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HOME COOKING : Clarisse Explains It All

October 06, 1994|MARION CUNNINGHAM

One of my favorite books about food is "Clarisse, or the Old Cook." A very small book, almost 100 years old, it propounds the reflections and prejudices of "Clarisse," the Chinese cook of an English aristocrat. There is a small note in the front of the book that reads: "This book is by a French connoisseur who wished to remain anonymous."

Here is an example of Clarisse's wise observations: "Do not make a fetish of truffles, as the bourgeois do. Truffles are excellent, but they are not sublime. I do not deny that they add a pleasant flavor to a chicken or to scrambled eggs, but people who speak of them solemnly with pursed-up lips are not sincere. The aroma of truffles is dry and coarse. I blame them for not being really worthy either of their high price or their legendary reputation."

Throughout the book there is a sprinkling of narrative recipes, the kind that just rough out the cooking instructions. I've tried a few and they are, as promised, good. Take the following recipe, for example:

"Cucumbers as a salad are not very tempting," the author writes. "It is not easy to season these weepers to the right extent, as a little salt brings forth abundant tears; in the country, I learned a way of eating them that delighted me.

"First, one must have a dish of potatoes, or, I should say, a frying-pan of them, for they cannot be done successfully except in this kitchen utensil. Cut your potatoes into fairly thin slices in your pan and pour in some water. Salt and pepper them, and season with a little bacon. Also put in a sprig of basil, a bay-leaf and a tomato. All this you cook on a fairly hot fire, keeping the pan covered. A quarter of an hour to 20 minutes will suffice.

"When ready to serve, peel a cucumber with not too many seeds and cut it into four slices lengthways. Add salt and pepper, and munch these cold slices at the same time you eat the hot potatoes. I assure you there is nothing better."

My American version of this recipe follows. If you wish, add to this simple meal some hard-boiled eggs, cut in half and then pressed, cut side down, into a mixture of finely chopped parsley, garlic and coarse salt, with a little olive oil dribbled on top.


For dessert, apple pie in a cornmeal crust would be especially good if made using the new harvest of Gravenstein apples now available at farmers markets.


1 1/2 pounds peeled, sliced russet potatoes

10 fresh basil leaves

3 bay leaves

1 large tomato, chopped into small dice

3 slices smoked bacon


3/4 cup water

3 cucumbers, peeled, sliced in quarters, lengthwise, seeded

In 10-inch skillet add potatoes, basil leaves, bay leaves, tomato and bacon. Season lightly to taste with salt. Add water. Cover and cook on high heat. When water boils, turn heat to low. Keep water bubbling. Cook 10 to 15 minutes more. Pierce potatoes with fork to check if tender and done.

Season cucumbers to taste with salt, then chill.

Serve potatoes hot in shallow bowls with 3 chilled slices of cucumber on each serving. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

270 calories; 217 mg sodium; 11 mg cholesterol; 10 grams fat; 40 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 2.37 grams fiber.


1 3/4 cups flour

1/2 cup yellow cornmeal

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup shortening

6 to 8 tablespoons water

8 large apples, cored, peeled and sliced

1/2 cup to 1 cup sugar

1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1/4 cup cold butter, cut into small dice

Put flour, cornmeal and salt into mixing bowl. Add shortening. Using your hands, or pastry blender, lightly rub shortening and flour together, or cut shortening and flour together, until mixture resembles coarse meal. Slowly add water, stirring with fork until pastry holds together in rough ball.

Lightly flour board. Divide dough in half. Roll half into circle about 2 inches larger than 9-inch pie pan. Drape bottom pie dough in pie pan.

Put apple slices into large bowl. In small bowl mix sugar and cinnamon. Stir to blend. Add to apple slices. Add more sugar to taste, if needed.

Mound apple slices over dough in pie plate. Roll remaining dough half out to same size as bottom layer. Place over apples. Tuck edges under, but above rim of pie pan. Crimp or use fork to finish edges. Place pie on baking sheet to catch bubbling juices.

Bake 15 minutes at 450 degrees. Then turn oven down to 350 degrees and continue to bake 40 to 45 minutes, or until top is golden and juices are bubbling. Serve warm. Makes 1 (9-inch) pie, about 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

465 calories; 207 mg sodium; 16 mg cholesterol; 26 grams fat; 57 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.82 gram fiber.

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