As any proper gentleman knows, the best food is that which has not been messed about with.
Indeed there are those who describe the gentleman's food of choice as bland, stolid and boring. But the gentleman -- who by definition is always an Anglophile -- knows best just what is and isn't seemly on his table. He likes nothing better than lauding the hominess of Bird's custard or decrying the foolishness of tea without milk. In Washington, it's hard being a gentleman, what with all this fuss over baba ghanouj and French wines.
Anglophile Washington-style translates into variations on meat and potatoes. Lettuce and tomato salad. Plebeian ingredients only; no spices or exotic ingredients that may distress the unadventurous stomach. You'll never see a gentleman ordering satay with sweet-spicy peanut sauce at the Thai Room or buying jalapen os on Columbia Road.
Deviation from a set feeding schedule tends to irritate this proper man, and large lunches are generally followed by catnaps. Since he eats to live rather than the opposite, mealtime becomes just a necessity -- thus the attractiveness of dishes like shepherd's pie, which get the whole meal over with at once.
The best a local gentleman can do is buy the right marmalade, shop at Britches and furnish his flat with mahogany bookcases. When it comes to feeding him, though, it's not as easy as just getting him a catalogue subscription to Crabtree & Evelyn or stocking up on Major Grey's chutney. Some tips, then, for catering to Anglophile eaters:
* Never propose substituting yogurt for sour cream when serving potatoes. This may be likened to suggesting that the Social Democrats replace the Conservatives.
* If serving romaine instead of iceberg lettuce, warn ahead, planning against inquiries such as, "What happened to the lettuce?"
* Combining foods in one mouthful is taboo. A gentleman chews his steak and swallows it, then reaches for a forkful of mashed potatoes. The plate must be empty, or at least cleared away, before salad is served.
* For flavoring, stick with dishes spiked with alcohol.
* Cream sauces on beef are very popular, as are cream sauces flavored with alcohol (especially brandy). And remember, there is no such thing as too much sauce or too much gravy.
* Candlelight is preferred to overhead light at all times, even for hamburgers on buns on hot summer nights. Dining beside a fireplace is the stuff of a gentleman's fantasy.
* No original containers are allowed on the dinner table. Mustard and ketchup are served in condiment bowls, not in their jars.
* Serve imported beer and domestic wine from little-known vineyards. Martinis must be made with Bombay gin.
* Don't try to make food look pretty. Remember that in the mind of a gentleman a simple potato sliced accordion-fashion becomes a new and unfamiliar dish. It may still taste like a potato, but a change in looks signals distrust and unexpected festivity ("What is it, your mother's birthday?").
* Even when a gentleman likes what he eats, don't expect descriptive praise. "Pretty good" means it's the best thing he's eaten since the steak and kidney pie in Sussex.
Below, some simple gentlemanly fare. LANCASHIRE HOT POT (4 servings) Oil or butter for browning 4 shoulder lamb chops 1 1/2 cups mushrooms, sliced 3 medium potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced 1 large onion, thinly sliced Salt and freshly ground pepper Beef broth or bouillon 1 tablespoon butter, melted In a large skillet, heat oil or butter and briefly brown the lamb chops. Using a casserole at least 6 inches deep, place two lamb chops, then mushrooms, onions and potatoes in layers, seasoning each layer with salt and pepper. Repeat the sequence, finishing with a layer of potatoes, making sure that the slices overlap. Pour in enough broth to fill the pot halfway. Brush potatoes with melted butter and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cover pot and place in 350-degree oven for 1 1/2 hours. Remove the cover and cook for an additional 1/2 hour to brown the potatoes. STEAKS WITH SHALLOT CREAM SAUCE (2 servings)
This is a borderline "messed about with" dish to be saved for special occasions.
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon butter
2 large rib eye steaks, 1 1/4 inches thick
2 to 3 tablespoons minced shallots
1/2 cup strong beef broth or bouillon
1/2 cup good brandy
1/2 cup heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Heat the oil and butter in a large, heavy skillet until very hot. Saute' the steaks until nicely browned and medium-rare, 4 or 5 minutes each side. Remove to a heated serving platter and keep warm.
Add more butter to the skillet if needed, and saute' the shallots for about 1 minute. Add the beef broth and the brandy. Raise the heat and stir, scraping the brown bits from the bottom. Continue to cook over high heat, uncovered, until reduced by half. Lower the heat. Add the cream and cook, stirring, until the sauce thickens. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour the sauce over the steaks and serve immediately, accompanied by baked potatoes.
Adapted from "The International Association of Cooking Schools Cookbook" SHEPHERD'S PIE (4 to 6 servings) 1 1/2 pounds chuck, cut into small cubes Flour for dredging plus 2 to 3 tablespoons for gravy 2 tablespoons oil or butter or a combination 1 large onion, sliced 3/4 cup red wine, approximately 2 1/4 cups beef broth or bouillon, approximately 1 1/2 cups sliced carrots, cooked 8 medium potatoes, mashed 1/2 cup heavy cream Salt and pepper
Dredge meat in flour. In large skillet, saute' onions in butter and/or oil until soft. Add meat and brown. Add 1/4 cup of wine and 3/4 cup of the broth plus about 2 teaspoons flour, or enough flour until gravy reaches the desired thickness. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes. Add the rest of the wine and broth and slowly add enough flour to thicken, stirring as you add. Cook for another 5 to 10 minutes, adding cooked carrots to the skillet in the last 5 minutes.
While meat and gravy are cooking, mash potatoes. Slowly add heavy cream while mashing until potatoes are a smooth consistency. Salt and pepper to taste.
With a slotted spoon, remove meat and carrots from skillet (allowing some gravy to follow) and transfer to a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Reserve additional gravy in skillet. Spread mashed potatoes over meat and smooth with a knife. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes.
Reheat the gravy in the skillet, stirring constantly (adding more wine, broth or flour as necessary), and serve to the side in a sauceboat.