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, March 30, 2011

Julia's Bouillabaisse

After last week's incredibly sumptuous meal of Sauté de Boeuf à la Parisienne, my steadfast dinner companion decided to hold fast to a diet and asked if we could hold off on our weekly Julia Child forays.

I was devastated.

Well, 'devastated' may a bit dramatic, but I was concerned to say the least.

After all, how does one find another weekly dinner companion who lives only a block away in downtown Chicago? How many social websites are there that cater to single, middle-aged men who delight in sharing weekly meals featuring only recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking in downtown Chicago?

Six, maybe seven?

That word, "diet" was the key. Julia had to change everything when her husband, Paul, was transferred from Paris to Marseilles in the south of France. Rather than fight it, she delighted in it.

Why couldn't I do the same?

Bouillabaisse was the answer; that fisherman's fish stew, the epitome of Marseilles' cookery, if not in all of southern France. Not a speck of Paris's nasty cream, butter or bacon was to be found, but instead, a  Provençal infusion of onion, garlic, fennel, tomato, basil, bay, orange peel and saffron.

Bouillabaisse originated as a means for rough-n-tough fisherman to utilize scraps of the day's catch by incorporating it into a tasty seafood stew. Of course, our French friends refined it, imparted local flavors, and our Julia swept in to make it as appealing as possible for us all. She is quoted, saying "to me the telling flavor of bouillabaisse comes from two things: the Provençal soup base - garlic, onions, tomatoes, olive oil, fennel, saffron, thyme, bay, and usually a bit of dried orange peel - and, of course, the fish - lean (non-oily), firm-fleshed, soft-fleshed, gelatinous, and shellfish."

I began this new journey by sweet-talking the fish guy at Whole Foods Market for some fish scraps with which to make the broth. Fortunately, he had plenty of huge cod frames (a non-oily fish) that he was willing to sell for next to nothing. (The very friendly young woman at the check-out was rather perplexed, if not alarmed, at the sight of these rather large fish skeletons. Upon informing her that they were to go in to Julia Child's bouillabaisse, and that I blogged about it, she asked for my website address. Such a treat.)

Fish frames, tomatoes, onion, garlic, fennel, basil, bay, saffron, and orange peel all piled in to make a flavorful broth:

 Meanwhile, seafood of your choice should wait in readiness. In this case, fresh cod, sea scallops, shrimp and Cherrystone clams. (I accidentally killed two pounds of mussels. The fish guy said they like ice and, apparently, I failed to provide them with an adequate ice bed. Half of them were dead by the time I was about to boil them alive in scorching broth.)

Here's my seafood, ready and waiting:

Perhaps the best part of bouillabaisse is the garlicky "rouille" -- that mayonnaise-like topping consisting of roasted red pepper, lots of raw garlic, boiled potato, basil, hot chile, all blended with olive oil until you have a thick, red, garlic mayonnaise.

Here's the final deal:
Bouillabaisse with a dollop of rouille

And since red pepper, orange peel and fennel went into the preparation, why not feature it in the salad?
(I served it with an orange juice, tarragon-and-olive-oil dressing)

I can see that Julia fell in love with Marseilles. Obviously, she embraced it with all her Julia-esque enthusiasm and imparted everything she loved into her recipe for bouillabaisse with rouille. 

Actually, the whole thing is an experience; from preparing it to serving it to sharing it. At first, the fish stock tastes a bit bland, but please don't over-salt it. If you've used the right fish frames and followed Julia's instructions, all will be well.

Add your fresh seafood -- But a word of warning: If adding clams or mussels in their shells, for god's sake, scrub them well with a green scrubby (dig in to the crevasses) and rinse them more than you think you need to. A few slightly sandy clams can ruin an entire seafood stew. You can put all your effort into making the perfect broth, but the slightest bit of grit is no joke. Trust me on that one.

Don't overcook the seafood. Just poach it and serve it before the clams and mussels open up all the way. Let each guest stir in a spoonful or two of rouille into each bowl, sit back, and watch the ecstasy ensue.

Honestly, you have not experienced seafood until you've "done" Julia's bouillabaisse avec sa rouille. (Pardon my French, please.) The combination of the perfectly prepared fish stock, with the best seafood you can find, topped off with the perfect rouille (and a bottle of fine, white Bordeaux) and you will have then experienced the best that any sea can offer.

Honestly, I just love that Julia could do this for us.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Little Tong Action

Here’s a kitchen utensils that I find invaluable, yet I’ve never seen Julia Child ever use it.

A simple pair of tongs. They pretty much stay in my right hand while I’m cooking and will be used for a multitude of purposes: To flip sautéing chicken, give a sauce a quick stir, deglaze a sauté pan, whirl some boiling pasta, plating an entrée, and later, scraping plates into the sink. Yet, if you watch decades of Julia’s programs, not once will you see a pair of tongs being used.

Frankly, she seems to spend an inordinate amount of time clumsily grasping things out of pans with two spoons, often with a couple of flimsy plastic ones. I could never figure out why. Perhaps tongs weren’t utilized in France when she learned to cook. Maybe it’s because she didn’t spend much time in professional kitchen where there’s often a dozen tongs lying about. But it’s very obvious she never once used a pair of tongs on TV.

There are all kinds of tongs out there to choose from. Heavy duty ones that lock on the end are good if you don’t want them springing open in your utensil drawer. There are silicone-tipped tongs that can be used on non-stick pans. For me, I use the cheap, garden variety, restaurant-kitchen tongs.

Again, the absence of tongs in Julia’s kitchen is a mystery. She wholeheartedly embraced new gadgets such as the microplane, the Cuisinart and non-stick equipment.

But the woman never employed any tong-action.