Two great Presidents were born during this month--Abraham Lincoln on Feb. 12, and George Washington on Feb. 22. Why not celebrate Presidents' Day with some dishes they enjoyed?
Potatoes came from the Americas and were a staple in the early years of independence. An anthology of presidential recipes, "The President's Cookbook," edited by Poppy Cannon and Patricia Brooks, describes a favorite recipe of Martha Washington for "stoved" potatoes, baked slowly in the oven, layered with beef steaks.
Beef Subs for Mutton
The original recipe calls for mutton, and I was interested to try beef instead. After gentle cooking for an hour or more, potatoes and meat become meltingly tender, their flavors heightened with onions and a touch of bay leaf and garlic.
Contemporary accompaniments to the potatoes and beef would undoubtedly have included horseradish sauce, fruit chutney and perhaps a pickled walnut or two. Nor would salads have been lacking, despite the winter season. As vegetables available in February, Jefferson lists lettuce, spinach, cabbage, endives, cauliflower and cresses, as well as all the roots. From such a selection it is easy to pick a favorite salad idea.
Abe Lincoln's tastes are less clearly documented, but he mentions a partiality for molasses, so often used instead of sugar in early dishes. This recipe is rich but light, with none of the cloying sweetness of some pecan pies. Cook it just until set, as the mixture dries easily if overcooked. No native treat could more happily fete the birthdays of these two Presidents.
MARTHA WASHINGTON'S STOVED STEAK AND POTATOES
1 tablespoon oil
3 tablespoons butter
6 rib-eye steaks
2 large onions, sliced
3 pounds potatoes, sliced
1 teaspoon crushed bay leaf
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/4 cup chopped parsley
2 cups chicken or veal stock
Heat oil and 1 1/2 tablespoons butter in skillet. Brown steaks on both sides. Remove steaks and pour off all except 2 tablespoons fat.
Saute onions in skillet until tender, but not brown. Combine onions with potatoes, salt and pepper to taste, bay leaf, garlic and 2 tablespoons chopped parsley.
Grease shallow baking dish large enough to hold steaks in 1 layer. Spread 1/2 potato mixture over bottom of dish. Arrange steaks over top of potatoes. Cover with remaining potato mixture. Pour in enough stock to come just to top of mixture.
Dot potatoes with remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons butter. Bake at 350 degrees until potatoes are tender when tested with skewer, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Top layer of potatoes should be light brown and most of liquid should have been absorbed. If necessary, brown potatoes briefly under broiler. Recipe may be cooked up to 3 days ahead and refrigerated, or frozen.
To finish, cover dish with foil and reheat at 350 degrees until very hot, 20 to 30 minutes. Serve in baking dish, sprinkled with remaining 2 tablespoons chopped parsley. Makes 6 servings.
Note: Any fairly tender steak may be used in recipe.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN'S MOLASSES-
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup melted butter
8 ounces pecan halves
1 (10-inch) unbaked pie shell
Whisk together eggs, brown sugar and molasses until smooth and light, about 5 minutes. Stir in vanilla, salt and melted butter.
Sprinkle 1/2 pecans in pie shell. Pour in mixture, then arrange remaining 1/2 pecans in circles over top. Bake at 350 degrees until filling is set, about 1 hour.
Warm pie in 250-degree oven 10 to 15 minutes before serving. Makes 6 servings.
Note: Do not overcook or pie will be dry. Pie is best eaten day of baking, but may be stored up to 2 days in airtight container. Molasses may be omitted, if desired, and amount of sugar doubled.