I only ate at the late James Beard's house on two occasions. Both meals were singularly memorable, composed of no-frill dishes that were unique, fresh and unabashedly American.
So, it comes as a real pleasure to be able to report that the tradition of good food under his roof still flourishes. Some of the best and brightest chefs in America are happily at home on his range from time to time, turning out equally spectacular dinners as a personal tribute to Beard, while also making a public commitment to the James Beard Foundation.
The James Beard Foundation is a nonprofit organization, formed after Beard's death in 1985, to preserve his Greenwich Village home. The foundation's mission is to establish the Beard House as a national culinary center and in time (when sufficient funds are secured) to establish an American food and wine library and a research facility on the premises. The foundation also hopes to endow grants for outstanding students of American gastronomy in honor of the dean of American cuisine.
I attended several fund-raising dinners at Beard House, where the roster of kitchen practitioners read like a who's who at the American stove: Wolfgang Puck of Spago in Los Angeles, Jimmy Schmidt of Rattlesnake Club in Denver, Jasper White of Jasper's in Boston and Stephen Pyles of Routh Street Cafe in Dallas.
A Change of Restaurant Scene
The meals are a shock to a habitue of New York's restaurant scene. In the first place, every dish is literally prepared by the chef and on your plate seconds after it leaves his hands. For another, assemblage in the dining room is small and appreciative applause is not unusual after a first bite.
Pyles, chef and co-owner of Routh Street Cafe, is credited by Bon Appetit Magazine as "single-handedly changing the cooking scene in Texas." Any time he wants a change of geography, I warrant the rest of the country's culinary scene is his for the taking as well. A magician as much as a chef, Pyles' dishes look incredible, yet taste even better. I counted murmurs of pleasure around the room as each fresh course of his dinner arrived. And it was sheer restraint of will not to beg for seconds.
His cooking style is what I deem Tex-Amex specialties like lobster enchiladas, smoked duck with jicama and papaya, blue cornmeal-battered catfish, etc.
Jean Louis Palladin of Watergate Restaurant in Washington will be at the stove in July, and Bradley Ogden of Campton Place in San Francisco will be there in September. The Beard dinners are tax-deductible and cost $65 to members and $85 to non-members, including wine and gratuities. For more information, write the James Beard Foundation, 167 West 12th St., New York, N.Y. 10011; or call (212) 675-4984.
My favorite Pyles' course comes in three stages: warm apple spice cake with warmer caramel sauce and out-of-this-world cinnamon-pecan ice cream. Here is the works.
STEPHAN PYLES' APPLE-RAISIN SPICE CAKE
2/3 cup raisins
1/4 cup bourbon
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup cake flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground mace
1/4 teaspoon powdered ginger
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 1/3 cups sugar
2 1/4 cups chopped, cored apples, unpeeled
1/2 cup chopped roasted pecans
Pecan Ice Cream
Place raisins in small bowl. Pour bourbon over top. Let stand.
Sift flours, baking soda, nutmeg, cinnamon, mace, ginger and salt together in bowl. Set aside.
In large bowl of electric mixer, beat butter, slowly adding sugar, until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, 1 at a time. Stir in raisins with all liquid.
Fold dry ingredients into cake batter until well-mixed. Stir in apples and pecans. Spoon batter into 9-inch buttered and floured springform pan. Bake at 325 degrees until cake tester inserted in center comes out clean, about 1 hour 15 minutes. Cool on rack. Serve with Caramel Sauce and Pecan Ice Cream.
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup dark corn syrup
1 cup whipping cream or half and half
Combine sugars, syrups and cream in heavy saucepan. Heat to boiling. Boil until mixture reaches 220 degrees on candy thermometer, about 10 to 12 minutes. Cool. Drizzle over cake before serving. Makes about 1 pint.
Pecan Ice Cream
2 cups milk
1 cup roasted pecan halves
1 vanilla bean, split
6 egg yolks
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup whipping cream
1/4 cup sour cream
Combine milk, pecans and vanilla bean in medium saucepan. Slowly heat to boiling. Cover and remove from heat. Let stand 30 minutes. Return to boil and strain.
Beat yolks with sugar until light and fluffy. Slowly beat in hot, strained milk. Transfer mixture to saucepan and cook, stirring constantly, over low heat until thickened, about 10 minutes. Cool. Stir in whipping cream and sour cream. Chill thoroughly.
Transfer mixture to ice cream maker and proceed according to manufacturer's instructions. Makes about 1 quart.