Category: Cooking

LEARN FROM YOUR POTS AND PANS

In writing a story the other day for Saveur, about the evolution of my kitchen, I was made aware once again of how much one’s work space is a reflection of the person whose domain it is. Over the years I’ve not only become attached to my batterie de cuisine but so many of the pots and pans and kitchen implements and memorabilia, even my Garland stove, have taught me valuable lessons in cooking.

When I decided that there was a need for a good book on the strategy of cooking for one, I realized that an important part of reducing recipes and making them work in single portions lay in adjusting the pan size. I had to rethink my cooking habits, and gradually I stashed away the big equipment on top shelves. I hung close to the stove, within easy reach, my 4-cup Le Creuset pot, my trusty 8-inch iron skillet, a small wok, an omelet pan, and my father’s miniature square skillet. They have become my fellow conspirators in conjuring up new dishes.

The wok gave me the idea of sautéing a leafy green vegetable in a little olive oil and a few slivers of garlic until almost tender, then nestling in an egg (or 2) to steam with the greens. The omelet pan always beckons when I’m looking for a quick supper and can put to use some of the tidbits I’ve stored in the fridge to make an omelet or a heartier frittata. The small square frying pan that my father left me inspired me to reduce my Potato Dish for Julia to a potato dish just for me; it was just the right size and shape.

My 6-inch iron skillet is probably the pan I use the most. It is the right vehicle for a dinner-in-one-dish because it lends itself to quick searing and then resting in the oven (just remember to use a sturdy potholder when you take it out). It is the perfect pan for making a dinner such as fried eggplant slices with a thin layer of meaty cutlets; you do the frying and layering on top of the stove, splash in a bit of tomato sauce and broth, top with cheese, and then slip it into the oven for a final 10 minutes. I’ve found that both skirt steaks and fillets of fish are best seared quickly in my iron pan and then left to finish cooking for a few minutes in the oven; when I take them out, the sizzling hot skillet is ideal for making a fast pan sauce. A quick dressing for pasta can also be made in that pan or in the wok while the pasta cooks and then—à la Lidia Bastianich—I fish the strands out of the boiling water with a big mesh spoon and tongs and drop them into the sauce for a final cooking.

Sometimes just seeing a pan in a kitchenware shop can be an inspiration. That’s what happened when I first encountered the relatively new popover pan with its separate cups. I had to have it and went right home to experiment with making just two popovers, which worked (and, of course, you can bake them in Pyrex cups). The individual tart pan with its fluted edge and removable bottom sets off my taste memory and I am thinking of all the possibilities of a little quiche.

I remember that when Evan and I returned in 1951 from three and a half years in Paris I was determined to bring home the cocotte I had bought in the flea market there. I had learned to make in that heavy iron pot reasonably good stews and braises and I suspected that I would never find anything like it in those days in New York, where light aluminum for the frail, beleaguered housewife was still the rage. But there was something deeper here: I knew that that cocotte connected me to the French for whom cooking was a pleasure and sitting down to a meal was to be honored, whether en famille or alone (perhaps even more so if you are alone).

The Pleasures of Cooking for One

I hadn’t planned to write another book after The Tenth Muse, which included at the end about fifty recipes that represented different phases of my life in food. The final items in that recipe section reflected some of the ways I go about cooking for myself today; in “The Nine Lives of a Leg of Lamb” and “Wanna Buy a Duck?” I was trying to show how many reincarnations a roast leg of lamb could have, and that the single cook who indeed wanted to buy a duck could have a great time using every part of the bird in different ways.

The response to that section convinced me that I ought to share more of my experiences cooking alone. People would come up to me full of questions—from how to make chicken breasts taste good to what to do with all the leftover food that you’re invariably stuck with because supermarkets force you to buy more than you need. Young people on their own for the first time are lost; they don’t know what equipment to buy for one, what essentials they need in the fridge and the freezer and on the limited shelf space their first tiny kitchen offers. And they want to know what book I would recommend to help them. There I was stumped. A number of books have been published aimed at the solo cook, but they are mostly made up of recipes for one and don’t deal with all the strategies involved in cooking for oneself through the week.

So I decided to meet the challenge and to give myself a year to record my own cooking and to experiment with new ideas that would be useful to any cook preparing small amounts. Thus was born The Pleasures of Cooking for One.

The first important principle is not to think of just a single dish at a time but instead understand how one dish leads to the next. So when you’re doing your major shopping, think through the week ahead and visualize how you might use that skirt steak you brought home: how good it will taste not only the first night but later in the week in a hash or a Provençal gratin layered with breadcrumbs and garlic and mushrooms, or just chilled and sliced and slathered in a pickly Sauce Gribiche.

Instead of shunning leftovers I make a point of having extra cooked foods on hand so I can improvise a meal out of whatever may be lurking in the refrigerator. When I make a tomato sauce or a cream sauce or a pesto, I make extra so that I can put small amounts away in the freezer for easy access when I want to whip up, say, a soufflé.

As I was finishing the book, I had lunch one day at the brasserie Cognac, across the street from the Knopf office. I saw on the menu a single cheese soufflé and it seemed so long that I’d had a good soufflé I couldn’t resist ordering it. As the last cheesy, foamy bite slipped down my throat, I thought what fun it would be to go home and make a soufflé—just for me. So I bought a small mold, whittled down the proportions from Julia’s classic recipe, and in about forty minutes (yes, I did have the necessary white sauce all ready-to-go in my freezer), out of the oven came a perfect little puffed-up cheese soufflé. I knew as I put it on the table and poured a glass of chilled white wine that that should be the image on the cover of the book because it represented what I want the book to say.

Not that I think you’ll want to make a soufflé every night—most of my recipes simply represent good home cooking done with care. That means they’re not for the faint-hearted or the people who only think they want to cook but really just want quick and easy shortcuts. That lovely soufflé represents doing something creative, treating yourself well, and, above all, enjoying.

I always feel that a good cookbook is like having someone right there with you at the stove. The kitchen can be a lonely place without that stimulation, so let’s share ideas and empower one another.

BLESS YOU, JULIA

We might have expected a certain amount of twittering from the Nervous Nellies over how much butter Julia lavished on those delicious French dishes that she translated for the American home cook in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The book, after all, was written before the Fear of Fat Mania (Julia’s expression) became an epidemic in this country in the 90s. Julia was never moved to modify the ingredients because they represented exactly what was called for in the classic French cuisine and moreover she didn’t believe in such nonsense. Her motto was that pure butter in moderation was good for us and that if we all ate a little of everything and didn’t indulge in seconds (or heaping platefuls), we’d be fine. Of course, in the aftermath of the fat hysteria, she was proved right. Hydrogenated products were found to be more harmful than butter and pure animal fats, and it was all those hidden fats and corn products in fast foods that were the culprit. Still people cling to old myths, particularly when it’s easier than changing one’s eating habits.

But I found it disappointing that The New York Times had to dredge up these old issues in their story on August 23rd about the soaring sales of Mastering, thanks to the move Julie and Julia. The good news is that these young people inspired by the movie are turning to a book that will really teach them how to cook.

Clearly food writer Regina Schrambling does not agree and in her August 28 piece on Slate, titled “Don’t Buy Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” and subtitled “You will never cook from it,” she claims that Mastering “has always been daunting” and that all those copies bought in the last few weeks are going to remain untouched. She then admits that she herself, after graduating from restaurant school, never cooked from it. So how is she in any position to assess it?

The truth is that she, and The New York Times, too, miss the whole point. The book is aimed at readers who really want to learn how to cook and need a lot of guidance. That’s why the master recipes are sometimes long and detailed. Everything is spelled out so that the neophyte cook understands the ingredients, the techniques involved, the possible pitfalls, and how to remedy mistakes. That does not necessarily make the recipes “labor-intensive and time-consuming,” as the Times reporter gratuitously stated, or that they are geared only to “a rigorous cook with endless patience for serious detail” (Schrambling). How does one learn if you are not given instruction? Is there any other art form that does not require understanding and practicing the fundamentals? Moreover, once you have understood and mastered the method, it is imprinted on your cooking brain so that next time, as Julia often said, you won’t even need a recipe.

I myself learned to cook from Mastering. I had always loved cooking but I knew so little about it that I was frustrated. After spending three and a half years in Paris in my mid-twenties, where I had been exposed to marvelous, everyday French food, I longed to reproduce such lovely dishes. I wanted my food to have the French touch, to taste soigné, not just indifferently cooked. But there was no book that really taught me how—that is, not until Mastering came along. It changed my life, really empowering me as a cook. And I was not alone. After we published this first volume at Knopf suddenly almost everyone I knew in New York was cooking from it—people who had never boiled an egg were giving three-course dinners à la Julia, and loving it.

That’s what I find so inspiring about the current surge of interest in this classic teaching book. I think we’ve had enough of cooking as entertainment and we really want to learn the art of cooking with finesse. I say bless you, Julia, for giving us the tools.

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