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1970s Archive

A Kitchen was His Laboratory

continued (page 2 of 3)

Now that little meal of de Pomiane's is a feast, as a whole entity. It is also a real lesson in how to avoid the obvious without being freakish, how to start with the stimulus of a hot vegetable dish, how to vary the eternal purÉe of potatoes with your meat (lacking chestnut flour we could try instead a purÉe of lentils or split peas), how to follow it with a fresh, bright, unexpected salad (that excellent mixture of corn salad and beets—how often does one meet with it nowadays?), and since by that time most people would have had enough without embarking on cheese, de Pomiane is brave enough to leave it out. How much harm has that tyrannical maxim of Brillat-Savarin's about a meal without cheese done to all our waistlines and our digestions?

For a hot first dish, de Pomiane's recipe for tomates à la crème is worth knowing. His method makes tomatoes taste so startlingly unlike any other dish of cooked tomatoes that any restaurateur who put it on his menu would, in all probability, soon find it listed in the guidebooks as a regional specialty. De Pomiane himself said the recipe came from his Polish mother. That would not prevent anyone from calling it what he pleases:

"Tomates à la Crème"

Take six tomatoes. Cut them in halves. In your frying pan melt a lump of butter. Put in the tomatoes, cut side downward, with a sharply pointed knife puncturing here and there the rounded sides of the tomatoes. Let them heat for five minutes. Turn them over. Sprinkle them with salt. Cook them for another 10 minutes. Turn them again. The juices run out and spread into the pan. Once more turn the tomatoes cut side upward. Around them put 80 grams (3 ounces near enough) of thick cream. Mix it with the juices. As soon as it bubbles, slip the tomatoes and all their sauces onto a hot dish. Serve instantly, very hot."

The faults of the orthodox menu were by no means the only facet of so-called classic French cooking upon which de Pomiane turned his analytic intelligence. Recipes accepted as great and sacrosanct are not always compatible with sense. Dr. de Pomiane's radar eye saw through them. "Homard à l'amÉricaine is a cacophony ... it offends a basic principle of taste." I rather wish he had gone to work on some of the astonishing things Escoffier and his contemporaries did to fruit: choice pears masked with chocolate sauce and cream, beautiful fresh peaches smothered in raspberry purÉe and set around with vanilla ice seem to me offenses to nature, let alone to art or basic principles. How very odd that people still write of these inventions with breathless awe.

De Pomiane, however, was a man too civilized, too subtle, to labor his points. He passes speedily from the absurdities of haute cuisine to the shortcomings of folk cookery, and deals a swift right and left to those writers whose reverent genuflections before the glory and wonder of every least piece of peasant cookery lore make much journalistic cookery writing so tedious. By the simple device of warning his readers to expect the worst, de Pomiane gets his message across. From a village baker-woman of venerable age, he obtains an ancestral recipe for a cherry tart made on the basis of a butter-enriched bread dough. He passes on the recipe, modified to suit himself, and carrying with it the characteristically deflating note: "When you open the oven door you will have a shock. It is not a pretty sight. The edges of the tart are slightly burnt and the top layer of cherries blackened in some places … It will be received without much enthusiasm for, frankly, it is not too prepossessing!

"Don't be discouraged. Cut the first slice and the juice will run out. Now try it. What a surprise! The pastry is neither crisp nor soggy, and just tinged with cherry juice. The cherries have kept all their flavor and the juice is not sticky—just pure cherry juice. They had some good ideas in 1865!"

Of a dish from the Swiss mountains, Dr. de Pomiane observes that it is "a peasant dish, rustic and vigorous. It is not everybody's taste. But one can improve upon it. Let us get to work." This same recipe provides an instructive example of the way in which Dr. de Pomiane thinks we should go to work improving a primitive dish to our own taste while preserving its character intact. Enthusiastic beginners might add olives, parsley, red peppers. Dr. de Pomiane is scarcely that simple. The school-trained professional might be tempted to superimpose cream, wine, mushrooms, upon his rough and rustic dish. That is not de Pomiane's way. His way is the way of the artist, of the man who can add one sure touch, one only, and thereby create an effect of the preordained, the inevitable, the entirely right and proper:

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