As both a balletomane and a bibliophile, I had little choice but to purchase The Ballet Cook Book, by former ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq. Although out of print for decades, the book has become legendary in dance circles. Copies are like gold dust, but after a prolonged online search I succeeded in finding one for the relatively low price of $80.
Paging through it for the first time, it was clear the book was worth every cent. Written in 1966, the 424-page volume is part cookbook and part yearbook, with recipes and biographies of the most renowned ballet dancers and choreographers of the day, including Frederick Ashton, Suzanne Farrell, Jerome Robbins, and Edward Villella. I knew immediately that I wanted to prepare the recipes, and to enjoy them with others who love ballet and food.
There was one problem: I’m a terrible cook. For help, I turned to Antonio Carmena, New York City Ballet soloist and graduate of the French Culinary Institute. (We originally met through Twitter.) He signed on immediately, as did Susan LaRosa, whose passion for preparing vintage recipes led her to start her own baking blog, A Cake Bakes in Brooklyn. As our enthusiasm for the project grew, we decided using The Ballet Cook Book to prepare one meal wouldn’t suffice: We would plan a monthly series of dinners.
The first of these — an intimate but lively gathering of people with varying knowledge of ballet and cooking — took place last Sunday at Susan’s beautiful home in Park Slope, with a very-Russian menu of recipes submitted by George Balanchine, whose ballets I credit with sparking my interest in dance. Joining us were close friends Evan Namerow (writer of the blog Dancing Perfectly Free) and gadabout Jeff Gageby, who assisted me with hauling bags of fish, fruit, and vegetables from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Antonio arrived to do the real cooking immediately after dancing in New York City Ballet’s Romeo + Juliet. He was accompanied by his boyfriend, actor Michael Pereira, whose videotaping and wine bottle-opening skills came in very handy. Susan’s husband, Paul, generously took photos.
Jeff and I arrived early to chop fruits and vegetables (my only tangible contribution to the meal). We assumed we were making good time with our first course of blini (a kind of Russian pancake), but disaster struck when a more thorough reading of the recipe revealed the following line: “Allow to rise for 5 hours.” Oops. To avoid wasting the large quantities of sour cream and salmon roe we had on hand to complement the blini, we decided to forge ahead and hope for the best. Just as I was about to turn on some Stravinsky and pray to Balanchine for help, the dough miraculously started to rise. The blini certainly would have benefited from a few more hours, but they were delicious and proved to be the hit of the dinner. (Download the recipe for “blini.”)
Next we moved on to Balanchine’s “slow beet borschok.” I assumed it would be a version of borscht, but The Ballet Cook Book takes great care to distinguish the two: Borschok is a “light, clear consommé, an essence of beet-beef extract, that should be drunk from thin china cups, not soup bowls, with sour cream and slides of lemon served on the side.” Our soup benefited from homemade beef stock, which Susan generously prepared the day before using 10 pounds of bones. When we served the borschok — in china cups, true to Mr. B’s instructions — opinion was split: Some (myself included) found it satisfying, but others thought the beets overpowered the beef stock. Susan, one of the early dissenters, reported days later, however, that the leftover soup had become richer in flavor. “Most soups improve with time,” she said, “and this one definitely did.” (Download the recipe for “slow beet borschok.”)
The low point of the dinner, oddly, was the main course, Balanchine’s “fish dinner for two” (expanded for eight). Its ingredients — flounder filets, cherry tomatoes, potatoes, lemon juice, and a few seasonings — are simple, and the result was filling but bland. (“Let’s say it wasn’t my favorite,” Jeff said politely.) A piece of advice for those willing to try this dish: Don’t spend a small fortune on fresh fish like we did. Stick to the much-cheaper frozen filets called for by the recipe; they’re sure to produce a better return on your investment. We paired the fish with buckwheat kasha, one of four kasha recipes submitted by Mr. B. He’ll forgive us, I hope, for adding onions to the recipe to enhance the flavor. (Download the recipes for “fish dinner for two” and “buckwheat kasha.”)
Finally, for dessert, we prepared the easy-to-make “banana sweet,” a concoction of fried bananas, white grapes, slivered almonds, and apricot jam. (Balanchine preferred exceedingly sweet desserts because he was never allowed them as a boy in Russia. “I used to say to myself: when I grow up, I am going to eat as much sugar and candy as possible.) The dessert’s sugary ingredients did indeed sound promising, but after combining them we were a bit, shall we say, underwhelmed by the dish’s messy appearance. We sampled it almost begrudgingly yet were surprised to find it quite tasty. “It’s similar to bananas foster but sweeter because of the apricot jam,” Evan noted. “And I like the crunch that the nuts added.” (Download the recipe for “banana sweet.”)
There was also, of course, vodka. Lots of it, and straight up, because that’s how Balanchine liked it. After taking our seats, we raised our glasses to the man of the hour, Mr. B. To Antonio (who had danced in Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3 just two nights before) and other dance aficionados at the table, Balanchine’s works are a source of inspiration, and it was touching to learn more about him through the food he regularly ate.
Thanks for allowing us use your recipes, Mr. B. And more thanks for allowing us to watch your ballets.
Watch a video of our cooking condensed to three minutes:
The next Ballet Cook Book dinner — featuring the recipes of New York City Ballet principal dancer Diana Adams — will be held Sunday, March 25. Space is limited, but if you would like to attend, write to email@example.com and tell us why you would like to be our guest.