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11.03.09

My Dinners With James Beard

The father of American gourmet cooking didn’t just invite his friends to dinner; he taught them how to cook it. John Ferrone, his friend and editor, shares five of those recipes.

Whenever I was invited to a neighborly dinner at James Beard’s, during 30 years of friendship and culinary collaboration, we didn’t sit over an aperitif beforehand and chat. Instead, I was ushered into Beard’s spacious teaching kitchen, where I was expected to join in preparation of the food, acting as a kind of sous-chef, or more accurately, an apprentice. So dinner became a cooking lesson as well as a gastronomic pleasure, and I could always count on carrying off some new ideas for my next dinner party. Beard at work didn’t fit the stereotypical image of a professional chef. There were no flames shooting up around a skillet, no frenzy at the stove. The master preferred electric burners, even smooth-top cooking. And he took his time. It was the ease of a chef in total command.

Here are five nostalgic recipes from my years with Beard.

Chocolate Roll
This was the first recipe Beard gave me, back in 1954 when it was still not widely known. I was on hand for a kitchen testing and was so impressed with the results that I asked for the recipe on the spot. Beard obliged by tearing off a piece of his tattered shirtsleeve and jotting down the ingredients. I made the roll countless times thereafter, and it was sometimes a stand-in for Bûche de Noël.

Brioche en Surprise
Beard’s popular onion sandwich canapé comes from his first cookbook, published in 1940. A simple combination of brioche, thinly sliced onion, mayonnaise and parsley, it proves irresistible at cocktail parties. I remember once watching, with a mixture of pleasure and dismay, a guest gobbling down my carefully crafted sandwiches like so many potato chips.

Risotto Villa d’Este
In 1972, I accompanied Beard and two photographers on a magazine assignment to gather recipes from starry hotels in England, Germany, Spain, and Italy. This unusual treatment of risotto is adapted from a recipe contributed by the posh Villa d’Este on Lake Como in northern Italy. It calls for a lavish splash of heavy cream, which may be out of bounds for today’s more cautious cooks, but the brave cook will be rewarded.

Prune-Stuffed Loin of Pork
Pork goes well with fruit (think applesauce), and here the prune stuffing gives a hint of sweetness and distinction to an otherwise ordinary dish. Beard and I once did a smoked loin of pork stuffed with dried apricots, as well as a fresh loin stuffed with prunes, and served up a slice of each.

Cannelloni With Crepes
One year, Beard gave me a crepe pan for my birthday, along with a spatula, whisk, and a card that read, “It takes a lot of crap to make a crepe.” I used the pan to prepare this gentrified version of the familiar Italian dish, which substitutes crepes for the traditional pasta. A favorite of mine for lunch or supper entertaining, it took guests by surprise—and it never failed. (See variation under Chicken Crepes.)

Plus: Check out Hungry Beast for more news on the latest restaurants, hot chefs, and tasty recipes.

John Ferrone has been an editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich for 26 years. As James Beard’s longtime friend and editor, he worked with Beard on his memoir Delights and Prejudices, five of his cookbooks, including American Cookery,  and over a hundred articles.