Sorting through the thousands of recipes that Craig Claiborne published to come out with 100 or 125 "greatest hits" for a cookbook to come, I face an unruly host of hard decisions. I can't just choose Craig's own favorites--he already published those in his memoir, A Feast Made For Laughter--and there's no way to know which dishes have been most popular with his readers, so I'm left with subjectivity. That's fine with me. I'm picking some things that seem indispensable, others for their flair, and some just for fun.
In the last category came last night's Creamed Mushrooms with Dried Beef. This is the same thin-sliced Armour beef in a jar that is the main ingredient in Chipped Beef, a thing that generations of students and soldiers have abhorred, calling it Shit on a Shingle, but which I particularly liked when I was at Yale. Since the recipe began with a simple white sauce--equally essential to chipped beef--I thought, Hey, this may well be great.
Craig calls for cutting regular white mushrooms into julienne strips, which I found impossible. They break. So I ended up with some batonnets and some smaller chunks. These you sauté in butter. I was surprised that Craig didn't call for the stiff discs of reconstituted beef also to be julienned, but the recipe leaves them whole, and, obliged on first try to be faithful in every possible way to the original, so did I. The recipe also calls for prepared pimentos, the kind you also get in a jar, a little grated nutmeg, and a pinch of cayenne. Craig cautions you not to add salt, good advice, because the beef is stunningly salty. Craig doesn't tell you how long to cook it, but a little while suffices to soften the beef. What you have at this point is a gooey gray glop flecked with red.
At the end, off the heat, you stir in the cheese. I'm in Montana this summer, so I'm doing many of these recipes the way Craig's readers would have had to do them when they were published--you don't see many fancy foodstuffs here. At the Big Timber IGA you have your choice of Kraft Cracker Barrel Cheddar and Crystal Farm (since 1926) Sharp Cheddar. I'd never heard of the Crystal Farm cheese, but it had fewer non-cheese ingredients. Both are the unearthly orange-yellow of annatto. The result, once I added the cheese, ws one of the most revolting-looking things I've ever seen. You serve it on toast or English muffins. I chose the latter.
It didn't taste revolting, but it wasn't good. The meat was so salty it ruined everything. There was way too much of that godawful cheese, and good cheddar wouldn't have made it much better--a less lurid color, I suppose.
I love being wrong--I say this a lot--because if you're right all the time you never learn anything. Choosing this dish was wrong. I suppose I ought to have known that, but now I've learned.