Home Cooking: Dinner with Julia (column)
What do Ina Garten and Martha Stewart have in common? Both women describe cooking through Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” when they were young as a foundation to learning to cook.
Julia Child is an inspiration to most home cooks of a certain age. I found her so inspiring that at one time, I had all of her cookbooks, including a first edition of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” and had read almost every biography written about her, “My Life in France,” being my favorite. And yet! I confess that until this week, my cooking adventures in Mastering were limited to her omelet recipe, her iconic recipes for onion soup and Beef Bourguignon.
When the Food52 Cookbook Club on Facebook chose Mastering as its cookbook for the month, I jumped at the chance to finally use Julia’s first cookbook for its intended purpose.
I decided to start with something easy, a poached egg. I purchased the best organic eggs I could afford, read the recipe several times, and began. After I’d turned three expensive eggs into a shredded inedible mess, I gave up and used the silicone egg cups my friend Pat had given me.
My attempt at scrambled eggs met the same fate. Suddenly, I doubted my ability to cook. Julia Child was kicking my butt and leaving me humbled after 30 years of confident cooking. What to do?
I took a deep breath, sat down and decided to begin again. In my mind, I planned a dinner with Julia. I would make simple dishes that would demonstrate that I’d embraced a new beginner’s mind, and had learned the importance of carefully reading her recipes, written in a narrative style rather than in the numbered steps we find today. I would pay attention and be fully present throughout the cooking experience.
As a result, I relaxed and created this simple, yet elegant and delicious, dinner using recipes from her cookbook. As you’ll notice, these recipes don’t use expensive ingredients (I chose blackberries because they were on sale), yet I would have been proud to serve to Julia each dish. I imagine we would have enjoyed a lively conversation and a bottle of wine and every bite of food. I hope you will, too.
Potato and Leek Soup (Potage Parmentier)
Three simple ingredients create a rich satisfying soup perfect for a winter night in front of the fire.
4 medium-sized potatoes
2 quarts of water or chicken stock
Salt and pepper to taste, a scraping of fresh nutmeg if you have it.
Finish with 2 tablespoons of butter or 3 tablespoons of cream
Chop the leeks and potatoes into medium-sized chunks. Wash the leeks thoroughly in a colander as they often hide dirt in the layers. Add potatoes and leeks to medium-sized pan, add water (or stock) bring to a boil and then let cook at a simmer for 20-30 minutes until the potatoes can be easily pierced with a fork. Use an immersion blender (or food processor or standing blender) to blend the soup until smooth, finish with butter or cream, if you wish. The butter or cream (or both!) adds a final note of richness to the soup. Taste and adjust the seasoning to your taste. I promise, this soup is delicious!
Chicken Breasts Sautéed in Butter (Supremes de Volaille a Brun)
2 tablespoons clarified butter aka ghee (this can be expensive, so in a pinch, use butter and a little bit of oil, which will help the butter not to burn and brown as the chicken is cooking)
3-4 chicken breasts
Flour for dredging the chicken breasts
Salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons of chopped parsley
I like to pound the chicken breasts a few times to flatten them to a uniform thickness. Then salt, pepper and dredge each breast in flour. Melt the clarified butter in the bottom of a frying pan, on a medium/medium-high heat. (You don’t want the butter to burn.) Fry each chicken breast in the butter, turning a few times so that each side is a pale golden color and cooked through. Move to a serving plate. Remove the pan from the heat, squeeze lemon juice into pan, add chopped parsley and pour over chicken breasts.
Brussels Sprouts in Cheese Sauce (Choux de Bruxelles a la Mornay, Gratines)
If you’ve hated Brussels sprouts, try this recipe. You’ll love it, after all, cheese.
1 ½ lbs of Brussels sprouts – trim the bottoms and cut in half
2 cups Mornay sauce (a simple Bechamel sauce with ½ cup Swiss cheese mixed in)
¼ cup grated Swiss cheese
1 tablespoon butter
Julia uses a three-step process to cook her Brussels sprouts: blanching, braising, baking. First, quickly blanche the sprouts in boiling water for 6-8 minutes. Drain and run cold water over the sprouts to stop cooking. Then place the sprouts in a buttered covered baking dish and cook for 20 minutes in a 350F oven, this is the braising phrase. While the sprouts are braising, make the Mornay sauce: In a pan add two tablespoons of butter and three tablespoons of flour and cook the flour for 3 minutes. Then add two cups of milk (or stock) and stir rapidly until the flour completely disintegrates into the milk and thickens into a sauce. Just before you’re ready to add the sauce into the sprouts baking dish, stir in the grated cheese. Pour the sauce into the baking dish, add a final sprinkling of grated cheese, and then bake for 10-15 minutes at 425F to allow the cheese to melt.
Blackberry Custard Tart (Clafouti aux Myrtilles)
2-3 cups blackberries (put in freezer for 30 minutes before)
1 ¼ cups milk (or half and half)
1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/8 tablespoon salt
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
Preheat oven to 350F, blend all ingredients above in a bowl, so that you have a custard. Butter the bottom and sides of a 8 or 9 inch baking dish. Pour a thin film of the custard into the bottom of the baking dish and place over stovetop burner on low, just long enough for the custard to form a film. Remove from the heat, then add the berries and sprinkle the 1/3 cup of sugar over the berries. Pour the rest of the custard over the berries. Bake for an hour. Remove from oven and top with powdered sugar before serving.
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