Diary: Patricia Storace, My Dinner With Ismail (Part Two)

Radha and Krishna in the boat of love, Nihâl Chand, National Museum, New Dehli

(Read Part One of this post here)

It was a surprise and pleasure to receive an invitation for a summer dinner at their country house, particularly since Ismail could have no earthly use for me. To make the two-hour trip to Claverack, New York, I invited a friend who loves driving and good food, so we could both taste Ismail’s famous cooking. Like a benevolent version of Stephen King’s murderous Plymouth, Christine, though, our rental car simply refused to take us where we thought we wanted to go. Two hours became three, five, seven, the sun set, radiant stars assumed the sky, and we kept encountering the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, talking inexhaustibly as we arrived nowhere. “We will arrive after a hundred years have passed,” I said. We felt as if we had somehow driven outside time, traveling in a state of suspension, like the moment before fireworks fall or when a singer is holding a note.

It was midnight when we finally pulled in; though the last guests were just leaving Ismail brought a feast to the garden just for us; there were his signature lemon lentils, and flatbreads, and his ebullient hospitality, as generous for us as for a larger audience. The drive back was just as circuitous, although it featured a stop to ask directions in a village that was inexplicably Irish, where people spoke in brogues and sang Gaelic songs in the bar. We drank a Guinness and stayed lost. “Don’t look back,” my friend said when we drove off, “it won’t be there.”

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This pandemic Christmas is a Christmas of wishing: one of ours is to go to Rajasthan and take a basket of roses to the shrine of Kwaja Mohinuddin Chistie. If we had arrived on time for our dinner with Ismail, my driving companion and I might not have married at Christmas a few years later, a marriage already forming that night we were lost, and unwittingly going in precisely the right direction: one of Ismail Merchant’s inadvertent, incidental miracles.

Jeanne Moreau’s Potato Paté
Ismail Merchant’s Indian recipes are easily found in his cookbook, Ismail Merchant’s Passionate Meals. This recipe by his kitchen soul mate, the actress Jeanne Moreau, for a country potato and crême fraîche pie, is from his book about Paris. He called it “the best potato dish I have ever eaten.” Its simple luxury makes it ideal for Christmas dinner, but even better served the day after, as a centerpiece to the leftovers. You can keep it in the fridge overnight, ready for baking the next day, cultivating the illusion that it has just magically appeared. This recipe is drawn both from Moreau’s instructions and the cooking teacher Anne Willan’s. It should be made with flaky puff or rough puff pastry, for the contrast in textures with the potato filling. Anne Willan, of course, makes her own, while Moreau uses commercial puff pastry, which makes the dish almost effortless to produce.

Prepare the crême fraîche (or heavy cream) garnish the night before you construct the pie, so the seasonings can infuse the liquid. Moreau uses an entire cup of chopped chervil, Willan favors garlic and parsley. I used a mixture of chervil and cilantro, along with the garlic.

Mix 6 tablespoons of crême fraîche or heavy cream with 3 chopped garlic cloves, 4 tablespoons of parsley or cilantro, and 2 tablespoons chervil. Infuse overnight in the refrigerator. Next day, peel and thinly slice 1 and ¼ pounds waxy potatoes—the potato slices should be thin, but not mandoline-sliced paper thin; some variation in the size of the slices actually adds to the texture. Bring a saucepan of salted water to boil. Add the potatoes, then simmer for 3 to 5 minutes. They should be firm, but partly cooked, just so you can pierce them with a knife. Drain the potatoes, rinse, and drain again until thoroughly dry. Season them with salt, pepper, and nutmeg, and leave to cool.

Butter a half sheet pan, or a pie tin with a removable bottom, and lay a sheet of puff pastry on it. Arrange half of the potato slices on the pastry, overlapping the slices to within an inch of the pastry’s edge. Spoon half the infused crême fraiche or cream over the potatoes, then add the second layer of potatoes, and cover with the second sheet of pastry. With a sharp knife, cut chevron-shaped vents in the dough, on all four sides, so that steam can escape. Then cut a 5-inch circle in the center of the pie, which will rise into a small crown during baking. Brush the pie with a glaze of 2 egg yolks mixed with a tablespoon of milk, and chill for 30 minutes while you preheat the oven to 425 degrees (Fahrenheit).

Bake the pie on the lower shelf for 25-30 minutes until it is golden and heat the remaining crême fraiche. Moreau serves the heated crême fraiche at the table, as garnish, Willan lifts off the crown of the pie, and pours it into the pie itself. It’s a rich dish, but a glory to have once a year while we are alive.

Patricia’s Potato Paté

Patricia Storace’s most recent book is the novel The Book of Heaven, in which the intimate histories of eating and storytelling are also deeply entwined. She is also the author of Dinner with Persephone: Travels in Greeceand a book of poems, HeredityThis is the latest in her series of diaries on cooking and reading for Book Post. Her previous recipes for Christmas included Chestnut and Chocolate Pavé, with a consideration of Christmas ghosts, and the Georgia turkey dressing of Civil Rights activist and author Lilian Smith.

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