Bleeding over tradition

Knifework, Veal Olives, and Chef Staib at the nexus of colonial cookery and TV.

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Walter Staib, the chef at City Tavern, prepares to cut an inside round from a leg of veal. He was cooking for a segment of his "A Taste of History" public television series.

Things got off to a mildly alarming start along Paper Mill Run one morning last week; Walter Staib inadvertently added blood to the copious sweat he was giving to the production of his A Taste of History public television series.

Paper Mill Run is the didactically named tributary of Wissahickon Creek along which still stand the structures of RittenhouseTown, where the colonies' first paper mill was erected in 1690, currently the lower reaches of Mount Airy.

It was in its original bake house, dating to about 30 years later, that Staib, the bearish chef-owner of Old City's historic City Tavern, was demonstrating cookery, circa 300 years ago: "You didn't just go in the kitchen," he noted, "and turn a knob."

Indeed not. You built a fire of hardwood (in this case, apple, maple, and oak) first. And there it was, blazing down to fiery coals in the bake house's 15-foot-long hearth. Then with various long-handled rakes and tongs, hooks and Dutch ovens, you redistributed the heat.

Things went smoothly in Episode I. Staib knocked out a rabbit stew with spaetzle - "a tribute to the Germans [such as the Rittenhouse clan, nee Rittenhausen] who came here," birthing water-powered industry and bequeathing their name, later, to the city's most elegant square.

But toward noon, Episode II - the intricate assemblage of a dish called Veal Olives - got off to an inauspicious start. The fire was roaring just behind Staib, probably at 850 degrees at its center. Sweat beaded on his forehead, dabbed at repeatedly by a production assistant.

He was instructed by producer Jim Davey to look down at the massive, 53-pound leg of veal he was beginning to butcher with a surgically sharp boning knife. And then to look up at Camera 1. No, Camera 2.

The eye and hand lost coordination momentarily. But the tip of the knife continued its course, stabbing under the nail of Staib's left thumb.

History TV was suddenly Reality TV, a bright, red trickle of blood running down the chef's hand.

But as Staib likes to point out, he is a stoic man of the Black Forest. And as he pressed a cloth to the wound and a hunt for Band-Aids was launched, he rinsed the thumb off and sealed the cut smartly with a dab of Krazy Glue.

The show, as it must, went on.

Veal Olives does not, in the end, involve olives at all.

It is so named because of the finished look of the dish - a favorite, Staib told the cameras, of Martha Washington, and prepared by the legendary Hercules Caesar, the slave chef at the President's House when it was located on what is now Independence Mall.

An updated recipe for it is in Staib's handsome new volume, The City Tavern Cookbook: Recipes from the Birthplace of American Cuisine ($35, Running Press, 2009).

In it you will find butter listed as an ingredient, and veal cutlets. But for the Taste of History show (scheduled for release in September on WHYY and other public television stations), Staib aimed for more authenticity.

"You couldn't get scaloppine at the supermarket," he said, butchering a rosy hunk of inside round from the massive hindquarter.

Butter wasn't as easily procured, either. So for cookery, especially, the preferred fats were goose, pork, and other rendered animal fats.

For this rendition of Veal Olives, goose fat was employed, sizzling in a skillet, a so-called spider, standing on three legs over the hot coals. Staib rolled the thin veal strips around a filling of crabmeat and plunked the meaty rolls in the hot fat.

As they cooked, he made a rich sherry cream sauce. This was a dish, he noted, that was not exactly served on the frontier; it was sophisticated cookery, borrowing from French tradition, its complicated timing and pricey ingredients the province of the colonial upper crust.

After browning in the skillet, the veal tightened (and toughened a bit) around the crabmeat, and one could - if one was of a sufficiently whimsical bent - see the suggestion of a stuffed olive in the final shape of the dish.

A side dish had been heating nearby in a black kettle on the hearth - a creamy blend of mashed white beans and potatoes over which Staib poured a tasty drizzle of shallots that had been cooked in more goose fat.

There was a lesson in this dish, perhaps a cautionary tale: It was the colonial monied classes that had less bridled access to the sugary sweets and desserts that were out of the reach of ordinary folk.

But they paid for it with quickly rotting teeth. Thus, the popularity of pureed dishes, the easier for chewing, and a demonstration that 300 years ago the shape of the cuisine owed a debt to dentistry (or the lack of it) as much as the imperatives of whimsy.

 


Mustard Eggs

Makes 6 servings

6 extra-large, hard-boiled eggs

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

4 medium shallots, chopped

3 tablespoons heavy cream

3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

3 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

Salt and freshly ground white pepper

1/4 teaspoon Hungarian paprika

1/4 cup mustard sauce (see recipe)

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.

2. Shell and halve the hard-boiled eggs lengthwise. Remove the egg yolks and reserve. Place the egg whites on the prepared baking sheet and set aside.

3. Heat one tablespoon of the butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook for two minutes, until golden brown. Reserve.

4. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or a food-processor bowl), mix the reserved egg yolks, cooked shallots, cream, chives, tarragon, and mustard into a paste. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

5. Fill a pastry bag with the mixture, leaving enough room to close and twist the top of the bag. Pipe the mixture into the egg-white halves. Dot each egg-white half with a piece of the remaining one tablespoon of butter, sprinkle with paprika, and bake for five to eight minutes, until browned on top. Serve with mustard sauce if desired.

 

- From The City Tavern Cookbook, by Walter Staib with Paul Bauer (Running Press, 2009)

Note: Nearly every colonial household owned at least one hen, so eggs were plentiful in supply and prepared in numerous ways. This rich and lively cousin to deviled eggs was inspired by a recipe for "Stuffed Eggs" written by Martha Washington's sister, Anna Maria Dandridge, in 1756. Traditionally, the 18th-century chef would have roasted the eggs in the hot ashes of the kitchen fireplace, but cooking them in boiling water produces the same result.

Per serving (without mustard sauce): 164 calories, 9 grams protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 13 grams fat, 268 milligrams cholesterol, 207 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.


Mustard Sauce

Makes about 11/2 cups

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 medium onions, finely chopped

3 medium shallots, finely chopped

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

2 cups white wine

1/2 cup cider vinegar

2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

Salt and freshly ground white pepper

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley, for serving

1. Heat the butter and oil in a two-quart saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and shallots and saute three minutes, until translucent. Sprinkle the flour over the onion mixture and cook, stirring frequently, until well combined.

2. Stir in the wine, vinegar, tomato paste, and mustard. Reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes, until reduced by one-fourth. Season with salt and white pepper and set aside to keep warm or serve immediately. Just before serving, stir in the parsley.

 

- From The City Tavern Cookbook, by Walter Staib with Paul Bauer (Running Press, 2009)

 

Per two-teaspoon serving: 15 calories, trace protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, trace sugar, 1 gram fat, 1 milligram cholesterol, 14 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.