Monday, August 17, 2009

French Cooks

Last weekend I had some beautiful local grass-fed beef and eggplant, so I made one of my favorite dishes, Non-Traditional Moussaka, which I adapted from Julia Child's The Way to Cook. I even remembered to take pictures – no small feat when the food is good and I’m hungry. I was planning to post the recipe this weekend. But that was before Thursday night.
I had been forewarned. Don’t go hungry; don’t even think about going hungry.
I made myself a light supper of an omelet - with artichoke hearts that had been sauteed in olive oil with minced garlic - and a tart arugula salad. I drank a glass of crisp sauvignon blanc from Domaine Massiac, and took off, walking four blocks to the closest movie theater. I settled myself in the same room where I saw Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince last month and waited while the room filled up completely with men as well as women.
We were all there to see Julie & Julia.
It was swell. I loved it. I loved every single minute of it. I smiled; I laughed; I even cried. And at the end, while the credits were rolling, I joined the audience's ebullient applause, clapping as hard as I could.
I have been cooking out of Julia's books since 1973. In fact, I once made Julia's Cog au Vin from a paperback copy of The French Chef for one of my husband's colleagues who worked at WGBH-TV, the station where Julia's TV show was still being filmed. A week later I received this in the mail with a thank you note.

I had been a reader of the Salon blog, The Julie/Julia Project, and had preordered the book Julie & Julia from Amazon, so I was/am a long-standing Julie Powell fan.
I like to think I straddle the generational divide between Julie and Julia.
I disagree with any review that says the movie is more interesting during the Julia parts. I found it to be equally compelling no matter which actress was on the screen, Meryl Streep or Amy Adams.
Obviously, it is mesmerizing to watch Meryl Streep actually become Julia Child right before your eyes. That she could do this didn’t surprise me. After all, I have watched her become Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) in Out of Africa more times that I can count. Meryl Streep captured the Julia we all wish we knew to a T.

Of course, I could spot what changes had been made in the translation from the book Julie & Julia to the movie.

Eric said: "You could start a blog."
I cut my eyes over to him in irritation, a massive white-skinned shark thrashing its tail.
"Julie. You do know what a blog is, don't you?"
Of course I didn't know what a blog was. It was August of 2002. Nobody knew about blogs, except for a few guys like Eric who spend their days using company computers to pursue the zeitgeist. No issue of domestic or international policy was too big, no pop-culture backwater too obscure; from the War on Terror to Fear Factor, it was all one big beautiful sliding scale for Eric.
"You know, like a Web site sort of thing. Only it's easy. You don't have to know anything about anything."
"Sounds perfect for me."
"About computers, I mean."
"Are you going to make me that drink, or what?"
From Julie & Julia
I knew Julie Powell's language had been - more than - cleaned up.
But the changes didn't matter; Amy Adams and Chris Messina capture the essence of the Julie/Eric Powell story perfectly.
And I must mention the delightful Stanley Tucci. I don't know who I wanted to run away with – or more like it – go home to cook for – Paul Child, Eric Powell, Stanley Tucci, or (the adorable) Chris Messina.
So if you have not seen this movie, go see it as soon as you can and afterwards read this article by Russ Parsons, which will answer the question surrounding the most puzzling piece of the story. Then succumb as I did and make a recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

This was one of my favorite company dishes in the 1970's. I can't believe we really ate this way - it's rich as hell but oh, so good. In fact, this is the only dish I ever saw Walter - Mr. Discipline - go back to for third helpings.
Saute de Boeuf a La Parisienne
(Beef Saute with Cream and Mushroom Sauce)

Adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking

Serves 6
8 to 10 oz. of fresh cultivated mushrooms, sliced not too thin

2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon bland cooking oil - I use grapeseed
3 tablespoons minced shallots or scallions

A pinch of salt and a pinch of pepper, to taste
Heat the oil and butter in a 10 or 11-inch frypan,

and cook the mushrooms until lightly browned.

Add the shallots or green onions,

and cook slowly for two minutes more.

Remove the mushrooms to a plate.

2-1/2 pounds beef tenderloin, all the fat and filament removed, and cut into 2-ounce pieces.

2 (more) tablespoons of butter and 1 tablespoon bland cooking oil
Dry the meat thoroughly.
This is the tricky part. In the same skillet used for the mushrooms, heat the butter and oil over medium/high heat. When the butter and oil are hot, and the butter foam has subsided, saute the beef a few pieces at a time, lightly browning the exterior but keeping the interior red.

Season the meat lightly with salt and pepper, and set it aside on another plate.

Clean the fat from the skillet, but leave any brown particles of beef behind.
1/4 cup Madeira
3/4 cup stock - beef or strong chicken
1 cup heavy cream
2 scant teaspoons cornstarch blended with 2 tablespoons of the cream
2 tablespoons (even more) butter
Parsley sprigs for garnish (optional)
Put the wine and stock into the cleaned-out skillet, scraping to incorporate any particles of meat in the bottom of the skillet, and reduce to about one-third cup.

Whisk in the cream

followed by the cream mixed with cornstarch.

Simmer for a minute until the sauce has thickened lightly. Add the mushrooms and any mushroom juices that have accumulated on the plate.
Add the meat to the skillet with any meat juices that have accumulated on the plate. Baste the beef with the sauce and mushrooms.
Taste carefully for seasoning. Turn the heat off, and add 2 tablespoons more butter, stirring it in until it is completely incorporated. Serve immediately so the meat doesn't overcook. If you like, garnish with sprigs of parsley.

The black pan you see here is a seasoned-from-use 28 cm (11 inch) carbon steel frypan that I got from the inimitable La Cuisine. They carry the best quality carbon steel you can get.
If you have never cooked in carbon steel, I highly recommend you try it. Once seasoned, these pans are beautifully non-stick, especially if you remember to heat your cooking fat before you put the food you are going to cook in it.
This is what the experts at La Cusine have to say about it:
We get this particular style of frypan from De Buyer in France. It is our favorite version because it has a cast handle rather than a flat one. It is much more comfortable to grip than the flat handle, and in frying you will be gripping frequently!
These need to be seasoned like cast iron, but they will give you a lifetime of service. They sear beautifully and will do a low saute equally well.
It is no wonder that many good restaurants have stacks of these. The design of the pan was created for easy handling at the top of the stove.
You can place an order with LaCuisine online or by phone at 800 521-1176. One of the "Cusinettes" there will happily answer any questions you have.


  1. Dear Vic,
    I just have to tell you how much I love your posts. I wait for them. Lately, I have been reading many food blogs. As a garden writer, I am interested in cooking for many reasons. Sometimes, I feel like some of the bloggers are trying too hard, reaching too far for cute witticisms. Not so here. I love how honest and real your stories feel, and how they naturally segue from life experience to practical information and technique.
    This is a lovely review of Julie and Julia. And the recipe looks mouthwateringly delicious. Thank you Vic... its a pleasure to read your posts.

  2. How, how, how did you keep that treasure secret????!

  3. totally agree and concur with what Michaela wrote

    I'm looking forward to giving this recipe a whirl....just don't say anything to the cardiologist

  4. What a great recipe! I'm definitely gonna try this. I'm totally positive my family would love this. Thank you for this wonderful recipe!