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1950s Archive

Viennese Memoir

Luncheon on the Terrace

Originally Published May 1959

Saving the best for the last is all very well anywhere except in Vienna. There, even a close and trusted friend is apt to lean over and eat the choice morsel right out from under the very nose of the man who was saving it for himself. The wise man always eats the best first of all, and eats it quickly, even before he himself has taken a look around to see what tempts him on his neighbor's plate. The habit of tasting one another's food is so deeply ingrained in the Viennese that, after going into a lengthy huddle, they order dishes for one another's sake rather than their own. “What's mine is thine” is the rule, at least when they have luncheon on the terrace of a restaurant on the first warm Sunday in May.

Ordinarily, the perfect Viennese host who has asked luncheon guests to a public restaurant knows that everything must be done to give his guests the benefit of the specialties of the restaurant, but he must also preserve as far as possible the atmosphere of home. They must remain completely unaware of all financial and mechanical aspects of the occasion—the table must be reserved, it must be decorated with suitable flowers, the host must pay one or more visits to the restaurant in advance to confer with the captain about the menu and the wines, parts of which he samples on these visits. The seating and staging of the luncheon are arranged, the bill is paid, tips are distributed—or if the host knows the restaurant well, he settles these latter matters later, and uses the opportunity to test a few neglected specialties. The most important thing is that the guest does not, under any circumstances, see a menu or select his own dishes, and he must not, above all, see the host presented with a bill for what he has just eaten. Most unthinkable of all he must under no circumstances see the host total up the bill, carefully count out the money, and then, with a look of calculation, add the percentage he deems correct to leave for the waiter.

Every well-brought-up Viennese knows and practices this ritual up to the point where they all go utterly and lovably Wieneriscb and rake themselves off to a restaurant for an informal meal of tasting rather than eating.

Actually, the Viennese combined the black heart of a poacher, the curiosity of Pandora, and the adventurous zeal of Columbus when they arranged a luncheon party in a public restaurant. They invaded one another's plates so ruthlessly that it was sometimes necessary to hide the best nuggets under mashed potatoes or a similar camouflage. An uninformed Aüslander once drew blood when he defended his dinner from the onslaught of his otherwise extremely well-bred host. The host, a true Viennese, carried a scar across his hand and felt himself deeply injured; he had, after all, persuaded his guest to order the filet just because a bite of it would go so well with the tongue he had ordered for himself.

An outing to Luxenburg, to the Cobenzl, or even to Baden, was an annual event from which anyone else would have returned with, at best, information and experience about one or two dishes, the ones they had chosen for themselves. They might even have had a look at passing dishes, and have made a note to order the Blumenkohl mit Schinken next year—but not the Viennese. A party at a restaurant with six friends meant that everyone returned with a pretty good working knowledge of the restaurant's entire menu, since everyone ate a little off everyone else's plate and everyone had ordered three courses—all of them different—if not from preference, then to widen their friends' gastronomic experience. The guest who returned the menu to the waiter and expressed himself as willing to eat the same as anyone else at the table was not worth inviting; he was a spoilsport and obviously not Viennese.

When the first scent of linden blossoms hit the streets of Vienna, Herr and Fran Baronin invited six friends to join them for a terrace luncheon at a restaurant overlooking the city. All formalities were put aside; they were going to enjoy themselves and they went out early, not to order, but only to be sure of a table that faced the view. While they awaited their guests, Herr Baron glanced at the menu and discovered asparagus Maltese, which Frau Baronin adored. He asked the captain to set aside a portion, and, for safety's sake, a portion also of asparagus with Prager Schinken, ham, for himself.

When Uncle Otto and Tante Lucie came, they also glanced at the menu. Uncle Otto wanted blue trout, but, what was more, he wanted Tante Lucie to have the paprika schnitzel so that he could enjoy a corner of spicy meat after his rather bland fish. He inquired into his host's and hostess' choices and declared himself perfectly satisfied with what they had ordered, when he found out about the asparagus. He was going to have a tender blue trout with boiled potatoes and cucumber salad, a corner of a schnitzel, and just enough asparagus to round out his menu satisfactorily and leave him with room for a really well-done Kaiserchmarrn for dessert. Tante Lucie wasn't at all co-operative; she didn't want any trout, but most important of all, she didn't want the schnitzel. She wanted desperately and hungrily a Wienerwurst mit Sauerkraut, a dish that would go badly with her husband's choice and one he absolutely forbade her to order. She was finally persuaded to have eggs stuffed with caviar, the schnitzel, and a salad, an arrangement she would agree to only after she heard that Frau Baronin had ordered asparagus auf Malteser Art.

When Herr and Fran Hofrat arrived, followed closely by the Excellenz with her daughter, they all retired to a summer house with Herr Ober and the menus. Herr Hofrat and the Hofrätin agreed at once, since they had discussed the matter in great detail all the way out from Vienna, that one of them would choose chicken and the other would choose beef. They would both take a new Vorspeise, or first course, which would widen both their horizons doubly, and, since they always chose opposite desserts, there was no question but that they could look forward to a good luncheon experience, that is, provided someone else had ordered a nice salad and a fresh green vegetable—for instance, asparagus.

Excellenz was a character, she could not be swayed, but everyone approved her choice of Ente, as it would add to all their luncheons to have just a fillip of dark duck and a little piece of apple stuffing. Her daughter's choice was made for her. Everyone warted to try the liver pudding without having to have a lot of it; and since they all wanted to taste the mushrooms, they agreed that both were excellent for Backfische, girls of sixteen who might still be growing. “Mädi wants champignons,” said the Excellenz firmly, over the head of her surprised daughter, who really wanted a great novelty she had discovered on the menu, an exotic specially called Irish stew.

Herr Ober, himself a Viennese, was entirely experienced in the raids and attacks the guests would make on one another's plates. But he was not prepared for the gusto with which they all pounced on the asparagus. A bus boy sent to the kitchen returned with the message that there was no more asparagus at the very moment when Herr Baron had one stalk left, while Frau Baronin, whose guests had helped themselves crosswise and not lengthwise, was left with nine white stumps of asparagus on her plate.

The sun set over Vienna, and the guests, who among them had eaten twenty-four different dishes, prepared to start on their way back to the city. Uncle Otto was the last person to say goodbye. He thanked his nephew with unusual warmth. “You see,” he said, “I simply love asparagus.”

Spargel (Steamed Asparagus)

Steam 2 pounds asparagus, cleaned and trimmed, in an asparagus steamer, with 2 cups salted water. If a steamer is not available, tie the asparagus into a tight bunch and stand it in 2 inches of boiling salted water in the lower section of a small double boiler. Invert the top of the double boiler over the asparagus heads, completely enclosing them. Do not lift the top again, or the steam will dispense. Steam young stalks 12 to 20 minutes; older stalks may require up to 30 minutes. Steamed in this way, the asparagus should be very green and crisp. If it is steamed too long, it becomes dark in color and too soft.

Schinken Spargel (Ham and Asparagus)

Cream 4 tablespoons butter and with it just barely bind 1/2 pound Westphalian ham, sliced and cut into 1/4 inch squares. Pile the mixture high on six 3-inch rounds of white bread that have been toasted and buttered. You may also use Italian prosciutto. In that case do not mix ham and butter but spread 1 tablespoon creamed butter on each toast round, mounding it toward the center. Dip the buttered side of the rounds into the chopped prosciutto. It will cling in a light mound; the Westphalian ham will look more like a solid paste.

Arrange 2 pounds hot cooked asparagus on a serving platter and surround it with the ham rounds. Sauté 1 1/2 cups dry bread crumbs in 1/4 pound butter till they are golden and pour the brown crumbs over the asparagus heads. Quickly grate the rind of 1 orange over the crumbs and serve. Pass more brown butter in a sauceboat.

Lachs Spargel (Smoked Salmon and Asparagus)

Chop 6 slices smoked salmon. Toast six 3-inch rounds of white bread and spread 1 tablespoon creamed butter on each round. Mound the chopped salmon on the buttered rounds.

Arrange 2 pounds hot cooked asparagus on a serving platter and surround it with the salmon rounds. Sauté 1 1/2 Cups dry bread crumbs in 1/4 pound butter until they are golden and pour the brown crumbs over the asparagus heads. Quickly grate the rind of 1 lemon over the crumbs and serve. Pass more brown butter in a sauceboat.

Spargel mit Seezunge (Sole and Asparagus)

Simmer 4 pounds filets of sole in white wine to cover, with 1/2 teaspoon salt to 2 cups wine, until they are opaque, about 8 to 10 minutes. Reserve 5 tablespoons of the broth. Lift the filets carefully onto a heatproof platter and keep them warm. Cook two 1-pound lobsters in salted water for 15 minutes and keep them warm.

Melt 4 tablespoons butter, blend in 2 tablespoons flour over low heat, and cook the roux, stirring, for 3 minutes. Add 1 cup cream and 1/2 cup white veal stock and cook, stirring constantly, for 6 minutes. Add 5 tablespoons of the white wine in which the sole was cooked, 1/4 cup Sherry, and salt and pepper to taste. Pour the sauce over the filets and bake them in a moderate oven (350° F.) for 5 minutes.

Remove the lobster claw and tail meat and garnish the ends of the platter with it. Surround the entire platter with warm crescents of puff paste (June, 1958), made with a dusting of salt and grated Parmesan at the last “turn.” Short pie pastry may be substituted for the puff paste.

Drain 2 pounds hot cooked asparagus well. Lay half the stalks diagonally, an inch apart, across the dish and then lay the remaining stalks in the other direction, making a diamond-shaped latticework of green asparagus over the white fish sauce. Garnish the platter with parsley and serve at once.

Spargel auf Malteser Art (Asparagus Maltese)

Arrange 2 pounds hot cooked asparagus on a serving platter. Fill half orange shells with Maltese sauce, sprinkle the sauce with chopped toasted hazelnuts, and arrange the shells around the asparagus.

Malteser Sosse (Maltese Sauce)

Beat 2 egg yolks with a wire whisk in the top of a double boiler, off the heat, with 1 teaspoon water and a pinch of salt until they are light and foamy. Cook the egg yolks over simmering water, whisking constantly, until they are slightly thickened. Add butter, a tablespoon at a time, always whisking, until 1 cup butter has been incorporated into the sauce. If it should become too thick, thin it slightly with a teaspoon at a time of orange juice. Whisk the sauce until it is smooth and all the butter incorporated. Add the remaining juice of 1 orange, preferably a blood orange, the finely slivered rind of 1 orange, 1 drop of red vegetable coloring, and salt to taste.

Kernweiche Eier in Spargel Ring (Asparagus Ring with Eggs Mollet)

Chop enough asparagus, the tender green part only, to make 3 cups. Bring 3 cups water to a boil, add 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and sugar, and drop in the asparagus. Let the water return to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer the asparagus until it is soft, about 15 minutes. Press the asparagus through a sieve or puree it in a blender. Reduce the water in which it boiled by half.

Cream 5 tablespoons butter and gradually stir in 4 egg yolks, 4 tablespoons grated Parmesan, 1/2 cup flour, and the juice of 1/2 lemon. Add 4 tablespoons cream, 4 tablespoons of the asparagus water, and the pureed asparagus. Season the mixture with salt and pepper to taste and a pinch of paprika and fold in 4 stiffly beaten egg whites. Pour the mixture into a well-buttered ring mold, cover it securely, and steam it for 1 hour in a covered kettle in boiling water reaching halfway up the sides of the mold. Add more boiling water as it evaporates.

Cook 8 to 10 very fresh eggs in simmering water for 4 minutes and plunge them immediately into a bowl of cold water. Peel them carefully under the cold water and return them to warm water until they are needed. As they should not overboil, nor stay in the cold water too long, it is best to cook only a few at one time.

Unmold the asparagus ring onto a large round platter and fill the center with the eggs. Sprinkle them with 6 slices tongue cut into fine julienne. Surround the ring with tart shells mounded high with thick hollandaise sauce dusted with finely minced truffles.

Spargel mit Meerrettigsosse (Asparagus with Horseradish Sauce)

Arrange 2 pounds cold cooked asparagus, well drained, on a serving plate with 2 strips of pimiento laid across it to simulate the red tapes with which asparagus is usually tied into bunches. Surround the asparagus with 1 cup diced aspic and garnish it with parsley. Serve it with horseradish mayonnaise.

Horseradish Mayonnaise

Fold 1/2 cup whipped cream into 1 cup mayonnaise and add the grated rind of 1/2 lemon and salt to taste. Just before serving, stir in 1/4 cup freshly grated horseradish.

Spargel Vorspeise (Asparagus Salad)

Chill 18 cooked asparagus spears, and cut them into 1/2-inch lengths. Use only the tender green part of the asparagus and add more stalks if less than 5 inches of the asparagus are usable. Combine the asparagus with 1 cup diced ham, 1/2 cup cold cooked rice, and 1 cup diced fresh pineapple. Add salt and pepper to taste and bind the salad with 3/4 cup thick mayonnaise to which 1 teaspoon lemon juice, the grated rind of 1/2 lemon, and 1 teaspoon brandy have been added. Mound the salad on a bed of Boston lettuce and sprinkle it with 3 tablespoons slivered orange rind and 1/4 cup chopped parsley.

Spargolsalat Esterhazy (Asparagus and Shrimp Salad)

Cut 2 pounds tender asparagus, cooked and well chilled, into 1-inch pieces, discarding the white ends. Cook 18 shrimps, peeled and deveined, for 4 minutes in salted water. Combine the asparagus and shrimps, sprinkle them with 1/3 cup tarragon vinegar, and marinate them for 15 minutes. Just before serving, add 3 tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and diced, and pour over the salad 1/4 cup tart French dressing. Turn the salad with a wooden spoon to distribute the dressing, and mound it on lettuce leaves in a shallow bowl. Sprinkle it with 1 hard-cooked egg, riced, and 1/4 cup parsley.

Fold 1/2 cup salted whipped cream into 1/2 cup mayonnaise made with lemon juice instead of vinegar. Add 1 tablespoon each of dill pickle and chives, both chopped, 1 teaspoon chopped capers, and salt, pepper, and brandy to taste. Pass the sauce separately in a sauceboat.

Gratinierte Spargelsuppe (Asparagus and Turtle Soup)

Cook 1 pound tender asparagus, cleaned and chopped, in 2 cups salted water and 1 cup beef stock until it is soft, about 20 minutes. Strain the stock and set it aside. Force the asparagus through a sieve, discarding any tough pieces. Make a roax of 2 tablespoons each of butter and flour stirred together over low heat. When it is yellow and transparent, add 1/2 cup of the strained asparagus stock and cook the mixture for 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the remaining stock and let the soup simmer for 15 minutes. Stir the asparagus puree into the soup and add salt and pepper to taste. Heat 3 cups turtle soup to boiling and add it to the asparagus soup, with the turtle meat cut into small dice. Add 1/2 to 1 cup warm Sherry to taste, and divide the soup among 6 ovenproof soup cups. Add 2 heaping tablespoons salted whipped cream to each cup and dust the cream with 1 tablespoon freshly grated Parmesan per cup. Put the soup cups on a baking sheet and heat the soup under the broiler for 1 minute, or long enough to brown the layer of cheese and cream.

Gebackener Spargel (Deep-Fried Asparagus with Hollandaise Sauce)

Wash and trim thick green asparagus spears and cut them 4 inches long. Tie the spears together and set them upright in a deep saucepan in 1 inch of boiling water. Cover the saucepan and steam the asparagus for 10 minutes. Take it from the water, dry it well, and let it cool to lukewarm. Roll the spears in flour, dip them in 2 eggs beaten with 1/2 teaspoon salt, and roll them in 1 cup dry bread crumbs mixed with 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan.

Lower the breaded spears carefully into deep hot fat (360 F.) and fry them until they are uniformly brown. Fry only 6 or 8 at a time, drain on absorbent paper, and keep the cooked spears hot in a slow oven (300 F.).

Make a thick hollandaise sauce. Divide 2/3 cup butter into 5 parts. In the top of a double boiler over hot but not boiling water, put 2 egg yolks and 1 pan of the butter. Stir the mixture rapidly and constantly until the butter is melted. Add the second piece of butter. As the mixture thickens and the butter melts, add the third part and stir constantly from the bottom of the pan until the butter is incorporated.

Remove the saucepan from the heat and beat the sauce for at least 2 minutes longer. Add the juice and grated rind of 1/2 lemon and a pinch each of white pepper and salt. Replace the saucepan over hot but not boiling water and beat the sauce for 2 minutes longer. Add 1/4 cup each of parsley and ham, both finely chopped. Serve at once, with the hot fried asparagus spears.