A Student Remembers: James Beard (May 5, 1903 – January 21, 1985)

James BeardHe sat on his high director’s chair overseeing his small class of burgeoning cooks, offering instruction in a relaxed, never dogmatic manner.  He seemed larger than life, 6’ 2” with noticeably large hands and feet.  I watched him knead a ball of dough for two loaves with one hand.  I had been on a waiting list to enroll in his classes for 2 ½ years  and I was intimidated by him not because of any arrogance, but by who he was.  Imagine “the dean of American cookery” and me hanging onto his every word and hoping I wouldn’t do something outrageous like knocking over his large jar of saffron.  His manner was, in fact, quite down-to-earth and he only regaled us with his travels and favorite restaurants when someone asked him.

Classes and instruction

The classes were intensive, meeting every night from 5 ‘til around 10.  We prepared a complete meal. Mr. Beard selected wine and we all sat down in the dining room of his West 12th Street Village townhouse. One evening he brought out of storage in his wine cellar heavy black baking sheets he’d ordered from France.  I still have a set as they are indestructible. I remember as we dined that he didn’t care for coffee, but truly enjoyed good wine.

On the Monday night the class began, we began the making of a glace de viande.  It started with a beef rump roast tied with a string to the handles of a large stockpot of water but not touching the bottom. After a number of additions and five days of continuous simmering, on Friday night we uncovered about a cupful of ambrosial, thick velvety glace de viande.

An Avid Listener

Every night we made a salad to accompany the evening meal.  One night Mr. Beard asked each of us to relate how we made a vinaigrette dressing.  Everyone made it a little differently; some added Dijon mustard, some extra virgin olive oil, others a combination of olive oil and peanut oil.  What so impressed me was that Mr.  Beard, intent on learning something new, was truly listening to each of us.

The Cuisinart Food Processor had just become available and, of course, Mr. Beard had a new toy.  I remember him experimenting with it, seeing for himself what it could do and not do.  It made a mince of meat, he noted, but it couldn’t grind meat.  I got my own and wondered how I ever lived without one.  It made beautiful baby food.

Every cook should have a Clay Triplette

Always present was Mr. Beard’s long time housekeeper and guy Friday, Clay Triplette.  Clay was a cook in his own right, a man of interesting heritage, American Indian, Polish and Irish.  Clay helped out in the kitchen and seemed to enjoy passing on to students his own recipes and those of other teachers who had taught in Beard’s kitchen.  I envied Mr. Beard for his Clay Triplette who whisked away every utensil, bowl or pot that had just been used and promptly washed it and put it away.  I have always thought how much easier cooking would be if I had my own Clay Triplette.

Just an iota of his legacy

Today, May 5, is Mr. Beard’s birthday. I learned a lot from James Beard, including some techniques that one is seldom called upon to use, such as removing the breast meat from a turkey while keeping the skin intact for a “terrine of the farm.”  But it’s nice to know you can do it. Here, however is a more practical recipe he taught me. This is an arranged salad with a big wow factor.  Whisked unexpectedly to the table, this platter will command gasps of breath with accolades to follow.??????????????

Composed Salad

Prepare a vinaigrette dressing by mincing 2 cloves of garlic and 2 large shallots in a bowl. Whisk in a tablespoon of Dijon mustard and 1/4 cup of a good red wine vinegar. (We used to use Dessaux Fils, but it may no longer be available. Badia a Coltibuono from Italy, both balanced and piquant, is what I use now.)  After that is thoroughly incorporated, slowly drizzle in ½ cup extra virgin olive oil and ¼ cup peanut oil. Add ¼ teaspoon freshly ground fresh black pepper and 1 teaspoon kosher salt.  Taste and adjust seasoning.

Divide the dressing into the number of ingredients you wish to marinate. Add a different herb to each portion keeping in mind how each will enhance the ingredient.  For example, finely julienned basil for tomato wedges.  Other herbs you might use include oregano, dill, tarragon, mint, savory or chervil.  The idea, of course, is to add a complimentary herb to each ingredient and wind up with a variety of flavors.

The ingredients are innumerable: roasted peppers, cooked asparagus or string beans, chick peas, tomato wedges, sliced cooked beets, avocado , cucumber, hard cooked egg wedges, salami, tuna, white bean salad, to list a few. Six or seven items is probably ideal, arranged on a bed of baby romaine or watercress.  Imported olives, capers, anchovies or caper berries can provide an accent.

The fun part is turning loose your imagination to arrange your platter. You’ll want to juxtapose contrasting colors and artistically design a round, oval, rectangular or square arrangement or whatever suits your fancy. Bask in your accolades and enjoy!

“Physically he was the connoisseur’s connoisseur. He was a giant panda, Santa Claus and the Jolly Green Giant rolled into one. On him, a lean and slender physique would have looked like very bad casting.” Craig Claiborne (on James Beard)


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