Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Julia, Slow Down!

One minute she's slipping the skins off the pearl onions, the next she's quartered the mushrooms and is showing how the butter in the pan foams. The foam means the butter isn't hot enough yet. You have to wait for the foam to subside before you dump in the shrooms for sauteing.

And by the way, Julia says, you can't just saute mushrooms in butter, because the butter will burn, and make them taste nasty. So you have to add some oil, to "fortify the butter." This is just as important as her point about drying off the mushrooms with a towel, because if they're wet they'll just steam like the dickens, and won't turn brown. Same as with the meat. You have to dry off those big red chunks of chuck with lots of paper towels, to soak up the moisture, or the meat will just steam, steam, steam, and won't turn BROWN. Every time Julia says "brown," her voice catches in the same place, and then dives in for the kill, attacking the back end of the word, because she pronounces it with two syllables. I love the way she says it. Br-OWN. And since French cooking is all about browning, she says it often!

Then there are those little quaintities, the outdated asides Julia makes, like "Now that we have electric washing machines, you won't mind using cloth towels to dry off your mushrooms!" That's right, Julia. Go tell it. The wonders of 1960's technology!

Lilah and I were trying to keep up with Julia Child as she flitted about her stovetop making Beef Bourguignon on one of her old TV episodes of "The French Chef." We kept having to pause the DVD and back it up, because Julia was just rolling right along from one step to another. "There, that's done!" She would say crisply, taking a pot off a burner. "Wait up!" I yelled at her. "Geez, where's the fire?" She cut a sturdy figure of efficiency in the kitchen, and her instructions blurred together. "What kind of oil did she say she used?" "Was that a tablespoon of flour per cup of broth?" "Pour the whole bottle of wine in? Is that what she said?"

We didn't get the stew in the oven until 6:00 pm. No biggie. It only needed three hours to cook. We knew this, going in. But we'd talked about making this stew for weeks, never having enough time, so on Sunday we decided it was do or die, no matter how late we got started. We took it out at 9:00 pm, per Julia's instructions, and then made the sauce. Julia teaches you to thicken the sauce the "peasant" way, with a buerre manie paste made by mixing together butter and flour. (Because a broth made from fatty meat chunks and wine isn't nearly rich enough!) We finally sat down to eat at 9:30. Very European. The damn stew had demanded most of the wine, but there was a wee bit still in the bottle, and I drank what was left.

We had pieces of French baguette on the side to sop up the broth, and I felt like a true French peasant. A very well-fed one. This stew was everything it was cracked up to be. Rich, hearty, full of flavor ---comfort food on steroids. I think I can face those long, cold winter nights now, knowing we can sup on this stew.

Julia has helped me get past my aversion to handling animal flesh ---somewhat. Enough so that I can now wrestle a raw chicken body into a fine homemade soup. I have blogged before about my Kafka-esque childhood nightmare in which I was walking to school and found myself metamorphosized, like Gregor Samsa, into the body of a raw chicken fryer (see "Chick-o-stick"), and how for years afterwards I was unable to face a whole chicken. My breakthrough came with Julia's poultry episode, where she gaily introduces a family of chickens by age ---"Miss Broiler! Miss Fryer! Miss Roaster! Miss Caponette! Miss Stewer! And Old Mother Hen!"---and then forms a kickline with them right there on the soundstage. Julia, you old vaudevillian, you're a show girl at heart. How could I approach raw chicken with anything but a light heart, after seeing that?

One of the best Julia Child moments is her lesson on flipping a potato pancake. The trick, she says to the camera, is to have CONVICTION. Without conviction, your flip will fail. She then picks up the pan to demonstrate, and jerking the pan a little less resolutely than you had pictured she would do, she messes up. "See," she says pointedly. "I didn't have conviction...that was my problem." Who's gonna argue? Julia goes for take two, sets her sights on the pan, grips it firmly, and this time you can see the determination flaring her nostrils. UP! She bounces the potato pancake and it perfects an Olympian somersault, landing squarely in the pan. "THERE!" she exhales, satisfied. "I had conviction!"

I have only seen pictures of Julia Child when she was middle-aged and matronly. So I was surprised when I found the photo below, of Julia at the age of 23 in 1936. Wowee! Those aren't chicken legs.


  1. dang...i gotta check out some julia cooking videos. stew sounds wonderful. next time you and lilah cook with julia, i would like to see some photo documentation! now THAT would be entertaining! congrats on the meal. and how great that you did it with lilah. she will remember that experience long after she has grown up and left home. you wait and see.

  2. speaking of missed posts, i totally missed this one when it came out. and i love all of it - i hope to hear more of your forays into gormet cooking!!