Grilling with Friends: A 1955 Recipe for Savoy Potatoes

I wish there was a way to tally friendship in the kitchen. How many recipes were inspired throughout history by friends or for friends? How many meals were shared in convivial collaboration between one cook and another? How many dishes were dissected? Techniques taught? Secrets traded? How many hours were spent by friends, with friends, for friends tasting, touching, and talking about food?

I bet the number is in the billions. A billion hours. A billion recipes. A billion friends. I bet it is a safe assumption to say that friendship in the kitchen has been a major influence on the culinary world since the caveman days when everybody cooked, and then subsequently ate, together, around an open fire. Aside from health, friendship must surely be the foundation of food. The building block of life.

This weekend we are featuring a recipe that is friend friendly. It was created by two best pals – James Beard and Helen Evans Brown in 1955 and highlights the diverse possibilities of the outdoor grill. On the menu today, it’s Savoy Potatoes, a tipple topple stack of thinly sliced potatoes tucked between layers of cheese and dotted with herbs and butter. The recipe was part of the Frills for the Grill chapter from Helen and James’ Complete Book of Outdoor Cookery.

Frills for the grill indeed. The fun of this recipe, aside from its delectable composition and fancy presentation, is that it can be made entirely out of doors from start to finish. All you need is a prep table, a cutting board, a cast iron pan, a cheese grater, a bowl and a sharp knife. Grab a friend or two to help prepare everything, and the joy begins.

Of all the vegetables to be cooked on the grill, the noble potato oftentimes gets left behind. Understandably so. They are dense and big and take a long time to cook if left whole. If they do make it to the wire racks, most recipes are not that imaginative. There’s the baked potato wrapped in tin foil, the quartered potato steamed in paper, and the mini oval-shaped potatoes par-boiled and skewered for kebabs. But this recipe presents a whole new way to look at serving potatoes hot off the grill with an elegant twist.

Presentation-wise Savoy Potatoes is lovely, with thin layers of stacked slices browned by butter and melted cheese. Caramelization leaves the potatoes on the bottom layer crispy and golden while the top layer is tender like a casserole. Most similar to Scalloped Potatoes (a.k.a. Potatoes Gratin) minus the cream, it has a hearty consistency and flavorful yet subtle depth thanks to the two cheeses and the herbs. This recipe can be made in one large round cast iron pan or many mini cast irons, depending on your preference and your available pan options. Either way, it will be delicious.

When James and Helen finally got together to create a cookbook, it was a long-time dream come true. Both were busy, well-respected cooks and authors in their own right. Helen on the West Coast, and James on the East Coast.

A sampling of Helen’s cookbooks published between the 1950s and 1960s.

Supportive and encouraging of each other’s work, they each had their own unique way with food and writing, which meant there was no room for competition between them, just a sense of mutual respect, camaraderie and curiosity regarding the culinary industry they both loved.

A sampling of James Beard’s cookbooks

Enamored with each other as most best friends are, their relationship was strictly platonic (Helen was married and James was gay) but they showered each other with affection and attention every chance they got. For years, they maintained an epistolary relationship where letters flew between coasts at a rapid-fire pace. In these letters, Helen and James exchanged recipes, cooking questions, industry gossip, travel adventures, menus, food samples, diets, and stories surrounding what they ate and with whom. A consistent topic of the letters were ideas bounced around about projects they could collaborate on together… a restaurant in the Hamptons, a snack shop in New York City, a kitchen store filled with books and antiques, a magazine for gourmands, a cooking school, a newspaper column. Time, distance, and scheduling made many of these ideas difficult to undertake when it came to reality, but of all the possibilities they dreamed up, a cookbook turned out to be the one idea that took shape. To their mutual excitement, in May of 1955, The Complete Book of Outdoor Cookery was published by Doubleday & Company.

Helen and James’ mission for the book was to cover recipes that included all methods of outdoor cooking equipment in one place. Grills, campfires, hibachis, spit-roasts, cooking on a boat, cooking from a trailer, cooking at the beach, along with defined roles for men and women in the art of creating a jovial outdoor dining experience. Helen and James suggested that women be in charge of menu planning, market shopping, and presentation, while the guys were in charge of the actual cooking. Helen called it a night off for the ladies (grab a cocktail and a lounge chair, she suggested) while James referred to the actual task of grilling as a man’s sport and the ultimate culinary proving ground. Both viewpoints may seem a bit boxed in today, but in the 1950s when almost every homecooked family meal in households across the country was made indoors by women, this idea of getting guys involved in the meal-making process was both novel and exciting. Cookbooks began springing up on shelves across the country about this adventurous way to prepare a meal.

1950s Barbeque books like this one – Better Homes and Gardens Barbeque Book – illustrated the sheer joy of outdoor cooking especially when it came to domestic family life.

Gender roles aside, Savoy Potatoes is best prepared by two people, if not more. There are herbs to gather from the garden, potatoes to chop, cheese to grate, and the grill to tend to, so multiple hands are encouraged not only for practicality but for fun too.

Note: We used a charcoal grill for this recipe. Cooking times and temps may vary if you are using a gas grill.

Savoy Potatoes

Serves 8

1/4 cup butter

6 medium potatoes

1 1/2 cups grated Gruyere cheese

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Salt & Pepper to taste

1 handful of fresh thyme, chopped (optional)

Butter cast iron skillet(s) generously to prevent the potatoes from sticking during the cooking process. Combine the two cheeses together into a medium-sized bowl. Leaving the skins on, thinly slice the potatoes into rounds. Arrange a layer of potatoes inside the bottom of the buttered pan, then add a layer of cheese. Season with salt and pepper and a dab of butter. Repeat the layers of potatoes, cheese, butter, and salt and pepper again. Top with a sprinkle of fresh thyme.

Cover skillet with foil and cook on the grill over medium heat (between 280-300 degrees) until the potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork and the cheese is thoroughly melted (about 25-30 minutes).

Remove from the grill, let cool for a few minutes and then flip the potatoes over onto a plate and serve.

At this point, the potatoes should come out of the pan in one solid piece. You don’t have to flip the potatoes over before serving them. They look appetizing on both ends, but the bottom has such a nice golden brown color and a crispy texture, it makes for a delicious first-bite introduction to this vintage recipe. The slightly smoky flavor from the grill mingles with the nuttiness of the cheese and the soft potatoes in the most tasty and aromatic of ways.

Helen and James recommended that Savoy Potatoes be served with roast beef, grilled fish, or poultry. During the hot days of summer, we liked it best as a vegetarian dinner served alongside a simple garden salad and a glass of chilled sauvignon blanc. In the cooler months when you crave something heartier, in addition to James and Helen’s suggestions we would recommend adding a fried egg on top and a sprinkle of chopped bacon, ham, or pancetta. A drizzle of maple syrup would add another level of interesting flavor.

Like good friends, this is a relaxed recipe. Not hard to make, it’s very accommodating when it comes to your own cooking creativity. Play around with different cheeses, and different toppings, or make it the foundation of a build-your-own-food bar and invite your friends to add their own custom toppings. Sour cream, chives, dill, smoked salmon, a variety of spices, sauteed spinach and onions, diced peppers and tomatoes, hot sauce… there are so many options that would pair equally as well with this dish.

When I asked my sister, who is one of James Beard’s biggest fans and one of my favorite people to exchange recipes with, what she liked most about his style of cooking, she shared that it was all about his universal love of food and friendship. “He felt that people could be unified through the experience of a meal no matter their country or culture.” In other words, he recognized food as the foundation of friendship. Cheers to that! Hope this recipe instigates an impromptu dinner party with your friends and family and that you love the whole experience of making it just as much as we did.

Cheers to James and Helen for this gorgeous recipe and the friendship that made it. I hope it inspires many more. If you’d like to learn more about these two culinary icons and their impact on American cooking, stop by the shop and peruse the cookbook shelf.

Gifts of Food: Generous James and His Rich Pastry Dough Recipe {circa 1965}

In 1965, when James Beard published his new cookbook, Menus for Entertaining, he had one thing in mind… generosity. Unlike his 14 cookbooks published previously, all of which taught readers how to prepare good food, this one focused on the largehearted act of cooking for other people.

A subtle change from his more tutorial-style instruction favored in earlier cookbooks, this one captured an idealized, ethereal expression of how to combine the art of being a good cook with the art of being a thoughtful host. Two concepts that, surprisingly, don’t always meet up in the race to put a good meal on the table.

There are lots of elements that can inspire one to cook. Maybe it’s a particular ingredient or a time constraint, a season or a health reason, the weather or a garden, a particular holiday or a memory, a special piece of cooking equipment or a celebratory event.  And there are lots of fundamental reasons  to prepare a meal: to satiate, to learn, to nourish, to educate, to create, to boast.  In James’ case, in this cookbook, his inspiration was people and his reason was gratitude.

“There is no greater reward than pleasing your audience,” James shares in the introduction. His cookbook was not only about preparing something delicious, it was also about spoiling his guests, about indulging the valuable time spent together, and about presenting a thoughtful, custom dining experience. Like a play or a live performance, this type of entertaining is a nuanced event. Something wrapped around food and friendship equally. To James it meant paying as much attention to what you were serving as to whom you were serving and why.

For example, if James wanted to throw a dinner party and wanted to include a certain guest whom he knew was on a diet, he would plan a light and low calorie menu for  the night, making sure that it didn’t skimp on flavor but was fully satisfying for everyone, dieters or not, without being calorie heavy.

Or if he had a friend who longed to travel to Germany but couldn’t afford the plane ticket, James would plan a whole dinner party around German foods from start to finish complete with music and wine and Bavarian-style decorations. By putting focus on this German lover’s interests, it was his thoughtful way of acknowledging, satiating and celebrating his friend’s wanderlust.

This idea of unselfishly cooking for other people in an effort to please them and care for them is a notion that really hit home these past dozen weeks while I’ve been away from the blog. I spent the time in Florida, in and and out of the hospital with my sick dad as he fought hard through infections and medical procedures, rehab and rest.  While I was there, I was overwhelmed by the love and support that people showed my family through gifts of food. From the vendor at the farmers market who tucked extra pastries into our packages, to neighbors who stocked the fridge with homemade meals, to family friends who stopped by with treats in their hands and empathy in their hearts, it was these thoughtful gestures of kindness that helped sustain and support our spirits during a daunting time. Like James suggests in his book, cooking is one of the kindest, most fundamental things that you can do for another person, so you might as well throw your heart into it and fill the effort with joy and passion.

On Friday over on Instagram, I posted a picture of this homemade pear tart which was made with the Rich Pastry Dough recipe from James’ 1965 cookbook.

This was a thank you food parcel too. A gift for my friend, Diane, who shared her vintage cookbook collection with me while she was packing up to move. Like James in 1965, and the wonderful people in Florida in 2019, I wanted to thank her for her kindness with a homemade dessert. One that could be easily kept and consumed over the weekend while she moved from one house to another.  I wanted to make something for her that could be eaten on the run for breakfast or enjoyed by slice or sliver late in the afternoon when the moving boxes might seem endless and energy levels might be in need of a boost. Either way, tarts are very accommodating in that department. They travel well in the car, can sit on the counter all day, and can be eaten, provincial style without any need for plates and forks.

This pear tart in particular, is also a good transition dessert between Winter and Spring, and the wonky weather that always seems to be sorting itself out in March as the temps fluctuate between hot and cold. Comforting cinnamon and in-season pears are nods toward Winter, while the thin buttery crust with flecks of lemon rind adds a light, fresh note for Springtime. Diane’s husband is also a collector of vintage French cookbooks, so it seemed fitting to make a classically French dessert, but with a slight James Beard twist for them. This crust includes egg yolks, lemon rind and lots of butter and the filling is a combination of Julia Child’s pear tart, James Beard’s apple tart and my sister’s homemade apricot jam. (Note: If you don’t have a jam-maker in your family, don’t worry.  Any good-quality, corn syrup-free store bought jam will work too.)

Whether you make this for yourself or as a gift for someone else in your life, I hope you enjoy every part of the process of making it and presenting it. That’s what James would have wanted and what he hoped for when creating his cookbook so many decades ago.

James Beard’s Rich Pastry Dough circa 1965

Makes 1 2 crust pie or 2 shells

2 cups unsifted flour

3 tablespoons sugar

1/2 cup butter

1/4 cup vegetable shortening ( I used butter)

1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon rind

2 raw egg yolks

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Make a well in the center of the flour. Add sugar; butter, not too hard, not too soft, cut in small pieces; vegetable shortening cut in small pieces; lemon rind; eggs and salt. Work quickly with finger tips to make a smooth, firm pastry. Dough should form a ball and leave tabletop or bowl fairly clean. Chill dough ball in the fridge for at least 30 minutes before rolling.

Remove dough ball from fridge. Cut in half.  Roll out one half of the dough on a floured work surface.  Transfer rolled dough to tart tin and remove excess dough from  the sides. Using a fork prick the dough all over the bottom and sides. Chill unbaked tart shell in pan in the freezer for 2 hours.

After two hours, remove tart pan from freezer and place immediately in a hot 450 degree oven for 10 minutes to pre-bake. Remove from oven and let cool in pan on a wire rack while you assemble the filling.

Pear Tart Filling

4 ripe pears

1/4 lb butter

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2-1 teaspoon cinnamon (depending on taste preference)

1 splash of white wine

2 tablespoons cane sugar + 2 more tablespoons for sprinkling

1/8 teaspoon salt

A dash of nutmeg

Juice of half a lemon

Apricot Jam

Leaving the skins on, dice two of the pears into quarter inch pieces. Add them to a small saucepan along with the butter, vanilla, cinnamon, white wine, salt, 2 tablespoons sugar  and nutmeg and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and let simmer until most of the liquid is evaporated (forming a consistency close to thick and chunky applesauce). Remove from heat. Let cool.

While filling is cooling cut the remaining two pears in half. Then lay them cut side down on a cutting board  and carefully slice them vertically into paper-thin slices.

Spread the filling evenly into the pre-baked tart dough. Arrange the pear slices in a circular fashion on top of the filling. Squeeze lemon juice over the pear slices and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons cane sugar. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes or until pears and crust are lightly brown on top.

Remove from oven. Spread a thin layer of apricot jam over the entire tart and let cool to room temperature.

Last November, my husband and I traveled through Gearhart, OR where James Beard grew up, spent childhood summers and eventually after a long and hardy life,  became the final resting place for his ashes. We were hoping to see a glimpse of his life in town. Perhaps a restaurant named after him or his childhood house now a monument to visit. But there were no obvious signs. There was just a big stretch of beautiful ocean and the sound of the sea. Maybe that summed up his impact on the 20th century food scene best… a massive presence that still ripples through our modern days making us feel inspired, and impressed, soothed and comforted.

The beach between Astoria and Gearhart, OR

Cheers to James Beard, to good friends and to thoughtful food! Interested in learning more about James Beard? Discover a few of his cookbooks, including Menus for Entertaining,  in the shop here, here and here.

Oh My Cod: It’s Friday in the Vintage Kitchen!

Cod Cakes!

This week Ms. Jeannie was in the kitchen with two famous figures: Richard Nixon and James Beard. Richard assisted in the artwork (that’s his face on that vintage 1974 newspaper!) and James provided the recipe, which is a spin on an iconic food hailing from coastal Maryland.

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The beautiful view from Baltimore, Maryland!

In 1959 celebrated American chef James Beard published his second cookbook simply titled The James Beard Cookbook.

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The James Beard Cookbook 1959 edition

In 1970 he revised it and in 1980 he had intentions of revising it again. By this point in his career he was five decades into cooking, writing and teaching people about good food and how to prepare it. He had written 18 cookbooks and he had traveled the world in search of good taste. He also had twenty five years under his belt as a teacher in his brownstone cooking school in New York City.

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The Beard House … still enticing cooks world-wide!

But  for all the things he did have by this point in his illustrious career, there was one thing he was sorely missing. Enthusiasm. The energy to refine recipes that felt satisfying in 1959 felt forced by 1980.  As he was embarking on the third revision of his 21 year old cookbook, James was 77 years old and his palette had changed. The way he wanted to prepare food had changed. He was less interested in salt, kitchen gadgets, and formulaic steps. He was more interested in whimsicality, natural selection and on-the-spot innovation. From the 1930’s-1970’s James Beard taught America how to cook. By 1981, with the publication of The New James Beard, he gave America courage to cook for themselves.

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First edition of The New James Beard, 1981.

To play around with a semblance of recipes that could be altered to suit your taste, budget, time constraints and party plans was the essence of his new cookbook and his new approach to confident culinary creativity.

Which brings us to today’s recipe and that famous food hailing from Maryland – crab cakes. Only we are not making crab cakes exactly because James Beard gave us confidence to think outside the box (or the cake if you like a fun pun!). This week Ms. Jeannie is in the kitchen with Richard Nixon and James Beard making Cod Cakes – a simple easy to prepare dinner capitalizing on fresh flavors, inexpensive ingredients and easy preparation.

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This is a three step recipe broken down in order of the three P’s – potatoes, poaching, patty-ing for efficient preparation.  Intended to serve eight, you can easily cut the recipe in half at all steps if you are feeding less people or make the full recipe and freeze the leftover cakes for a future dinner. Let’s begin with the potatoes…

Step One: POTATOES

2 large potatoes (enough to make 2 cups of mashed potatoes)

3 tablespoons butter

water

Peel and cube potatoes. Place in medium size pot with enough water to cover and boil until potatoes are tender when poked with a fork. Remove from heat and drain. Mix potatoes with butter in a medium size bowl with a hand mixer until fully mashed. Set aside.

Step Two: POACH

White Wine Court Bouillon

2 quarts water

2 cups dry white wine

1 onion stuck with two cloves

1 rib celery

1 clove garlic

1 tablespoon salt

1 strip lemon peel

2 sprigs parsley

4 pounds cod filets, whole or chunked

Preheat oven to 170 degrees and place an empty covered dish in the oven to warm. Make sure the dish is large enough to hold all the fish you are preparing. Combine all ingredients (minus the fish) in a large saute pan, and bring to a boil before reducing the heat and simmering for 20 minutes. Add the fish and poach gently for 10 minutes for each measured inch of thickness. (So if your filet measures 2 inches at its thickest part, poach for 20 minutes, if it is 1 inch poach for 10, 3 inches for 30 etc.). Once the fish is cooked through, remove your covered casserole dish from the oven, place the fish inside, cover it and leave on top of the stove to keep warm while you prepare the next set of ingredients.

Step Three: Patty

Codfish Cakes

2 cups flaked poached codfish

2 cups mashed potato mixture

1 egg

1 egg yolk

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

4 tablespoons butter

Chopped parsley for garnish

Combine the codfish, potatoes, egg, egg yolk and pepper in a large bowl. Mix well and form into cakes about 3 inches across and 1 inch thick. Melt the butter in a heavy skillet and saute the cakes until crispy brown on both sides. Add more butter if needed. Garnish with parsley and serve immediately on top of a bed of mixed lettuce or wilted spinach.

James Beard's Cod Cakes recipe from The New James Beard, 1981
James Beard’s Cod Cakes recipe from The New James Beard, 1981

In the spirit of creativity that this cookbook encourages, James also recommends mixing other ingredients into your cod cakes. If you like try mixing in fresh ginger, onions, bacon or salt pork. Swap the butter for olive oil if you are so inclined. Bake your cakes in the oven instead of on the stovetop. Go a more traditional route and serve your cod cakes with fresh lemon slices and homemade tarter sauce or on top of a bed of smashed peas or alongside a lemon, dill and onion salad. The sky is the limit with this recipe because that’s half the fun of cooking – inventing new twists as you go along:)

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According to former White House cooking staff, Richard Nixon’s favorite foods were fruit, cottage cheese with ketchup and a weekly splurge of meatloaf (half ground pork/half ground beef). There’s no mention that he was necessarily a huge fish fan, but Ms. Jeannie guesses that these cod cakes would A-Okay in his book, because he rarely refused any type of food. James would have given Richard a thumbs up on the ketchup and cottage cheese combo not because this necessarily sounds appetizing but because Richard himself thought it was, and really that’s all that matters when it comes to cooking. If James Beard taught us anything with The New James Beard cookbook, it was to please your palette first and then please your dinner companions next.

So mix things up, change your tactics, refine your techniques. Explore and experiment and have fun dear readers! The vintage kitchen awaits! If you need a little more inspiration to get you going, perk up your palette with this vintage kitchen items and see what possibilities await…

Clockwise left to right starting at the top:
Clockwise left to right starting at the top: Striped 1940’s mixing bowl1960’s Herb & Spice Cook Book, Vintage Red Floral Platter, Vintage White Serving Bowl, Vintage 1960s Caribbean Cookbook , Antique English Platter, Vintage 1970s Best Recipes Cook Book, Antique Porcelain Gravy Boat, 1930’s French Floral Platter

With love from Richard and James and Ms. Jeannie.