Three great presidents were born within the next two months -- Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12), George Washington (Feb. 22) and Thomas Jefferson (April 13). What better way could there be to celebrate Presidents' Day on Monday than with some dishes that they enjoyed?
Bean soup has long been a southern favorite. The recipe given in "Thomas Jefferson's Cook Book," published in 1949 by Garrett and Massie, Inc., and edited by Marie Kimball, gives few details, leaving the cook to improvise on seasoning and choice of beans. Here is the chance to use black beans and to include a ham bone, unbeatable for simmering with dried beans and peas. If ham hocks are used the meat can be diced to serve in the soup. Equally classic is the last-minute addition of a spoonful of madeira, a favorite drink in the 18th century.
Potatoes came from the Americas and were a staple in the early years of independence. An anthology of presidential recipes, "The Presidents' Cookbook," published by Funk and Wagnalls in 1968 and 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. The original recipe calls for mutton, but I was interested to try beef instead. After gently cooking for an hour or more, potatoes and meat become meltingly soft, 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 your 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 birthday of three presidents.
How wise are traditional cooks in preparing ahead.
Up to three days ahead: Make black bean soup. Bake steaks with potatoes.
Up to one day ahead: Prepare vegetables and dressing for salad. Bake pecan pie.
Thirty minutes before serving: Heat oven to 350 degrees.
Twenty minutes before serving: Reheat steaks in oven.
Five minutes before serving: Reheat soup on top of stove, add madeira and lemon juice and serve.
While serving steaks: Lower oven heat to 250 degrees and warm pecan pie.
THOMAS JEFFERSON'S BLACK BEAN SOUP (6 servings)
White beans or lentils can be substituted for black beans.
1 pound black beans
1 pound smoked ham hocks
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 carrot, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons madeira
Juice of 1/2 lemon
6 slices lemon
6 slices hard-cooked egg
To soak the beans: put them in a saucepan with water to cover by 2 inches. Bring water to a boil and take from heat. Cover pan and let beans soak 1 hour.
Drain beans and put in a pot with ham hocks, thyme, carrot, onion, garlic, salt, pepper and 1 quart water. Cover, bring to a boil and simmer until beans and ham hocks are very tender, about 2 hours. Add more water if necessary during cooking so beans are always covered.
Remove ham hocks, cut meat off bones, dice it and reserve. Pure'e soup in a food processor and work it through a sieve to remove any fibers or work it through a food mill. If soup is too thick, add enough water so it pours easily from a spoon. Add meat from ham hocks. The soup can be refrigerated 3 days or frozen.
Just before serving, bring soup to a boil. Add madeira and lemon juice and taste for seasoning. Pour soup into a tureen or individual bowls and top with lemon and egg slices.
MARTHA WASHINGTON'S STOVED STEAK WITH POTATOES (6 servings)
Any fairly tender steak can be used in this recipe.
1 tablespoon oil
3 tablespoons butter
6 rib-eye steaks
2 large onions, sliced
3 pounds potatoes, sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon crushed bay leaf
1 clove garlic, chopped
4 tablespoons chopped parsley
2 cups chicken or veal stock, more if needed
In a skillet, heat oil and half the butter and brown steaks on both sides. Remove steaks and pour off fat, leaving about 2 tablespoons.
Saute' onions in pan until soft but not brown. Mix onions with potatoes, salt, pepper, bay leaf, garlic and half the chopped parsley.
Butter a shallow baking dish large enough to hold steaks in a single layer. Spread half the potato mixture in the dish and arrange steaks on top. Cover with the rest of the potato mixture. Pour in enough stock to come just to top of mixture. Dot potatoes with remaining butter and bake at 350 degrees, uncovered, until potatoes are tender when tested with a skewer, about 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 the broiler. The dish can be cooked up to 3 days ahead and refrigerated, or frozen.
To finish: cover dish with foil and reheat in a 350-degree oven until very hot, 20 to 30 minutes. Serve in a baking dish, sprinkled with chopped parsley.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN'S MOLASSES PECAN PIE (6 servings)
You can omit the molasses and double the amount of sugar.
1 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
1/4 cup melted butter
8 ounces pecan halves
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 half the pecans in the pie shell. Pour in mixture and arrange pecans in circles on top. Bake pie in a 350-degree oven until filling is set, about 1 hour. Note: Do not overcook or pie will be dry. It is best eaten the day of baking but can be stored up to 2 days in an airtight container.
Warm pie in a 250-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.