August 24, 2009
my tribute to Julia
I am not a French cook and I don't rely heavily on Julia Child's recipes in my own kitchen. But the 'Julia hype' was all over the blogs, the magazines and the airwaves this month and for good reason. When I got to thinking about how she influenced me just by who she was and what she did, I realized I, too, just had to pay tribute.
After all, she didn't start to learn to cook until she was 37 years old and when I read this in her memoir two years ago, it is one of the things that motivated me to start this blog and devote so many hours to learning and cooking and experimenting over the last two years in my own kitchen. That summer I also read Julie Powell's book, Julie and Julia, and loved it. She seemed like a girl after my own heart.
Julia's birthday was on Aug. 15, coinciding nicely with the release of the new film Julie and Julia, based on these two books. I went to see the movie on the afternoon of its opening day. I took myself as a treat and sat there in the overly-air-conditioned movie theater on a hot summer day, smiling and crying and thoroughly enjoying myself. I loved the scenes shot in Paris in the markets and Meryl Streep's impersonation was almost as good as watching old footage of Julia Child's early TV program, The French Chef. I watched those, too, last week on PBS, experiencing her for the first time in the original format and fell in love with her all over again.
So, I decided since I was having people over for dinner one night last week, why not combine our dinner party with one of Julia's menus for a celebration in her honor. I used the recent bon appetit article from the August issue as my inspiration (with links to those recipes here). Even though I have Julia's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I seem to read it more like a textbook than actually cooking from it. There is something about it that is so technical but also so accessible and I can see why it was such a seminal cookbook that enjoyed 47 editions!
This menu started out with this beautiful, flaky tart, a pissaladière nicoise. It really was a delicious crust and the salty anchovies, black olives and sautéed onions were a classic combination. It was a basic pate brisèe tart crust, but in addition to the butter, there were 2 tablespoons of chilled vegetable shortening--not my usual fare, but it really did make for a flaky and beautiful tart crust.
The main course was poulet sautè aux herbes de Provence. In true Julia form, I bought a whole organic chicken from the market and cut it up into eight pieces myself. I was proud of myself for doing that, as if it were some major accomplishment. But really, growing up in the age of ready-made and plastic-wrapped everything, it makes me feel self-sufficient and somehow cool to be able to save money by buying a nice chicken and cutting it up myself. It came out great. As you can probably guess, the distinguishing factor of this preparation is the use of traditional herbs like thyme, basil and fennel seeds, plus garlic, and sautèeing the chicken pieces in a whole stick of butter. It was delicious, subtle in flavor, moist and had good color due to the browning in butter.
The sauce was a little too French for my tastes, combining egg yolks whisked with wine and lemon juice over low heat while adding the reserved pan juices a little at a time. It tasted and looked heavy to me and I ended up serving it on the side instead of pouring it over the chicken. But everyone loved it.
(photo courtesy bon appetit, because mine didn't look that pretty)
I also made Julia's Ratatouille recipe (above), which involves more steps than the one I usually make, but it was nice and fragrant and more of a stew than usual. I liked it, but it was no big revelation. The season is right for it though, and I just happened to have a large purple eggplant, peppers and tomatoes from the garden and I used yellow squash instead of the zucchini the recipe called for. I don't think it would have made a big difference.
I served a simple green salad with vinaigrette and a basket of crusty French bread on the side. We drank a lovely French chardonnay and I served a sample of locally made artisan chocolate from the new Olive and Sinclair chocolate company for dessert.
It was a simple and fun meal, one that I am not likely to make again soon, but a fitting tribute to a woman who certainly inspired me and who, almost fifty years later, continues to inspire so many cooks around the world. Thank you, Julia!