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Delmonico potatoes

By JOE O'CONNELL, Food Writer
First posted 25 August 2001 at 1525 GMT
Last updated 30 November 2003 at 1702 GMT

NEW YORK, New York -- Delmonico Potatoes are famous across the United States and around the world.  The recipe for Delmonico Potatoes, perhaps the best, rarest and most desirable way to prepare potatoes, originated around 1830 at Delmonico's Restaurant in New York City.  

However, there is a little-recognized problem with "Delmonico Potatoes":  no one today (until now) seems to know the exact recipe for the authentic, original "Delmonico Potatoes."  The recipe today differs from restaurant to restaurant and from cookbook to cookbook.  This is unfortunate because the name originally applied to a very rare, tender and tasty steak that became world-famous in the 19th Century.

So, what is the authentic, original recipe for Delmonico Potatoes?  The answer has been found and is presented here.

The Internet hoax

Even a cursory search through cookbooks and the Internet will locate dozens of recipes for Delmonico Potatoes.  They are varied and contain strange ingredients:  rice, processed American cheese, onions, parsley, and many other ingredients unknown in the real recipe.

The same recipe is repeated in many websites, which contain the same introduction:

This recipe has been in my family for 100 years. The family legend was that it came from the Delmonico Hotel in New York, whose chef, Charles Ranhofer, had given it to my great-great grandfather under some circumstance in the 1880's.

Of course, this since sentence contains erroneous facts.  Ranhofer never worked at the "Delmonico Hotel" but instead was chef at Delmonico's Restaurant (a different institution at a different location) and, more importantly, Ranhofer did not create the recipe (as discussed below).  This Internet hoax recipe contains the following eight ingredients:

  • potatoes
  • white rice
  • butter
  • flour
  • milk
  • salt
  • pepper
  • sharp cheddar cheese

A comparison of these ingredients with those of the authentic recipe (below) shows how different this recipe is from the original.

Writer's Comment:  It is shocking how many websites repeat variations of this incorrect recipe without any attribution or citation.  It is also disappointing that some so-called authorities -- head chefs and others -- publish a recipe for "Delmonico Potatoes" that neither resembles the authentic recipe nor contains any disclaimer of "poetic license".  See, e.g., Head Chef Tony Nacopoulos recipe at Dining-Out.com

Delmonico Potatoes

The authentic, original recipe for Delmonico Potatoes has been discovered and is given below.  However, the inventor of the recipe is not known with certainty, although it is certainly not Charles Ranhofer.

Unknown inventor

The recipe for Delmonico Potatoes was developed by an unidentified cook.  

The earliest known menu from Delmonico's, dating from 1838, includes "Pommes de terre a la maitre d'hotel" (translated on the menu as "Fricasseed potatoes").  

Of course, the French pommes de terre means potatoes, and a la maitre d'hotel means literally "by the master of the house" and may be translated as the "the house specialty".  That is, the item in English would be Delmonico Potatoes.  The use of the English translation with the French word fricasseed is curious.  Fricasseed in the Eighteenth Century meant "cut into pieces for stewing in a sauce" (in the modern definition, stewing evolved into sauteeing). 

The recipe may have been created by John Lux, by Alessandro Filippini, by an unidentified cook at Delmonico's, or even by an unknown cook in Paris.

Beginning in the 1830s, Lux was the chef de cuisine at Delmonico's and was responsible for bringing the latest Parisian food creations to Delmonico's.  Steele at 46.  Before 1850, Filippini started at Delmonico's as a cook and rose to become the manager at the lower Broadway location.  Filippini published the recipe for Delmonico Potatoes.  Filippini, International, at 204 (recipe no. 718).  

It is possible and even probable that the recipe was based on a recipe invented in Paris and then was developed and perfected at Delmonico's.

. . . these Gallic inventions, when transferred to Delmonico's kitchens, often proved superior to their prototypes at Paris, because Delmonico's cooks considered themselves ambassadors charged with upholding the honor of their national cuisine;  and in fulfilling this mission they were able to draw upon the greater abundance of fine foodstuffs available in America.  Steele at 46.

The recipe for Delmonico Potatoes definitely was not developed by Charles Ranhofer, and it was not published in his seminal book, The Epicurean.  Ranhofer could not have developed the recipe, because he did not join Delmonico's until May, 1862, more than twenty years after Delmonico Potatoes first appeared on the menu at Delmonico's.

The original recipe

The recipe for Delmonico Potatoes is set forth in Filippini's book, The International Cook Book, as recipe number 718 at page 204.  The exact recipe follows, after which there is an explanation of some of the terms used in the recipe, including handshed, gill and saltspoon.

[Recipe Number] 718.  Delmonico Potatoes

Place four good-sized boiled and finely handshed potatoes in a frying pan with one and a half gills cold milk, half gill cream, two saltspoons salt, one saltspoon white pepper, and a saltspoon grated nutmeg;  mix well and cook on the range for ten minutes, lightly mixing occasionally.  Then add one tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese, lightly mix again.  Transfer the potatoes into a gratin dish, sprinkle another light tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese over and set in the oven to bake for six minutes, or until they have obtained a good golden colour;  remove and serve.  Id at 204.

Unusual terms in the recipe

The recipe includes several unusual terms, which are explained here.

  • handshed seems to be an old cooking term which means shed by hand, or in modern usage, shred by hand, which means hash or grate or shred into long, narrow pieces.
  • gill is an old cooking measure of volume which equals one-half cup (4 liquid ounces).  Grandma's Kitchen.
  • saltspoon refers to a measure of a "standard" spoon used in Nineteenth Century salt cellars and equals one-quarter teaspoon.  Id.

Modern recipe

This is the original recipe, explained in modern terminology.  This makes about four cups and serves 6 or 8.

  • Ingredients
  • Four medium white potatoes
  • 3/4 cup of whole milk
  • 1/4 cup of heavy whipping cream
  • 1/2 teaspoon of salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon of white pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg
  • 2 tablespoons of freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • Pots
  • 6 quart pot for boiling potatoes
  • Large frying pan
  • Buttered baking dish
  • Directions

Wash (but do not skin) the potatoes, and quarter them lengthwise (so that, after cooking, they can be grated into the longest shreds possible).  Bring 8 cups of water to a boil and then add the potatoes.  Let boil for 10 minutes so that the potatoes are not cooked through.  Immediately submerse the hot potatoes into cold water, and let them cool for at least 30 minutes.  Grate the potatoes into long strips.

Mix together in a bowl the other milk, cream, salt, pepper and nutmeg.

Preheat a large frying pan over medium heat and then add the potatoes and liquid mixture.  Fold them together well but gently, without mashing the potatoes, and cook for 10 minutes, mixing lightly occasionally so that they do not burn.  Remove from the stove and fold in 1 tablespoon of the cheese.  

Transfer the potatoes into a pre-buttered baking dish and arrange evenly.  On top, sprinkle the remaining 1 tablespoon of cheese.  

Preheat the over to 425F.  Place the uncovered baking dish into the upper-third of the oven, and bake for 6 minutes or until lightly browned.

Serve immediately.

Conclusion

Like the Delmonico Steak, Delmonico Potatoes were introduced to New Yorkers early in the Nineteenth Century.  The Delmonico name and reputation spread across the United States and came to be synonymous with "the best".  Patrons in cities across America demanded that their chefs provide a "Delmonico Steak" and "Delmonico Potatoes", and the chefs, who did not have the actual recipes, responded with inventions of their own.

Thus, "Delmonico Steak" came to mean one cut of beef in Chicago, another in New Orleans, and another yet in Denver and San Francisco.  A similar fate befell "Delmonico Potatoes".

Truth in history has now prevailed, as a result of research into primary sources.  What remains is for the Internet community to update their websites and correct the misinformation about the "Delmonico Steak" and "Delmonico Potatoes".


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