Category: Julia Child

THE PLEASURES OF COOKING FOR EIGHTY

What would it be like, I wondered, to cook for eighty hungry people, particularly for someone like me who is used to cooking for one. So I decided to try it and last Saturday I joined forces with the seasoned crew at Holy Trinity Church in the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan, who prepare a supper every week for anyone who is in need of a warm, nourishing meal.

Usually between eighty and a hundred people show up and the kitchen crew has to be ready to serve by 5:15 with the tables nicely set. The schedule is tight because the premises are given over to the Trinity Thrift Shop that same day and there are stacks and hangers full of secondhand clothing spread out all over the ample basement with last minute purchases being toted up. Then suddenly it’s time to clean up the clutter and transform the space into an orderly dining hall before the doors open and the hungry, lined up outside, descend. But this moment of tension only lends to the drama. And that’s always part of the fun when you are giving a dinner party.

Meanwhile, we the sous-chefs have been busy doing the prep work, slicing the baguettes and boules from six large sacks of crusty breads (made even crustier because they are yesterday’s loaves) that Eli’s has donated. That’s a lot of bread. But just when I start to ache I remember Julia Child’s characteristic remark when someone complained about beating the egg whites by hand: “Nonsense. It’s good for the upper arm muscles.”

Suddenly as we are finishing up, about a dozen teenagers descend the basement stairs and are introduced by our pastor as new helpers. It seems that they are from a Staten Island high school and that they wanted to do something helpful so they Googled soup kitchens and read about Holy Trinity’s program. They immediately throw themselves into the work, quickly clearing out the dining room, arranging the long tables, covering them in sheets of white paper to simulate linen table cloths, and setting places with real cutlery—no plastic knives and forks for the HTC guests.

As I look around the busy kitchen, I realize that the unassuming Bob Noorsesion, whom I’ve just met, is secretly the maitre de cuisine here, as though he had been born to the task. He doesn’t give orders; he just performs, gracefully and efficiently. It’s as though he had a timer in the back of his head, and we fall into step, taking up the choreography as we fill big baking trays with commercially prepared breaded chicken breasts, which he pops into the hot oven and automatically clocks. At the same time he tends to the frozen vegetable mix that goes into one of the huge pots of boiling water on the large restaurant stove and to the pasta which he shovels into another pot. When his automatic clock goes off, he hoists the pot (which I couldn’t have lifted without a crane) from stove to sink and drains the chunks of pasta, then tends to the veggies.

At last a cook’s task falls to me when the bowl of steaming pasta is put on the table. I get to toss it with butter and season it with salt and pepper until the balance is right. Fortunately as part of our bread service, we had peeled the foil wrappers from masses of those little pats of butter that restaurants serve so there is a huge pile of butter pats waiting to be tossed in and absorbed (Julia would have approved of that!).

Even the dishing up, arranging the food on real plates with a dollop of tomato sauce on top, is done with care. Just before everyone dives in, Lydia Colon gives the guests a touching welcome. As a seasoned hostess of this kind of neighborhood service, she has learned how to handle the sly ones who try to stuff their pockets with sweets. The Two Little Red Hens Bakery on Second Avenue, just below 86th Street, always sends a dazzling array of beautifully wrought cakes to the suppers, and evidently if we’re not careful they’ll disappear before everyone gets a fair share. But Lydia knows how to fox them: she has the cakes artfully cut up in the kitchen, each slice containing one of the enchanting flowers sculpted with the different color icings and these portions are served with the dinner so that no one can say “I didn’t get my piece of cake.”

Anyway, the night that I am here, there is plenty to eat and second helpings to go around. Of course, there are a few complaints from some about what they can and can’t eat but there is a good feeling all around and, as I pour coffee at the tables, I feel the warmth and the appreciation. These people are our guests and they are glad to be at our table. There is even one table made up only of women, who seem to come regularly less out of a need for food than for the company.

A part of me wishes that we had really cooked the food we are offering. But then I thought of what that would entail: probably forty pounds of meat to make enough for a beef stew that would satisfy these appetites, to say nothing of all the prep work and careful tending involved in cooking up a really good boeuf bourguignon. We’d have to chop up enough onions to rival the pile that Meryl Streep produces in Julie and Julia. And think of all the big skillets needed for braising the onions and mushrooms separately to get a good glaze. No, I am enough of a realist to reluctantly bury that fantasy. But I do learn that by early summer the HTC kitchen gets fresh vegetables from the Community Supported Agriculture group that supplies garden produce as it comes into season. So I’ll be back to peel the carrots and wash the greens.

Meanwhile I cherish what one of the old regulars said to me as I poured him a second cup of coffee, and the look on his face as he said it: “Thank you, sweetheart, for bringing the sunshine.”

Do You Really Want to Make French Bread?

I have been asked by someone who stumbled on my most recent blog, To Knead Or Not To Knead, if I would give more specific details about the French bread I make—in other words, a real recipe. That’s not easy with this kind of bread because there are a number of variables, from the climate to the water content of the flour. I am always experimenting, trying to make my loaves just a little better each time. My friend Jason Epstein, whose book Eating we just published this fall, would understand. He claims that he never makes something the same way twice, that he is always improving on it, so why write it down in a rigid formula? He prefers to treat a recipe as a conversation over the stove with a friend.

So I am going to follow Jason’s lead here and ask you just to join me as I describe how I made my baguettes this past weekend. It was a gray, cold day that I baked them, spreading the warmth of the kitchen and the heavenly smell of bread baking throughout the apartment.

First, you’ll need to check your EQUIPMENT. Unless you happen to have a wood-burning oven, you’ll need a baking stone measuring at least 14 x 15 inches that you set on the middle rack of your oven. You’ll also need something to create steam. The simplest method is to squirt some water over the loaves before they go into the hot oven and to toss of few ice cubes onto the oven floor just before you shut the door. I heat up an old flat iron, as described in my last blog entry, picking it up with sturdy tongs and plunging it into a pan of water.

For INGREDIENTS you’ll need 3 3/4 cups or more of white flour. (You can use bread flour, if you have it, but I find Hecker’s or King Arthur’s unbleached, all-purpose flour is excellent); 1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast (I use rapid-rise these days); 2 teaspoons kosher salt; and 3/4 cup tap water.

The night before I planned to bake I mixed 2 1/2 cups of the flour, the 1/4 teaspoon yeast, 1 teaspoon of the salt, and all of the water together in the bowl of my standing electric mixer, using the dough hook. You can do the mixing with a big wooden spoon but not your hands—at this stage it’s just too wet and sticky. When the dough is mixed it will still be loose and gloppy but that’s okay; cover the bowl in plastic wrap and drape a towel over it. I’ll give it about 18 hours to do its work, sitting in my kitchen where the temperature is around 60 to 65 degrees at night and 70 during the day;

Two hours before I’m ready to bake I add 1/2 cup more flour and the remaining teaspoon of salt and let the dough hook mix it again. If the dough still looks too soupy, I sprinkle in another 1/2 cup with the dough hook turning slowly. Now I flour my work surface generously (mine is a marble-topped worktable) and scrape the dough out of the bowl onto it, sprinkling more flour on top. Very gently at first I start to knead, using a dough scraper to prevent sticking and folding the dough over onto itself. This is such a delicate, moist dough that I have learned not to push down too hard but to coax the dough gently with the palms of my hands, adding more flour as necessary.

Gradually the dough becomes cohesive, then smooth, and it bounces back at me when I stick a finger into it. The kneading seems to take me about 6 or 7 minutes.

NOTE: I often want to make myself a small pizza*—cook’s treat—so at this stage I will tear off a piece of dough between the size of a golf ball and a tennis ball and set it aside, loosely covered with plastic wrap, or I refrigerate it if I’m not using it right away.

To return to the bread dough, I now wash out the bowl and put the dough back in it, letting it rise, covered again, for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until doubled in volume. Because this bread has less leavening, rising times are slower, which adds flavor to the bread.

Now comes the famous forming of the loaves à la Madame Child. I scrape the dough out of the bowl again onto the floured marble, punch it down gently, and divide it into thirds. I take one third of the dough (leaving the other 2 covered with a towel) and pat it into an oval shape 6 or 7 inches long.

Then I fold the long sides toward the middle, overlapping, and with the side of my hand I press the dough to form a lengthwise trough down the middle. I bring the two long sides up and over the trough and firmly pinch the sides together. Flouring the work surface again, I roll out the dough with the palms of my hands, starting at the center and rolling toward the ends, stretching the dough as I roll it to about 12 inches (or slightly less if I’ve stolen a piece for my pizza).

Now I quickly pick up that first rope of dough, which droops a bit as I transfer it to a kitchen towel that I have laid out, well dusted with flour. After arranging the loaf on the long end of the towel, I make a generous pleat in the towel to keep the first baguette separated from the next one. And now I prepare the remaining pieces of dough in the same way and lay another towel on top.

While the baguettes get their final 30-minute rise , I preheat the oven to 475 degrees with the baking stone on the middle rack. I also heat up my trusty old iron over a gas flame.

The last moment of excitement is at hand. The baguettes have doubled. I take my improvised baking paddle, well dusted at one long end with corn meal, and slip it just a little way under the first baguette; then using the far side of the towel I flip it onto the paddle, seam side down now, and make 3 lengthwise slashes on top with a razor blade held at an angle. I pull out the oven rack and I position the paddle at the far end of the stone, then jerk it so the baguette slips off the paddle and onto the hot surface. I very quickly repeat this maneuver with the two remaining loaves, shutting the oven door in between to keep the heat in. Now I put a pan of water on the oven floor and with my tongs grab the hot iron and plop it into the pan.

The baguettes are done in about 25 minutes, although I always peek 5 minutes sooner to see if they have turned golden brown. When ready I remove the baguettes with tongs and prop them up so the air can circulate as they cool.

Voilà. Try not to eat them until they’ve had at least half an hour to settle.

*To make yourself a small pizza for lunch: Preheat the oven to 475 degrees. Flatten your reserved hunk of dough on a well-floured work surface and roll it out to a circle about 6 inches in diameter. Paint the top lightly with olive oil and fill the round with whatever appeals to you. I love eggplant so I grill some fairly thin, lengthwise slices of a small eggplant, brushed with oil, over a gas burner, until lightly roasted. Then I arrang 3 of those slices on top of the circle of dough, interspersed with 6 or 7 cherry tomatoes and topped with a heaping tablespoon of grated parmesan. Using the same jerking motion that I described for sliding the baguette onto the hot baking stone and with the help of a spatula, I slip the pizza into the oven, but if that unnerves you and you feel all the topping will tumble off, bake the pizza for the first 5 minutes on a regular baking sheet and then slide it onto the baking stone when the bottom has firmed up. Bake a total of 12 to 15 minutes, checking to see if the dough is crispy and the filling bubbly.

The possibilities for pizza fillings are endless. See what scraps you may have in your fridge—cooked vegetables, a little sausage or ham, different cheeses, olives, peppers.

TO KNEAD OR NOT TO KNEAD?

Why do we make bread at home, particularly these days when there is so much good bread to be found in our local bakeries? Certainly most of us don’t have a brick oven or a way of creating the steam that is necessary to achieving a great crust, so our efforts can’t be as good as a professional baker’s. I’m talking about crusty loaves—boules, baguettes, ficelles, and hard rolls, which fifty years ago you could hardly find anywhere, even in New York City.

That was about the time that Julia was working on the second volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and as we were poring over the final selection of recipes for it, I mentioned that it was a shame that Americans, who at last were mastering French cooking, thanks to Julia, still couldn’t enjoy that essential element of a French meal: an excellent, hard-crusted, golden brown loaf that when broken open revealed a patchwork of holes with shiny interiors and tasted simply of good bread. Nothing was better suited to mop up the last delicious morsels on your plate and a French dinner just wasn’t the same without it. The only solution, I slyly suggested, was for Mastering II to reveal the secrets and give the American cook a recipe that would work.

My idea caught fire. As Julia put it in the introduction to the book, “Until our editor, in her gentle but compelling way, suggested that we really owed it to our readers to include a recipe for French bread, we had no plans at all to tackle it. Two years and some 284 pounds of flour later, we had tried out all the home-style recipes for French bread we could find”—and they still hadn’t come up with the real thing. Julia put her husband, Paul, to work on it at first because he had made bread in college, but after 60 loaves (a few of which he mailed to me in New York and they all looked like the twisted arms of an old olive tree) he gave up. So they packed up American flour and American yeast and salt, and set off for France where they made contact with Professor Calvel of the Ecole de Meunière in Paris. And then, as she wrote: “It was like the sun in all its glory suddenly breaking through the shades of gloom.” This epiphany was particularly acute because what they learned seemed to defy most of the tenets of bread making they had previously encountered: Calvel’s dough was supposed to be soft and sticky, almost too tacky to be handled, and it was left to rise in a cool spot, not warm, for many hours. The proper shaping of the loaves was a crucial factor, as Julia wrote me in a postcard from Paris, not mentioning that they still had to find a way to simulate the baker’s wood-burning oven and to come up with a device to get that whoosh of steam so essential to the crusting of the loaves. But Paul worked out those technicalities (they were always a great team) and soon Julia was ready with a 20-page recipe for Plain French Bread.

Needless to say, I became addicted to making my own baguettes at home. Initially I used an asbestos plate, as recommended by Paul, as a substitute for the hot floor of a French oven, but after asbestos was condemned I lined my oven shelf with tiles. I also found an old, pre-electric iron that was perfect for heating up on my gas flame on top of the stove. When it had turned red hot and after I’d coaxed the long loaves onto the oven tiles with the help of an improvised baker’s paddle, I would pick up the hot iron with tongs, plop it quickly into a pan of water on the oven floor, and slam the oven door shut. You could hear the whoosh of steam inside. If there were children around, they always seemed relieved once I had performed this feat, and soon they were eager to get into the act.

I have long believed that if you want children to be interested in cooking, start making yeast breads together. They feel something so magical as the dough changes from a sticky mess under their hands to a smooth and bouncy mass that holds together. And it’s all in the kneading. Then they put the dough back in its bowl, cover it, and let it take a rest. When they return some time later and remove the covering, the dough has doubled or tripled in volume, usually trembling at the brim of the bowl. Now comes the part they love best: punching the dough ruthlessly down again. They also love the shaping and are always surprised at how when it comes out of the oven its shape has changed. It has a mind of its own.

So I confess to having an ambivalent feeling when I read in the fall of 2006 that Jim Lahey of the Sullivan Street Bakery in Manhattan had come up with a miraculous way of making the perfect, authentic country loaf that was going to revolutionize bread making. The attraction for home cooks was that is was easy, required no kneading, and that it was baked in a heavy, very hot Le Creuset-like cooking pot which gave it a great crust and those holes that are the pride of every baker. All it took was time—most of it waiting time—and the ability to handle very wet dough, which didn’t need kneading. Mark Bittman writing in the food section of The New York Times thought the results fantastic and Jeffrey Steingarten, an exacting cook, thought it the best country loaf he had ever made (after a little tinkering, of course) and wrote it up for Vogue.

I tried it a couple of times and was delighted with the taste and the texture of the round country loaf, although some of the holes seemed excessive in size so if slices were used for a sandwich bits of the filling might drop out. Recently I tried again, this time experimenting to see if I dropped a fairly long portion of the moist dough into a foot-long Le Creuset pan I had for making pate, I would get something that resembled a baguette. It was pretty good, but it didn’t really look like a baguette, with its handsome slashes, but like one of Paul’s olive tree branches, only plumper.

The truth is I missed the kneading. For me a good deal of the pleasure of making bread is tactile—kneading the dough gently at first so that it doesn’t stick to my work surface, scraping it off the board, flouring, folding, and continuing to knead rhythmically until my hands tell me it is ready. The dough gradually loses its tackiness and its resistance and comes alive under my palms, springing back at me when I press my thumb into it to see if it has been kneaded enough. My step-daughter tells me I become like a little girl I am enjoying it so much. And Julia used to say that hand-beating and kneading were good for our upper arm muscles. But this tactile sense also tells me when I have added enough flour and when the dough is just cohesive enough to roll out into the baguette shape. After it has had its final rise, then comes the slashing of the loaf, a procedure that takes some practice to master. With the revolutionary no-knead method, on the other hand, the dough is so moist that all you can do is just plop it into the hot pot and slap on the lid.

My objection is not entirely sentimental. Flours vary in their water content, making it hard to rely on precise measurements. Recently I botched a batch because the dough was too wet when it went into the pan, and although it crusted well, the interior remained damp. Had I been handling the dough, I would have known this and worked in considerably more flour.

But I did absorb a valuable lesson: You achieve a better-tasting bread if you use less yeast and allow the dough a long, slow rise. So now I’m playing with these findings and making a better baguette. But I haven’t stopped kneading.

CHRISTMAS DINNER, THEN AND NOW

Ah, a family Christmas dinner. It was once so simple: a wintry, hearty meal, perhaps embodying some of the ethnic accents that we all carry with us in this land of immigrants. Being of English origin my family invariably enjoyed a standing rib roast with Yorkshire pudding. We were usually about twelve at the table and I, being the youngest, had to wait the longest to get my share of what seemed to me pitifully thin slices of that rosy beef. My grandfather, dressed in Sunday spats and vest, was the designated carver and he performed with considerable flair, being particularly adept at those thin slices. But I wouldn’t have dreamed of complaining, and anyway I was rewarded with a generous spoonful of beef blood that had accumulated on the platter as the roast was carved.

For dessert there was always a steamed pudding, set alight and carried to the table as the blue flames flickered around the molded dark cake. The young ones didn’t much appreciate the strong brandy taste that lingered after the flames had burned out but there was lots of foamy sauce to soften the flavor. And we certainly would not have thought of suggesting an alcohol-free serving.

Today it’s a different story. What with the divided and extended families that many of us are a part of, we never know quite who the players will be. In the old days it was not only the menu but the cast of characters at table that remained the same until one by one we fled the coop.

Several days before Christmas I got a call from my niece whose extended family was coming to me for the holiday feast this year. Could her beloved’s adopted son’s girlfriend be invited to dinner? I counted my chairs and fortunately there was still one left that could be fit into my smallish dining so, of course, she should come.

Then I went over in my mind the various dietary restrictions I’d been told about: my niece is poisoned by garlic; she and her daughter are lactose intolerant; my cousin’s son is a near-vegetarian. So I had to devise strategies to get around these constraints (and still have a good dinner). I would forego the slivers of garlic that I like to insert in the lamb as it roasts and instead I’d indulge in the special sauce that Julia Child always loved with her gigot, which calls for a whole head of garlic. However, as she points out with its two blanchings and slow cooking in milk, the cloves turn buttery and tame. But not tame enough for the allergic, and my niece was warned not to go near the sauce. I also served her a little dish of leftover wild rice because the flageolets—those lovely little French dried beans—that I love to prepare with lamb cook gently with several plump cloves of garlic to enhance their flavor. Then I made a rich, filling ratatouille and a big salad for the meat-cautious.

Everything seemed under control until the day before Christmas when I got another call from my niece. She just wanted to remind me that the men in her family have huge appetites. Evidently they all work out fiendishly, thereby charging up their appetites. So I’d better be prepared.

I panicked. Was my 7 pound lamb going to be big enough to offer seconds all around? I rushed out to the Food Emporium to buy a couple of packages of lamb shoulder chops to strew around the roast—just in case. And I chased down an extra packet of those hard-to-find French flageolets.

I need not have worried. Everyone ate heartily and there was plenty for seconds.

For dessert I had decided to forego the traditional steamed pudding (I could predict anxious looks about all that suet in it) and I settled instead on rich, molten chocolate cakes. So far I haven’t found anyone (except dogs) allergic to chocolate so I thought it would be a safe bet. Arranged on individual dessert plates with a garnish of strawberries and several dollops of vanilla ice cream (non-lactose for the afflicted), each cake had been purposely undercooked so that when it is broken into, warm molten chocolate pours out and mingles with the other flavors and textures. A delectable sensation!

It was Joan Nathan who first introduced me to this dessert in her book The New American Cooking. It seems that the extraordinarily talented chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten created these delights by mistake. Somehow the little cakes had been removed from the oven when they were not yet fully baked and, before he could retrieve them, they had been served to his customers, who were in ecstasy as they devoured their first bite.

Trust a Frenchman to turn a mistake into a triumph. It is a good reminder that the goal of a dinner—any dinner for that matter—is to give pleasure. Isn’t that what cooking is all about?

A RETURN TO HOME COOKING

In early October I was on a panel with a number of writers discussing the future of food writing—from books, magazines, and newspapers to blogs and twitters. It took place at the Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox, Mass., and I couldn’t help thinking that just in my lifetime food had come a long way; it was being honored here as a serious topic, launching a series of programs on the written word.

After much talk about current trends in restaurants and how the electronic media is changing the way we get our information, I suggested that what I really felt people were yearning for was a return to good home cooking. And a cheer went up from the audience. The same happened a few weeks later in a church in Norwich, Vermont (we had had to move from the bookstore to the church because so many food-loving people wanted to attend).

So there seems to be a movement afoot to get back into the kitchen and enjoy cooking. Maybe the downturn in the economy is having an effect. I think often of the artist Ed Giobbi, who wrote so affectionately about how, when he was growing up before World War II in a dreary New England industrial town, his family and neighbors would make frequent excursions to the coast to gather mussels (then considered trash fish by the rest of America). He wrote: “I suppose I remember these occasions because they were joyous and I tend to think of the Depression with some nostalgia. The gathering and preparing of food was a group effort and everyone was loving and open. Perhaps that’s why I have a special reverence for food.”

I have been particularly impressed recently by the number of young people—especially those faced with their first kitchen, usually tiny—who really want to cook for themselves. One of the things that inspires them, I believe, is a nostalgia for some of the good ethnic tastes they may have grown up on or were exposed to through travel. And because there is a growing awareness of how food is a means of telling about a culture, there is a new respect for learning about this endlessly fascinating subject. They not only save money but they eat better and enjoy the satisfaction of doing something creative.

Last week I was in New England promoting my new book The Pleasures of Cooking for One and I was asked by Nancy Supporta Sternbach, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese studies at Smith College, if I would meet with some of her students, who wanted to prepare some dishes for me before my talk at the Odyssey bookstore in South Hadley, Mass. It developed that she was teaching a course called What’s in a Recipeand it attracted students of different nationalities. I met with about ten of them—some with origins in Asia, India, the Middle East, France, and Italy. They delighted in getting together and making some of the dishes that had an interesting past. So they presented me with a sampling to fortify me for my talk. One student had made a tapenade and a spinach-yogurt dip; then there was a delectable rich winter squash soup; and the young lady from France had baked an interesting bergamot-seasoned cake, which was delicious dipped in tea. The elusive flavor of the bergamot led naturally to a discussion of what bergamot was and which countries used it and how.

Then an idea surfaced. Considering the success of reading groups all over the country, why not launch a series of food-and-book clubs? The focus would be on ways in which different authors treated food in their writing and members of the group could make dishes based on these descriptions. For instance, they might try to reproduce the dinner that Anne Tyler describes in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, in which the son in a dysfunctional family, now a chef, makes an eggplant soup with bananas—which, alas, doesn’t exactly succeed in pulling the family together.

Or the reading group might sample different cookbooks and find out which worked for them—which were genuine teaching books and which, through the sensuous description of a creation, inspired the novice cook to try what might have seemed a daunting recipe.

The handicap our young people face today as they start to cook is that most of them haven’t had the privilege of learning by osmosis, watching their mother (or father, or grandparent) cook, and absorbing all the subtle techniques. They are alone in the kitchen and there’s no one to turn to when the sauce curdles. But don’t despair. Help is now at hand. Once again Julia comes to the rescue.

About twenty-five years ago when Julia Child was at the height of her fame, we decided it would be a huge help to the home cook to create a series of tapes devoted to teaching all the basic techniques, from how to make a cream sauce and a hollandaise to cutting up a chicken and forming a tart shell. So I went out to Santa Barbara, where Julia was wintering, and worked with her long-time producer and director Russ Morash to produce a series of six teaching tapes called The Way to Cook. They were, and are, remarkable—the best 6-session cooking class you could ever attend. The only trouble was that the technology then was not up to the task. On those old tapes there was no instant access so you might have to go patiently through hamburgers, Sautéed Veal Scallops, Calf’s Liver, and Pot Roast before you got to the all-important technique of degreasing a sauce. Furthermore, you could only play these tapes on your TV screen, and most of us didn’t have televisions taking up space in the kitchen.

But now with DVDs we can, with our remote at the kitchen counter or stove, order up instantly that degreasing segment. We can take Julia into the kitchen on our desktop computer so it is just like having her standing there beside us when that sauce curdles (and she’ll tell us how to rescue it).

Watching The Way to Cook is mesmerizing and addictive. But you’ll come away a fine and fearless cook, I promise you.

THE LANGUAGE OF FOOD

I have been thinking a lot recently about food and language. It all started last summer with the Independence Day Parade in the little village of Greensboro, Vermont, when the former State Poet Laureate, Galway Kinnell, was ceremoniously driven on a float through Main Street and delivered to the library, where he gave a poetry reading to an appreciative audience.

The first poem he read was “Blackberry Eating”—a poem I’ve long cherished because it evokes so sensuously the pleasure of picking the fall blackberries in the woods all around us. But I’d never heard Galway read it aloud and I was once again struck by the power of the language of food. As he mouthed the words strengths, squinched, splurge they became the essence of blackberries and we were pulled into the “silent, startled, icy black language of blackberries in late September,” happily licking our lips.

Then I was asked to be on a panel at the Oxford Symposium, which takes place once a year, gathering food writers from all over, and the subject was to be on Food and Language. How could I resist? So it got me thinking even more about how we use—or don’t use—language to express our feelings about food.

As I looked at the literature, I couldn’t help but agree with the critic Clifton Fadiman who wrote in an introduction to M.F.K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating: “We Americans do not take gladly to the literature of gastronomy . . . We must feel there is something licentious or censorable about it.” Certainly I grew up in a household where it was considered impolite to talk about food at the table and we were always being told to shut the kitchen door so the cooking smells wouldn’t escape. Furthermore the food industry ever since the nineteenth century had been telling us that cooking was demeaning and that the poor little housewife shouldn’t have to stoop to such lowly work (so buy our products instead).

What a long way we’ve come in just about fifty years. Finally the veil has been lifted and we’re able to enjoy the art of cooking, to slap the dough around, massage the chicken with butter, and sizzle the garlic until it smells up the whole house. And to write about it with joy. There is also a lot of interesting investigative reporting going on that has alerted us to some of the current practices of the food industry, and we are so much more aware of what we eat thanks to this kind of writing

So good, evocative writing about food has been a part of our culture now for more than half a century, ever since M.F.K. Fisher first wrote ecstatically about picking and eating fresh peas to the sound of a cowbell in the Swiss Alps and, more practically, Julia Child described the signs of doneness in a roast chicken as “a sudden rain of splatters in the oven, a swelling of the breast, and a light puff of the skin, and the drumstick is tender when pressed and can be moved in its socket.”

But at the same time the art of writing a recipe—and it is an art—has not improved; in fact it has deteriorated. In the interest of saving space, magazines, newspapers, even most cookbooks have reduced recipe writing to a formula that isn’t even particularly effective and certainly isn’t sufficiently instructive.

For example, a typical recipe today will tell us, “In a bowl, combine the first mixture with the second mixture.” Why does the bowl have to come first? (That’s not even good English). What exactly is meant by “combine”? Do we stir, fold, toss, mix (aren’t these more accurate terms?)? And what is “the first mixture”? Is it the milk in the first step which was warmed with a little sugar (does that make it a mixture?)? And where is the second mixture? We have to go chasing around for that. Why not say the warmed milk and then refer to the batter or the dough, or whatever the second mixture is? That way we learn accepted culinary terms. Or use old fashioned, serviceable expressions, such as “the dry ingredients” or “the wet ingredients.” I also wonder, if they are trying to economize on space, why the directions constantly tell us to “Set aside.” What are we going to do: throw it out after we’ve done all that combining?

I also find the insistence on telling us the preparation time for a recipe is a joke. Who is doing the prep—Jacques Pépin or you or me? There would certainly be a difference, and anyway who cares! What I miss in these recipes is the voice of the teacher, empowering the home cook, enabling us to make our own judgments, and be creative about correcting, adding, and substituting. It is only through that kind of careful, creative language that we come to understand the heart and soul of good cooking.

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.

What Would Julia Have Thought?

I have just returned to Bryn Teg, my mountain retreat in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, after a whirlwind trip to do my share of promoting the about-to-be-released movie, Julie and Julia. After sixteen interviews in one day in Toronto and seventeen in Boston plus a panel discussion following a screening of the film, instead of being drained, I felt exhilarated. There is such an outpouring of affection for Julia that the fun of having her in the guise of Meryl Streep back on the screen is positively infectious.

When I first looked at my schedule I wondered whether I had enough to say about everyone’s favorite cook and if I wouldn’t just be repeating the same old stories. But curiously each interviewer seemed to have a slightly different personal take on the subject and their questions were varied and probing enough to keep things perking. There was one question that persisted, however, and that was: What would Julia have thought of the movie?

There’s no easy answer to that but it’s interesting that it seemed such a concern. It is as though her fans wanted to protect her. Obviously it’s hard for anyone to see herself projected on screen, and the telling characteristics of voice and gesture as acted out by someone else can make one uncomfortably self-conscious. For all her good sportsmanship, I sensed that Julia was rather embarrassed by the Dan Aykroyd caricature on Saturday Night Live. But, first and foremost, Julia was a pro and she valued superior performance. So I am sure she would have admired the marvelous alchemy that takes place as Meryl Streep becomes the essence of Julia before our eyes.

Also, Julia was a bit of a ham, as she would readily admit. She understood that you have to create drama in a role, and a touch of high-pitched exaggeration is part of the game. She certainly would have warmed to the Paris scenes, particularly the moments at the market when those macho French vendors seem enchanted by her exuberance and clear love of food. As for chopping those piles of onions in order to perfect her knife skills, that would have hit home.

Above all, Julia would have been delighted by the young people in the audience who went away thinking cooking was fun and wanted to get into the kitchen with Julia. Julie, as played so engagingly by Amy Adams, begins to really enjoy the challenge she has set herself and she feels empowered by her mentor’s presence.

Julia Child was driven by a sense of mission. She genuinely wanted to teach her fellow Americans the secrets and subtleties and rewards of French cooking. So how could she not appreciate Julie and Julia for awakening a whole new generation to Mastering the Art?

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