BOSTON — When you think of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, beauty, elegance, and sophistication come to mind. But this woman of high taste also had a fondness for things plain and simple - at least when it came to food.
"She always wanted dishes to look homemade, not fancy," says Marta Sgubin, author (with Nancy Nicholas) of a new book featuring recipes and reminiscences from her 25 years with Mrs. Onassis.
Ms. Sgubin was originally hired as a governess to Caroline and little John- John in 1969.
She thought she'd try it out for a year or so and then return to France, where she'd been working as a nanny for a French diplomat's family. But 25 years later, when Onassis passed on, Sgubin was still with her. She had not only taken care of the children as if they were her own, but she had also cooked all the family's meals and become a dear friend of "Madam," as she called her.
Sgubin had addressed her French employer as "Madame," so, she reasoned, her American equivalent must be "Madam." Onassis found the appellation amusing but clued Sgubin in to its risqu connotation, and then insisted she continue using the name since it was "so cute." Hence, the title of Sgubin's book, "Cooking for Madam" (Simon & Schuster, $30).
Before the term "comfort food" was coined, Sgubin was cooking it for the Kennedy/Onassis clan - humble dishes like Shepherd's Pie, Minestrone, and brownies. Recipes for these and more elaborate dishes served when Onassis entertained, such as Warm Lobster Salad, Truffle Soup, and Sauted Scallops Provencal, are among the 100 recipes in Sgubin's book.
But most engaging are Sgubin's warm memories and happy photographs of family life - holiday celebrations, cookouts on Martha's Vineyard, Easter dinner on the Greek island of Skorpios, the children's birthdays, and life aboard the Onassis yacht Christina.
Sgubin opens the window on a woman who, despite her fame and fortune, wasn't all that different from other mothers. "Madam was a public figure," says Sgubin. "But she was also living a regular life. She did what everyone else did every day. She got up and ate breakfast and went to work. When the children were young, she ate every meal with them just like any mother would. She knew what she wanted and she knew how she wanted things to look. And family came first. Always."
Perhaps most revealing of Onassis' character are the exuberant notes she scribbled to Sgubin. "Marta," reads one, "In all your life you will never make such an incredible dessert as the mango ice cream.... No great chef could have equaled what it looked like - tasted like - felt like. How long is the season of mangoes? Let's start at the beginning and go to the end. Can we have mangoes at the Cape? Bravo Marta. XO."
Such high marks may have something to do with Sgubin's confidence in the kitchen. "I never get nervous, even when I am in the kitchen cooking for the president and 10 people are running all around."
For those who can't relate, she offers this advice: When entertaining, always "cook as though you are cooking for your own family." That's essentially what Sgubin is doing now, as she cooks for Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, her husband, Ed, and their three young children. "I don't work for them. I live with them," she says fondly.
Now that she's on the road promoting her book, she has been away from the Schlossbergs more than usual - something the children, especially five-year-old Jack, aren't crazy about. And, after a full day of interviews, she's ready to put her feet up. "It is a little tiring," she whispers, adding with a look of determination, "I do it for Madam."
4 cups chopped rare, cooked lamb (or roast beef)
2 large cloves garlic, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary leaves (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)
8 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1 cup beef stock
Salt and pepper
4 cups mashed potatoes
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Combine the lamb, garlic, onion, and rosemary and put them through a meat grinder twice. If you don't have a meat grinder, don't use a food processor because that doesn't give the right texture. Use a knife to chop the ingredients very fine, the way you would if you were making hash.
Melt 6 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet; stir in the flour. Stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, cook for 5 minutes. Slowly add the stock, stirring as you pour and cook until thickened, about 5 minutes.
Add the lamb mixture and stir to blend. Add salt and pepper to taste. Spoon into a 2-quart ovenproof casserole. Spread mashed potatoes over the top. They should be as even as possible and touch the rim of the casserole so that none of the meat mixture shows.
Use a fork to rake a design along the top, drawing the tines over the surface from one end to the other. Dot with the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter.
Bake for 40 minutes or until the filling is bubbling hot and the potatoes are browned.
- Recipes adapted from 'Cooking for Madam' (Simon & Schuster)
2-1/2 pounds fresh swordfish, 3/4-inch thick, preferably in 1 piece
Freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces
3 tablespoons fresh chives, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh dill, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh, flat-leafed parsley, chopped
1/2 cup light soy sauce
Several hours before you want to serve the swordfish, place it in an ovenproof baking dish, season with fresh pepper, and dot with butter. Sprinkle with the chopped herbs and pour the soy sauce over the top. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
One hour before you are going to cook it, remove the fish from the refrigerator and let it stand at room temperature.
Heat the broiler, then place the fish, along with the marinade, about 2-inches from the heat source. Broil on one side only for about 10 minutes, basting several times to keep the fish moist.
Swordfish is ready when the skin around the outside pulls away from the flesh easily.