Penny Wise Party Perfect DinnersNov 01, 2020 11:00AM ● By Cornelius O'Donnell
This is not a column about diet cookbooks, but I had a ball reminiscing about a recipe collection that is sadly out of print (years ago) but still resonates with me. This little book has almost 200 pages under its attractive hard cover. Penny Wise Party Perfect Dinners was the first publication (perhaps the only one) put together by a group of food pros, chefs, cooking teachers, and gifted food writers. Their cause was to give a wider audience the benefit of their knowledge, not only providing recipes but gadgets that make cooking easier or more precise. (And they made a buck as well.)
The whole scheme was the idea of a marketing group, and they managed to snare James Beard, no less, as their point man. They even negotiated with some department stores to create a “Good Cooks” shop within their housewares departments. These were handsomely designed, as I recall (Bloomingdales had one), with a demonstration area plus the products: spatulas, wooden and metal utensils, bowls, pots, temperature gauges...well, you get the idea. Now back to this little book.
I rediscovered it during a redo of my bookshelves where it was hiding in the shadows amongst bigger Beard books. The scheme was dubbed the Good Cooking School, and it aimed to educate aspiring American cooks.
Sadly, so many of the contributors are now making heavenly food in cloudland. But to ignore their good work seems a shame. I consider these folks artists, yet, unless you hunt out the good old books they wrote, their classic ideas fade—unlike other artists whose output hangs on museum walls. So, there was this slim volume that became so familiar to me during my “I-know-Beard and some-of-the-other-writers” days. That would be circa 1975, the year Party Perfect was published.
So, I Asked a Friend...
...to proofread this story. After reading it he turned to me and said “Heck, this is all about that great American standard—especially for lunch: tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich.”
“Yes,” I stammered and quoted Ina Garten, “but with a twist.”
So, here are a couple of dishes I made over and over back then, as my faint pencil marks in the book with “made date” will attest.
Up first is the tomato soup cooked up by one of the contributors, Maurice Moore-Betty. Forgive me, I can’t resist this pun: you might remember that last time I wrote about Betty Crocker, this time it’s “Moore-Betty.” Is that a laugh or a boo I hear? The late Mr. Moore-Betty had a cooking school in his elegant New York City townhouse. He was British, with a posh accent that was a joy to hear, and a good sense of humor. Here’s his excellent first course or, as he would call it, a starter.
Indian River Tomato Consommé
This was part of an Indian-inspired meal, although I think the title refers to the fruit land of Florida, and you can see how nicely this light dish might precede vegetable curry. By the way, chefs in the book were asked to calculate the cost of the meal. You’ll be shocked. The total cost of the meal for six was $8.50. Again, this was 1975.
- 1 (1-pound) can Italian plum tomatoes with basil (I like Muir Glenn or Cento’s San Marzano)
- 1 carrot, shredded
- 1⁄2 medium onion, peeled and chopped
- 1 bay leaf
- Rind of one lemon, grated (I use a MicroPlane)
- 6 peppercorns
- 3 c. clear chicken consommé
- 2 Tbsp. sugar
- 1⁄2 cup dry white vermouth
- Salt to taste and freshly ground pepper (pref. white)
- Rind of 1 orange
- Juice of 1 orange
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped Italian (best) parsley
Crush tomatoes with your hands and add, with juices, the carrot, the onion, bay leaf, lemon rind, and peppercorns to a heavy 2-3-quart pan. Bring to a boil. Simmer very gently for 8 minutes.
Strain carefully into a mixing bowl. Rinse the pot and return the tomato and liquid to it, then add the chicken consommé. Put over moderate heat and add the sugar and vermouth. Continue heating almost to the boiling point, then season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Proceed carefully as the soup can suddenly become very hot.
Meanwhile, peel the orange very carefully, avoiding the white pith. Cut the peel into very thin strips half an inch long. Put the peel aside to be used as a garnish. Squeeze the orange, adding the juice to the soup and reheat very gently.
Ladle the soup into bowls or soup plates and sprinkle with finely chopped parsley and the orange rind.
This soup may be served hot or cold. The recipe serves 6 to 8, but it is always a hit, so I often doubled it and used the leftovers (if any) chilled next day in a Bloody Mary. Wow!
Here’s another recipe from the book. This was a menu devised by my old friend the late Barbara Kafka. And, as this book was devised to teach, the directions are clear, so you’ll be a serious soufflé maker in no time. You can try one out on your family before you present one to guests. And, though you won’t find this tip in the book, I’ll let you know what to do if your soufflé falls. There, my secret is no longer.
- 1 tsp. plus 4 Tbsps. unsalted butter, room temp.
- 5-ounce wedge imported (preferably) or domestic Parmesan cheese (I’d try for Parmigiana-Reggiano)
- 5 ounces Tillamook, Jarlsberg, or Gruyere
- 1⁄2 c. flour
- 1 c. whole milk
- Small pinch cayenne pepper (or dash of Tabasco)
- 7 eggs, separated (try breaking eggs in your hand, let the whites drip through your fingers, and don’t let any yolk sully the whites)
This recipe is for a 3-quart glass soufflé dish. The book advises that if you are using porcelain, add 7 minutes to the cooking time. Prepare it just before your guests arrive, at room temperature, and pop it into the center of your oven preheated to 375 degrees as you sit down for the soup course. Note that to diffuse the heat put a heavy baking sheet pan on the shelf that will hold the soufflé dish.
To put a collar around the soufflé dish, cut a 30-inch length of regular wax paper. Double it over its length to make a long narrow strip. Wrap it tightly around the dish allowing half of it to stick up over the rim of the dish. Tape it in place; then tie a piece of cotton kitchen string one inch down from the top. (The tape won’t hold in the oven, but it will hold the wax paper and let you knot the string without a fight! This is a brilliant Kafkaesque touch.)
With 1 teaspoon of the butter, grease the inside and the wax paper. Grate the cheeses and mix them together.
In the top insert of a double boiler, put 4 tablespoons butter. (As for this double whatchamacallit pan, check grannie’s stash, beg, borrow, or...) Place water in the bottom pan to a level so the insert remains just above the simmering (never boiling) water. Add the top portion of the pan and melt the butter, then add the flour, stirring with a rubber spatula to make a smooth paste. Cook for 5 minutes, adjusting the heat if necessary.
I found it’s a clever trick to preheat the milk in a measuring cup (Pyrex, of course, in a microwave just to take the chill off.) Slowly add the milk to the butter/flour mixture, stirring constantly. If you have any trouble with lumps (in the pan, silly) remove the top portion and, as Mr. Moore-Betty says, “beat like crazy with a whisk.” Put the dish back on the base and continue to cook, stirring all the while, until smooth and thick. Add cayenne pepper. Remove from heat.
While cooling, beat the egg yolks until very thick (the color will pale). Mix yolks and cheese with the milk/flour mixture. Wash beaters with soap and water; rinse and dry well. In a clean bowl, beat the egg whites until they are stiff but not dry. Fold the whites into the cheese mixture one-third at a time. Each addition of egg whites can be a little less well mixed in than the one before. Pour mixture into the prepared soufflé dish. A short wait needn’t be a problem. When ready (see above) place the dish on top of the flat, heated baking pan. Bake for 40 minutes. Serve immediately. Remember the line: “you wait for the soufflé, the soufflé waits for no one.”
Okay, you got me. I did have a failure once when the inflated dish I took from the oven fell down on the job. Who knows why? If that should happen to you, quickly grab 6-10 slices of whatever bread you have on hand. Remove the crusts, cut in half on the diagonal, place on that already heated baking dish/cookie sheet, and run into the oven (still warm I hope). Bake until you have lightly toasted “points.” It won’t take very long.
Place on plates and spoon some of the fallen masterpiece in the center. Say not a word. It’s your very own dish. Strew chopped parsley over the top and perhaps serve with halved cherry tomatoes sautéed earlier in olive oil. Or maybe pitted and sliced black olives. It always helps to have lots of chopped parsley on hand when you cook. It’s got great flavor and really covers up most non-dessert mistakes.