By CHEF RENEE MORGAN
Happy birthday, dear Julia! Happy birthday to you! She would’ve been 100 years old on August 15th. Of course, I’m talking about the Grand Dame of the Kitchen, Our Lady of the Ladle, the great Julia Child. You knew I couldn’t let her 100th birthday go by without talking about her and the impact she made on modern day cuisine and women in the culinary industry.
I remember Julia’s TV show, “The French Chef”, on PBS when I was a child. Back then, the show was in black and white. Our family wasn’t exactly what you would call a cuisine savvy family. My poor mother did the best she could, but she was truly a terrible cook, bless her heart. My father was much more interested in watching westerns than cooking shows. My family, like most middle class, southern families, ate chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes, gravy and biscuits, bar-b-que, turnip greens and cornbread. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t grow up eating fancy French food, a là Julia Child. As a result, I didn’t watch “The French Chef” very often. I was much more interested in Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Rodgers, who I was in love with. Once in a while, though, I would catch a glimpse of this unusually tall lady with a funny voice as I was changing the TV channel for my dad. For you young whippersnappers, I know its crazy to think about, but we didn’t have a remote control back then. I had no idea then just how important Julia Child would become in my life.
Do you remember all the funny disasters she used to have in the kitchen? I’ll never forget that episode where she was preparing a turkey and dressing. She accidentally cut all the way through the turkey and the dressing started pouring out all over the table. I guess it wasn’t set yet or the temperature on the oven wasn’t right and it hadn’t cooked through. Anyway, as usual she took it all in stride, behaving as though that was exactly what she intended to happen. She used to say “No apologies” in regard to her kitchen mishaps. In the early days of these kinds of shows, there were no reshoots or shooting “scenes” and putting them together in editing later. They shot the entire show in one take and whatever happened…happened, disasters and all.
She was so quick on her feet, too. I remember watching her on Letterman in the 80’s. She was going to make a hamburger. They had a table set up with a portable burner to cook it on. Problem was the burner wouldn’t heat. She didn’t miss a beat. She just put some mustard and mayo on that raw patty, topped it with cheese, lit a blowtorch, melted that cheese and called it Steak Tartare aux Gratineè.
The great thing about all of her gaffaws is since we all knew how fabulous and accomplished she was, if she could make silly mistakes and it all turn out alright, then maybe there was hope for all us regular folks. She really made people feel more comfortable about learning to cook. Besides, as Julia would say in regard to kitchen mishaps, “You can always put it back together. When you’re alone in the kitchen, who’s to know?”
Years later, when I really got serious about food and decided to go to culinary school, one of the reasons I chose to attend the famous Le Cordon Bleu was because that’s where she went. I mean, she taught Americans to cook. She did more for French-style of food preparation than anyone before or since. Not only that, but female chefs everywhere owe their ability to work in their chosen vocation to Julia Child. She attended culinary school at a time when all chefs were men, women were not allowed. And boy did she pay a heavy price, never being allowed to graduate. I’m so thankful she didn’t accept defeat but went on to teach and write and cook and train new generations of cooks. We could all learn a lesson about not giving up from Ms. Julia. Did you know it took her 10 years to write Mastering the Art of French Cooking? She was dedicated to perfecting each recipe, testing and re-testing each recipe tirelessly. To this day, there is no culinary book of its equal.
Her influence reached me in other ways, too. I’ve spent many happy hours cooking from her wonderful book. I’ve probably learned as much from that one book as I did in culinary school about truly fine cooking. Most importantly, she is responsible for my own culinary lineage. You see, one of the great things about this field is the way the senior most chef trains whose who come behind. Let me break it down. My mentor Chef in culinary school was trained by Chef Elizabeth Briggs at the Culinary Institute of America, who was trained by Julia Child, who was trained by Chef Max Bugnard at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, who was trained by Auguste Escoffier, who is the father of modern cuisine. To put it in modern day vernacular, Escoffier was the first rock-star Chef. He is called the King of Chefs and Chef of the Kings. Quite a pedigree, right?
One of my favorite Julia recipes is a famous French dish called Beouf Bourguignon. It’s a little like a fancy version of beef stew and is traditionally served with boiled potatoes or buttered noodles. It pairs nicely with a rich Bordeaux wine or a Pinot Noir, if you like something a little lighter. I’ve included the Julia Child version here. Believe me, it is well worth the extra effort and as Julia would have said, bon appetite!
6 ounces bacon
1 Tbsp. olive oil or cooking oil
3 pounds lean stewing beef, cut into 2-inch cubes
1 sliced carrot
1 sliced onion
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
2 Tbsp. flour
3 cups full-bodied, young red wine, such as a Chianti
2 to 3 cups brown beef stock or canned beef bouillon
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
2 cloves mashed garlic
1/2 tsp. thyme
Crumbled bay leaf
Blanched bacon rind
18 to 24 small white onions, brown-braised in stock
1 pound quartered fresh mushrooms, sautéed in butter
Cut bacon into lardons (sticks, 1/4 inch thick and 1 1/2 inches long). Simmer bacon for 10 minutes in 1 1/2 quarts of water. Drain and dry.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Sauté the bacon in the oil over moderate heat for 2 to 3 minutes to brown lightly. Remove to a side dish with a slotted spoon. Set pot aside. Reheat until fat is almost smoking before you sauté the beef.
Dry the stewing beef in paper towels; it will not brown if it is damp. Sauté it, a few pieces at a time, in the hot oil and bacon fat until nicely browned on all sides. Add it to the bacon.
In the same fat, brown the sliced vegetables. Pour out the sautéing fat.
Return the beef and bacon to the pot and toss with the salt and pepper. Then sprinkle on the flour and toss again to coat the beef lightly with the flour. Set uncovered in middle position of preheated oven for 4 minutes. Toss the meat and return to oven for 4 minutes more. (This browns the flour and covers the meat with a light crust.) Remove and turn oven down to 325 degrees.
Stir in the wine, and enough stock or bouillon so that the meat is barely covered. Add the tomato paste, garlic, herbs, and bacon rind. Bring to simmer on top of the stove. Then cover and set in lower third of preheated oven. Regulate heat so liquid simmers very slowly for 2 1/2 to 3 hours. The meat is done when a fork pierces it easily.
While the beef is cooking, prepare the onions and mushrooms. Set them aside until needed.
When the melt is tender, pour the contents of the pot into a sieve set over a saucepan. Wash out the pot and return the beef and bacon to it. Distribute the cooked onions and mushrooms over the meat.
Skim fat off the sauce. Simmer sauce for a minute or two, skimming off additional fat as it rises. You should have about 2 1/2 cups of sauce thick enough to coat a spoon lightly. If too thin, boil it down rapidly. If too thick, mix in a few tablespoons of stock or canned bouillon. Taste carefully for seasoning. Pour the sauce over the meat and vegetables. Recipe may be completed in advance to this point.
To serve: Cover the pot and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes, basting the meat and vegetables with the sauce several times. Serve in its casserole, or arrange the stew on a platter surrounded with potatoes, noodles, or rice, and decorated with parsley.
My Favorite Julia Quotes:
“Cooking is like love; it should be entered into with abandon or not at all.”
“How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?”
“It’s so beautifully arranged on the plate – you know someone’s fingers have been all over it.”