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Julia Child and Simone Beck: Mastering The Art of French Cooking, Volume One

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jan 06, 2015
Category: Food and Wine

It turned cold, and the forecast is for colder. Suddenly we’re cooking. Chicken soup. Lamb stew. By now, I almost know the recipes by heart, but still I reached for a cookbook. On the shelves of our bookcases there’s a small library of cookbooks, but it’s easy to find the one I use. It’s ancient. The cover disappeared long ago. I wouldn’t think of replacing it — it’s like a diary of meals and friends. It’s this...

The movie "Julie & Julia" is built around the astonishing idea that a fan of "Mastering The Art of French Cooking, Volume One" would cook her way through the book’s almost 600 recipes in a single year. I’ve been using this book for three decades and I’ve only made a fraction of the recipes. But I’ve made that fraction so many times that the pages fall open to my favorite recipes.

The other way to identify my favorites? Greasy pages. Makes sense — Child knew, when Michael Pollan and Nina Planck were still in their cribs, that it wasn’t real food that kills you, it’s grotesque American portions. As Child gaily told her television audience, "If you’re afraid of butter, as many people are nowadays, just put in cream!"

Such bluntness was her nature — and her charm. She came from money and privilege; the challenge of her life was to find something worth committing herself to. First came Paul Child. Then, at 37, came the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris. And then, through a bit of luck, came an opportunity to work with Simone Beck on a French cookbook for Americans. As she tells the story in "My Life in France," that book took almost a decade. [To read about "My Life in France" on HeadButler.com, click here.]

Judith Jones was the first American editor to read the manuscript. She flipped:

I pored over the recipe for a beef stew and learned the right cuts of meat for braising, the correct fat to use (one that would not burn), the importance of drying the meat and browning it in batches, the secret of the herb bouquet, the value of sautéing the garnish of onions and mushrooms separately. I ran home to make the recipe — and my first bite told me that I had finally produced an authentic French boeuf bourguignon — as good as one I could get in Paris. This, I was convinced, was a revolutionary cookbook, and if I was so smitten, certainly others would be.

Quality mattered. So did timing. “Mastering The Art of French Cooking, Volume One” was published in 1961. In the White House was a President with a wife who loved France. Air travel was replacing ocean liners — Americans in larger numbers were traveling to Europe. Frozen food and TV dinners were clogging the supermarkets; Child lobbied for accessible sophistication, and changed the way some of us ate. [To buy the hardcover of “Mastering The Art of French Cooking, Volume One” from Amazon click here. To buy the paperback from Amazon — note: it costs more than the hardcover — click here. To buy “Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom: Essential Techniques and Recipes from a Lifetime of Cooking” from Amazon, click here.]

And then there was multi-media. WGBH, Boston’s public TV station, invited Child to promote her book. The station had no studio kitchen, so she brought eggs, a whisk and a hot plate. On camera, she made an omelette, narrating the process with wit and confidence. A TV series soon followed — she was Martha Stewart before there was Martha Stewart.

Actually, she was much more. Back then, cooking was not a respected profession. She showed that it was a discipline — and an art. And she legitimized the home-gourmet. Was cooking a chore? Not after you’d seen Julia Child, amusing herself as she prepared dinner.

All these years later, I’m still charmed by Child’s 13-page screed on omelettes. On the other hand, I never had much use for her pâtés or terrines, soufflés or sauces.  Dessert still seems like overkill. And the seven recipes for kidney? Non-events. It’s the classics that first appealed to me, and still do. And it’s three of those recipes that I share here. If you’ll try them, you’ll raise a glass to Child and Beck — and, like me, you’ll soon have a food-smeared cookbook on your shelves.

Vichyssoise

Serves 6 to 8

3 cups sliced leeks, white part only
3 cups sliced potatoes, old or baking potatoes recommended
1 and ½ quarts of chicken stock or canned chicken broth
1 to 2 teaspoons salt or to taste
1/2 to 1 cup heavy cream
 2 to 3 tablespoons minced fresh chives

Simmer the leeks and potatoes in the broth, covering partially, for 20 to 30 minutes, until the vegetables are tender. Puree the soup in a blender or food mill. Stir in the cream. Season to taste oversalting slightly as salt loses flavor in a cold dish. Chill. Serrve in chilled soup cups.
 
Coq au Vin
Serves 4

4 ounce chunk of bacon
20 pearl onions, peeled, or 1 large yellow onion, sliced
1 chicken, 4 lb, cut into serving pieces, or 3 lbs chicken parts, excess fat trimmed, skin on
2 garlic cloves, peeled and mashed
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups chicken stock
3 cups young, full-bodied red wine
1 bay leaf
Several fresh thyme sprigs
Several fresh parsley sprigs
1/2 lb button mushrooms, trimmed and roughly chopped
2 Tablespoons butter
½ Tablespoon tomato paste
Blanch the bacon to remove some of its saltiness. Drop the bacon into a saucepan of cold water, covered by a couple of inches. Bring to a boil, simmer for 5 minutes, drain. Rinse in cold water, pat dry with paper towels. Cut the bacon into 1 inch by 1/4 inch pieces.

Brown bacon on medium high heat in a dutch oven big enough to hold the chicken, about 5 minutes. Remove the cooked bacon, set aside. Keep the bacon fat in the pan. Add onions and chicken, skin side down. Brown the chicken well, on all sides, about 10 minutes. Halfway through the browning, add the garlic and sprinkle the chicken with salt and pepper. (Note: it is best to add salt while cooking, not just at the very end. It brings out the flavor of the chicken.)

Spoon off any excess fat. Add the chicken stock, wine, and herbs. Add back the bacon. Lower heat to a simmer. Cover and cook for 20-30 minutes, or until chicken is tender and cooked through. Remove chicken and onions to a separate platter. Remove the bay leaves, herb sprigs, garlic, and discard.

Add mushrooms to the remaining liquid and turn the heat to high. Boil quickly and reduce the liquid by three fourths until it becomes thick and saucy. Lower the heat, stir in the butter. Return the chicken and onions to the pan to reheat and coat with sauce. Adjust seasoning. Garnish with parsley and serve.

Clafouti (Cherry Flan)
Serves 6 to 8

3 cups pitted black cherries
1 1/4 cups milk
2/3 cup granulated sugar
3 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup flour
Powdered sugar in a shaker

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Use fresh, black, sweet cherries in season. Otherwise use drained, canned, pitted Bing cherries, or frozen sweet cherries, thawed and drained.

Place the milk, 1/3 cup sugar, eggs, vanilla extract, salt, and flour in your blender jar in the order in which they are listed. Cover and blend at top speed for 1 minute.

Pour a 1/4-inch layer of batter in a 7- to 8-cup buttered, fireproof baking dish or pyrex pie plate about 1 1/2 inches deep. Set over moderate heat for a minute or two until a film of batter has set in the bottom of the dish. Remove from the heat. Spread the cherries over the batter and sprinkle on the remaining 1/3 cup of sugar. Pour on the rest of the batter and smooth the surface with the back of a spoon.

Place in middle position of preheated oven and bake for about an hour. The clafouti is done when it has puffed and browned, and a needle or knife plunged into its center comes out clean. Sprinkle top of clafouti with powdered sugar just before bringing it to the table. (The clafouti need not be served hot, but should still be warm. It will sink down slightly as it cools.)