (Mushrooms, cock’s combs, kidneys and sliced truffle, if you care to know.) “According to Escoffier” carries the same authority in certain circles as citing the Founding Fathers has in others.

Yet there is another book from the same period that includes many of the same dishes, with even more information on equipment and technique, in many ways more elegant. And it was published almost 10 years earlier.

On top of all that--are you ready for this?--it was written by an American.

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Charles Ranhofer’s “The Epicurean,” published in 1894, is virtually unknown today. Original copies are about as rare as modern cookbooks get. Even reprints are scarce: The most recent version (Dover Publications, 1971) is out of print and copies can sell for $100 or more.

That this is so is a travesty. “The Epicurean” is one of the most important books in modern cooking--a treasure trove of culinary information and a fascinating look at elite restaurant cooking from the Civil War to the turn of the last century.

It is also revolutionary for those who think New American Cuisine began in the 1970s. “The Epicurean” establishes that fine dining of a fairly exalted nature was going on in this country at least 100 years earlier.

Just who was Charles Ranhofer and how did he come to write his book? He was the chef at the renowned Delmonico’s restaurant in New York from 1862 until 1896, when that establishment was the acme of American dining. He died in 1898. Beyond that, details are sketchy.

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Although Ranhofer is largely forgotten, some of his creations are not--two of his most prominent inventions are lobster newberg and baked Alaska.

Most of what we can find out about him comes from Lately Thomas’ long out of print “Delmonico’s: A Century of Splendor” (Houghton Mifflin, 1967).

He reports that Ranhofer was born in 1836, the son and grandson of chefs, in St.-Denis, France. He was sent to Paris at age 12 to learn his trade and at 16 went into private service for an Alsatian prince.

He moved to New York in 1856 and immediately began trying to convert the American dining public. “It is a wonder that you have not ruined the nation’s digestion with your careless cooking and hasty eating!” Ranhofer is reported to have said in one contemporary article. “I must teach you something.”

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His first job was with the Russian consul. Then he went to work in Washington, D.C., and New Orleans. After returning briefly to France in 1860, he came back to New York as chef at the new hot spot, Maison Doree.

When Delmonico’s moved from its original Broadway location to one farther uptown on 14th Street, owner Lorenzo Delmonico hired Ranhofer away.

“He was perfect in dress and manner, and his attitude was such as to make me feel that he was doing me a great favor by coming into my employment,” Thomas quotes Delmonico as saying. “ ‘You are the proprietor,’ he said. ‘Furnish the room and the provisions, tell me the number of guests and what they want, and I will do the rest.’ ”

Many of the rules laid down by Ranhofer in “The Epicurean” sound familiar today: Sauces and meats shouldn’t be repeated within a menu; courses should follow in a sensible order; and "[o]ffer on the menus all foods in their respective seasons, and let the early products be of the finest quality . . . only use preserved articles when no others can be obtained.”

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Much of the food was just what you might expect from that period. There were lots of big pieces of meat, usually roasted (the book details descriptions of the various utensils for cooking, including a huge spit--"in large kitchens, the only roaster possible”).

And, of course, there were the kinds of things we would consider impossibly convoluted today. Consomme Celestine, for example, begins with thin crepes spread with a chicken forcemeat, stacked, pressed, baked and cut into shapes. They are arranged in the bottom of a bowl with blanched, shredded lettuce and then hot consomme is poured over them.

Sauces and garnishes play big parts. Although there are a lot of flour-thickened sauces like Bechamel, just as with Escoffier, there are a lot of very modern-sounding “essences” (chicken, fish, game, ham, mushroom, root, duck and truffle) that are used as sauce bases too.

And where Escoffier’s Bechamel is made quite simply with flour-thickened milk, Ranhofer’s is half milk, half stock, mellowed by simmering with root vegetables and mushroom parings.

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In fact, what’s surprising about “The Epicurean” is how modern so much of the cooking sounds. And how decidedly American. He describes local ingredients from avocados and corn bread to Virginia ham and striped bass.

Game plays a huge role. There are recipes for canvasback, redhead, mallard and teal ducks, and prairie hen. Bear steaks are recommended, with the note, “bear’s meat when young can be broiled and after it is cooked has much the same flavor as beef.”

There’s a truly American assortment of cultural influences as well: blinis, kugelhopfen, jambalaya (spelled “jambalaia”), two gumbos, risotto and borscht (spelled quasi-Polish fashion as “barsch”) made with beets you pickle yourself.

There’s a detailed description of bird’s nest soup (he distinguishes between the nests from the Philippines and those from China) and a recipe for a “soya sauce” that almost sounds like something out of a fusion cookbook today--basically a red wine-stock reduction finished with soy sauce and butter.

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Beyond the food, “The Epicurean” is full of fascinating hints of life in restaurant kitchens before the turn of the century.

In addition to illustrations of then-common kitchen implements such as tamis (a fine mesh sieve) and all of the various molds and forms that went into creating those lavish 19th century set pieces, there are more prosaic reminders of how far technology has brought us since his time.

His refrigerator looks more like a chicken coop than an appliance, and his icebox, of course, is just that: a box cooled by ice. The range is wood- or coal-fired, but Ranhofer does note that “although gas is very little used in kitchens still it deserves to be encouraged . . . as the operation takes place without . . . having the meats give forth any smoke or disagreeable smell.”

In such primitive kitchens, a stupefying amount of food was produced. The bare bones of a formal dinner, as Ranhofer laid them out, included oysters, soups (note the plural: one clear, one thick), hors d’oeuvres, fish, removes (carved meat courses accompanied by vegetables), entrees (plated meats accompanied by a vegetable), punch or sherbets, roasts (like the fried rice at the end of a Chinese banquet--just in case you’re still hungry), and cold dishes (things like terrines, served with green salads). Then came the parade of sweets: hot dishes, then cold dishes and, finally, desserts proper, which were things like fruits, candies and “fancy cakes.”

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But wait, there was more. For almost every course, several choices are offered. A banquet given for diplomats in November 1863 to honor the officers of the visiting Russian fleet consisted of 46 named dishes (not counting things like oysters, sherbets and various accompaniments).

Remarks Lately Steele: “All of which may serve as an example of how gastronomy can be made to serve two purposes simultaneously: to give delight to friends (the Russians) and to give potential enemies (the French and English) indigestion.”

This was, indeed, the Gilded Age, when it seemed any man could become an instant millionaire and eat just as he chose. (Although Ranhofer was proud that at his restaurant, a table of six could enjoy “a very good dinner, with an excellent vin ordinaire,” for $12, there was also the banquet put on by the stock promoter Sir Morton Peto that cost $20,000--at a time when Ranhofer’s annual salary was $6,000.)

And although Ranhofer might have sounded quite the kitchen autocrat, in reality he was as amenable to his customers’ sometimes curious dinner requests as any Beverly Hills chef is today.

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“It is a mistaken idea that everyone, willy-nilly, is compelled to take or go with the particular style of cooking that commends itself to the chef,” Ranhofer complained.

“The chef may know more about the proper cooking and serving of dishes than the customer, but should the latter have any particular fancies or weaknesses of his own in the eating line, he can, provided his purse dances in close attendance upon his whimsicalities of taste, have set before him dishes which fill the sensitive chef’s heart with despair.”

He was not the last American chef to express such sentiments--but he might have been the first.

Sirloin of Beef

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Active Work Time: 10 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour

2 ounces sliced salt pork

1 carrot, chopped

1 onion, chopped

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1 (3-pound) beef sirloin

1 cup beef broth

Salt

* Spread pork, carrot and onion across bottom of roasting pan. Place beef on top and pour broth over. Roast at 450 degrees, basting frequently with pan juices, until meat thermometer registers 125 degrees when inserted into middle of sirloin, 50 minutes to 1 hour. Remove from oven, season to taste with 1 to 2 teaspoons salt, cover with foil and set aside to rest 10 minutes before slicing and serving.

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8 to 10 servings. Each of 10 servings: 134 calories; 197 mg sodium; 62 mg cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 1 gram carbohydrates; 22 grams protein; 0.09 gram fiber.

Roasted Sweet Potatoes

Active Work Time: 1 hour * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

3 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled

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1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, melted

Salt

* Cut sweet potatoes into olive-shaped pieces. Place in roasting pan, add butter and cook at 350 degrees until tender, about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. When done, season to taste with salt, cover and keep warm until ready to serve.

8 to 10 servings. Each of 10 servings: 172 calories; 93 mg sodium; 12 mg cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 30 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 1.06 grams fiber.

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Chicory With Cream

Active Work Time: 20 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour

8 heads Belgian endive

Butter

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1 tablespoon flour

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon sugar

Grating nutmeg

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1/2 cup whipping cream

* Trim any green or wilted outer leaves from endive heads. Trim bottoms and cut an ‘X’ through base. Cook in plenty of rapidly boiling water until tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain, rinse with cold water and pat dry. Press out any remaining moisture, then chop finely.

* Melt 2 tablespoons butter in medium skillet and cook endive over medium-high heat until very tender, 10 minutes. Add flour and stir to mix well. Season with salt, sugar and nutmeg to taste, then add whipping cream. Cook over medium-low heat until lightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Add 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter and stir to mix well.

8 to 10 servings. Each of 10 servings: 114 calories; 321 mg sodium; 35 mg cholesterol; 11 grams fat; 3 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.41 gram fiber.

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