My mother, although multi-talented, had an aversion to the kitchen and has often said that I learned to cook at an early age “out of self-defense.” When she made chicken à l'orange by smearing a chicken with powdered Tang, I quickly developed a necessary passion for creating tasty things to eat. Somewhere in the family photograph album is a picture of me at the stove, age ten, happily stirring marinara sauce.

I developed a lifelong fascination with food; good food. There was even a foray of working as a chef’s assistant at a French restaurant during my mid twenties, just for fun. I had always loved watching Julia Child and knew that Mastering the Art of French Cooking was to be revered. It wasn’t until I read her biography (long before the Julie & Julia movie) that I really became fascinated with her work. From that book, I decided to prepare her recipe for mayonnaise.

Upon tasting it, I wept. . . .

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Filets de Poisson Gratinés, á la Parisienne

Fish Filets Poached in White Wine; Cream and Egg Yolk Sauce.

Other than Julia's lobster Thermidor, this was the only other fish dish of hers I'd ever prepared. I was initially intrigued at the idea of making a good fish stock which became a rather elusive endeavor when I realized I had no access to fresh fish remains. A trip to a nearby Whole Foods Market and sweet-talking their fishmonger solved the problem. I was supplied with lovely, meaty red snapper frames at no cost.

The fish frames were simmered for an hour or so with the ubiquitous carrot, parsley, just a suspicion of tarragon, then strained, reduced and refrigerated. The next day, voila! I was presented with a thick, fragrant, very gelatinous fumé de poisson -- fish stock.

Time to put it to work. . . .

Since this was my first foray into the fish section of Mastering, why not begin with a recipe that has á la Parisienne in the title? The sauce being made from reduced fish stock, white wine, egg yolks and cream really did sound like the epitome of what one would encounter in Paris.

I selected Dover sole filets for this endeavor. They have a great reputation and I figured that any sole swimming around Dover surely encountered French waters as well. They were poached in shallots, butter, my glorious fumé, and a splorsh of white wine. (A "splorsh" is a precise, technical measurement and I'm sure you know exactly how much a splorsh is.)

Their poaching liquid was reduced to a cup. Butter and flour were mixed together in another sauce pan to which milk was added along with the reduced poaching liquid. That was then slowly added to egg yolks and cream, heated through and finished with a touch of lemon juice.

For the garnish, fresh mussels were steamed in minced shallots, white wine and butter.

The filets were sauced and were to be placed under the broiler with grated Swiss cheese which I neglected to buy. Parmesan became the substitute.

But here, you have it: Filets de Poisson Gratinés, á la Parisienne.

Again, like so many French sauces, the flavor of the delicate fish was not covered by the rich sauce, only enhanced by it. And again, Julia's recipe turned out to be the most delectable means of preparing fish.

Frankly, I would have used more white wine in the poaching liquid and just a splorsh of fish stock -- I think that would have given the sauce even more complexity. (I'm sure it would be fine. Julia gave several combinations for poaching liquids, one of which was mainly water. You could practically hear her end up saying, "Oh, use whatever you like.")

The big surprise, to me anyway, were the mussels which were only to be a garnish. Having been steamed in shallots, butter, and white wine, they were the best mussels I've ever eaten especially with the sauce on them. I'm glad I bought a pound of them, for I ate them all.

Since I have plenty of my wonderful fish stock stocked in the freezer, my next dish will definitely be Sole á la Dieppoise -- Fish Filets with Mussels and Shrimp. The sauce for it is finished with -- are you ready for this? -- 8 to 16 tablespoons of butter. Obviously, it's one of those classic French sauces that incorporates as much butter as the laws of chemistry will allow.

Must begin fasting now.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Perfect Chef's Knife

Oh, the joys of having really good tools to work with! Enough cannot be said about this.

Recently, I was preparing a Julia meal for eight at my friends’ house and they had just bought a Global 8-inch chef’s knife. “Here, see what you think of this knife,” said my friend, Steve. I picked it up, sliced an onion in half and fell in love. It sliced through chicken thighs like they were soft butter. While preparing the meal, I found myself giddy every time I got to use it.

Later, they surprised me with a generous gift card to the shop that sells Global knives – this was for doggy-sitting for a few days.

Yesterday, I finally went to the shop with the gift card, for I needed a medium-sized saucepan and a stainless steel sauté pan. I had a good chef’s knife; a good one, not a great one. Fortunately, the store didn’t have the pans I was looking for but there were the Global knives in the glass case. I picked up the 8-inch chef’s knife and got that giddy feeling again. I had to have it.

After I got home with my new baby, I looked up reviews of the Global G-2 chef’s knife. I figured that good-old Wusthof and Henkel knives would still be the ones to acquire, but I was wrong.

My new Global G-2 from Japan has rocked the knife world. Take a look at this comprehensive review. It was at the top of the rankings in every category.

Sure, you’ll spend some money for it (about a hundred bucks), but I’ll fall in love and get giddy every time I use it.

You can’t put a price tag on that.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Having obtained my new KitchenAid mixer this past weekend, I wanted to put it to work. What better way than to make Julia’s Bavarois, or Bavarian Cream? It involves whisking egg yolks and sugar, whisking egg whites, and making whipped cream. I’d have a dandy time with my new buddy.

I had previously made the strawberry variation (Bavarois aux Fruits), so this time I headed for the almond praline version. In this case, an almond praline is prepared and then ground up to flavor the Bavarian cream. Oh, and the whole thing is served with ground praline and a custard sauce on top. It sounded scrumptious.

Three steps are involved in making the almond praline. (1) Toasting the almonds, (2) making the caramel and (3) combining the two.

Toast the slivered almonds first. They can wait on the caramel but not the other way around. Simply place them on a dry sheet pan and into a 350 degree oven. Check every two minutes. Trust me, once they begin to toast, they go fast. I’ve burned nuts before and it’s easy to do. Give them a stir about halfway through to redistribute them – ovens have hot-spots. Take them out just before you think they’re fully toasted. It’s better to err on the side of being underdone.

Place the nuts aside and spray the sheet pan with non-stick spray.

Now for the caramel which is basically melted and browned sugar. It can be tricky – I’ve had it crystallize and go grainy on me before. When that happens, there's no recovery. You have to start over.

My friend, Lorraine in Seattle, apparently has a weird micro-climate surrounding her kitchen which makes it impossible to produce caramel successfully. At least that’s what she told me when mine failed.

Place ½ cup of sugar in an even layer and 2 Tbs water in a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. DO NOT STIR – ever. That’s one thing that causes the crystallization – a film of melted sugar drying on the sides of the pan. You may give it a very gentle swirl every now and then. Julia says to place a lid on the pan so that the steam will melt any dried sugar and keep peeking.

You’ll want the sugar to melt and bubble away until it turns an amber color. Again, this is very easy to overcook and burn. Once it begins turning amber, it’ll turn pretty quickly.

I advocate a bit of culinary yoga when making caramel – that is, to visualize your goal in order to achieve it. In this case, the Amber Room at the Catherine Palace near Saint Petersburg provides a great example of where you want to head. Mentally project this image onto your caramel and all will be well. I'm not joking. . .

Here is the caramel, just beginning to turn.
(Have the almonds and a spatula ready.)

A little more. . .

Now, it’s ready. (Again, I aim to err on the side of under-doneness.)

Pour the toasted almonds in, give a quick turn with a spatula, and immediately pour it out onto the greased baking sheet. If you dawdle at all, the mixture will quickly harden in the saucepan.

Flatten it out and let it cool. It’ll be fully hardened and ready to use within ten minutes.

Here’s another helpful hint: If you try to wash the saucepan with any caramel remaining, it will harden like a rock. Instead, fill the saucepan with water, bring it to a boil and then simply pour it out.

Another word of advice: Be careful when making caramel. Remember, you’re dealing with molten, sticky sugar-magma. You don’t want that on unprotected skin. – and this is definitely not something you want little ones anywhere around.

Oh, and the Bavarios aux Praline was absolutely incredible. Definitely a showcase dessert to have in one's repertoire if there ever was one.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

My Happy Kitchen

When you have a teeny tiny kitchen like I do, workable space is at a premium. My kitchen measures 10' x 6', the wraparound counter tops take up 2 feet of that space, so the floor space of my kitchen is actually only 8' x 4'.

When working in such a limited space, one must become pretty clever at creating the most efficient use out of what you've got. Fortunately, I was able to use a brilliant idea of Julia's.

She liked to have things incredibly organized and handy, so her husband, Paul, installed pegboard on one wall of her kitchen where she could hang pots, pans, and utensils.

Here is her impressive wall of culinary armory.

I took a look at my kitchen and noticed that I had an unused wall. I wanted to do the pegboard thing, too. After shopping around online for pegboard, I found panels of galvanized steel pegboard in various colors. My kitchen is basically yellow and blue so, naturally, I went with red pegboard.

Being that my kitchen wall is made of concrete, I had to make a trip to the "man store" (Ace Hardware) for a quarter-inch drill bit -- And borrow a drill from a friend. But after some careful measuring, I was able to successfully mount the unused wall with pegboard.

Yes, the color scheme may look a little bit like a daycare center but, after all, it's my kitchen and I like primary colors.

Cabinets were cleared out of pots and pans and I even treated myself to some new stainless steel utensils. I can't begin to tell you how good it feels to walk into my little kitchen and have all my babies surrounding me like this; all visible, within reach and ready to leap into action.

Tall people will also appreciate this layout. Julia stood six-foot-two and I nudge the underbelly of six-foot-three. No more stooping down, crouching in cabinets for that elusive sauté pan!

So, again, thanks to Julia. Not only for her work as a cookbook author, but for ideas to make my kitchen a happier place to be.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Kitchen Improvements

Now that I'm fully immersed into cooking, I finally broke down and bought something I've wanted for over twenty-five years.

A KitchenAid Mixer. Ta-daahhh!
Isn't it beautiful? There's nothing really quite like having the right equipment on hand to make your cooking that much more enjoyable.

I didn't want one of those fancy ones in designer colors -- (Yuppie porn) -- just the "classic" one that will do the job and do it well.

Yes, it looks all gleaming, new and white right now. That's all well and good but I look forward to the day when this puppy will look like my grandmother's old Mix-Master. You could tell it had been used and had faithfully produced lots of tasty things to eat over the years.

Yes, the KitchenAid is an investment. This thing is something that will last a lifetime -- nay, several lifetimes. This is the type of equipment you leave behind to a loved one and on to their offspring and so forth.

It feels good having it. Even better, I was just able to whip out Julia's Bavarois aux Praline (Bavarian Cream with Almond Praline and Custard Sauce) for my friends to enjoy tonight.

It's on its way to looking like my grandmother's . . .

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Taste and See

Julia taught America to cook; that is true. If one reads everything she published, you’ll be supplied with a wealth of culinary knowledge and expertise.

One principle of cooking that I’ve seen her advise only seldomly is to taste everything as you go. This is a rule I’ve learned to live by when cooking and, often, I’ve had to learn it the hard way.

I first learned of this rule during a brief foray into restaurant management during my late twenties. When all the cooks had prepared all that they could ahead of time, the managers would come around with a tray of spoons so that everything could be taste-tested. This proved to be valuable, for in one instance it was discovered that the baker had used salt rather than sugar in the chocolate mousse. (An easy mistake -- big bins of each were side-by-side in the baking section of the kitchen. The baker also had a proclivity for being hung over.)

Parsley, cilantro, and leeks are often muddy and require more washing than you'd think necessary. One can spend an inordinate amount of time preparing the perfect potato-leek soup, but there’s absolutely no way to recover it if it's gritty. Taste the chopped leeks or the cilantro before they go in. They may require another rinse or two.

Taste your oils beforehand, too. You may have spent a chunk of cash on the best olive oil, or worse, truffle oil. But taste and see. Sticking an oily finger in your mouth will never be seen on cooking programs, but do it anyway. Rancid oil is no joke.

While tasting every single strawberry might be appealing, I wouldn’t go that far. However, a bitter cucumber will occasionally present itself; tasting every one of them would weed it out. One might also encounter a flavorless watermelon or the errant pomegranate that has begun to rot. Taste and see.

I was recently preparing a Sauce Maltaise (orange-flavored Hollandaise) which called for grated orange peel. Sure, I tasted the final product only to discover that it had a slightly rancid taste. (Yes, the finger in the mouth.) Were the eggs bad? No, I had given them the smell-test beforehand. Was the butter old? Impossible -- it had been produced by a happy Amish cow in nearby Indiana only days before.

It turned out that the orange peel was the culprit. Although I had gorgeous, top quality oranges, the grated peel had absolutely no orange flavor; only a burning nothingness. Had I tasted the grated peel, I could have easily gone with a plain Hollandaise or perhaps veered off into a Bèarnaise direction.

I recall that whenever Julia or another chef handled food items with their hands, she always remarked that one must have “impeccably clean hands.” It bordered on being an obsession with her. With that in mind, I seriously doubt that she’d have advocated my finger-in-the-mouth tasting technique.

But let’s face it -- the food is going to be cooked, thus killing any bacteria. Besides, the number-panel on your microwave probably has ten times the amount of bacteria than is in your mouth. (I always keep bleach-water on hand when I cook, thus resulting in impeccably clean hands.)

Hopefully, the first time you serve your guests a gritty vichyssoise or a sandy salsa will be your last. From there on out, you’ll taste and see.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Bavarois aux Fruits

For some strange reason, I’ve never really been “into” desserts or have enjoyed sweets for that matter. The idea of enjoying a full meal and then being presented with a sweet food item almost seems bothersome to me. Even chocolate is way down on the list of things I like to eat.

That’s not to say I’ll pass up cheesecake or a slice of coconut cream pie. I just don’t want it at the end of a meal -- a good cup of coffee will do fine, thank you.

About a month ago, I was preparing a full-on Julia meal for eight. I knew that my friend, Steve, really enjoyed desserts – a lot. He’s Swedish so I think a love of sweets is embedded in his DNA.

With that in mind, I wanted to prepare something really special and appealing for dessert. Although I had yet to peruse the dessert section of Mastering, I felt pretty certain that Julia would have some incredible desserts there.

She did. Big time.

We might think of Bavarian cream as the squishy inside of cream doughnuts. Nope. A real Bavarian Cream is a molded dessert in which custard is thickened with gelatin, flavored, and lightened with whipped cream and beaten egg whites. Uncharacteristically for Julia, she really lays on the accolades:

“When properly made, it has a most lovely, light, creamy, velvety quality and ranks as one of the best of the molded desserts.”

If Julia says that about a dessert, then my dessert-loving friend deserved it.

Begin with 7 egg yolks. (Always an encouraging start if you ask me.) Those get beaten with sugar until pale yellow and ribboney. Hot milk is added and it gets simmered until a custard results.

Custard can be a tricky thing and is normally made over a double-boiler to prevent the eggs from over-cooking, resulting in scrambled eggs. Julia instructs us to simmer it directly over moderate heat. That can be done if you’re careful. Be brave, but keep stirring with a watchful eye, and don’t you dare leave the stove. I definitely like to use a rubber spatula to stir it with so that there’s no chance of egg scrambling on the bottom of the pan. If it begins to thicken really quickly or seems too hot (too “steamy”), remove it from the heat and stir rapidly. A nearby ice-bath in which to quickly cool it might be a good idea, but I like to live on the edge and didn’t have one.

Her main recipe is for an orange Bavarian cream but the variation, Bavarois aux Fruits, indicated that one could flavor it with strawberries or raspberries. Since it was spring and strawberries seemed to be everywhere at the markets, I went with that.

When using strawberries, one must puree the berries and strain out the seeds. Normally, I’m not a big fan of straining sauces excessively but it this case, the tiny seeds would have really been intrusive. (I tasted it with the seeds in.) Remember, Julia said it was velvety and so toward the velvety direction I did head.

Gelatin is dissolved into a cup of the strawberry sauce and that is whisked into the custard (which is actually Crème Anglaise). Meanwhile, egg whites are whipped and folded in. Then heavy cream is whipped, flavored with kirsch, and that also is folded in.

It gets molded into a 9-inch springform pan (which I lined with plastic wrap for easy removal) and refrigerated.

Serve with the strawberry sauce and decorate with fresh berries.

Upon taking the first bite, I could see why Julia praised this dessert so much. In my opinion, she wasn’t excessive enough with the enthusiastic acclamations.

This stuff is to be worshipped.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Côtes de Porc Sauce Nénette et Concombres au Champignon et à la Crème

Pork Chops with Mustard, Cream, and Tomato Sauce.

And I served it with Concombres au Champignon et à la Crème (Cucumbers with Mushroom-Cream Sauce).

Two reasons for these selections: (1) The creamy mustard and tomato sauce sounded so very appealing. (2) Creamed cucumbers? Didn't know you could do that. So I wanted to do it.

Julia calls for 1" thick pork chops so I headed to Whole Foods Market. After all, if I'm going to be an accomplice to piggery-murder, I might as well go for the free-range, happy pigs rather than those who've lived their lives crammed in tiny cages and shot full of hormones. I selected boneless loin chops and at $8.99 a pound, these must have been exceedingly happy pigs.

You begin by browning the chops in rendered bacon fat and then baking them for 30 minutes, basting them in the butter as you go. Meanwhile, simmer a very generous amount of cream, reduce it, and whisk in tomato paste and English mustard.

The pork chops will have exuded lots of tasty, porky juices to which, of course, you add white wine, reduce that, and add it to the cream-tomato-mustard sauce. I could just hear Julia warbling away with phrases such as "exuuude their juices."

The cucumbers.
In all my days, I've never heard of cooking cucumbers so I wanted to try that. I should imagine that this recipe, like many others, came about when a French farm wife found herself with a bumper crop of cucumbers from the garden and with clever ingenuity, turned them into something gorgeous to eat.

There was a lot of peeling and scooping and slicing going on in order to end up with these cucumber sticks.
They get marinated in white wine vinegar, salt and sugar. Then you dry them off, add minced onion, basil, and butter, and bake them for what seems like a rather long time. The smell of baking, pickley cucumbers was pretty incredible.

Meanwhile, mushrooms get sautéed in a dry, stainless steel pan. It's really interesting to hear them squeak as you move them about, but this technique definitely intensifies their mushroominess. Cream and a touch of corn starch finish the sauce to which the baked cucumbers are added.
Here is the final meal.
The sauce for the pork was astounding. Upon tasting it, I had a sudden rush of dizziness. You know that feeling; when something suddenly overwhelming happens and you get that prickly wave across your scalp. Really. Then, I couldn't refrain from stamping my foot and uttering a curse word.

However, I was surprised that the mustard flavor didn't come through as much as I thought it would. After all, Coleman's English Mustard is pretty powerful stuff. Same with the tomato flavor. "Mustard" and "tomato" is what attracted me to this sauce and those flavors weren't pronounced as much as I would have liked.

Perhaps it's due to my American palate that's used to sensationalism. After all, Americans just don't "do" subtlety.

Conversely, the cucumbers had a bit to much "pickle" flavor in my humble opinion. I would have used less of the white wine vinegar, maybe a touch more sugar in order to let the cucumber flavor come through. Or maybe more cream and butter.

All in all, this was a wonderful meal and probably stands as an epitome of French cooking.

I definitely need to learn some French curse words for when sauces like these cause me to stamp my foot in uncontrolled ecstasy.

Coq au Vin

Coq au Vin is one of those homey dishes that's been around for ages. Chicken braised in wine. It wasn't anything I was particularly excited about, that is, of course, until I tried Julia's.


A rooster, having lived out his useful days fending off foxes and chasing after hens, would be dispatched from the barnyard. It seems that just about every culture, no doubt from necessity, has created a tasty means of utilizing a tough, old bird and getting him onto the dinner table. Americans have their chicken and dumplings; the Hungarians, chicken paprikash. Scots enjoy cock-a-leekie while the French elevated this practice to the level of Coq au Vin; literally, "rooster with wine."

While red wine is often associated with this dish, any wine can be used. I’m sure that French farm wives utilized whatever was on hand; those near Dijon used Burgundy while others in the Alsace region braised it in Riesling.

Coq au Champagne? Probably.

Julia elevated this dish to even higher levels with the employment of browned mushrooms in butter, braised pearl onions and a dramatic splash of flaming Cognac. In other words, she bourguignoned the chicken.

I’ve prepared other recipes for Coq au Vin, most recently, that of Brian Boitano’s. It was lean and bitter, (not that there’s anything wrong with that), while others seem to border on being too “winey.”

I’ve prepared Julia’s Coq three times now and my favorite resulted from the use of half red and half white wines. (a Pinot Noir and a Sauvignon Blanc) It really gave the dish more complexity and the flavor of the chicken wasn’t hidden behind a cloak of darkness. It’s not like I was adulterating Julia’s inerrant word – she even gives permission to use non-red wines.

But red and white together? Why not? After all, we’re Americans.

We have California.


Rather than give the complete recipe here (which I don't think would be legal) I'll simply provide some Coq insights I've gained along the way. First of all, open your bibles to page 263 and reverence the page. Meditate upon it.

The Supreme Author has made this recipe foolproof, resulting in a dish that is delectable as possible. I've learned not to tamper with her Inerrant Word; believe me, she's done her homework. The first time I made her Coq, I took shortcuts and the results, while tasty, were not what they could have been.

With that in mind, I'll begin with changing a major ingredient of this dish -- the chicken.

She calls for a 3 lb frying chicken, cut up. While I've no problem cutting up a chicken, I do have a slight aversion to eating one. Bones,
cartilage, and poultry skin are not the most appealing things to a closeted vegetarian like me. I use 2 lbs of boneless, skinless chicken thighs, each one cut into four pieces. Like Julia, I've done my homework, too. I have prepared it with the whole chicken and this works fine.

I would refrain from succumbing to the boneless-skinless chicken breast craze, though, unless you particularly enjoy dry, tasteless, non-chickeny results.
(By the way, chickens don't suckle their young and, therefore, have no breasts -- they're chests.)

The recipe also calls for a 3-4 ounce chunk of lean bacon, simmered in water for 10 minutes, rinsed, dried, diced, and sauteed in butter.
Do this. Simply frying bacon as you would to accompany breakfast pancakes just won't do. (Hint: Each slice of bacon equals about an ounce. Use 3-4 slices.)

Now, you get to brown the chicken in the hot bacon fat/butter mixture. But remember, we're not creating Chicken Nuggets here so don't get carried away.

Now, the fun part: Flambé the chicken with Cognac.

It seems that some folks are intimidated by flambéing. Don't be. Cro-Magnons employed the technique;
flambéing is in our DNA.
The most important thing to remember is this:
Turn down the lights so you can see it. We're creating high drama here, folks, so embrace it for all it's worth. Summon everyone into the kitchen for the event, especially the kids.

Flick your Bic and jam in right in there. Remember,
you're the boss.

Pour the wine over the chicken and about a cup of chicken stock. Don't forget the garlic, tomato paste and herbs. I forgot the tomato paste one time and the results were very disappointing.

You'll need a flour-butter mixture with which to thicken the dish; a
beurre manié.
While the chicken is simmering in its wine-jacuzzi, prepare the mushrooms by sautéing them in butter. But remember, don't crowd the mushrooms or they won't brown.

Braise the pearl onions in butter and chicken broth until it has reduced to a syrupy glaze. I've never really liked pearl onions until I tried them this way.

Whisk some of the hot, winey broth from the chicken into the
beurre manié, little by little. This prevents it from going lumpy when you mix it back into the chicken.

Fold everything together: mushrooms, onions, chicken.

I love this -- Julia says that if you're not serving it right away, dot it with butter. I'd do that anyway and I'm fairly certain she didn't refrain from extra butter either.

If any of your friends or family are adamant about their diet, then simply don't invite them.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

"Crustulo Ergo Sum" (I Cook, Therefore, I Am)

My mother, although multi-talented, had an aversion to the kitchen and has often said that I learned to cook at an early age “out of self-defense.” When she made chicken à l'orange by smearing a chicken with powdered Tang, I quickly developed a necessary passion for creating tasty things to eat. Somewhere in the family photograph album is a picture of me at the stove, age ten, happily stirring marinara sauce.

I developed a lifelong fascination with food; good food. There was even a foray of working as a chef’s assistant at a French restaurant during my mid twenties, just for fun. I had always loved watching Julia Child and knew that Mastering the Art of French Cooking was to be admired. It wasn’t until I read her biography, My Life in France, (long before the Julie & Julia movie) did I really become fascinated with her work. From that book, I decided to prepare her recipe for mayonnaise.

Upon tasting it, I wept. . . .