Mouthing Off

Someone's in the kitchen with Dinah: The food served on the Great Northern Railway was very different from the food served at its namesake in Denver, the Great Northern Tavern (see review above). The railroad received so many requests for its recipes that it put out a thirty-page booklet called Great Northern Secrets, complete with photos of all the chefs who worked the lines as well as little snippets of their cooking philosophies. ("'Every meal a perfect meal' is for the chef the only procedure that assures permanent renown," said eleven-year chef de cuisine William Duvall.)

Although the booklet's recipes are little more than extended descriptions of best-selling items, anyone with a working knowledge of things like Espagnole sauce and homemade noodle dough can work out the dishes with reasonable success. And just reading the booklet--which can be downloaded from the Web site of Lindsay Korst, a self-proclaimed Great Northern Railway fanatic, at a fascinating glimpse into our past. It whets the appetite for such now-extinct oddities as potted veal spaghetti, sweetbread patties with bechamel sauce and "rice Italienne," which calls for "Spanish sauce" and a quarter pound of American cheese; it also brings back the days when cooks would make homemade potato rolls, doughnuts and lemon custard pie. And among the secrets Secrets reveals is that a meal of baked smoked ham served with French-fried sweet potatoes, bread and butter, and coffee, tea or milk cost 75 cents in the 1920s.

Although I'm dying to make that baked ham, the convoluted instructions need help. So instead I tried the also convoluted but ultimately workable English Beefsteak Pie recipe by Great Northern chef Charles Knapton. "If merely reading Charles Knapton's recipes creates a feeling of pleased anticipation," reads the introduction to his page, "you can readily understand why eating a meal by such a chef means complete satisfaction." But while your satisfaction may be complete, Knapton's recipe certainly isn't: He neglected to include several key ingredients, as well as any measurement instructions or a recipe for pie crust. I solved the last problem by using the best pie crust recipe ever, from Cook's Illustrated magazine; I filled the other gaps with several tests. Clearly, they took their chefs very seriously on the Great Northern and really didn't want to give away any secrets.

If you're a train buff and a foodie, another great read is the book Dining by Rail--The History and Recipes of America's Golden Age of Railroad Cuisine, by James D. Porterfield. It costs $35 and offers everything you ever wanted to know about the development and operation of dining cars, as well as several hundred recipes, many of them for the kind of comfort food that Americans craved during the dining car's heyday--and still do.

English Beefsteak Pie
(adapted from Great Northern Secrets)
pie crust (recipe follows)
3 medium potatoes
4 tablespoons butter
1/4 pound salt pork, diced small
6 slices bacon, diced small
4 carrots, diced
2 medium onions, diced
4 cloves
1 clove garlic
2 pounds beef flank, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 can beef broth, or 1 1/2 cups homemade stock
2 tablespoons flour
1 bay leaf
3 medium tomatoes, diced
salt and pepper to taste

Make pie crust and refrigerate. Place potatoes in water and boil until soft, then drain and dice; set aside. Meanwhile, melt butter over high heat in Dutch oven. When it just begins to sizzle (and before it starts to brown), place salt pork, bacon, carrots, onions, cloves and garlic in pot, stirring frequently until vegetables soften, about eight minutes. Cover and reduce heat to low; simmer slowly for twenty minutes. Turn heat up to medium-high and add beef, stirring constantly until nearly cooked through, about five minutes. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Heat broth or stock in another pan; meanwhile, sprinkle flour over beef mixture and stir until absorbed. Slowly add broth, stirring well, and add bay leaf, potatoes and tomatoes. Cook for fifteen minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with salt and pepper and divide among four ovenproof crocks or bowls. Roll out pastry to 1/8-inch thick; using a paring knife, cut lids to fit crocks or bowls. Place in oven and bake until crust is evenly golden brown. Serves four.

Pie crust
(reprinted from Cook's Illustrated with permission)
1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
6 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter cut into 1/4-inch pieces
4 tablespoons chilled all-vegetable shortening
3-4 tablespoons ice water

Mix flour, salt and sugar in food processor fitted with steel blade. Scatter butter pieces over flour mixture, tossing to coat butter with a little of the flour. Cut butter into flour with five one-second pulses. Add shortening and continue cutting in until flour is pale yellow and resembles coarse cornmeal with butter bits no larger than small peas--about four more one-second pulses. Turn mixture into medium bowl. Sprinkle three tablespoons of ice water over mixture. With blade of rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix. Press down on dough with broad side of spatula until dough sticks together, adding up to one tablespoon additional ice water if necessary. Shape dough into ball with your hands, then flatten into a four-inch-wide disc. Dust lightly with flour, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for thirty minutes before rolling. Makes one 9-inch single pie shell. (Use this recipe for all of your holiday baking needs--it's that good, and it always turns out.)

Let there be lights: A big slice of beefsteak pie is just the thing to fortify you for a trip to Denver's own Union Station at 17th and Wynkoop streets, where two trains a day still pull into town and unload passengers hungry for a sight of Denver. (If they're hungry for food, though, they're better off skipping the rarely open snack stand.) And this month, passengers disembarking--as well as Denverites heading toward LoDo--will be greeted by a very seasonal sight: special lighting on the station and a "Friendship Tree" out front. (This spring, that tree will be moved and a permanent evergreen put out in front of Union Station, which should come in handy next Christmas.) The decorations come courtesy of the efforts of many in the Lower Downtown District (you can help pay for them by calling the district at 303-628-5428 and donating $50, which nets you a Union Station ornament).

After checking out the display, stop by the nearby--and also decorated--McCormick's Fish House & Bar (1659 Wazee Street) or Cruise Room at the Oxford Hotel (1600 17th Street). Both the hotel and McCormick's have been major supporters of the Union Station project since the lights first went on eight years ago, and both the Cruise Room and McCormick's continue to serve up hot and very, very cold drinks (love those martinis) that are bound to get you in the spirit of things.

That's not McCormick's only public service: The restaurant is bravely offering a "Fish & Tips Helpline" this holiday. Executive chef Stephen Vice and his staff will answer questions about anything edible that comes from the sea, including queries regarding shopping and cooking problems, through January 2 at 303-628-5574. Leave a message, and McCormick's promises that someone will get back to you as soon as possible, most likely the same day.

Hey, maybe they can help the Great Northern Tavern with that walleye recipe.



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