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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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

More Kitchen Improvements

Recently, I got the idea of installing pegboard on one of my kitchen walls when I saw a photo of Julia's kitchen. She liked to have all her pots and pans organized and within easy reach. Being six-foot-two, this really came in handy. Here is her kitchen:

So, I was able to find red, metal pegboard online and went to work.
Here are the results:

As you can see, I quickly filled it up.
So, I placed another order, doubling the capacity:

What a difference it makes to have everything within easy reach!
(By the way, the stock pot at the very top belonged to my grandmother and is over 50 years old.)

Now that a lot of the lower cabinet space has been freed up, I'm having a dishwasher installed. They don't make them in Harvest Gold anymore. Imagine that?

Saturday, July 24, 2010


Should the subject of "dieting" ever be mentioned on a blog that extols the glories of Julia's Mastering?

Well, no, absolutely not. . . . . That is, if you're an average French resident during the 1950s.

If you're a healthy, average American in the 21st century, then by all means, we should be aware of what we're eating. Most likely, we'd be horrified of what's actually tumbling down toward our waistlines these days.

Yes, Julia disdained a fear of food.
And yes, we should be able to enjoy good food.

However, we've become a nation inured to bad food;
Really bad food.
Empty food.

We can do better! (And still enjoy Julia's recipes, believe me.)

Here are my cruel, hard facts. I'm six-foot, two-and-a-half, recently passed the 50-year mark and a just bought my first set of bathroom scales. . .

Dramatic soundtrack ensues . . .

 Ruh - roh!

(And I remember trying to get up to 160 during my senior year of college.)

My grandparents and great-grandparents who were healthy, thin and didn't smoke got to enjoy me well into their 90s for the most part. The others, not so much.

I do want to live a long and healthy life.
I like life. It's fun;
even the boring and devastating parts;
even while growing older, past 50, and a becoming a bit less handsome.

So, I joined Weight Watchers last week. The online version.
I love it.

Absolutely love it!

It's just geeky enough and numbery enough to appeal to me.

Here's the deal -- within the next month, I want to lose 5% of my body weight.
So, I want to get down from 230 lbs to 218.
(They say that's an "achievable" goal.) We'll shall see.

So, I'm assigned 36 food points per day that I can use.

I can enter in each ingredient of a recipe and it'll compute my "points."

Pretty much every morning, I ate my multi-grain hot cereal mixed with a handful of toasted cashews and two pats of butter. That's 17 points hitting toward my 36.
I learned to get rid of the butter, (that's 6 points) and chuck out half the cashews -- now I'm down to 7 points. The helpful hint was to add lots of cinnamon and nutmeg and add more non-calorie sweetener. Now, I actually enjoy my morning cereal even more and I'm less hungry come lunch time.

For lunch yesterday at work, I was attending a catered, Middle Eastern (Halal) meal. Little chicken and lamb kabobs with a puddle of hummus barely put a dent toward my numbers.

A giant bowl of my frozen watermelon-peach sorbet? only 1 point. 

A quart of my mango-spinach protein smoothie? only 2 points.

My weakness is pasta with marinara sauce. From the "helpful hints" section, I really did get some ideas how to make my pasta appealing, but with a fraction of the calories. (And nothing was sacrificed -- Julia would approve.)

The basic idea is to chock your tomato gravy with lots of veggies and use whole wheat pasta.
I've never liked whole wheat pasta! It's gummy and mealy. That's because I've used thin, spindly whole wheat pasta like corkscrew or spaghetti. They boil away and get gummy.

Solution: Use a large, tubular whole wheat rigatoni. It's substantial and won't go mealy in this hearty sauce. Trust me, I really don't like whole wheat pasta, but with this, even your Italian grandma won't know the difference:


Here's my version:
"Rigatoni de Gianni"

3 Tablespoons butter (See?)

1 zucchini, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
2 onions, sliced
1 large pkg mushrooms, sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp basil
1 tsp thyme
2 cups chicken stock
1 12-oz pkg whole wheat rigatoni

Saute vegetables and herbs in butter, and add chicken stock. It's not the most appealing-looking thing, but simmer it all down.

Simmer and reduce it to a syrupy consistency. (It will probably take about 30 minutes or more)
Then it should look like this:

Meanwhile, boil the rigatoni until just barely al dente and drain. (With whole wheat pasta, you really should drain it before you think you need to, believe me. It will continue cooking in the sauce as you will see. By draining earlier than you think you need to, you'll avoid that "gummy" whole wheat pasta that we've grown to loathe over the years.

Now, add the following to reduced vegetables:

One 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes
4 oz heavy cream
2 tsp red pepper flakes
2 Tbs red wine vinegar

Stir in the rigatoni and serve. 

I tried it without the cream and it just tasted too "vegetabley" and "tomatoey". The cream really balanced it out. The red pepper at the end makes it "sparkle" and the red wine vinegar made the whole thing "sing".

So, here is my own Weight Watcher's pasta creation: (It makes six servings)

Remember how I can only eat 36 food points per day? Guess what this serving of creamy, rich, intensely-flavored pasta comes to. Remember, it has cream; it has butter. . . .

Go ahead. Guess.

Only 7 points. 
The same as my morning cereal. Only a fifth of one's daily intake. AND you get your daily oomph of veggies to-boot. Hell, eat two servings of this. You still wouldn't even be halfway.

You should really make it in order to believe it. Trust me, I didn't want to sacrifice any appeal or have this thing taste "dietey".

I should market this to the Olive Garden. Put it on the menu with a tasty, low-cal version of their wonderful Zuppa Toscana, and we'd be in business.

What would Julia think of my entree?

I really would hope to think she'd say,

"One needn't ever streewwwn this lovely dish with cheese!"

That's all for today. . . . bon appetit!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Lobster Killer

How do you feel about killing live lobsters? True, dispatching a fellow creature is not the most pleasant task in the world but, unless you’re a vegetarian, it’s a task that must be done in order to get that entrée on your plate.

I’m sure we all remember the “lobster killer” scene from Julie and Julia in which Julie was barely able to plunk the lobster into the boiling cauldron. Finally, after doing so, the lobster dramatically sends the lid flying off the pot causing Julie to scurry out of the kitchen like a frightened kitten.

Such drama! Boiling a lobster is nothing remotely like that in real life.

I really have mixed emotions when it comes to eating the flesh of animals. (And yes, I’d be a very satisfied and happy vegetarian.) At one point, that luscious boeuf Bourguignon was a live cow that was gruesomely killed – something I’m not sure I could bring myself to do.

I have eaten a vegetarian diet for much of my life, mainly because I really enjoy food that doesn’t have meat in it, and also on principle. If I couldn’t bring myself to kill a cow, then I’m exercising some pretty inconsistent principles by purchasing and eating beef.

In reality, though, I’m not at all that wedded to consistent principles.

The beef at the market has already come from a murdered cow and my being a vegetarian won’t change that one way or the other. If I didn’t buy it, then I couldn’t enjoy Julia’s boeuf Bourguignon, so there’s that.

What I can do is pay a bit extra for organic beef that comes from free-range cows rather than hormone-pumped ones that live a dreadful life. That is, unless it’s too hot to walk the extra eight blocks to Whole Foods Market. Like I said, I’m a snurd and not that wedded to my principles, alas.

Before I began writing about Julia’s food, I was at my friends’ house preparing a Julia meal. I was making lobster Thermidore and decided to demonstrate Julia’s method of quickly killing the lobster. My friend, Steve, demonstrated the simpler lobster-in-the-pot method. He’s also a veterinarian and, no doubt, very familiar with the nervous system of animals. As he explains, the lobster feels nothing.

Yes, killing a live lobster is not that horrible, probably because they're not cute and fluffy. If I had done the same to a beagle puppy, this video would have gone viral and I'd have been arrested. Obviously, some animals are blessed with cuteness and fluffiness so that we won't eat them.
Evolution is an amazing thing.

With that, I give you “Lobster Killers”

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Supêmes de Volaille aux Champignons - Chicken Breasts with Mushrooms and Cream

If you've attended any business meeting, wedding reception or banquet of any sort during the past three decades, you've no doubt been inundated with the ubiquitous, dried out and dreaded entree: Boneless, skinless chicken breast. (No doubt, accompanied with "vegetable medley" and rice pilaf.)

Am I right?

It's a horrible, insulting entree: Easy to serve, inexpensive, and a "healthy" thing that we, as a society, will blindly eat and to which we've become extremely inured.

From my own experience, having attended innumerable events in Chicago and Springfield, I can attest to the 'ubiquitosity' of this dreaded entree. (Hint: Whenever possible, request the "vegetarian option" ahead of time. Usually, it's surprisingly good and the other nine folks at your banquet table will probably be jealous of your meal.)

I had never really noticed the ever-prevalence of the boneless, skinless chicken breast until my dad brought it to my attention many years ago.

My dad is only 21 years older than I, a staunch, conservative Republican in Texas, an incredibly appealing guy to be around, and is not without a good bit of executive influence on the local and state level of the Texas political scene.

Here's my dad, all friendly and shaking hands with President Bush back in '06.

So, yes, my dad's been around and did express to me his disdain toward the ever-prevalence of the boneless, skinless chicken breast, especially at political functions.

As a matter of fact, my dad has wielded his executive power on both local and state organizations -- and has commanded that neither may be allowed to serve boneless, skinless chicken breasts at any function.

These are really big functions in Texas. They now serve steaks, Mexican food, pasta -- anything but boneless, skinless chicken breasts. All because of my dad.

I've often heard my dad say that chickens don't suckle their young and, therefore, don't have breasts. They have chests.  
"They're chicken chests."

Recently, he was at a restaurant with his two young grandsons, my nephews. The server announced that the special was a chicken breast . . .
And both boys said in unison, "Chicken chests!"

There are probably well over a thousand people in Texas who will say the same mantra, thanks to my dad.
"Chicken chests" can be heard across Texas.

I've even heard my dad jokingly claim that Hillary Clinton had financial ties with Tyson Foods in Arkansas and was involved in a financial kick-back campaign with Tyson to get Americans to eat healthier, i.e. boneless, skinless chicken breasts. 

My dad and I couldn't be farther apart on the socio-political scale. We poke gentle fun at each other, but of respect, I don't diss the Republican Party and he changes the TV from Fox to CNN whenever I'm home visiting. (We both have little respect for MSNBC)

So it was with a good bit of hesitance that I decided to try Julia's Chicken Breasts with Mushrooms and Cream. I thought, "What could Julia have done with the boneless, skinless chicken breast that won't remind me of the rubber-chicken circuit?"

I also thought, "How will I tell my dad about this?"
He knows I've met and supported Obama, but boneless, skinless chicken breasts might push the envelope.

There are the political, banquet-dinner chicken breasts and then there is Julia's "Supêmes de Volaille".

"Supêmes de Volaille" are the "finest part of the chicken." I did as Julia told. I went to Whole Foods Market, purchased two plump, expensive free-range organic chickens, and boned out the breasts myself. None of this factory-raised, supermarket, plastic-wrapped nonsense.

Boneless chicken breasts can be awfully dry. Julia's recipe does everything to alleviate that. Here, technique is really the key. . . .

A small amount of shallot and mushrooms were sauteed in a huge amount of butter in a casserole. The breasts were placed in the casserole with a buttered piece of wax paper on top. This was placed in a 400 degree oven for 6 minutes. The breasts were turned over and placed in the oven for 6 more minutes.

The breasts were removed, port and beef stock were added to the shallots, butter and mushrooms in which the chicken was baked. This was reduced by quite a bit to concentrate the flavors and cream was added.
And that was served over the (gasp!) boneless, skinless chicken breasts.
(Sorry - chicken chests)

First of all, the results were unbelievable.

I've never tasted chicken so juicy and "chickeny" as this, breasts or otherwise. Julia's method made me think that the chicken would be undercooked. And it would be if you were using those gargantuan, hormone-pumped chicken breasts that are usually available in supermarkets. Purchase a normal-sized chicken that's been running around (or kill your own that you have to run around after) and you'll see what normal-sized breasts are supposed to be.

The sauce was so creative. Shallots, butter, port, (not white wine) beef stock (beef stock!) and cream.

When eating this, you'd never know you're eating anything remotely associated with that dried-out, tasteless banquet fare. No, this was succulent-for-succulents' sake; the most chickeny thing I've ever eaten.

Here it is with a side of tarragon-buttered peas and a baked tomato Provençale.

I'm really looking forward to a Texas vacation so that I can cook for my parents. Julia's Boeuf Bourguingon will be a must. So will the Almond Praline Bavarian Cream. Chicken Fricassee would also be impressive. 

As you can see from the above description of my dad and his politicized disdain for boneless, skinless chicken breasts (sorry, chicken chests) the ONE thing that I must make for him, the ONE thing that would truly impress him about Julia's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, would really be this recipe for Supêmes de Volaille.

I truly look forward to making Julia's boneless, skinless chicken breasts for my dad.

How impressive is this recipe?
Good enough to make him vote for Obama in 2012.

Sorry, chicken chests.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Julia Quote

Julia and her husband, Paul, were dining in a fine restaurant and the sommelier (wine steward) queried:

"Mrs. Child, what is your favorite wine?"

Julia replied:


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Paupiettes du Boeuf - Stuffed Beef Rolls

It sounded scrumptious. Beef stuffed with a savory pork filling, braised in stock and white wine and served with a mustard-cream sauce. I contemplated this recipe for a week before finally taking the plunge.

Kitchen twine was procured from a nearby Bed, Bath and Beyond.
I was ready.

First, the filling called for equal amounts of ground pork and veal. As a closeted vegetarian, I try my best to use free-range, organic dead animals in my recipes. Since “free-range” veal would not be veal at all, I simply doubled the pork. It got whizzed with pork fat, allspice, parsley, thyme, garlic and an egg (an organic egg that ran free, of course.)

I used a flat iron steak, cut into cubes and pounded out into the requisite 1/8 inch thick and roughly 5-inch circles. The stuffing went in and then began the really tedious job of tying these little beef rolls with twine. It wasn’t difficult – just labor intensive.

Frying them in bacon fat was a breeze now that they were securely tied. Onions and carrots received a turn in the pan, flour was added, the beef rolls were returned, (along with a pork rind) covered beef stock and white wine and braised for an hour and a half.

I wish someone had come over just to smell my apartment during then; not to sample this recipe -- the aroma alone would have been satisfying enough.

After the 90 minutes, the beef rolls were removed in order to finish the sauce with cream and Dijon mustard. But first, all the strings had to be removed. My sharpest knife didn’t work – it only tore the beef rolls apart. Scissors didn’t work either. I thought of using toenail clippers but refrained. Finally, a tiny pair of scissors did the job. I’m glad I wasn’t trying to get these on the plate for eight guests. Such would have been a hugely frustrating and impractical ordeal.

1/3 cup of cream and a mere tablespoon of mustard was whisked into the remaining sauce to finish it. I served it with baked tomatoes that I had just bought at a farmer’s market.

The verdict? After all that tedious work, it reminded me of . . . what was that? . . . something from my childhood. . . .

oh, yes . . . meatloaf!

Plain, simple meatloaf. I wanted to squirt ketchup on it.

The sauce really didn’t have any mustard identity at all, so I dolloped a spoonful of it on the plate. That really made it much more appealing so I whisked in 3 more tablespoons of it into the rest of the sauce. Bingo. That made it sing.

In hindsight, I would definitely make one large beef roll, jelly roll fashion, rather than these little, laborious paupiettes. I’d use a flank steak, split into a quarter-inch-thick palette with the stuffing rolled in. Two pieces of string would have been needed rather than the three dozen that this recipe required. Sliced crosswise with the sauce ladled over it would make for a much more appealing and practical presentation.

After I had mustard-upped the sauce, I wolfed this down. The leftovers are something I'm really looking forward to.

Okay, I have to admit, I did give one a squirt of ketchup. And that was good, too.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Celebrating Butter

"If you're afraid of butter, as many people are these days,
just use cream."

Julia Child

What would French cooking be without butter?
(Answer: California cuisine.)

A more magical ingredient would be hard to find. It finishes sauces, transforming them from the mundane into velvety unctuousness. It turns the lowly biscuit into an irresistible way to begin the day. A bowl of plain pasta is basically a bowl of paste; add fresh butter and it becomes celebrated.

Yes, butter can be fattening. Yes, it contains the dreaded, wicked cholesterol. But take a look at the modest portion of a French entree, compare that with the super-sized meals we enjoy in the U.S., and the perspective changes entirely.

Health foodists are all about eating simple, natural foods. (Some, I suspect, probably dine on raw parsnips in secret, preferably with dirt clinging to the root hairs.) But what could be more natural than butter? Take a look at the package.

Ingredients: Cream

Compare that to what's in your average tub of Smart Balance Light Soy-Spread Chemical Monstrosity (Now with 90% less fat!) and you'll get the picture.

Not all butter is created equal. Far from it.

During the summer and autumn, I can buy this incredibly fresh butter at a local farmer's market. It's produced on an Amish farm in nearby Indiana and you can tell that this stuff is the "real deal".

For one thing, it's yellow -- evidence that a happy Amish moo-cow had dined on actual grass. Imagine that!

Also, it tastes like . . . well . . . cream! Heavy, rich, fatty cream. I'm not exaggerating when I say that store-bought, commercial butter tastes like vegetable oil in comparison. There really is a noticeable difference.

This is probably due to the fact that the Amish butter comes from a small farm rather than a large commercial producer where there is enough cream to use straight away. On the smaller scale, the cream is collected until there's enough to produce this butter, thus giving it a chance to become a bit cultured in the process -- and that equals flavor.

This butter comes in two-pound rolls and at four bucks a pound, it's also quite a bargain.

I cut each roll into three disks, wrap them in plastic and freeze them. It really is comforting to know I have an ample supply of these stashed away; a quality ingredient with which to make Julia's recipes that much more appealing.

So, shop around and find a butter that makes you think of a happy Amish cow when you taste it. You'll be glad you did.

Yes, butter is fatty and luxurious. Thank heavens for that.

And, as Julia was known to say:

"Everything in moderation . . . including moderation."

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Carbonnade á La Flamande - Beef in Onions Braised in Beer

Have you ever been just too tired to shop for food?

That’s how I felt today, yet I wanted to make something from Mastering for my friends that would, perhaps, bring more accolades than I deserved.

It neared ninety degrees in Chicago today. Trekking with my grocery cart to the nearby foodie triumvirate of Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s and Jewel, while usually enjoyable, was just too much to endure on a sultry day like today. Besides, I had just “done” an hour of morning outdoor yoga at Millennium park; procuring ingredients for an impressive Julia entrée seemed downright distasteful.

What to do?

When in doubt, keep it simple.
Carbonnade á la Flamande
, or Beef in Onions Braised in Beer -- a Flemish creation consisting simply of beef and lots of onions braised in top-quality Belgian beer.

All I would need was the beef. Lots of onions and Belgian beer was already on hand.

This, how I imagine, is how such an incredible dish came to be:

A French-speaking housewife somewhere near that nebulous border between France and Belgium found herself with some beef remains, a bumper crop of onions and (most likely) many bottles of home-brewed beer, each with a bit remaining and left behind by a rowdy group of her husband’s friends from the previous night.

Why waste any of this? She braised the beef, sautéed the onions in pork fat, flavored it with herbs from the garden, covered the whole thing with beer and the rest is history.

I browned three pounds of beef shoulder (chuck) in batches, always remembering to dry the beef with a towel beforehand. Two strips of bacon were sautéed in order to obtain the requisite bacon fat. A pound-and-a-half of sliced yellow onions went in and tossed for ten minutes. (Hint: Don’t use Vidalia onions -- they’re too sweet and not “oniony” enough.)

Onions got mixed into the beef awaiting in a cast-iron casserole with the the pan de-glazed with beef stock. Garlic, bay, thyme were simmered into the reducing stock, then added to the beef and onions.

Belgian beer to cover. Almost two bottles.
The beer to use: America’s Test Kitchen conducted an extensive taste test of Carbonnades made with various beers and ales and recommended Chimay’s Bleue, or rather, their Grande Reserve. I’ve also conducted a taste test of Belgian ales a couple of years ago and, indeed, their Grande Reserve won, hands down.

It is the best -- that is, if you’re drinking Belgian ale. I absolutely love the stuff. It’s made by Cistercian monks in Belgium (and I happened to have been a Cistercian monk but that was in Dallas and years ago) and it has a sweet, aged, appealing quality that cannot be beat.

It'll also set you back twelve bucks a bottle.

Julia doesn’t ever call for Belgian beer or ale; simply a Pilsner.

While I’m not a beer drinker, I do appreciate and enjoy Belgian beer and ale. While I’m sure America’s Test Kitchen did their homework and conducted extensive testing, they only tested beers on a generic, garden-variety Carbonnades; not Julia’s Carbonnade. And with Julia’s recipes, as we know, technique is the key.

I used Blue Moon’s Belgian Style Wheat Ale. It has that sweet, appealing, full flavor we love in Belgian beers and it definitely lands between a Pilsner and Chimay’s Grande Reserve. Also, it’s only nine bucks for a six pack.
My adherence to a leftover vow of poverty did reign. . . .

(Note: America's Test Kitchen also claimed that O'Douls non-alcoholic beer worked surprisingly well. It came in second to Chimay.)

After braising for 2 ½ hours, the beef and onions were removed. The remaining 2 cups of sauce was simmered, flavored and thickened with 1 ½ Tbs of cornstarch and 2 Tbs of white wine vinegar.

I tasted the sauce, as Julia instructs us to do, in order to correct any seasoning. While it was exactly the right consistency, I thought it came across as a bit too sour. Even before I added the 2 Tbs of white wine vinegar, I knew not to add any more -- that seemed like a lot and indeed it was.

Frankly, we were heading past “Flemish sauerbraten” and suddenly nearing sweet-and-sour beef territory. Whisking in four tablespoons of butter seemed to straighten it out and with good results. Be sure to keep that in mind.

This was one time I think Julia could have improved the directions (gasp!). Adding slightly less than 2 Tbs of white wine vinegar might have been advisable. It was added to 1 ½ Tbs of cornstarch -- such two slightly different amounts seemed like a strange jaunt in the recipe. Maybe it was a mistake left in after all these years.

I would advise changing the 2 Tbs of white wine vinegar to 1 ½ -- and go ahead and add those extra 4 Tbs of butter anyway. It seldom hurts.

I like serving this with plain, boiled potatoes (buttered of course). A side vegetable might be a small, leafy salad of greens, perhaps topped with chilled white asparagus and a lemon vinaigrette.

Even though this dish is mainly comprised of three ingredients -- beef, onions, and beer -- it is surprisingly delectable, tangy and rich. A little really goes a long way. Whoever that Flemish housewife was that invented it, she was exceedingly clever and on to a good thing.

Julia, of course, taught us how to make it irresistible.