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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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Steak au Poivre

Last night, my friend, Carla, came over after her yoga class for our usual Julia Child night. The menu consisted of Julia’s steak au poivre, creamed spinach and buttered artichoke hearts.

I was familiar with steak au poivre – steaks that have been coated with crushed peppercorns with a sauce made from beef stock, shallots, cognac and butter – but I’d never had it before.

I have to say that this is, hands down, the most delectable creation of Julia Child’s that I’ve ever had. I was surprised that such a simple sauce could be so incredibly appealing. My friend, Lorraine, said it best: “It’s beef crack.”

Part of the fun is getting to flambé the sauce. Julia says there’s no need to do so and that it’s a technique done to impress tourists.

Sorry, Julia, but it’s fun.
Lot’s of fun as you can see from the video.

For this recipe, I used Angus rib-eye steaks. We both both like it pretty rare.

Here it is: Beef crack

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Strudel Story

My friend, Jack, and I have known each other well over twenty years now. He had been born and raised in Chicago, the son of Slovenian and Polish parents.

When we met in Texas back in the late 80s, he'd often mention his Slovenian grandma's apple strudel. She made it the "old world" style where the dough is made from scratch and then stretched and stretched until it's paper-thin and covers an entire table surface. Apples, cinnamon, breadcrumbs and sugar are then strewn, the paper-thin dough is slathered with butter, it's rolled up and baked.

Occasionally when Jack would go home to Chicago, he'd return with one of Grandma's strudels wrapped in white butcher paper.

O-M-G, I'd never tasted anything quite like it. I was fascinated.

He said Grandma was truly an artist at this. Other family members never learned how to make it and now that Grandma was pushing 90, it might be a lost art in the family.

Chicago 1988: Jack and I went to Chicago to visit his dad and Grandma. I told Jack that I'd love to see Grandma in action and maybe learn how to make her wonderful strudel. He said that Grandma had a strict routine of getting up very early on Saturday mornings to make it, but if I was willing, she'd let me in on a little strudel action.

Well, the night before we stayed up very late drinking Old Style beer with Jack's dad who was quite a character. Great guy. Fun to be around. The Old Style flowed late into the evening.

Grandma reminded me (in her broken English) that she and I had a strudel appointment very early in the morning. Yeah yeah yeah. I was having fun with Jack and his dad.

6:00 am: Grandma rapped at my bedroom door. "You get up! It is time!" she announced, very loudly, in her Old-World accent. However my head was pounding with an Old-Style hangover. Still, I didn't want to miss the chance of seeing Grandma in action, so I roused to the occasion.

A five pound bag of Granny-Smith apples was assigned to me for peeling and slicing. And a big mug a of coffee.

"You vant breakfast?" she asked.

"No, thanks, I'm fine," I mumbled.

"You need breakfast," she replied.

"No, really, I don't. . .

"I make you breakfast."

Eggs and toast appeared. I soldiered on with the apples.

Grandma was in command of the kitchen. I watched as she dumped some flour in a bowl and I really wanted to get the measurements. After some gentle persuading, she did let me measure the ingredients which I wrote down on a yellow Post-it note. Melted butter, oil, water and an egg were added and then kneaded the dough into a ball.


She began hurling the dough against the top of the table. (I later learned that this is to get out any air bubbles). This 89-year old woman shook the whole kitchen with the force of it. If anyone was still asleep from the night of Old-Style, they'd surely be awake by now.

The ball of dough was placed in a buttered bowl and into a warm oven to rest.

"How long do you let it rest?" I queried.

"Vile I go get hair done" was her quick reply, and out the door she went.

Apparently, this was Grandma's routine. She made strudel on Saturday morning and got her hair done down the street.

About an hour later, a newly coiffed Grandma appeared, and continued on with the strudel.

She took the little ball of dough and began stretching it on the kitchen table that had a floured sheet across it. And stretching it. And strrrretching it. Then she was walking around the table, pulling the dough from all sides.

It was amazing. The dough began billowing across the table, so thin you could see her hands though it. She kept stretching it even more until it was hanging down the sides of the table, practically to the floor. It was truly amazing.

She took my apples which had been adequately sliced, mixed them with sugar, cinnamon, lots of buttered breadcrumbs and spread them in an even layer halfway across the paper-thin dough.

"Vee used to put it all de vay across, but vee change it," she said without looking up.

I smiled to myself as I pictured a panel of Slovenian grandmas, weighing the pros and cons of putting the apples all the way across or halfway across.

She finished the strudel by rolling it up, placing more butter on top and baking it.

In this day and age of ready-made this and instant-that, I could certainly see why none of her female offspring took the time to learn her trade. This was truly a labor of love and I felt as though I'd just witnessed something holy.

I didn't want to let this bit of artistry die out with her. I went back to Texas with my little Post-it note of ingredients and practiced. And practiced. And practiced.

And you know what? I got pretty good at it.

Chicago 2001: The house where Jack's grandma and his dad lived was passed on to Jack after they passed away and Jack had the place remodeled.

But here we are back in that same kitchen where Grandma taught me to make her strudel and now I'm the one making for the family.

Oh, and I still have the little yellow Post-it from 20 years ago. I have it clipped to my own grandmother's old little clipboard she got from the local grocery story where she'd keep phone messages. (Just to give you an idea how old her little clipboard is, click on the pic and notice the grocery store's phone number on it -- it has three digits!)

But this little clipboard along with the strudel recipe sits proudly in my kitchen. Such a treasure.

Click HERE to see the strudel making in action. (Be patient, it takes a while to load).

By the way, Jack called me recently and was wondering when I'd be able to make strudel again. So, here we go:

Begin rolling out the dough according to Grandma's recipe. (This is the only strudel dough recipe I've ever seen that calls for an egg in it.) Be sure to drape a clean sheet over the surface. You'll see why later.

 It helps if you have an extra pair of hands to hold portions of the dough as you begin stretching it. If not, I usually place a towel and a heavy bowl in the center of the dough to weigh it down and stretch it from all sides.
Keep stretching it by rubbing it from the underside:
And stretching.
Until you've stretched the dough all the way across the table. Grandma would keep stretching it until it hung far down the sides of the table, but that scares me.  I quit while I'm ahead.
Place a mixture of sliced apples, buttered breadcrumbs, cinnamon and sugar on one end:

Slather the dough with melted butter:
Sprinkle the remaining breadcrumb-butter mixture across the rest of the dough:
Use the sheet to roll it up:

Place on a baking pan, slather with butter and sugar and bake at 375. (I found these wonderful rectangular cast iron baking pans at a Mexican market a few years ago. They're perfect.)

The smell of freshly baked apple strudel is truly a glimpse of heaven.
My grandmother's old note pad along with the Post-it note from 1988 are still displayed it my kitchen:

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Best Fajitas in the World

Okay, this isn't a Julia recipe but it is one that will always, without fail, impress your guests. Nay, it will knock their socks off.  It is a family recipe, namely, from my Uncle Nathan who is a rancher in South Texas. 

Aside from ranching, my uncle began catering rodeo events and developed this recipe for fajitas. I can't say enough good things about it, really. As a matter of fact, it is an award-winning recipe, for he did win first place in a fajita-cooking contest at the annual Stock Show and Rodeo in San Antonio a few years ago. 

The unique thing about this recipe is that it's sort of backwards. Normally, fajita meat is marinated and then grilled. This is grilled and then soaked in a hot marinade from which it is served. The meat stays super-juicy and much more flavorful that way. I've served this recipe for folks in New York, Toronto, Chicago and Seattle -- they've all raved about it. (The Canadians, less so, for they aren't really known to rave.) 

Here's the sauce for about a pound and a half of beef. I like to use flank steak. Just salt and pepper the steak, char-grill it over very high heat so that it's really charred on the outside and still rare-ish on the inside. Slice the grilled steak across the grain and plunk it in the sauce:

Secret Sauce:
2 teaspoons salt                             
1 teaspoon pepper                            
2 teaspoons mustard         
2 teaspoons chili powder    
1 Tablespoon Tabasco       
2 Tablespoons Worcestershire
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
1 cup white vinegar
2 cups water
1/4 cup bacon drippings
Bring to boil; simmer 30 minutes.  Cool and refrigerate over night.  Warm before using on meat.

Place the sliced, cooked fajita meat in the marinade about 15-30 min before serving. Not much longer or the meat all falls apart. 

Frankly, I've never made it the day before as it suggests; just right before I grill the steak.  One thing I did learn is that this sauce does not freeze well at all. All the flavor seems to go away once it is frozen. So don't do that. 

Here is part of the fajita meal that I served in Seattle. 

Many thanks to my Uncle Nathan and Aunt Dixie for sharing this with me. It really is a winner. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sauce Béarnaise; Sauce Choron

Béarnaise sauce. Sauce Béarnaise. It’s been a steadfast member of every chef's culinary repertoire since 1836;
an old war horse of a sauce if there ever was one.

Sauce Béarnaise begins life as a hollandaise sauce but includes a reduction of white wine, wine vinegar, shallots and tarragon. Regarding the classic hollandaise, Julia claims that it’s the most popular of sauces, but perhaps, also the most dreaded.

I love that.

Begin with ¼ cup of white wine, ¼ cup of white wine vinegar, a minced shallot and 2 Tbs of fresh tarragon. Reduce this over high heat until 2 tablespoons remain, strain and let it cool.

Now for the dreaded part: The hollandaise. It’s basically egg yolks to which an acid is introduced and then thickened with a substantial amount of melted butter. The thing is, it can get into all sorts of trouble. It can easily separate, not thicken at all, can quickly scramble if the heat’s too high -- all sorts of dreaded accidents can occur. But, follow Julia’s three pages of detailed directions, and all will be well.

Begin by whisking 3 egg yolks in a bowl over simmering water. Add 2 Tbs of cold butter and whisk until it’s melted. (Not too hot, or you’ll have scrambled eggs.) Now, add the reduction that you’d strained and cooled. Oh, and you’ve also melted 2 sticks of butter which is waiting to be incorporated.

Gradually, drop by drop, begin adding the hot, melted butter to the egg yolks. (Not to fast or it’ll separate.) As it becomes thick, more butter can be drizzled in. And more. And more. Keep whisking. There’s a lot of whisking involved. If you’re a middle-aged woman, sleeveless apparel would be ill-advised.

Finish the sauce with chopped, fresh tarragon and parsley.

I wanted to showcase this wonderful creation. I had pan-seared salmon filets, artichoke hearts, and fresh asparagus, all of which would get swathed with it. This was going to be an all-out Béarnaise extravaganza.

But wait! As with most recipes, Julia had supplied a couple of variations, and there it was. Add a bit of tomato paste to Béarnaise, and it becomes a Sauce Choron.

Tomato paste in Béarnaise? Never heard of it, but it sounded terrific. So, some of the Béarnaise was set aside and easily became a sauce Choron to be spooned over itty-bitty baby potatoes.

Here’s the meal:

The real surprise was the sauce Choron. I’d never heard of it before and perhaps a lot of other folks haven’t either. I’ll certainly showcase it from here on out. After all, if you’ve triumphantly conquered a Béarnaise, why not serve something truly unique by simply stirring in a spoonful of tomato paste? It was fantastic on the baby-taters but would be truly astounding over a filet mignon or even a grilled rib-eye.

See, now this is what cooking is all about. You head in one direction and discover something even better and totally unexpected. I just love it when that happens;
in cooking . . . and in life.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Fondue de Poulet à La Crème; Chicken Simmered in Onions and Cream

I often try to imagine how certain recipes were developed or rather, what necessitated their creation.

Take, for example, one of my favorite food items of all: Ravioli. Some enterprising grandma in Italy probably found herself with a few scraps of meat on hand and a lot of hungry tummies to fill. What to do? Grind the meat, add fillers, lots of tasty spices, and place tiny morsels of it between pillows of pasta. Presto! The family loved it and all went to bed happy and sated.

Meanwhile, a French grandma found herself with an abundance of cream on hand. She’d already made all the butter she could use and the litre of cream was about to sour. What to do? Simmer a chicken in it. Voila! Fondue de Poulet à La Crème.

Julia, of course, took the lusciousness of this recipe, pointed it skyward and shot it off into the stratosphere.

A chicken is basted in butter and onions -- I used the equivalent of chicken thighs – and it receives just a whisper of curry powder. White wine and Cognac are added and reduced.

Now for the cream.

A cup of cream is appealing. Two cups would be over the top.

So, this recipe calls for three cups of cream. (Remember, the French grandma.) Although the recipe didn’t call for it, I browned some mushrooms in butter because I had them on hand and needed to use them.

The chicken gets simmered for half an hour, but frankly, I think it could use quite a bit longer in its cream-jacuzzi. Julia has us remove the chicken, reduce the sauce even more and touch it up with some fresh cream and lemon juice.

I came up with a pretty scrumptious salad if I do say so myself. Baby spinach, grape tomatoes and diced mango was dressed with orange olive oil and tangerine balsamic vinegar.

That orange oil and tangerine vinegar combo is just about the best thing you’ve ever tasted. It’s available at a cute little oil and vinegar shop here in Chicago called Old Town Oil. If you’ve got a foodie friend for whom you’d like to buy a gift but don’t know what to get, there you go.

Serving this recipe over rice is perfect. As a matter of fact, plain rice with this sauce would be a slice of heaven – forget the chicken.

A nearby farmer’s market sells this Japanese hybrid of corn that is known for its sweetness. I can eat four ears in a sitting. This was the last day the corn was available so I obviously took advantage of it.

If you want to prepare a Julia Child recipe that’s pretty easy and has a big voila-factor, this would be the way to go.

Three cups of cream. You only live once. Go for it.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Holy Relic

In the Roman Catholic tradition, relics of saints are often venerated for their healing and mystical powers. Relics are divided into three classifications: A first-class relic is one that was directly associated with the life of Christ (part of the cross, the Holy Grail would be the holy grail of relics) or a body-part of a saint. All those are first-class relics.

A second-class relic is something that a saint owed; St. Thérèse’s rosary or her personal bible. A third-class relic would be something that touched something of hers; scraps of clothing. I think.

Even though I had spent a number of years as a Franciscan friar and a monk, I never could really “get into” the whole relic thing; probably due to my Southern Baptist upbringing. (I once filled a holy water font with plain tap water simply because I was unable to find a priest hanging around to bless it. I also put a few drops of bleach in the water, no doubt, due to my years spent as a restaurant manager.)

Like I said, I’ve never really held much veneration for holy relics – until now.

It turns out that my friend, Mike, (Michael, Mikey) had once taken a series of cooking classes taught by our dear Julia Child back in the early 90s. He was living in San Francisco at the time and these classes were being offered at an upscale hotel there.

At one point, Julia was demonstrating the use of a citrus zester (a micro-plane) and Mike mentioned that he didn’t have one.

“Well, what do you do?” she warbled. He explained that he used a box-grater to which she said that he really should have a micro-plane.

Later that day, Julia took the class to her favorite cookware establishment, Sur La Table; sort of class outing, a culinary field trip. A few moments later, Julia walked right up to Mike, held a micro-plane in his face and pronounced: “There. Now you have one!”

She had made it her mission to purchase one for him as a gift.

Last night, I was in Mike’s kitchen and asked to see the “holy lemon-zester.” I have to admit that it was just about the best micro-plane I’d ever held. It really did have a special feeling to it.

Here is Mike, proudly displaying a true relic.

(Technically, it’s a second-class relic, but I hate to relegate it to that level.)

When I snapped a photo of it, the light reflected off it as if it were a halo; no doubt, evidence of its supernatural qualities. Do you hear the choirs of angels in the background?

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Coquilles St. Jacques Provençal - Scallops Gratinéed with Wine, Garlic, and Herbs

I don't know who St. Jacques is or what he had to do with Julia Child, but I'm really happy he did what he did as far as her scallops are concerned.

A while back, I made Julia's Coquilles St. Jacques à la Parisienne which are scallops simmered in white wine and mushrooms from which the scallops are removed, the broth is then reduced and very gradually thickened with butter & flour, cream, and egg yolks; thus, à la Parisienne. It's complex and you end up with at least three pots boiling away, whisking this one into that one with precise timing and techniques. It's tons of fun. 

The result tasted pasty -- no doubt because the 4 Tbs of flour I used had been sitting on the shelf above my stove for some months and, I think, may have gone a bit rancid. (See? I hadn't tasted the flour before I began whisking it in so expertly.)

I served it with Julia's green beans à la Provençal -- fresh green beans sautéed with onions, tomatoes, garlic, bay, and thyme. Yes, I served à la Parisienne and à la Provençal together.

And in mis-matched service, to boot.  (I hate for food to 'touch')
True, it "didn't work." It tasted pasty to me.
Will I serve this again? I doubt it.
Did any guests flee in terror? Hardly.

Last weekend: Scallops St. Jacques Provençal; Scallops that had been floured and sautéed in butter to which white wine, garlic, butter-sautéed shallots, bay, and thyme were added. The moment that was added, it thickened up without the use of cream or egg yolks. It was then covered with a tiny layer of Swiss cheese, more butter, and broiled.

I served this with steamed asparagus swathed with the incredible beurre blanc . (The photo of the asparagus alongside the scallops was really dreadful -- Lighting, splatters, we were hungry.)

 Along with pan-roasted potatoes and a spinach-tomato salad.

Here is Miss Healthypants, admiring her favorite food item. 

Oh, and I also stopped by a little wine shop on the way home. The ever-so-helpful wine person asked what I was serving and suggested a 2007 Sèvre et Maine muscadet. When she mentioned that it was from the Loire Valley, I suddenly exclaimed, "Oh, that's perfect! I'm serving asparagus with a beurre blanc which was invented in the Loire Valley - - you know. . . "

. . . And, there you have just about THE snootiest response to an attractive wine merchant ever.

Anyway, this wine was just about the most perfect thing to go with this meal; It was light but not crisp, nowhere near tart, dry nor sweet, but really had a "wow" factor when it came to subtle appeal -- the absolute perfect wine for scallops.

It's not like I'm a true connoisseur of wines. Hardly. I was raised Southern Baptist, lived most of my adult life as a Roman Catholic, and only became an Episcopalian a couple of years ago. 

If I ever had to prepare "the perfect meal", Coquilles Provençal St. Jacques would be the fish course and asparagus with beurre blanc would be the main players.

But serve these two items together with crusty French bread, a light salad, that muscadet wine, and that would be one of your most perfect (and easiest) meals.
Yes, I mean Ever!
I'm serious . . .